One of the more endearing customs of many of our small town Iowa churches on Sunday morning is story time. The pastor welcomes elementary and pre-school aged kids up front, where he or she sits with the children, and shares a parable. Often the pastor sits down on the steps leading up to the altar, and the children will sit, cross legged at the pastor’s feet.
Always the pastor picks a good story, something about the importance of friendship, kindness, sharing, telling the truth, feeding the hungry, or helping the poor. Good lessons to learn.
And it was story time at Oskaloosa’s Smokey Row recently, when Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz addressed a packed house at the popular coffee shop. And like church, some of the crowd were sitting as his feet, as perhaps 15-20 children from a local Christian school were there to learn, and be a part of the Iowa caucus process. Yet despite Cruz’s apparently devout Christian faith, it was a different kind of story time, and I assure you that the children didn’t hear a word about friendship, kindness, sharing, telling the truth, feeding the hungry, or helping the poor. Not a word.
Cruz’s wife Heidi introduced her husband. Just a week before, Jeb Bush had stood in the same place. This time, however, the crowd was very different, and at the same time of day. Bush’s crowd was older, mostly on the wrong side of middle-age.
Cruz’s crowd was much younger and intergenerational--this in addition to the elementary the class that sat at his feet. I sat next to a family where four generations were present. Mixed throughout the crowd were young couples with multiple children, anxious to hear Cruz’s message. While Bush had jogged from the back of the coffee shop to the front of the room to loud applause, Cruz quietly snuck in the back, and slowly made his way into the center of the crowd unnoticed, to finish watching Heidi’s introduction with the rest of us.
Cruz gave his standard stump speech we who cover him are familiar with, that if elected president he would revoke every single Obama “illegal” executive action, investigate Planned Parenthood, stop the persecution of Christians, abolish the EPA, the Department of Education, the IRS, increase support to the military, and “rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal,” among other points.
Cruz constructed a contemporary world view that mirrors the Roman world in which early Christianity arose. Christians persecuted by the Roman state, overbearing taxation, economic troubles, loss of traditional values, a weakening of the Roman legions, an arising eastern empire, and a generalized fear of invasion by “barbarian hordes” are among many reasons given as contributing both to the fall of Rome and the emergence of Christianity as a viable religious movement. Substitute “America” for “Rome,” toss in Syrian refugees, Iran, Putin, standard Republican economic and values talking points, and it’s scary stuff.
Especially for kids. And it’s not happening in the distant past. It’s happening right now, according to Cruz.
I’ve seen Cruz a few times, and his speech is pretty much the same. Lots of destruction, no thought to the consequences. He cracked a few jokes, which are important for any good speaker. Every politician does it. The ensuing laughter establishes a relaxed a rapport with the audience, and establishes who the in and out-groups are in binary opposition. Here’s one:
"I spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., so it is great to be back in America."
The audience loved that one. No one likes Washington anymore, and it places the audience as the center of a place they love, at least abstractly--America. In-group identity politics that we all play at their best. Here the in-group being real Americans like the Ted and audience. Out-group--people in Washington.
The rest of Cruz’s speech, including the jokes, continued this in-group vs. out-group dichotomy with as to be expected subsequent in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. The out-group of course quickly became Democrats, Hillary Clinton, and of course, Cruz’s favorite punching bag--President Obama.
Here’s an example in the form of a joke. Cruz praised the Pope’s visit to Washington, and then explained :
“.. the press conference (with the Pope) at The White House was a little awkward. Every time the reporters addressed a question to ‘Your Holiness,’ Obama would answer…”
“The next day President Xi of China was in Washington to meet with President Obama. News outlets across the globe reported on this momentous meeting between the world’s most powerful communist and the president of China."
The audience rocked with laughter. The children, not knowing what the adults were laughing at, looked around, and then joined in sympathetically. What a funny guy! One Democrat I knew in the audience cringed.
Does Cruz really think Obama sees himself as holier than the pope? It doesn’t matter. It places Obama in the out-group, and portrays the president as smug, self-righteous and condescending. Which of course, is what Cruz is being, while appearing to be humble. Does he really think Obama is a communist? I doubt it. But tarring Obama with that label obviously works, especially since half of his audience doesn’t know what communism is, only that it is evil. And certainly out-group.
All under the “innocent” guise of laughter. And who doesn’t like to hear the laughter of children, especially when they are being inculcated with your worldview?
Writers since Aristotle and Plato have written that the purpose of jokes and laughter is to produce scorn, to ridicule. In the early Christian church laughter was frowned upon as mockery and representing hostility, and so offensive it may deserve death. Two particular Bible verses on mockery has haunted me since Sunday School as a child. Remember when the group of children laugh at the prophet Elisha for his baldness:
He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed them in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them. (2 Kings 2:23, 24).
We have a different view of humor today of course, and Cruz clearly isn’t worried about she-bears coming out of the wood to maul him.
Speaking of being mauled, how about those Syrian refugees? Talk about an out-group. Yet Cruz does have a soft spot for some of the refugees. The Christian ones. Cruz repeated the position he has taken previously that he would welcome refugees from Syria as long at they were Christians.
Think about that image. Can you see it now? One of our soldiers on a Middle Eastern border, weapon in hand, telling a crowd of refugees, “Hey, Christians in this line, everyone else in that line over there!” If that image doesn’t horrify you, it should. Like other presidential candidates, Cruz apparently loves the Constitution, except when he doesn’t.
Think of the message the children heard: It’s good to help Christians, but to hell with everyone else. And people wonder how the seeds of bigotry are planted?
Many around me in the coffee shop nodded in agreement in support of welcoming Christian refugees and rejecting those of other faiths. It fits their narrative that they should help persecuted Christians. After all, despite the fact that American Christians are the most entitled and privileged people in the history of the planet, many feel persecuted. Just look at the evidence in their minds -- the modern Christian martyr Kim Davis went to jail for a couple of days for standing up to her faith in not signing marriage licenses. And there is that pesky Fox News faux “War on Christmas.” Around here the evidence is pretty weak. Christmas songs are common in public school holiday programs, and I’ve seen Christian protesters gather to intimidate gay couples while they were getting marriage licenses at the courthouse window. One non-practicing Muslim woman in town is afraid people will find out that she was raised in the Islamic faith.
Yet, as I looked around the coffee shop, I understood where some of their feelings are coming from. Their world is falling apart on all fronts, from persecution real or imagined, loss of values, taxes, big government, you name it. What Ted Cruz told them is the same thing many other candidates are telling them, and what they hear on Fox News every night. To them, gay marriage is truly an assault on their valued traditions, the increased secularization of society is seen as a disaster, and the persecution of Christians is real.
Twice recently two acquaintances asked me, unsolicited, what I thought about the persecution of Christians -- once when I was the speaker at a service club meeting and a second time at a local high school football game. With respect to taxation, our farm to market roads are falling apart and pavement and asphalt roads in the country are turning to gravel. Farming has been upsized, and few jobs are left. Many of our big manufacturing industries have fled overseas, or to the big city. In the name of frugality and and austerity our services have been centralized and privatized, which of course means they are taken to our bigger cities and given to corporations. Jobs that used to allow for a middle-class lifestyle are now gone. Even jobs in industries that can’t be shipped overseas, like meat packing, are gone. A person working in a meat-packing plant today earns about the same wage today as they did in 1980.
Add a generalized fear of invasion by “barbarian hordes.” They are afraid, and some of them either fear or rejoice that the end times are near. It’s year zero.
Ted Cruz is their candidate. He’s a Baptist with apparent deep intellectual roots in dominionism. This perspective has been criticized many times, but that’s not my purpose here. It’s America. He’s free to practice the religion of his choice, as are the people who are likely to vote for him. Yet, those with differing perspectives need to remember that the mission of evangelism is to convert or assimilate, and their efforts to have a bigger say in all aspects of modern life--including government--is real, with consequences for all of us.
As I looked around the room while Cruz patiently worked the crowd, I realized that Cruz is in no hurry. Sure, if Trump and Carson fall, and he somehow winds up on the Republican slate, he’ll be happy. Yet, at only 44, he’s in it for the long run. So are many in the conservative Christian movement. They recognize that while they may not be able to change the world, their children can. The very children in the room, listening to Ted Cruz’s story time, where the world is a scary place, and the man at the front of the room wants to save them from evil President Obama and his fellow Democrats.
While many say the members of the Republican party is aging, I see a youth movement in Iowa. The homeschool movement is growing here and in much of the nation, and many homeschoolers are devout Christians. Christian schools are thriving as well. Much of this is at the expense of public schools. An Iowa Democratic official told me recently that of the Iowa Republican legislators who have children who are school aged, approximately 20 percent of them homeschool their children. They distrust the public schools enough not to enroll their children in them, yet vote on their funding. The real war on public education began when Ronald Reagan took on higher education as governor of California, and it continues today. In a remarkably ignored yet transparent self-fulfilling prophecy, Republicans claim austerity, cut public funding to schools, and then say the schools are failing. Rinse and repeat.
The goal ultimately is to legislate that public money not to go to public schools directly, but to follow the child into the home if home schooled, or into charter, or Christian schools. The destruction of public schools is therefore a “good” thing.
And Cruz is their candidate. The one and only. Of course, Huckabee, Santorum and Carson would be disappointing second choices, but no other candidates would be acceptable.
I was sitting at a different coffee shop the other day, when one young woman I admire very much stopped to talk about the candidates. I don’t know how many brothers and sisters she has exactly, but I know of at least eight. All are home schooled, well-educated, and smart as smart can be. They are all thoughtful, polite, and I have no doubt all will succeed at life. That is what they have been raised to be. She’s a twenty-something in college.
“Who do you like for president?” I asked.
“Cruz,” she replied, sitting down at the table with me, putting her coffee down. “He’s the only true conservative, and a godly man. A true leader.”
“But he hasn’t done anything,” I said.
“Of course he has,” she replied. “Lots of proposed reforms the RINOs and Democrats wouldn’t accept, and he nearly brought the government down.”
“And almost bringing the government down is good?”
She looked puzzled. “Of course it is. And he’s the only one without a big ego.”
“Cruz? No ego?”
“No, it’s not about him,” she said. “He’s doing the Lord’s work.”
I remembered hearing much the same from another young Republican when when I shared that Cruz and others like him want to turn America into a Christian theocracy.
“What’s wrong with that?” he had replied. “America was founded as a Christian nation, after all.”
Ted Cruz’s exact words to the audience in Oskaloosa, and repeated to a nation of young Christian conservatives across the nation, during story time. It begins in preschool. In the womb maybe. And if they can’t vote yet, there is always next election, and the following. An army of Christian soldiers. And they are young, and their number is growing.
I looked back at the young Cruz supporter. She sipped her coffee while I sipped mine, at the same table, in different worlds.