Signs suggest that a plurality of Iowa GOP voters have thrown their support behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks penned a blistering attack on Cruz as a hypocritical Christian who really preaches “pagan brutalism.” To Brooks, Cruz is a harsh, Pharisaical opportunist – Donald Trump with a more pious veneer.
Who’s right? Is Cruz an authentic man of faith or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? It is hard to discern the true state of any politician’s beliefs, especially when he or she is angling for the votes of the faithful. But Cruz’s candidacy has undoubtedly exposed deep fractures in the GOP, not only in the party’s base but between different kinds of “evangelicals.”
With the help of his father, the itinerant evangelist Rafael Cruz, Cruz largely appeals to what we might call the evangelical “old guard” of the GOP. He has won endorsements from figures such as former Focus on the Family head James Dobson.
The most illustrative figure supporting Cruz, however, is Christian history writer and Texas GOP activist David Barton, who is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC. Barton has kept a low profile in the campaign, but he has vast numbers of longstanding contacts among the evangelical base.
Cruz may not want Barton to become a focus of public attention because of the 2012 firestorm over Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies.” This book came under ferocious criticism, even from conservative Christian scholars, for seeking to portray Jefferson as a traditional Christian for most of his life. In the end, Thomas Nelson Publishers pulled the book from circulation because it had “lost confidence” in its contents. (“The Jefferson Lies” has just appeared in an updated edition from WorldNet Daily Books.)
The evangelical old guard often portrays the election of faith-friendly GOP candidates as evidence of an “awakening” and spiritual renewal in the country. This rhetoric hearkens back to the First and Second Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Those awakenings undoubtedly had political ramifications. Historians widely see the Second Great Awakening as contributing to the emergence of the abolitionist movement, for example.
But for today’s evangelical old guard, politics itself – and electoral success for their candidates – has become a catalyst of awakening. Cruz has repeatedly told supporters, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote our values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” Cruz is blurrily equating his election with the nation turning back to God.
Some evangelicals have expressed reservations about linking electoral outcomes to the flourishing of God’s Kingdom.
Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has endorsed no candidate, but he said recently that Cruz, Trump and Marco Rubio appeal to three different camps of evangelicals.
Cruz represents the “Jerry Falwell” wing (referencing the late head of the Moral Majority), Trump the “Jimmy Swaggart” wing (referencing the once-popular “health and wealth” televangelist), and Rubio the “Billy Graham” wing. Moore’s comment came in response to Rubio’s announcement of a religious liberty advisory board, which includes Saddleback Community Church pastor Rick Warren and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez. (I am also a member of this board.)
Figures like Moore and Warren are hardly liberals, but they represent an evangelical faction (the “Graham” wing) that is more circumspect about expecting politicians and government to foment spiritual awakening. Although Billy Graham had longstanding and controversial relationships with American presidents, his revival meetings were marked by the simple message of the Christian gospel: accept Christ’s free offer of salvation and be born again.
Leaders of the Graham wing are not likely to join David Brooks in his denunciation of Cruz as a peddler of pagan brutalism. I have seen no reason to question the fundamental sincerity of Cruz’s Christian commitment. (Unlike Donald Trump, the fact that Cruz is Cuban and an evangelical does not strike me as fishy.)
But the Graham wing might suggest that, in a GOP primary that has become a contest to see who could be the most anti-immigrant, a little compassion for the stranger is in order. And they might remind Cruz that the most important purposes of God’s Kingdom – the glory of God and the salvation of sinners – will never happen through electoral victories or earthly governments.
Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and the author, most recently, of “Baptists in America: A History” (with Barry Hankins).