When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took the stage at Liberty University last March to launch his bid for the White House, both the location of his announcement and the first words of his campaign made his election strategy clear: he wants conservative religious votes.
“God bless Liberty University,” Cruz said of the evangelical Christian school, eliciting a peal of cheers from the roughly 10,000 people in attendance. He added: “I am thrilled to join you today at the largest Christian university in the world.”
Cruz went on to deliver a speech riddled with references to right-wing Christianity, marching around the stage with the air of a revival preacher. But the whole spectacle was a bit misleading: It was later revealed that students were required to attend the convocation, sparking grumblings that Cruz was exaggerating his popularity with evangelicals. Yet over the next few months, Cruz continued to make a concerted effort to court theological conservatives, and the faith-focused strategy seems to be paying off. He recently accrued enough evangelical support to overcome Donald Trump as the top contender in Iowa, polling at 31.8 percent compared to Trump’s 27.8 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.
It’s hardly surprising that Cruz’s evangelical sensibilities resonate with Iowa Republicans, a churchgoing group that backed George W. Bush, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Rick Santorum — all unabashed representatives of America’s Religious Right — in the last three GOP presidential primaries. But as is typical of American elections, Cruz’s greatest strength — like his announcement speech — has become a target for opponents as his poll numbers rise.
The campaign spokesman for Ben Carson, an avowed Seventh Day Adventist, questioned whether Cruz’s faith was “authentic”, saying, “There are a lot of people who talk a good game about their faith, including Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz — Dr. Carson lives it.” Meanwhile, Rick Santorum declared last month that Cruz is only posturing as a social conservative — particularly on issues dear to evangelicals such as opposition to same-sex marriage — and Mike Huckabee published a blog post attacking the religious credibility of an unnamed candidate heavily implied to be Cruz, saying, “Conservatives are being asked to ‘coalesce’ around yet another corporately-funded candidate that says something very different at a big donor fundraiser in Manhattan than at a church in Marshalltown.”
Donald Trump, who still leads most national polls, also cast doubt on the senator’s religious claims by mocking his Cuban heritage during a December campaign event.
“You gotta remember this: To the best of my knowledge, not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that,” Trump, who has has faced strong criticism over the legitimacy of his own Christian faith, said while holding a Bible aloft.
Trump’s comments, of course, are more than a little fallacious; evangelicalism is actually one of the fastest-growing religious groups in Cuba, a fact that is largely irrelevant given that Cruz was born in Canada. But attacks from Trump, Carson, and other candidates have opened up questions about the authenticity of Cruz’s faith, a topic which — in the unforgiving battlefield that is American politics — is arguably fair game given that the senator has made his religious beliefs a core component of his candidacy.
Cruz was raised by parents who were late converts to evangelical Christianity
Cruz’s Christian faith was undoubtedly influenced by the tutelage of his parents — Rafael, a Cuban-born immigrant, and Eleanor, from Wilmington, Delaware. Both grew up in Catholic families, but encountered tough times while raising the future senator in Calgary, Canada in the 1970s. The couple fell into bad drinking habits at the time — especially Rafael, who, according to Cruz, eventually left the family and traveled to Austin, Texas because he “decided he didn’t want to be married anymore and he didn’t want a 3-year-old son.” Once there, however, a colleague took him to a nearby Baptist church, where the Rafael reportedly saw the err of his ways, “gave his life to Jesus,” and returned home to be with his family.
The story is a classic tale of sin and redemption common in evangelical circles, but there is evidence that the impact of the struggle still weighs on the family. Tucked away in hours of footage quietly released by the Cruz campaign last year for use by SuperPACs is a brief, revealing exchange between the senator and his visibly frustrated mother. In it, Eleanor refuses to discuss certain aspects of the family fracture on camera, saying, “That’s too personal, Ted. I don’t want to tell that.”
Whatever the hidden details of the rift, everyone in the Cruz family agrees about what happened next: Eleanor and Ted both converted to evangelicalism along with Rafael, the family began attending conservative Protestant churches, and their young son “gave his heart to christ” at a youth camp when he was 8 years old. Cruz also enrolled in evangelical schools after they moved from Canada to Texas, and when the oil industry tanked in the mid-1980s, Rafael, who spent years working in the petroleum sector alongside his career-driven wife, slowly became a full-time preacher.
Rafael’s ministerial credentials — such as whether or not he attended theological schools, as he has claimed — are unclear, as is the exact purpose, scope, and affiliation of Purifying Fire International, the seemingly defunct religious organization he is sometimes listed as leading. But many critics of Rafael agree that his theology — often spouted while campaigning for his son in front of conservative Christian audiences — is a subset of what is sometimes called Dominionism, a rough theological categorization used to describe those who believe that conservative Christians should accrue and maintain as much political power as possible.
Indeed, Rafael often describes the United States as a nation inextricably linked to Christianity.
“Judeo-Christian ideals are pervasive throughout the Constitution and the Declaration [of Independence],” he said in a 2015 interview. “As a matter of fact, many of the things we see in the Constitution come from the book of Deuteronomy, come from different portions of the Bible. And they were basically the framework who guided the framers — who were deeply religious people.”
Pastor Cruz has also compared Barack Obama to Fidel Castro, decrying him as a Marxist who “seeks to destroy all concept of God,” and once argued that there is “nothing scientific evolution” and that “evolution and Communism go hand in hand.”
Rafael passed this fusion of religion and politics on to his son. Conversations around the dinner table were reportedly “almost always about the Bible” and “why we needed to get rid of a liberal, progressive president like Jimmy Carter and replace him with a constitutional conservative like Ronald Reagan.” Rafael even joined the State Board of the Religious Roundtable in 1979, a religious coalition dedicated to electing Reagan.
“Ted got a dose of conservative politics from a Christian worldview every day for a year before he was even a teenager!” Rafael writes in his new book, A Time for Action: Empowering the Faithful to Reclaim America, released on January 5.
The family’s shared faith, however, wasn’t enough to mend the longstanding fissures in Rafael and Eleanor’s marriage. Rafael writes that he “failed so miserably in sharing God’s Word with Eleanor,” and the two divorced in 1997, shortly after their son finished law school.
A faith that sells
CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Although Rafael’s theological beliefs are sometimes described as more extreme than those of his son, Ted Cruz — along with his wife, Heidi, the daughter of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries — has publicly professed a hardline evangelical faith that hits all the traditional beats of an American theological conservative. Cruz, who identifies as a Southern Baptist, has cited his Christianity while opposing same-sex marriage, calling on pastors to fight abortion laws, and advocating for a vision of religious liberty primarily focused on conservative Christians. He has pointed to the Bible while appealing to widespread evangelical support for settlements in the West Bank, and once led a press conference at Houston’s First Baptist Church (his home congregation) to oppose a local mayor’s attempt to subpoena the sermons of pastors.
Cruz insists he only takes stands on these issues because he feels he has no other choice, not because his faith is “politically useful.”
“I think anyone in politics — you’ve got a special obligation to avoid being a pharisee, to avoid ostentatiously wrapping yourself in your faith,” he said in 2013. “Because I think in politics, it’s too easy for that to become a crutch, for that to be politically useful.”
But Cruz’s campaign for president has made it clear that he sees his faith as his most marketable quality. In addition to his announcement at Liberty University, he makes a habit of fronting his Christianity in ads, such as one that describes his top legislative successes as “defending the cross” and “defending the 10 commandments” — or when he fought to maintain a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol and keep the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The aforementioned raw footage shows him rehearsing prayers with his family several times for the camera, and a YouTube video published recently by his campaign consists entirely of Cruz delivering a prayer to the victims of the France attacks while inspirational music swells in the background.
And while Cruz has said he and his wife “haven’t asked God give us your help in winning this race,” CNN noted that he typically concludes campaign events by asking voters “to caucus for him, to sign up to volunteer and persuade others, and to pray and ask God to continue the awakening.”
The senator’s overeagerness to discuss his faith background in a political context has even given his mother pause; in one section of outtake footage, Cruz elicits a look of seeming disbelief from Eleanor when he claims that she prays for him “for hours at a time.”
Still, the question of whether or not Cruz is over-utilizing his religion may not matter to voters, as his evangelical strategy has paid dividends in early primary states such as Iowa. Cruz has racked up key endorsements from conservative religious leaders over the past few weeks, getting nods from thought leaders such such as James Dobson, the founder of the right-wing group Focus on the Family, and preachers such as Bob Vander Plaats, a popular evangelical figure in the Hawkeye State.
“Ted Cruz’s record on religious liberty, life, and marriage is second to none in this Republican field,” Dobson said of Cruz. “[My wife] Shirley and I have been praying for a leader such as this, and we are confident that Ted Cruz has the moral and spiritual foundations to lead our nation with excellence.”
Tapping into the evangelical base helped Cruz win the straw poll at the Values Voters Summit, a largely evangelical Christian event, in both 2013 and 2014. It also appears to have built an expansive volunteer-run campaign apparatus in Iowa; Cruz launched a successful “99 pastors” strategy (one for each county in the state), and has mustered a small army of conservative Christians to help bolster his election day “ground game.”
Testing the limits of the evangelical vote?
Cruz’s success with right-wing churchgoers does not guarantee support from all of America’s faithful. He’s taken flack from religious progressives on a number of issues, such as his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, which is popular with liberals and a growing number of evangelicals. An Iowa native challenged the senator on the issue during a town hall event in October 2015, asking Cruz how he reconciles his faith with the plight of immigrants.
“The Bible says we should welcome the stranger and the immigrant,” Roger Farmer, a Mennonite from eastern Iowa, asked. “That verse on the wall behind you says a similar thing. Your policies seem to be in opposition to that.”
“The fact that we lock our doors doesn’t mean we hate our next door neighbors,” Cruz responded. He then returned to his talking points, issuing a call to secure the border between U.S. and Mexico and offering suggestions for how to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the country.
The recent barrage of attacks on his faith may also be hurting his support among conservatives. Other candidates have leapt on secret audio tape in which Cruz, who previously said “Marriage was ordained by God Almighty,” is heard refusing to list opposition to same-sex marriage as a “top priority.”
“My view on gay marriage is that I’m a constitutionalist and marriage is a question for the states,” Cruz said. “I think if someone wants to change the marriage laws of their state, the way to do so is convince your fellow citizens — and change them democratically, rather than five unelected judges.”
“People of New York may well resolve the marriage question differently than the people of Florida or Texas or Ohio … That’s why we have 50 states — to allow a diversity of views,” he added.
But the tape may prove to be the least of Cruz’s worries, as his strategy — genuinely faith-led or otherwise — could be shortsighted. His passionate embrace of the evangelical vote might catapult him to victory in Iowa and some Southern primary states, but right-wing Christians can’t guarantee Cruz a win in the general election on their own, and he hasn’t proven himself capable of attracting independent voters. Furthermore, evangelicalism is far more complex than it was even a few years ago, with increasing percentages of the faithful supporting things Cruz opposes such as immigration reform, action on climate change, and even same-sex marriage.
And when it comes time for the general election, he won’t be able to mandate that voters show up for him like he did at Liberty. Ironically, if Cruz is going to have a prayer, he’ll need to play shepherd to a lot more than his growing evangelical flock.
Ted Cruz and his campaign declined to be interviewed for this story.
This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Check out other other posts on the faith of Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Sen. Marco Rubio.