Why Ted Cruz Is Still Pandering to Evangelicals

To untrained ears, it can sound strange, sometimes even a little threatening. Ted Cruz or one of his representatives, out on the campaign trail, will say something that sounds a lot like someone pushing for theocracy — like someone who views the constitutional separation of church and state as a barrier to be overcome.

Last week, ahead of South Carolina's "first in the south primary," it was the Texas junior senator's wife, Heidi's, turn.

"If we can be in this race to show this country the face of the God that we serve — this Christian God that we serve is the foundation of our country, our country was built on Judeo-Christian values, we are a nation of freedom of religion, but the God of Christianity is the God of freedom, of individual liberty, of choice and of consequence," she told South Carolina radio host Vince Coakley. "I think that's something that this country really needs to be reminded of, is that Christians are loving people, are nonjudgmental people, but there is right and wrong. We have a country of law and order, there are consequences to actions and we must all live peaceably in our own faiths under the Constitution. And Ted is uniquely able to deliver on that combination of the law and religion."

Coming from a campaign that's already doing as well with evangelicals as Cruz's is — the senator dominated the Iowa caucuses, which were, in turn, dominated by the Hawkeye state's evangelicals — it was striking. Cruz is still chasing evangelical votes, and, through his wife, ratcheting up the rhetoric.

"Yes, Ted Cruz is doing very well with evangelicals, but Donald Trump has made some inroads there," Rebecca Deen, the chair of UT Arlington's political science department says. "He can't afford to lose any voters. It's hard fighting in South Carolina. It's going to be about turnout, and it's going to be about turnout of the various blocks that are important to the candidates. While Trump is very happy about his results in New Hampshire, the showing in Iowa is indicative, because Iowa is more like South Carolina than New Hampshire."

When evangelicals hear Heidi Cruz make statements about the "face of God" and delivering a "combination of law and religion" they don't hear a theocrat in the making, Deen says, they hear someone speaking their language.

"To an evangelical crowd [what Heidi Cruz said] sounds pretty normal. It doesn't sound anything like how I've seen her comments described in the media, it just sounds like the way evangelicals talk. She didn't say her husband alone had the corner on the market of being the embodiment of God here on earth. I heard her talk in that evangelical or fundamentalist language about, 'we are supposed to be the hands and feet of God on earth, that what we are supposed to do is live a life that honors not only God but also Jesus," Deen says. "To that block of evangelical voters it doesn't sound like anything offensive, like anything to take particular note of."

In a race that, like the GOP primary, is still so fragmented, it's even more important to invigorate one's core constituencies, and that's all Cruz is doing, according to Deen. Should Cruz win the nomination, the trick will be modulating the message to a more diverse set of voters.

"Cruz is going to have to explain, like John F. Kennedy did with his Catholicism, how his view on his faith and what it means for his faith to be put into action will work in that role for a public servant," Deen says. "It's also interesting that he has no endorsements from his fellow senators. If he were to get the nomination, the Democrats would have ammunition to frame his comments as extreme." 

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