LYNCHBURG, VA – Ted Cruz came to this southern town Monday to launch his presidential campaign, but also to revive a strain of American evangelicalism that was birthed here in the 1980s.
Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, traveled to the home of Liberty University, an institution born in 1971 that now boasts a student body of 13,800 and touts itself as “the largest Christian university in the world.” Liberty is a monument to the determination of its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, to create an explicitly Christian institution to rival America’s secular universities.
Falwell led an evangelical charge into politics in the ’80s, helping to start the Moral Majority, which mobilized Christians and made them power brokers, but which also became known for a combative style that often alienated opponents. This approach turned off many younger evangelicals, who felt the Republican party had come to be linked too closely with Christianity and who yearned for a less caustic way of expressing their faith in the public square. In the last decade or two, many of these younger evangelicals have moved away from automatic affiliation with the Republican party, though the GOP remains the natural home for a large number of them.
Liberty University now is a vibrant and flourishing destination for many evangelical students across the country, but its past also serves — to some — as a reminder of the dangers of equating political positions with gospel truths.
But it’s not clear that Cruz, the 44-year-old former Texas solicitor general and the son of a Cuban immigrant father, would have that same concern about Falwell’s Moral Majority. In fact, Cruz is as much a modern-day Falwell as he is anything else: brash, confrontational and hugely ambitious. He has rocketed to fame largely by opposing President Obama as stridently and aggressively as possible, even as he has alienated most of his Republican colleagues in Washington, many of whom believe he is more interested in self-promotion than he is in getting anything done.
Cruz casts himself as the standard-bearer for a bold brand of conservatism, a revolutionary voice whose presence in politics is needed to upend beliefs about what is and is not possible. And his 30-minute speech here Monday was an attempt to lay down a marker with American evangelicals, to claim that he is their guy. Notwithstanding some negative comments on Yik Yak, a social media site that is most popular on college campuses, Cruz received a rousing ovation from the several thousand in attendance at Liberty’s Vines Center, most of them students.
There is a rule at Liberty that students who live on campus are required to attend the thrice-weekly, hourlong convocation, but a number of students — including some who spoke with Yahoo News — were off-campus residents who attended just because they wanted to see Cruz. And as some students on Yik Yak pointed out, there was no requirement to cheer or give Cruz the standing ovations he received.
Jerry Falwell Jr., 52, who became president of the university in 2007 when his father died, introduced Cruz as someone who “has gone against the tide, has taken the road less traveled,” standing up in Washington against pressure to abandon conservative principles.
Cruz, wearing black cowboy boots and a suit and tie, walked around a 360-degree octagonal stage as he addressed the student body. He sketched the life stories, one by one, of his mother, father and wife. And then he finally laid out his own biography, in cinematic style. He included the “testimony” of how his father came to faith in Jesus Christ, a key reference point for any evangelical audience.
“That’s what we connect with,” said Wendell Walker, a former Liberty student who said he worked with Falwell Sr. in the ’80s.
And in typical Cruz style, he baited critics with rainbow-hued rhetoric aimed at exciting his audience, using the word “imagine” 38 times to described a world that he implied could be created if only he were elected president.
“Imagine instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth,” he said. “Imagine young people coming out of school with four, five, six job offers.” That line got a loud ovation.
“Instead of a tax code that crushes innovation, that imposes burdens on families struggling to make ends meet, imagine a simple flat tax that lets every American fill out his or her taxes on a postcard,” Cruz said to more applause, as if he were Oprah Winfrey handing out free cars to his audience. “Imagine abolishing the IRS.”
The litany went on and on.
In the moment, the question of how much any of this is possible took a back seat — for Cruz anyway — to the fact that he had become the first Republican politician to officially announce his candidacy for the presidency, and that he was on a stage in front of 8,000 or so cheering young evangelicals rattling off a multitude of positions on which his values and theirs aligned.
Older conservatives in the crowd like Walker saw Cruz as someone who can bring back the glory days of the Moral Majority.
“The fact that Ted Cruz was here today is a wake-up call to [us] as Christians,” said Walker, 62. He said that Republicans have lost elections in recent years because too many evangelicals have not voted, even though exit polls show that evangelical participation in presidential elections has not ebbed over the last few elections. But Cruz, Walker said, could galvanize greater participation in the way that Falwell Sr. and fellow Moral Majority founder Pat Robertson did.
“We went through that period of time, the Reagan era. Everybody got involved, a lot of pastors. Where [are] the Christian leaders of our nation today? Who are they?” he said.
The problem for this line of argument, and for Cruz, is that American evangelicalism in 2015 is not what it was in the 1980s.
Younger evangelicals, in particular, “don’t respond as positively to that hard-edged brand of politics that Senator Cruz has often displayed,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and one of the nation’s authorities on American evangelicals.
Evangelicals, especially among the younger demographic, may be as pro-life as ever, but they are more moderate on issues such as the environment, foreign policy and immigration. The crowd at Liberty, especially those in attendance to see Cruz, may have been on the conservative end of the spectrum for young evangelicals.
“Most of the students here are pro-Israel, strong foreign policy, Ronald Reagan types,” said Zach Hayes, a 20-year-old marketing major, who said he likes Cruz but is currently favoring Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., because he considers himself more libertarian on many issues.
Green, the professor, said that Cruz “is very competitive with evangelicals, particularly the more conservative evangelicals,” but that this does not mean that evangelicals as a whole will automatically flock to his candidacy.
“This is no knock on Senator Cruz, but in a general election, someone like [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker or [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush might not be the emotional choice of many evangelicals, but they would surely prefer them to whoever the Democrat would be,” Green said.
Cruz did mention religious liberty prominently, and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said that this issue in particular is a major concern for evangelicals headed into the 2016 election.
“That’s the pre-eminent issue,” Moore said, for evangelical voters who believe that a rapid succession of victories for gay rights, in particular, have threatened the rights of Christians to make decisions about how they run their private businesses and places of worship based on conscience and how they interpret the Bible’s teachings on sexuality.
Moore mentioned legislation that Cruz co-sponsored last week with Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., to strike down two laws in the District of Columbia that they believe would violate religious freedoms.
But Moore, who watched part of Cruz’s announcement speech, expressed some skepticism about whether Cruz will be able to rise above his status as a conservative bomb-thrower who is skilled at giving speeches heavy on applause lines for reliably conservative crowds.
“The question is whether he is able to, whether he is seen as a candidate that can actually carry out that agenda as president of the United States. That’s what he has to prove over the next year,” Moore said.
Cruz will need “a set of serious policy proposals” to do this, Moore said, and will also in primary debates need to present “a picture of the sort of gravitas that would be able to lead the executive bureaucracy but also able to get things done.”
Near the end of his speech, Cruz signaled to his audience that he believes America is a Christian nation, and that he believes that while it has lost its way, it can be great in this way again.
“God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” Cruz said.
It’s actually an open question whether the majority of evangelicals agree with Cruz that America should be, or can be, what it once was — a nation with a dominantly Protestant culture and overwhelmingly Christian religious orientation — given that the nation is such a pluralistic mix of ethnicities and creeds now. It’s possible Cruz has misread American evangelicalism, that while he toiled in politics and government over the last two decades, much of American evangelicalism matured toward an understanding that it can reinvent itself in a post-Christian West, not to sacrifice its orthodoxy but to live it out in a new context.
One thing working in Cruz’s favor is the possibility that a growing concern over the issue of religious liberty may increase his appeal.
But it’s just as likely that Cruz will enjoy a boomlet of attention and publicity from jumping into the contest first, while voters like the young students at Liberty — who knew little of him or of the presidential contest before today — will soon realize that there are other candidates in the field who also share their values, candidates who have a far better shot of actually winning a presidential election.