Politics

The GOP Is In The Middle Of A Holy War, But Voters Might Not Care

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a campaign event at the Grace Baptist Church in Iowa.

It’s getting ugly out there in Jesusland.

The GOP presidential primary waded into something akin to spiritual warfare this weekend, with Ted Cruz’s campaign releasing a video ostensibly showing political rival Marco Rubio remarking on the Bible. The audio of the encounter is faint, but the caption on the Cruz video quoted Rubio saying the following as he pointed to the holy scripture: “Got a good book there. Not many answers in it — especially in that one.”

The revelation, if true, would have cast Rubio as a Bible basher — a literal sin among most evangelicals. But Rubio’s campaign quickly issued a statement saying the captions were, in fact, incorrect, and that Rubio actually said the exact opposite, quipping, “All the answers are in there — especially in that one [the Bible].”

The Cruz campaign immediately apologized for the mix-up, acknowledging that their characterization of the incident was false. But the minor controversy highlights the ongoing battle for religious supremacy among GOP White House hopefuls, with each candidate vying to claim a larger portion of the coveted evangelical vote by casting doubt on the faith of their opponents — even though many evangelical themselves voters may not care either way.

The first salvos of the spiritual squabble came late last year, when several candidates attacked the faith of vocal evangelical Ted Cruz in the lead up to the Iowa caucus in January. Things have only escalated since then, with some faith debates sparked by people outside the GOP race, such as when Pope Francis implied last week the Donald Trump “is not Christian” for wanting to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The Trump campaign fired back within hours, blasting the pope and declaring, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith.”

Trump’s holy war of words with the pope eventually fizzled out (Trump softened his tone hours later), but several media outlets noted that his sudden opposition to faith-shaming seemed hypocritical: Trump himself cast doubt on the faith of Ted Cruz, whose father is Cuban, during a campaign event in December, holding a Bible aloft while telling the crowd “To the best of my knowledge, not too many Evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that.”

Trump responded to such criticisms while speaking with John Dickerson on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, saying, "No, I never questioned Ted’s—anything having to do with his religion.” But Trump’s own Twitter feed shows him literally questioning evangelical Christian Cruz’s faith — complete with a question mark — just days earlier on February 12.

None of this is especially new, of course. Spiritual sniping is something of a tradition in Republican circles, for one very specific reason: much of the modern GOP base is — and almost always has been — evangelical Christian, with 68 percent of white evangelical Protestants currently claiming or leaning toward the Republican party, making up roughly half of early 2012 GOP primary voters. This is why Ted Cruz is investing so heavily in conservative religious support, rallying a small army of far-right faithful to catapult him to victory among historically evangelical-friendly Iowa caucus goers in January. It’s also why Cruz and others — including Rubio, a Catholic, and Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist — are cranking out faith-themed ads and sliding biblical references into their stump speeches (or in Cruz’s case, actual sermons delivered in churches). Looking ahead to a primary season front-loaded with Southern states filled with churchgoing GOP voters, it’s easy to see why candidates would jostle for position in evangelical pews as the most pious of them all — or, alternatively, blast their opponents as inauthentic heathens.

But despite the uptick in prayerful punches, the efficacy of such attacks is a bit unclear — especially if non-evangelicals like Trump manage to survive the early primary states.

For starters, it has become increasingly difficult for GOP candidates to talk about their faith without being challenged on theology by fellow conservatives — or, as Trump’s spat with the Holy Father showcases, members of the growing “religious left.” Moreover, Republicans have anointed people outside the evangelical mainstream in recent election seasons, such as when former Massachusetts governor and proud Mormon Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination in 2012 despite the fact that groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have historically taught that Mormonism is a cult. Romney actually lost every 2012 primary in which exit polls found evangelical Christians comprised a majority of voters, and did 13 percentage points worse among evangelical Christians than non-evangelicals throughout the primary — yet was still able to cobble together enough votes to win the party’s nod at the RNC convention.

Even more concerning for the Religious Right’s establishment is the possibility that a growing number of self-identified evangelicals don’t actually care how pious their candidate is. Carson and his campaign have cast aspersions on Trump’s faith more than once on the campaign trail, for instance, as have prominent conservative Christians such as Southern Baptist political guru Russell Moore, who has repeatedly attacked Trump for preaching a “false gospel.” Yet the notoriously religion gaffe-prone businessman — who cannot name his favorite Bible verse, sparked giggles at evangelical university Liberty University for using the wrong title for a book of the Bible, and reportedly does not ask God for forgiveness — still managed to win evangelicals overall in South Carolina this past weekend, where they accounted for three-quarters of primary voters.

All of this religious infighting will matter less in the upcoming Nevada Caucus, where only 18 percent of Republicans are white evangelical Protestants (the largest single religious group is white Mainline Protestants). Still, most GOP candidates — Trump included — appear eager to tout their spiritual bona fides in the coming months, and only time will tell whether voters will offer up a hearty “amen” at the ballot box for a Christian champion or an ambivalent “ameh.”

UPDATE FEB 22, 2016 4:11 PM

On Monday, Ted Cruz asked for the resignation of Rick Tyler, the campaign communications director who originally shared the inaccurate version of the Rubio Bible video.

“I've spent this morning investigating what happened and this morning I asked for Rick Tyler's resignation,” Mr. Cruz told reporters. “I have made clear in this campaign that we will conduct this campaign with the very highest standards of integrity.”

Cruz then called Tyler a “good man,” but said that sharing the video was “a grave error in judgment.”


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UPDATE FEB 22, 2016 4:43 PM

Marco Rubio's campaign has released the following statement responding to Ted Cruz asking for Rick Tyler's resignation.

"Rick is a really good spokesman who had the unenviable task of working for a candidate willing to do or say anything to get elected. There is a culture in the Cruz campaign, from top to bottom, that no lie is too big and no trick too dirty. Rick did the right thing by apologizing to Marco. It’s high time for Ted Cruz to do the right thing and stop the lies."


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