Godly Rhetoric in Presidential Campaigns: Cruz, Rubio, and Reagan

Updated:
Posted in: Politics

U.S. Presidents from the beginning have invoked “God” for the purpose of unifying Americans. That goes without saying. The problem for 21st century candidates is that such invocations, especially by Republicans, come off as exclusionary rather than inclusive. Even fellow Christians can’t help thinking when the candidates speak that they are talking about a specific religio-political world view, not a widely shared faith in one God. Given the current political culture, it is impossible to hear Republican candidates refer to their faith without assuming they are signaling a secret handshake with the evangelical voters.

There is also the complication that the extraordinary religious diversity of the American electorate—including a growing cohort of non-believers—makes all references to “my” faith off-putting. It’s not that believers should never refer to their faith; rather, the question is whether they are sending a message of wholesome religious inclusion or religious self-righteousness.

When Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spoke after their successful runs in the Iowa caucus this week, they each used formulas that made me cringe. It was especially jarring in that they also routinely invoked Ronald Reagan, but they have fallen far short of Reagan’s capacity to unite the Party.

Reagan tried to bring Americans together in his speeches, even when referring to God. For example, when he accepted the Republican nomination in 1984, he said:

It is impossible to capture in words the splendor of this vast continent which God has granted as our portion of this creation. There are no words to express the extraordinary strength and character of this breed of people we call Americans.

And at a prayer meeting in August 1984 in Dallas, Texas, he opined:

I believe that faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation—and always has—and that the church—and by that I mean all churches, all denominations—has had a strong influence in the state. And this has worked to our benefit as a nation.

Other examples of Reagan speaking inclusively include:

“As this spiritual awakening gathers strength, we must remember that many, in good faith, will hold other views. Let us pledge to conduct ourselves with generosity, tolerance and openness towards all. We must respect the rights and views of every American – because we are unshakably committed to democratic values. Our Maker would have us be no less.” Address to the 42nd Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals

“We in the United States, above all, must remember that lesson, for we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.” Remarks to Members of the Congregation of Temple Hillel and Jewish Community Leaders in Valley Stream, New York, October 26, 1984, also excerpted here.

Marco Rubio and “Christ”

Rubio spoke first on Monday after the caucuses, and he spoke more economically than did Cruz, but they still made about the same number of references to God. Among other statements, here is how he referred to religion:

And I thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ and I thank God for allowing me the opportunity to come this far with each of you.

I want to thank an all powerful and mighty God for the chance that he has given us to be a part of this endeavor here in Iowa.

These are somewhat vanilla comments in this highly charged culture war era, but did he have to say “my lord and savior Jesus Christ?” He might as well have also said: “and I’m not talking about Jews and Muslims.” Let alone Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, among others. It was painfully obvious he was signaling to evangelicals, but that very signaling is what makes the Republican Party’s candidates sound like they are talking to members of an exclusive religious club with a secret handshake, rather than a gathering of “Americans,” to use Reagan’s nomenclature.

Other examples of Rubio talking about Christ or God on the campaign trail have included:

“Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator for all time. To accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. The struggle on a daily basis as a Christian is to remind ourselves of this. The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.” Marco Rubio for President Campaign Ad.

Again, he is pushing away those who don’t share his faith. And in case you thought he would tone it down:

“No one’s going to force you to believe in God. But no one’s going to force me to stop talking about God. No one’s going to take away my right, and your right, to live out the teachings of your faith. No one. You shouldn’t be worried about my faith influencing me. You should hope that my faith influences me. America does not make sense unless we believe in a creator.” Waverly, Iowa Town Hall Meeting, January 18, 2016.

Or you thought that he didn’t really mean to alienate others:

“There’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to Earth and died for our sins and so I’ve always made that clear about that cover story.—I will always allow my faith to influence everything I do.—The Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world. Over 200 years, America’s light has been shining on the world and the world has never been the same again.” Fox News final debate before Iowa caucus, January 28, 2016.

Ted Cruz and His “Creator”

Ted Cruz was less subtle in signaling to evangelicals (I know, big surprise). Here is his shout out to “evangelicals” specifically:

We’re saying conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians and Reagan Democrats all coming together as one and that terrifies Washington, D.C.

Apparently they are the only religious group that need be named. He also waxed philosophical about “our Creator.” The very use of “our” sounds tone-deaf to the vast majority of Americans, especially when it is combined with “Creator,” which sounds a lot like he is pushing creationism:

God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first of all say to God be the glory.

That our rights do not come from the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or even from the Tea Party; our rights come from our Creator.

Other examples of Cruz talking about God or the Creator on the campaign trail have included:

“[F]or so many Americans, the promise of America seems more and more distant. What is the promise of America? The idea that—the revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon, which is that our rights don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty.” Transcript: Ted Cruz’s Speech at Liberty University, 2015.

Cruz is particularly fond of the use of “our” even when he means “my”:

“I’ve spent my life fighting to defend the Constitution — our nation’s founding document and the supreme law of the land — which was crafted by our founding fathers to act as chains to bind the mischief of government and to protect the liberties endowed to us by our Creator. From religious liberty, to the right to bear arms, to U.S. sovereignty, no one else has done more to try and restore our constitutional principles.” Interview with Townhall.com, 2015.

“The right to freely worship the Lord God Almighty with all our hearts, minds, and soul is fundamental to who we are as a nation . . . . Our rights don’t come from any king or queen or black-robed judge—they come from God Almighty. We must protect and cherish this heavenly gift. That starts with each of you. That starts with our families, our churches, and our communities. If people of faith rise up and speak out, the light of the truth will not be defeated. “And come 2017, if I am elected President, on the very first day in office, I will direct the U.S. Department of Justice, and the IRS, and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today.” Remarks on Religious Freedom Day, January 16, 2016.

Note to Ted Cruz—I highly recommend the First Amendment to redress persecution. Start with Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah.

Perhaps Rubio and Cruz would defend themselves, saying that their speeches were tailored to an Iowa audience. Yet that also seems shortsighted, given that they were jumping on planes to go to the other end of the political and religious spectrum in New Hampshire. It appears that Rubio and Cruz can’t find their way out of a self-referential religiosity. That is their individual right. But it does not make them leaders or uniters. Nor is likely to be a path to the Presidency of the United States of America.

  • Ted Harvatin

    I remember the Reagan era. You liberals hated and demonized him too. Nothing new here. Whoever the Republican front runner is, you will attack. meanwhile you ignore the criminal Clinton.

  • Dom Greco

    Very insightful observations and comments. The religious distinctions that you have pointed out in political statements made by candidates running for office are not distinctions that I have previously noted, but when you point them out they become quite obvious to me and I suspect too many other readers of your article. As a result of reading your article I will become a more sensitive reader going forward.

    I now see, and appreciate, how some politicians sometimes use religion for inclusionary purposes, but at other times in a more limited exclusionary manner to establish or strengthen their appeal to particular separate religious groups, and not to religious people as a whole, thereby unfortunately causing religion to separate people rather than to bring people together

  • D Lee Gwinn

    A Christian is not self-righteous. A Christian is someone who understands that “we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God” as the Bible says, and realizes that BECAUSE OF their unrighteousness that they need a Savior; and accepts the teaching of the Christian faith that God sent Jesus Christ to be that Savior. (Thus the term “Christian” – a believer in Christ as their Savior.) They are very inclusive in that they believe that salvation through Christ is available to ALL who will accept it, regardless of their past, and regardless of race or nationality.
    It is non-Christians who are “self”-righteousness – who don’t think they need a Savior because they are righteous enough without one, either because of some particular belief they have or some particular activity they are involved in. Non-Christians are also NOT “inclusive” to the extent they want to exclude Christians from sharing their faith freely, or from being “qualified” for some office or activity, or – in some cases – from life itself! Some believe that if we can only get rid of Christianity, THEN we can have world peace – denying that there would still be NON-Christians who want to fight or kill others, either because of a LACK of faith in or love for anything but themselves, or in some cases BECAUSE OF their “religious” beliefs that advocate the killing of Christians or anyone else who does not join their religion.
    However, the Wisdom of God is foolishness to those who believe they are more enlightened than God himself; and conversely the “wisdom of the world” is foolishness to God. He has given us all the choice of which form of “wisdom” we will believe and follow.

  • Agetha Besonson

    Good thought provoking summation of GOD and Politics! I will check out your book on “GOD vs. Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied–What America [NEEDS] must (sic) do to Protect its Children, and numerous…” I am retired from law. I am looking at the ‘One Hundred Third Congress of the United States of America’ @ the first session…01/05/1993. H.R. 1308. An Act ‘To protect the free exercise of religion.’ Section I. SHORT TITLE: ‘… cited as “Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.” Section II. Congressional Findings and Declaration(s) of Purposes. (a) Findings.-The Congress finds that- (1) the framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution; (2) laws “neutral” toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise; [I do not doubt you know the rest of this ‘Religious Freedom Restorations Act…” Several points, I have seen in the lower courts. 1) Words are a double edge sword. 2) It does depend on the Officers of the Court and their biases they bring to the case. 3) It does depend on each state constitution and how it is written. 4) Now that lower courts are transitioning into e-print; their IT–may prove to be faulty; i.e. hacker heaven. {#3 RE: currently pulling together evidence that a ‘huge civil lawsuit against a huge religious organization” without a doubt been sabotage by hackers that the court transcripts online are now available for the public to read. Where it opens up “the can of worms” i.e. may add a new twist to “Data Privacy” in the expectation that those transcripts for any case are to be kept secured as if and only if our lives depended on it being as such!} For Example: ‘”Chain of Evidence”‘

  • Agetha Besonson

    This article did omit Donald Trumps comment “…No Muslims, or Islamist in this country…” In appropriate comment; however, since 911 Jihadist attack on America; Boston Bombers, San Bernardino, and more to come. It is well defined by documentaries that Iraq was the war that America Lost! Having said the aforementioned info. America is dealing with ISIS and I do think it is appropriate to banned the enemy even if they are refugees. Ideology of the extremist groups is they are composed of brainwashed individuals and mercenaries for hire. The danger behind it, is the insidious permeating infiltration into the North America side of the world. The everyday Americans do not trust Congress or the candidates. The situation out in Oregon is just the beginning of civil unrest; i.e. civil war pending!

  • Dalia Morr Nino

    You may all get offended and think religion and politics shouldn’t mix, but as a christian it is the same for us. It is hard to separate them, and not to talk about it.

    John 9:10-12, “…10So
    Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I
    have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” 11Jesus
    answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been
    given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the
    greater sin.” 12As
    a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried
    out saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar;
    everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”…”