Sen. Ted Cruz is expected to announce his bid for the White House at Liberty University, a large evangelical institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell Sr. that regularly hosts many political leaders on its campus.
Cruz, born to a Cuban refugee father and a mother from Delaware, has joked that “I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.”
Cruz was raised a Christian and said he became one at Clay Road Baptist Church in Houston. His father, Rafael Cruz, director of Purifying Fire International ministry, is a preacher who often appears alongside his son at speaking engagements.
Cruz regularly intertwines his faith and his politics. For instance, he led a news conference at his home church, Houston’s First Baptist Church, to decry the mayor’s move last fall to attempt to subpoena pastors’ sermons.
Cruz has often discussed the central role that faith plays in his life. In a 2013 interview with CBN’s “The 700 Club,” a show founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, a former GOP presidential candidate, Cruz focused on his faith.
“At the end of the day, faith is not organized religion; it’s not going to a church. It is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior,” Cruz told CBN News, using common evangelical lingo to talk about faith.
“I think anyone in politics you’ve got a special obligation to avoid being a Pharisee, to avoid ostentatiously wrapping yourself in your faith,” Cruz said. “Because I think in politics, it’s too easy for that to become a crutch, for that to be politically useful.” The Pharisees were a Jewish sect known for strict observance of law.
Cruz is the first Latino to serve as a U.S. senator from Texas. In a 2009 interview with the evangelical World magazine, he criticized the GOP’s outreach to Hispanic voters, saying the leadership proposes “Democrat Lite,” or a partial welfare state. Cruz also said that the Hispanic community is deeply conservative and committed to their faith.
Cruz departs from some evangelical leaders on the issue of immigration reform. He voted against a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in 2013 that would give a path to citizenship to some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
Some large evangelical organizations are strong supporters of immigration reform, one of the few issues conservative and liberal evangelicals work together on. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission is part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, lending critical support to the movement for immigration reform to make a path to citizenship for immigrants if they meet certain requirements.
Though many evangelical leaders promote immigration reform, white evangelicals are the least likely religious group in the U.S. to say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay legally if they meet certain requirements. In other words, Cruz’s views might reflect evangelicals in the pews than he would reflect many in leadership.
Cruz is seen as the dominant figure among tea party voters and has been well received in some conservative evangelical circles. He came in first in the 2014 Values Voter Summit presidential straw poll for the second year in a row. Ben Carson came in second with 20 percent of the vote, up from 13 percent last year, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came in third with 12 percent.
Cruz has made some polarizing moves even within evangelical circles. After he said that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” Cruz was heckled off the stage at a September gala to raise awareness about beleaguered Mideast Christians. The episode highlighted a central tension between American evangelicals, who strongly support Israel, and Middle Eastern Christians, who criticize Israel for expropriating Arab lands.
He has been a controversial figure since he entered the U.S. Senate after winning in the 2012 elections. He persuaded Republicans in September 2013 not to fund the government unless President Obama’s health-care law was defunded, leading to a 16-day government shutdown.
He has called for the shutdown of Common Core, a lightning-rod issue even for conservative evangelicals.
Cruz recently turned his attention to local D.C. politics by introducing a measure in Congress to upend a new city law regarding discrimination over reproductive health decisions and another to keep religiously affiliated colleges in the nation’s capital from having to fund gay and lesbian student groups.
Cruz attended high school at Faith West Academy in Katy, Tex., and later graduated from Second Baptist High School in Houston.
Liberty, based in Lynchburg, Va., prides itself on being the largest private, nonprofit university in the country, the largest university in Virginia and the largest Christian university in the world. Liberty’s annual graduation ceremony has become a sought-after stage for Republican candidates seeking to build bridges to Christian conservatives.
In 2006, Sen. John McCain used a speech at Liberty to patch over old wounds from his labeling of Falwell as an “agent of intolerance” during the 2000 campaign. Last year’s commencement address was given by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Liberty is considered to be more conservative politically and socially among evangelical institutions. Students must adhere to a 20-page honor code, including rules that prevent them from watching R-rated movies, gambling or attending dances. The school is flush with cash and has immense athletic ambitions.
(This story has been updated.)
Want more news on religion? Read more from Acts of Faith: