From the moment that he announced he was running for president in March at the conservative Christian Liberty University, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has seen evangelical Christians as his path to the nomination.
“Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting,” Cruz said in his speech to the students in Lynchburg, Va. “They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
On Saturday, Cruz is taking his family and his message to Greenville, S.C., in the early voting Palmetto State for a rally on what is increasingly the central theme of his presidential campaign: religious liberty.
What exactly is religious liberty? To Cruz and many Christian conservatives, it is the right to practice their religious beliefs even if that runs against laws and regulations, such as prohibitions against organized prayer in public schools.
It took off as an election issue with this summer’s landmark Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriage. Some Christians who provide services for weddings such as photographers, bakers or florists refused to do so for same-sex couples, saying they believe the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman.
Cruz and other faith-based candidates – such as the front-runner, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Ark. Gov. Mike Huckabee – have drawn attention to the legal actions or boycotts brought against those who have withheld services because they are opposed to same-sex marriage.
“I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious liberty election,” Cruz told a megachurch event in Plano, Texas, in October attended by a half-dozen Republican presidential candidates. “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”
Saturday, Cruz, accompanied by his wife, Heidi, and his father, Rafael Cruz, an evangelical pastor and frequent surrogate for his son, will be in South Carolina at the rally being held at another Christian institution, Bob Jones University, featuring five “heroes of religious liberty.”
Cruz lives in Houston and is showcasing Pastor David Welch as a hero who as executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council battled Houston’s lesbian mayor and the city council over an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We cannot tolerate the special agenda of this mayor,” said Welch. “The ordinance was a way to put the LGBT agenda and lifestyle on people.”
At one point in 2014, Welch and four other pastors were subpoenaed by the city for their sermons, material they used to prepare their sermons and communications with the congregation. The rationale was that the city wanted to know whether the pastors were misleading church members.
After an outcry, that action was dropped and opponents of the ordinance mobilized and had it placed on the ballot as a referendum, where it was easily defeated Nov. 3.
High school football coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton, Wash., is also on the roster for Cruz’s event. He was placed on leave in October for praying silently at a game at midfield after he had been warned about praying with players because that was an overt, public expression of religion at a public school.
“He wanted to be able to drop a knee and pray silently at the 50-yard line,” said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for the Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy.
According to the Cruz campaign, about 2,000 people are expected Saturday. In August, Cruz held a religious liberty rally in Ames, Iowa, that drew 2,500 people.
It’s a honed strategy. Both states are early voting states – Iowa’s caucuses are Feb. 1 and South Carolina’s GOP primary is Feb. 20 – with a high percentage of evangelicals expected to vote. New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation primary is Feb. 9, but fewer than 30 percent of its GOP voters are evangelicals.
“In the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus and South Carolina Republican primary, three-fifths and two-thirds of the voters were evangelical Christians, with evangelicals expected to constitute a similar share in the February 2016 contests,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University. “As a result, a candidate who does not enjoy strong support among evangelical Christians is unlikely to be victorious this February in the Iowa GOP caucus or South Carolina GOP primary.”
So, is that Cruz?
“There are a lot of evangelicals here, but I don’t think he controls the vote,” said David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University.
A Monmouth University poll released Nov. 9 of South Carolina Republican voters has Cruz in fourth place at 9 percent among voters who identify as evangelicals, as well as among all voters. Leading the pack is Carson at 33 percent, followed by billionaire Donald Trump at 24 percent and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 11 percent.
Woodard thinks there is some wariness about Cruz’s electability in the general election for being too conservative. “There’s a lot of feeling of wanting to pick the nominee,” he said of South Carolina’s reputation as a king maker. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the state’s primary in 2000 and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won in 2008. In 2012 the surprise winner was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whose campaign soon tanked.
But Cruz has high favorability ratings with evangelicals, and the Texan is looking to the calendar, March 1, Super Tuesday, when voters in 12 states cast their ballots, including in six Southern states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas – where more than 50 percent of voters are evangelicals.