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Why Are Evangelicals Fighting Over Ted Cruz’s Religious Beliefs?

A spirited debate has broken out within the evangelical academic community over Ted Cruz’s religious and political beliefs.

Part of the Series

The long and winding road to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is getting rockier for conservative Christian evangelical leaders as they continue to reckon with some major-league divisive issues. When Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, endorsed Donald Trump, evangelical leaders Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Max Lucado, often described as “America’s pastor,” began speaking out against Trump. The editorial board at The Christian Post, so unnerved by the possibility of Trump heading the GOP’s ticket, launched a major anti-Trump broadside.

“The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.”

Now, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) nipping at Trump’s heels, another issue has surfaced: Is Cruz a “Seven Mountains Dominionist” — the kind of Christian nationalist who thinks Christians should “take dominion” over education, media, business, government and more? Or is he a strict constitutionalist — a person rooted in Christian values but not seeking to create a theocracy?

While that may seem like a little too much inside baseball, and an obscure question for the general public to be concerned with, the kerfuffle it has caused is beginning to shine a light on Cruz’s religious and political beliefs, and what a Cruz presidency might look like.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

While some maintain that Cruz is a Christian nationalist hell-bent on bringing Seven Mountains evangelism to the White House, others are vigorously countering that charge by maintaining that Cruz is a constitutionalist.

“A major debate about whether he is or isn’t, how can you tell, and if he is, so what, is not a discussion that conservative Christians want to have in public,” Frederick Clarkson, author of the invaluable Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and one of the journalists that pioneered research and writing about the religious right, told Truthout in an email. “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is. His dad and principal surrogate is a Seven Mountains Dominionist. His super PAC honcho, David Barton, is a Dominionist. And one of his recently appointed foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin, is also a well-known Dominionist,” Clarkson added.

A Dog-Whistling Dominionist?

In a recent Christianity Today article titled “The Theology of Ted Cruz,” John Fea, who teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is the author most recently of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, maintains that Cruz is a product of Seven Mountains, the Christian nationalist perspective whose origin comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

“Seven Mountains” is widely interpreted to mean Christians taking dominion over seven aspects of the culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government.

Fea bases part of his argument on Cruz’s close ties to longtime GOP activist David Barton, the oft-debunked historian and unapologetic Christian nationalist, who nevertheless commands a great deal of respect within the conservative evangelical community. Barton is president and founder of WallBuilders, an Aledo, Texas-based Christian ministry, and is one of the senator’s most trusted advisers, running the candidate’s multimillion-dollar “Keep the Promise” super PAC.

Earlier this year, Fea argued in a Religion News Service column picked up by The Washington Post that “Barton’s work is an important part of Cruz’s larger theological and political campaign to take back America. If Barton can prove that the United States was once a Christian republic, then Cruz will have the historical argument he needs to sustain his narrative of American decline.”

Fea further maintains that Cruz’s political positions, including his support for “religious liberty,” his belief that Christians are being persecuted by the government in this country, his eagerness to defund Planned Parenthood, his blunt opposition to same-sex marriage and his grumbling about the “liberal” media, stem from Seven Mountains Dominionism.

Two Cruz Defenders Maintain That He Is a Constitutionalist

Robert Gagnon and Edith Humphrey responded to Fea in a Christianity Today piece rather petulantly headlined “Stop Calling Ted Cruz a Dominionist: The Christian candidate’s faith influences his platform, but not in the ways most critics assume.”

The two authors of several books, and colleagues and professors of the New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, readily acknowledge that while Cruz “has often stated that Jesus Christ is central to his life,” they argue that his beliefs are being exaggerated and misconstrued.

In the past, Gagnon and Humphrey maintain, critics of the Christian right have used the charge of Dominonism — which they see as an “elastic” concept — to label opponents “bogeymen” who “hold right-wing views.” They write, “If Cruz’s religious guidance had led him to progressivist policies, liberal politicians would have little objection. In our view, the objection from liberals arises from his conservative views.”

After unequivocally stating that Cruz “is not a dominionist,” Gagnon and Humphrey play the Cruz-as-scholar card — quoting Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz who has stated that Cruz was “one of the brightest students we ever had” — to bolster their assertion that Cruz is a constitutionalist, a believer in Judeo-Christian values who fundamentally upholds the precepts of the US Constitution.

Robert George, another of Cruz’s former professors, and a leading Christian right political strategist who endorsed Cruz for president in March, called accusations of Dominionism “the contemporary left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting.”

George told Christianity Today:

Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist. I’ve known Senator Cruz for more than half his life. I supervised his junior year independent project and senior thesis at Princeton, working with him closely on the Constitution’s protections of liberty by way of structural limitations on power. I’ve stayed closely in touch with him in the years since, sometimes discussing constitutional questions (especially those pertaining to religious freedom). In 31 years of teaching constitutional law and civil liberties, and 25 years of serving on various capacities in public life, never have I met a person whose fidelity to the Constitution was deeper than Senator Cruz’s.

The Christianity Today article “does not address how Cruz’s religious views shape his approach to politics, public policy and to the Constitution,” Frederick Clarkson pointed out. “Rather it seeks to deflect attention from that perfectly reasonable question.”

It is surprising that Gagnon and Humphrey barely mention two of Cruz’s most influential advisers, his father, Rafael Cruz, and David Barton, in their piece. Despite once stating in a 2012 sermon that his son’s campaign was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Gagnon and Humphrey claim there’s nothing to see here. They argue it was taken out of context: “The preacher hopes for Christ to come and restore balance, but there is no sense of a theocratic takeover here.” They add, “The charge of dominionism, applied to the father, is exaggerated. Applied to the constitutionalist son, it is farcical.”

And, they call Fea’s concern over Barton’s influence on the campaign an attempt to tar Cruz with “guilt by association.”

In Gagnon and Humphrey’s closing argument they explain why they’re responding to Fea and others who charge Cruz with being a dominionist: “Our point in all this is not to convince readers to vote for Ted Cruz, but to try to clarify the actual relationship of his faith to his politics. To be sure, he clearly wants Christian values to shape this country. But this does not make him a dominionist. It makes him a conservative constitutionalist who takes his Christian faith seriously — someone who believes that many Christian values could be beneficial for the whole body politic.”

Cruz is too smart to utter the words “Dominionism” or “Seven Mountains” on the campaign trail. It will not come up in speeches, at rallies or during television or radio interviews. Delving into the religious beliefs of political candidates is not the strong suit of the mainstream media. Nevertheless, both his religious beliefs and his political positions appear to reflect dog-whistle politics that he hopes will resonate and unite the conservative evangelical Christian community behind his candidacy.

Fea closes his Christianity Today piece by pointing out that “Cruz’s campaign may be less about the White House and more about the white horses that will usher in the God’s Kingdom in the New Testament book of Revelation, Chapter 19.”

“I don’t think that much of the voting public knows or cares about such seemingly esoteric notions as constitutionalism and Dominionism,” Clarkson noted. “But if Cruz becomes the GOP nominee, his relationship to theocratic Dominionism may well become one of the most discussed issues of the campaign.”

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