If you forgot that the Republican Party was essentially a religious movement, the presidential candidates were happy to remind you this weekend. Six of the GOP’s hopefuls – Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee – all attended a Christian rally at a megachurch just outside of Dallas, TX. Sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the event provided a platform for the Republican candidates to out-Christian each other before 7,000 eager evangelicals.
This is the kind of thing that only happens in the Republican Party, which is dominated increasingly by religious conservatives (According to the Washington Post, something like 40 percent of the GOP electorate now consists of evangelical Christians). There’s something grotesque and embarrassing about spectacles like this. The candidates aren’t there to talk about the policy challenges confronting the country, which you’d expect in a mature democracy. Instead, they’re there to pass a religious test, to convince the Christians in the crowd that they’re Christian enough to serve as president.
As the organizer Ralph Reed put it, they were there to ask “questions that we care about as Christians,” which is another way of saying they’re only interested in the religious beliefs of the candidates. This is an offense against our secular Constitution, which, apparently, nobody involved in this farce (or the Republican Party) cares about.
In keeping with the spirit of the event, each candidate dutifully boasted about his or her religious credentials. Ted Cruz, unsurprisingly, was the star of the show. Both a Texan and a theocrat, Cruz regaled the audience with inflated warnings about threats to “religious liberty” in America. “Religious liberty is under threat as never before in this country,” Cruz declared, adding that he would “not surrender” on issues like gay marriage, no matter what the law or the general will or the Supreme Court says – because I guess that’s how it works in a democracy.
Jeb Bush delivered his remarkably trite message about how “life has value.” I don’t know who these liberal barbarians are that don’t value life, but evidently there’s a lot of them out there and Jeb stands boldly in their way. Bush also bragged about his pro-faith record in Florida, the highlights of which are defunding Planned Parenthood and intervening shamelessly in the Terri Schiavo case. This level of religious lunacy doesn’t quite match Cruz’s, but it did earn Bush a warm applause.
Ben Carson was a big hit, too. In addition to selling a few books (Politico reported that many of the attendees “came clutching copies of his books”), Carson talked about the importance of his faith, saying he became a great surgeon once he decided, “God, you be the neurosurgeon; I’ll be the hands." (I’m sure that was a huge relief to his former patients.) No one asked Carson if that meant anyone could be a neurosurgeon, but perhaps someone will later. Carson also scored on the abortion issue. “There’s no way anybody’s ever going to convince me that a mass of cells isn’t a human being,” he told the delighted crowd. Luckily, for Carson, there were no other scientists in the building to point out how insanely stupid that is, so everyone assumed he said something intelligent – that's a small victory, I suppose.
Fiorina doesn’t have the religious bona fides of the other candidates, but she told a nice story about how she once accompanied a friend to a Planned Parenthood clinic for an abortion and saw the toll that later took on her. Like everything else Fiorina says, I assume this never happened, but the crowd enjoyed it nevertheless. She also said “People of faith make better leaders,” a claim for which no evidence exists, but that doesn’t matter when you’re pandering.
Huckabee, a Baptist minister, was a natural fan favorite. As he often does, Huckabee excited the crowd with his very scary warnings about “radical Islam,” gay people and Israel’s imminent destruction. According to reports, his biggest line was about the liberal idiots (which includes the Pentagon) who are so worried about climate change. “The greatest threat we face is a sunburn and not a beheading. And that is nonsense,” he joked. True knowledge, he added, “comes from above,” not from science or empirical research or observations of physical reality. I guess that's settled.
What’s troublesome about this event is what it says about the Republican Party. Christians are free to vote for whomever they want for whatever reasons they want – no one disputes that. The problem is that the GOP has allowed this wing of their party to impose a de facto religious test on presidential candidates. Because so much of the party cares only about electing a Christian president to impose Christian values on the country, no one can win the nomination without placating these people.
Reed told the crowd that “What you see on stage today is the fruit of a harvest of decades of prayer and work asking God to give Christians” a larger role in government. That’s half-true. What you saw on that stage was indeed the “fruit of a harvest of decades” of work, but it wasn’t God who gave Christians a greater role in government; it was the Republican Party who sold their souls to the religious right.
This was just the latest reminder.