Thursday night’s highly-anticipated Republican presidential debate was political theater at its finest, complete with hard-nosed questions, heated exchanges, and vaguely articulated policy positions that political pundits will continue to pore over for weeks to come.
The final question of the debate, however, was arguably the most difficult to parse.
“I want to know if any of [the candidates] have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first,” read the inquiry, which was submitted online but repeated by host Megyn Kelly.
Several candidates answered the question, but the exchange was confusing for some viewers. After all, not everyone speaks spiritual language, and many of the candidates come from very different Christian traditions.
So what were the candidates actually talking about when they referenced their faith? ThinkProgress’ God Squad is here with a breakdown of some of the more important theological ideas discussed during last night’s debate.
Ted Cruz: The classic evangelical
When Senator Cruz (R-TX) was asked if he had received “a word from God” telling him what he should do if he became president, his answer was essentially a three-pronged list of his evangelical bona fides.
He began, naturally, with his love of scripture:
“Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible.”
Cruz is Southern Baptist, which makes him Protestant, and the line above is a deeply Protestant axiom. During the Protestant Reformation, Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that theology should be rooted solely in scripture, as opposed to the opinions of church leadership they claimed were corrupt. Thus, the Bible — also often called the Word of God — became the bedrock of what eventually evolved into Protestant Christianity. Catholics, of course, feel similarly about scripture, but Protestants place far more emphasis on the written text than on tradition.
Thus, for Cruz, his “word from God” is the Bible, which he claims to read every day.
Cruz then moved on to a story about his father overcoming alcoholism with faith:
“I’m the son of a pastor and evangelist and I’ve described many times how my father, when I was a child, was an alcoholic.”
Cruz has indeed recounted his family history many times, partly because of how deeply it resonates with his party’s evangelical base. Redemption stories are an important aspect of conservative Christianity, and alcoholism is an area where evangelicals have a lot of influence: Alcoholics Anonymous evolved out of the The Oxford Group, a Christian organization that sought to help people overcome problems with faith.
Finally, Cruz discussed his competitors:
”I would also note that the scripture tells us, ‘you shall know them by their fruit.’ We see lots of ‘campaign conservatives.’ But if we’re going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative.”
He is referencing Matthew 7 here, which includes Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount and the following warning for followers: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
Thus, Cruz wants his fellow Republicans to be wary of conservatives without “consistent” right-wing records, positing himself as a better alternative (and, presumably, a “true” prophet.)
John Kasich: The mainline Christian
Governor Kasich (R-OH) identifies as an Anglican, a more conservative variant of Episcopalian in the United States (technically all Episcopalians are Anglicans, but bear with me). His denomination is within the “mainline” Christian tradition, which includes many institutional forms of Christianity that have been around since our nation’s founding — Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.
These groups have conservative camps, and Kasich appears to be a member of a more right-wing community. Still, mainline theology, while varying wildly from church to church, tends to be more liberal and welcoming of dissenting opinions. Moreover, mainline pews are often filled with white liberals who participate in faith-based social justice movements, and many of these Christians — conservative or otherwise — balk at the evangelical tendency to lift up the United States as a uniquely holy land.
This makes Kasich a committed Christian, but one that doesn’t fit in as well among many hardline conservative groups. Consequently, it’s not surprising that he was repeatedly asked about his religious beliefs during the debate, and that his response to Kelly’s question about “a word from God” included this humble approach to the issue of faith and patriotism:
“And we’ve got to listen to other people’s voices, respect them, but keep in mind, and I believe in terms of the things that I’ve read in my lifetime, the lord is not picking us. But because of how we respect human rights, because that we are a good force in the world, he wants America to be strong … He wants America to succeed. And he wants America to lead. And nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith, and my friends.”
Kasich’s mainline tendencies were also on display in his similarly spiritual but equally openminded answer to the question of same-sex marriage. The governor was clear that he opposes marriage equality, but said he is willing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize it because he doesn’t see an issue with living alongside people he disagrees with — and because his faith compels him to do so.
“Look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … I said we’ll accept it. And guess what? I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be [gay], of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.”“God gives me unconditional love. I’m going to give it to my family and my friends and the people around me.”
Kasich’s faith-fueled interest in poverty also came up as a question during the debate. He was asked directly about his decision to expand Medicaid in his home state of Ohio, a move he justified by saying that God doesn’t judge people for “what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor.” When Kelly wondered aloud if he would extend this to expanding all government programs as president, Kasich didn’t take the bait, explaining that his faith inspired him to offer healthcare to the poor:
“The working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet … Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose.”
Rubio: For God and country
Senator Rubio (R-FL), a Roman Catholic with ties to both evangelicalism and Mormonism, was asked to put his faith in conversation with his respect for veterans. He leapt at the chance to fuse God and country, offering a notably different vision of America’s spiritual specialness than Kasich:
“Well, first, let me say I think God has blessed us. He has blessed the Republican Party with some very good candidates. The Democrats can’t even find one … And I believe God has blessed our country. This country has been extraordinarily blessed. And we have honored that blessing. And that’s why God has continued to bless us. And he has blessed us with young men and women willing to risk their lives and sometimes die in uniform for the safety and security of our people.”
Rubio goes on to discuss the need to reform the VA system, but his general position is pretty straightforward: America is blessed, and if we do what God wants, God will keep blessing us.
Scott Walker: The other evangelical
Governor Walker (R-WI), like Cruz, is an evangelical and the son of a preacher. Consequently, he recited a litany of traditional evangelical expressions when answering the “word from God” question:
“I’m certainly an imperfect man. And it’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed from my sins. So I know that God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing, God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.”
Then, after detailing how he defeated unions in Wisconsin, he added:
“It wasn’t just how I took on those political battles. It was ultimately how I acted. Not responding in kind. Not lashing out. But just being decent going forward and living my life in a way that would be a testimony to him and our faith.”
Walker makes a classic evangelical theological argument here. He admits he is a sinner (an “imperfect man”) whose sins are forgiven by Christ’s sacrificial crucifixion (his reference to the “blood of Jesus Christ”). Since Christianity asks for boldness, he took on his political opponents (unions) — but claims he did it nicely.
Ben Carson: God wants a flat tax (but not really)
Carson, a neurosurgeon and Seventh-day Adventist, basically dodged the God-question when Kelly directed it at him. But he did try to invoke God as justification for a flat tax earlier on:
“What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make. If you’ve had a bumper crop, you don’t owe me triple tithes. And if you’ve had no crops at all, you don’t owe me no tithes. So there must be something inherently fair about that.”“And that’s why I’ve advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way. And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes…”
Excusing for a moment Carson’s theologically disputed (but common) claim that God is a “guy” outside of Jesus Christ, his analogy likely resonates with many American believers. Lots of Christians grow up with the idea that 10 percent of their income should be given to their local church as part of their faithful service. The term “tithe” literally means this, and people of faith often write checks to their churches each year for roughly this amount — especially Mormons, who explicitly ask believers to donate one tenth of their earnings.
Theologically speaking, however, Carson is a bit off. Although the Old Testament does include several clear instructions for giving back to God, they were never about cash — they were about one’s crops, and there is no evidence that people without land were asked to give. The Bible also mentions three kinds of tithing for ancient Hebrews — two given each year and a third every third year — which averages out to 23.3 percent (not 10 percent) of a believer’s annual stock. Meanwhile, the New Testament is actually a bit more vague on what tithing means: In 1 Corinthians: 16, the biblical writer simply asks followers to give “whatever extra you earn” without specifying exact proportions.
Regardless, all of this only applies to a church community, not federal taxes. In fact, when it comes to paying the government, the biblical Jesus was actually pretty clear about wanting to keep the two systems separate: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” reads Mark 12:17.
This article was updated to reflect that although Scott Walker attended American Baptist churches for most of his life, he is now a member of a nondenominational evangelical church, making “evangelical” the best descriptor for his faith tradition.