WASHINGTON, D.C. - By my count, there were three cowboy hats, two camo outfits and four Rand Paul shirts in the crowd at Liberty University on Monday. But what I couldn’t keep up with on television during Sen. Ted Cruz’s fiery 2016 announcement speech was the number of times religion was referenced.
Cruz painted his vision of the rebirth of America fueled by “courageous conservatives” who also, it seems, share Cruz’s deep-rooted Christian faith. So announcing his candidacy for the GOP nomination and, hence, for the White House, at Liberty, which touts itself as the world’s largest Christian university, was preaching to the (very holy) choir.
But how will Cruz campaign to – and possibly govern – the growing number of Americans who have separated from religion?
Surely he is targeting other people, too.
Let’s let this snippet from the speech speak for itself:
“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.”
Or what about this one?:
“Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
Clearly Cruz is sticking with his Tea Party supporters – the conservative Christians who boosted him to prominence and have stuck by him even as he -- to some people's way of thinking -- shot himself in the foot.
How big is the Christian voting base? Could appealing to them exclusively really work?
A Pew poll of 2012 Republican voters revealed that 34 percent were white evangelical Protestants, with white mainline Protestants taking the second largest slice at 20 percent. Only 11 percent of GOP voters identified as religiously unaffiliated. So by those numbers, Cruz feasibly appeals to most Republican voters.
But Ted Cruz’s problem with alienating non-religiously affiliated voters can be neatly summed up by one group in particular – millennials.
The increasingly valuable voting bloc is both unattached to political parties and religion, according to a 2014 Pew poll. So they wouldn’t feel inclined to vote for Cruz on the basis of his party or his religious fervor.
Although it is more prominent among younger Americans and Democrats, there's also a downward trend in religious affiliation.
Between 2007 and 2012, according to Pew, the population that considered themselves Christians dropped 5 percent. Meanwhile, those who considered themselves unaffiliated jumped 4.3 percent.
So Cruz’ Christian chorus could get him past the primaries, but the general election could be a different story. Particularly if, as he posited in the speech, “half of born again Christians aren’t voting.”
What else does Cruz’s portrait of America entail?
The last person that used “imagine” that much in a single oeuvre was John Lennon. But Cruz imagines all the people living life without the IRS, Obamacare or net neutrality regulations, which isn’t quite as catchy of a song, but worked as a rousing speech.
For all of the hellfire and brimstone, there wasn’t much that addressed the key points of social conservatism that typically ignite Christian voters. Cruz briefly touched on preserving the “sanctity of human life” and the “sacrament of marriage,” but most of his speech was spent on issues outside of the biblical guidance.
Cruz's collage of Christian values with deeply right-wing policy is further proof that he is going for a Tea Party revival and not looking to include more moderate Republicans or independents.
Why was announcing at Liberty University such a big deal?
Liberty University was founded in 1971 by the Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell. Falwell was the leader of the Moral Majority, a political organization aimed at getting Christians to the voting booth.
Before it dissolved in 1988, the Moral Majority supported Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in their successful presidential bids, raising money and using TV and radio ads to bill opponents as anti-Christian.
Liberty University, in a way, is a symbolic cross-section of politics and Christianity. But what worked for Falwell is not today’s reality. Cruz’s religion-centric bid might have come three decades too late.