Voting For Jesus?: Candidates Seek To Outdo One Another With Religiosity

The Iowa caucuses -- now with even more religion!

The Iowa caucuses are today, and, despite what you may have heard, Jesus Christ is not appearing on the ballot.

Several of his close friends are, though. As voting approaches, Republican candidates have been working hard to win endorsements from prominent conservative evangelicals by explaining just how much they plan to mix up religion and government if elected.

Here’s a round-up of recent activities of note:

Falwell endorses Trump: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was the first Republican to announce his candidacy. He did so in March of 2015 at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. This led lots of observers (including me) to assume that Cruz had an in with Jerry Falwell Jr. and would win his endorsement. Nope. Last week, Falwell issued a personal endorsement of Donald Trump. Trump, I should note, is twice divorced, used to boast about being pro-choice on abortion and has never, until recently, had a tendency to discuss religion. He now holds himself out as Defender of the Faith and has asserted that if he is elected, you’re going to hear a lot more people saying “Merry Christmas.” Many people think this is all an act, but he still got Falwell’s blessing.

Go figure.

Cruz says he’s a Christian first, an American second: Not all conservative evangelicals are buying into Trump mania, and Cruz retains great popularity with this segment of the electorate. He has been wooing them steadily for more than a year. Cruz recently remarked during a visit to New Hampshire, “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth. I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way.”

As several commentators pointed out, Cruz and his supporters would probably not react well to a candidate who announced, “I am a Muslim first and an American second.”

Rubio spars with atheist: During a recent town hall meeting in Waverly, Iowa, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was challenged by an atheist who said he was concerned over the candidate’s overt religiosity. Several reporters noted Rubio’s reply; he said his faith is “the single greatest influence in my life.” What happened next was not as well reported, if at all. Rubio’s campaign immediately issued a fundraising letter boasting about how he had stared down an atheist in public.

“I want to live in a country where Americans feel comfortable living out their faith, in private AND in public,” the appeal reads. “But we’ve seen from the attacks liberals will level – and the policies of the Obama Administration – that some on the left don’t agree. I’ve promised to voters everywhere I go: I will not be a president who will pit you against any other group of Americans, but I’m going to be honest about my values.”

The Washington Post reported that Rubio’s last-minute strategy for Iowa is to talk about God even more. Steve Benen, a former AU staffer who now blogs for the "Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC, noted that Time recently asked Rubio why he hasn’t turned out to be the savior many in the GOP expected. Rubio replied, “Let me be clear about one thing: There’s only one savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to Earth and died for our sins.”

Huckabee and Santorum remain in the race; few care: Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, won in 2012, just barely edging out Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. This year, no one really cares about Huckabee and Santorum, and their evangelical pals have deserted them. What happened? There is no shortage of opinions about that, but I think it boils down to pragmatism. Huckabee hasn’t held office since 2007, and Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 by a whopping 18 points. Both men are rapidly becoming evangelical versions of Harold Stassen.

Sanders says he’s not involved with organized religion: While most of the action has been on the Republican side of the aisle, one of the Democratic candidates did say something interesting about religion recently. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told The Washington Post that he is not “actively involved with organized religion” – an admission few candidates on the national stage ever make. Sanders, who was raised Jewish, said he believes in God and added, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” (I know some atheists who would sharply disagree with that statement.)

Much of this focus on religion is due to the demographics of Iowa’s electorate. Something like 60 percent of Republican caucus attendees there are social conservatives. New Hampshire, which contains fewer of these folks, votes next on Feb. 9, so there might be a bit of let up in the God talk – but don’t expect it to last.  South Carolina votes after that on Feb. 20, and I hear many voters there love them some of that old-time religion mixed with politics.

And remember, it’s still 10 months until November.