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“The G.O.P.’s Holy War”: Righteousness Is A Tricky Business, It Has A Way Of Coming Back To Bite You

In the final, furious days of campaigning here, it was sometimes hard to tell whether this state’s Republicans were poised to vote for a president or a preacher, a commander or a crusader.

The references to religion were expansive. The talk of it was excessive. A few candidates didn’t just profess the supposed purity of their own faith. They questioned rivals’ piety, with Ted Cruz inevitably leading the way.

A rally of his devolved into an inquisition of Donald Trump. Speakers mocked Trump’s occasional claims of devout Christianity. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, pointedly recalled Trump’s admission last summer that he never really does penance.

Cruz, in contrast, “probably gets up every morning and asks God for forgiveness at least a couple of times, even before breakfast,” Perry told the audience.

The evangelist or the apostate: That’s how the choice was framed. And it underscored the extent to which the Iowa caucuses have turned into an unsettling holy war.

Religion routinely plays a prominent part in political campaigns, especially on the Republican side, and always has an outsize role in Iowa, where evangelical Christians make up an especially large fraction of the Republican electorate.

But there was a particular edge to the discussion this time around. It reflected Trump’s surprising strength among evangelicals and his adversaries’ obvious befuddlement and consternation about that.

Cruz’s whole strategy for capturing the presidency hinges on evangelicals’ support, as Robert Draper details in The Times Magazine.

He rails against abortion rights and same-sex marriage in speeches that sound like sermons, with references to Scripture and invocations of God.

He ended a question-and-answer session with Iowans that I attended in a typical fashion, asking them to use the waning hours until the caucuses to pray.

“Spend just a minute a day saying, ‘Father, God, please,’” he implored them. “Continue this awakening. Continue this spirit of revival. Awaken the body of Christ to pull this country back from the abyss.”

But righteousness is a tricky business. It has a way of coming back to bite you.

A super PAC supporting Mike Huckabee produced an ad for both radio and TV in which two women express doubts about Cruz’s commitment to Christian causes, saying that he speaks in one way to Iowans and in another to New Yorkers whose campaign donations he needs.

“I also heard that Cruz gives less than 1 percent to charity and church,” says one of the two women.

“He doesn’t tithe?” asks the other. “A millionaire that brags about his faith all the time?” They conclude that he’s a phony.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s impossible to know the genuineness of someone’s faith. That’s among the reasons we shouldn’t grant it center stage.

Religion was integral to our country’s founding. It’s central to our understanding of the liberty that each of us deserves. But so are the principles that we don’t enshrine any one creed or submit anyone — including those running for office — to religious litmus tests.

So why does a Republican race frequently resemble such an exam?

The winner of the Iowa caucuses in 2012 was Rick Santorum, who put his Catholicism at the forefront of his campaign. The winner in 2008 was Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor who never let you forget that.

To emerge victorious in 2016, several candidates are leaning hard on religion, hoping it’s an advantage over Trump.

But just as God is said to work in mysterious ways, religion is working in unexpected ways in this campaign. According to some national polls, more evangelicals back Trump than they do any other candidate.

That’s true although he’s on his third marriage; although he’s boasted of sexual conquests; although he went to the evangelical stronghold of Liberty University in 2012 and, in a rambling speech, mentioned the importance of prenuptial agreements; although he returned to Liberty University just weeks ago and revealed his inexperience in talking about the Bible by citing “two Corinthians” when anyone with any biblical fluency would have pronounced it “Second Corinthians.”

Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., went so far as to endorse Trump, a development that clearly galled Trump’s rivals and bolstered their resolve to prove that they’re the better Christians.

Jeb Bush questioned Trump’s faith. Marco Rubio kept going out of his way to extol his own.

He released a television commercial here in which he speaks directly to the camera about what it means to be Christian. “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time,” he says. “The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan.”

During last week’s debate, he worked religion into an answer to a question that had nothing to do with it. The Fox News anchor Bret Baier had asked him about his electability, mentioning a Time magazine story that called Rubio “the Republican savior.”

“Let me be clear about one thing,” Rubio responded. “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 at a rally, Rubio visibly brightened when a voter brought up faith and gave him an opportunity to expound on it.

“I pray for wisdom,” he said. “The presidency of the United States is an extraordinary burden and you look at some of the greatest presidents in American history. They were very clear. They were on their knees all the time asking for God, asking God for the wisdom to solve, for the strength to persevere incredible tests.”

That same image came up at the Cruz event during which Perry denigrated Trump. One of the speakers expressed joy at the thought of “a president who’s willing to kneel down and ask God for guidance as he’s leading our country.”

Cruz had declared such willingness in Iowa in November at an evangelical conference where a right-wing pastor talked about the death penalty for gay people and the need for candidates to accept Jesus as the “king of the president of the United States.”

“Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this country,” Cruz said then.

I’m less interested in whether a president kneels down than in whether he or she stands up for the important values that many religions teach — altruism, mercy, sacrifice — along with the religious pluralism that this country rightly cherishes. And while I agree that Trump is unfit for the Oval Office, Corinthians has nothing to do with it.

 

By: Frank Bruni, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 30, 2016

February 1, 2016 - Posted by | Donald Trump, Iowa Caucuses, Religious Beliefs | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. What is truly amusing to me are these “faith contests” are not unlike male bragging contests. Yet, the one candidate who through his constant message of addressing economic inequality and social injustice that is answering best the question of WWJD, is a Jewish man from Vermont named Bernie.

    Like

    Comment by Keith | February 1, 2016 | Reply


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