If you campaign as a fiscal conservative, the media will check your rhetoric against your record to see if the two match. If you campaign as pro-choice or anti-amnesty, the press will do the same.
But what if you campaign as a Christian? To what extent are the consistencies or inconsistencies of your professed faith and actual conduct fair game for media scrutiny?
I ask because the New York Times’s David Brooks used religion Tuesday to frame a critique of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. …
Traditionally, candidates who have attracted strong evangelical support have in part emphasized the need to lend a helping hand to the economically stressed and the least fortunate among us. Such candidates include George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
But Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism.
There’s more, but you get the idea: Cruz calls himself a Christian and is chasing Christian voters, but he doesn’t always sound like a Christian or act like a Christian. Ouch.
Before we continue, let’s be clear on one point: Cruz has made his faith part of his platform. While many candidates treat their religion as a personal matter, the Texas senator has put his prominently on display — from his campaign launch at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college, to his declaration, at the National Religious Liberties Conference in November, that “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation.”
It is hardly an invasion of privacy to examine Cruz’s beliefs and their manifestations. It’s certainly less invasive than such an exercise would be for, say, GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who does call the Bible his favorite book but makes religion a far less visible part of his campaign — to the point of declining to name his favorite verse “because to me, that’s very personal.”
The trouble with comparing religious doctrine to action is that faith can’t be vetted by the media in the same way as positions on immigration, abortion or government spending. If, for example, you’re a former governor who claims to be a fiscal conservative, but state budgets ballooned on your watch, there’s reason to doubt the authenticity of your self-description. If you’ve altered your stance on abortion, you can rightly be labeled a flip-flopper.
But if you’re a Christian who doesn’t always act the part, that makes you, well, just like every other imperfect believer who calls him- or herself saved by grace. Cruz’s and every other Christian's faith, at its core, isn’t about virtue (although that’s one goal); it’s about forgiveness. What's more, certain Christian faiths emphasize certain virtues much more than others.
As the Christian saying goes, a church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
The church is a hospital for sinners (where triage happens) not a museum for saints. #rememberthatifyougo
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) June 9, 2013
Cruz’s faith shouldn’t be off-limits to the media, given how much time he spends discussing about it. But the press shouldn’t expect him — or anyone else, for that matter — to walk the walk on religion quite as consistently as on other issues. It’s just not a fair standard.