The presidential election’s still 458 days away, but last night, candidates for the Republican nomination participated in their first televised debates.
There are 17 total, an unprecedented number, which meant host Fox News had to split the program into two portions in order to accommodate everyone. The first, for the seven candidates rounding out the bottom of the polls, starred a few Religious Right stalwarts. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum appeared there and proceeded to deliver typical “culture war” talking points.. Others, including U.S. Sen. Lindsay of South Carolina, stuck to more secular topics, like the Obama administration’s recent deal with Iran.
The frontrunners continued that trend in the second debate – largely sticking to rants against Planned Parenthood and immigrants – until an unfortunate question from a viewer brought God back into the debate.
Chase Norton, who submitted his question via Facebook, said, “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”
Enter U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures. And God speaks through the Bible,” he announced.
Cruz never hesitates to brandish his evangelical bona fides, and didn’t deviate from habit last night. He embarked on a lengthy discussion of his father’s conversion to Christianity, and added, “I would also note that the scripture tells us, ‘You shall know them by their fruit.’ We see lots of ‘campaign conservatives.’ But if we're going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative.”
“There are real differences among the candidates on issues like amnesty, like Obamacare, like religious liberty, like life and marriage. And I have been proud to fight and stand for religious liberty, to stand against Planned Parenthood, to defend life for my entire career,” he finished.
Gov. Scott Walker (Wisc.) said, “I'm certainly an imperfect man. And it's only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I've been redeemed from my sins. So I know that God doesn’t call me to do a specific thing, God hasn’t given me a list, a Ten Commandments, if you will, of things to act on the first day.
“What God calls us to do is follow his will. And ultimately that's what I'm going to try to do,” he added.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida stated that he thinks God “blessed” the U.S.
“This country has been extraordinarily blessed. And we have honored that blessing, and that's why God has continued to bless us,” he said. “And he has blessed us with young men and women willing to risk their lives and sometimes die in uniform for the safety and security of our people.”(The families of those young men and women may quarrel with Rubio’s definition of “blessing.”)
Other candidates were slightly more restrained. Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich limited himself to some boilerplate on the importance of family and hard work, and surgeon Ben Carson talked about using faith to bridge racial divides.
The God question came near the end, and time expired before every candidate could weigh in. Business magnate Donald Trump, who leads evangelicals in the polls despite his relative lack of visible religious commitment, didn’t get a chance to answer. In fact, Trump didn’t mention faith at all at any point in the debate.
But Trump and the others will likely get a chance to return to the subject. The Religious Right still wields significant influence over the Republican Party, and these groups have invested too much effort in culture war battles for the subject to become a non-issue during election season. Many of the GOP hopefuls have been invited to speak at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit next month, where giving personal testimony is de rigueur.
It’s likely that last night’s debate just offered a glimpse of more “God-and-country” rhetoric to come.