Cruz and the Evangelical Illusion

Ted Cruz has a new TV ad in Iowa that targets evangelical voters.
Ted Cruz has a new TV ad in Iowa that targets evangelical voters.

Just after Christmas, Ted Cruz met with several hundred evangelical leaders at a Texas ranch belonging to Farris Wilks, a fracking billionaire who, along with his brother Dan and their wives, have donated $15 million to Keep the Promise II, a SuperPac supporting Cruz. According to the Washington Post, some 300 evangelical leaders came to “huddle” with Cruz, dine on brisket, and listen to Christian rock music.

From the first official day of his campaign, Cruz has leaned on his claim—of dubious veracity—that Republican presidential candidates have lost recent cycles because tens of millions of evangelicals stayed home. (Cruz frequently has cited 54 million; his campaign spokesman, Rick Tyler, has cited 30 million. Either way, the numbers don’t add up.) Back in March, Politifact rated this statement “mostly false,” and it’s been roundly criticized even in conservative media. Meant to trigger guilt and fear (the nation’s very survival is in your hands), the tactic is also crafted to elevate Cruz’s standing: you stayed home in 2012, but in 2016 there’s a “true” conservative to vote for, a “true” Christian, someone you can trust to save the nation and its Christian values from the secularists and socialists and all the rest.

Cruz has spent months touting his support of evangelical Christian voters, enlisting his pastor father, Rafael Cruz, to help secure endorsements from prominent figures. The tallying of high-profile evangelical endorsements results in the media reporting a “coalescing” of evangelical backing for Cruz and the impression of an inevitable consolidation of support from this crucial GOP bloc, a phenomenon most visible after Iowa activist Bob Vander Plaats endorsed Cruz last month. Still vital, but less important, is the sense among the rank and file that they’re voting for someone who has the imprimatur of a revered figure. More vital, probably, is the money raised by big evangelical donors.

In the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, the endorsements of big name figures were overstated. In 2008, there was a protracted period of waiting for a group of influential leaders to endorse someone; endorsements (of Mike Huckabee) were too little and too late. (And see how much significance those endorsements had in Huckabee’s 2016 run—that is to say, none). Similarly, after Rick Perry’s post-prayer rally sputter in 2012, evangelical influencers were at loose ends about who to endorse. In both cases, the candidate evangelicals were apparently trying to avoid (John McCain and Mitt Romney) got the nomination.

This year, Cruz is trying to amass more endorsements, and earlier. His strategy might work. But it’s also worth using some caution in understanding its significance and impact. While his campaign is trying to create an aura of evangelical inevitability, the WORLD magazine (unscientific) survey of evangelical leaders, for example, still shows Cruz running behind Marco Rubio for support among evangelical elites.

Although the Texas meeting was off the record, the big names who were revealed are of the type that have strong name recognition among non-evangelicals, which leads to magnifying their significance. “It was a very diverse group of national leaders who have significant standing,” David Barton, the historical revisionist and Republican activist who leads one of the Cruz-supporting Super PACs, told the Post. “We brought them with no expectations and we were highly pleased with the number who decided Ted is the right man to be of the president of the U.S.” When judging these statements (particularly the words “very diverse,” “significant standing” and “the number”), keep in mind that Barton is known (among evangelicals) for playing fast and loose with facts.

Three years ago, the evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson halted publication of one of Barton’s books, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, after finding that statements in the book “were not adequately supported.” Barton was not a casualty of secular historians skeptical of his “scholarship.” Barton’s fellow evangelicals drew attention to the book’s “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims,” and “the untruths and suspect historical interpretations that Barton regularly peddles in his books, speaking engagements, and on his radio program.”

Barton, of course, remains a popular figure in some evangelical circles, enough so that a major presidential candidate still believes him to be an asset to his campaign. But to some evangelicals, he is an embarrassment.

Other attendees of the off-the-record Texas confab included, according to the Post, James Dobson, the retired founder of Focus on the Family and Richard Land, the former disgraced head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Dobson and Land are the quintessence of what one might call a “media evangelical,” someone reporters call on to gauge the pulse of a subculture. Brian Kaylor, a historian of evangelical political engagement, has said that “Land is much more influential among journalists as a ‘evangelical leader’ than he is with the average Southern Baptist in the pews. He has more say in newsrooms than sanctuaries.”

While the media, particularly in the 2000 election cycle (before which Dobson had threatened to form a third party if no sufficiently Christian candidate emerged) and in 2008 (when Dobson held off on an endorsement of Huckabee, who appeared to be an ideal evangelical candidate) fixated on Dobson, for some evangelicals his aggressive role in presidential politics has been irrelevant or even detrimental, even if they long admired his family and childrearing advice.

In 2008 and 2012, there were several Republican candidates who fit the conservative Christian mold, and who competed for the evangelical vote. None emerged as the eventual nominee, although both eventual nominees played lip service to evangelical concerns. This cycle, as I wrote on several occasions last year, Donald Trump has scrambled the formula for winning over evangelical voters. Rather than pandering to evangelical voters with talk of “biblical values,” opposition to abortion, or promises to fight for “religious liberty,” Trump has played his own game. While evangelical “leaders” demand dedication to “Christian values” and fealty to the “Christian nation,” Trump has made only vague and episodic references to the Bible and his own religious faith, and has elevated the idea of a “winner” nation over that of a theocratic one.

In 2007, for example, conservative evangelical leaders threatened to go third party if the GOP nominated a candidate insufficiently opposed to abortion. In 2016, the party could well nominate the candidate (Trump) with the thinnest record opposing abortion and the lowest number of mentions of the issue on the campaign trail. And he’s doing this, according to some polls, with the support of at least a third of white evangelicals.

Cruz’s strategy could still prove to be a success; he is rivaling or exceeding Trump’s support among evangelicals, with the rest of the field splitting the other third. Trump’s success, thus far at least, has showed that “biblical values” politicking actually doesn’t matter in the primary. He certainly won’t care about placating evangelical elites in the general.

A Trump victory would shatter the Cruz illusion that high-level endorsements matter, and that all evangelicals are looking for a “one of us” candidate. On the other hand, if Cruz ends up being the nominee, watch for this:  his victory serving, for some, as a vindication of his heavy-handed evangelical outreach.