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.