The Split Between Ted Cruz Evangelicals and Marco Rubio Evangelicals: 5 Theories

Republican U.S. presidential candidate U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (L) speaks as Senator Marco Rubio listens at the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (L) speaks as Senator Marco Rubio listens at the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2016. | (Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)

In the Republican presidential race, what differentiates the evangelicals supporting Ted Cruz from the evangelicals supporting Marco Rubio? It's complicated. Here are five theories.

None of these theories are sufficient by themselves to explain the differences, but together, they provide a more complete picture of this evangelical split.

Note: This analysis makes broad claims without citing sources. These claims are based upon my experiences of being an evangelical most of my life, completing an M.A. and Ph.D. on topics related to evangelicals and politics, and conducting many interviews and attending many conferences with evangelical leaders while working at The Christian Post.

Preface: This Is Typical

Evangelicals not backing the same candidate is not unusual. This happens every presidential election season, yet every presidential election season some media reports suggest divided evangelicals are unusual.

Diverse views among evangelicals sounds strange partly because we often discuss voting patterns in terms of group behavior, with groups parsed along class, race, gender or religious lines; and our tendency is to observe where these patterns are similar rather than where they are different.

When you consider what makes an evangelical, their political diversity makes more sense.

Evangelicals have recognized that they are sinners, repented of that sin and made a conscious decision to follow the living Christ rather than a worldly worldview or their own desires. They believe in the virgin birth, trinitarian God and the resurrection. Scripture is authoritative in their lives and they seek to share their faith with others.

The faith they share is for all of humankind, not just certain types of people. For that reason, evangelicalism cuts across the usual demographic groups.

We can be found in big cities and the country. We're rich and poor. We're all race and ethnic groups. Some of us fit the stereotype of having grown up attending an evangelical congregation. Former porn stars, pimps, gang bangers and addicts of every vice are also among us.

Given this diversity, is it any wonder we disagree about who would make the best president of the United States? This decision is minuscule in the grand scheme of the main issue motivating evangelical thought and action — God's purpose and plan for the universe and humankind.

To be fair, one of the reasons many have the impression that evangelicals tend to support the same candidates is because evangelicals and candidates themselves often imply this claim. Evangelicals too often assume that their fellow believers should, if they were smart enough and faithful enough, support the same candidates they support.

Hence, evangelicals can be found supporting both Cruz and Rubio, as well as every other candidate in the race, including the Democrats.

A Word About Donald Trump

The phenomenon of evangelicals supporting Donald Trump has, in particular, generated much interest. (See, for instance, Christian Post coverage here, here, here, here and here.) Those evangelicals seem to mostly be prosperity gospel types (also known as heretics) and weak identifiers (those who think of themselves as evangelicals but aren't active in a church), but that is not entirely the explanation. While the topic of evangelical Trump supporters is fascinating, it will not be addressed here.

Theory 1: Old vs. Young

Older evangelicals, more accustomed to the style and substance of the old Christian Right (originally dubbed the "New Christian Right" in 1980), are attracted to Cruz; younger evangelicals, who are sympathetic to many Christian Right policy views but grew up frustrated with the methods and rhetoric of the Christian Right, are attracted to Rubio.

Some of the supporters and endorsements bear this out.

A private meeting of Christian Right leaders met last month to choose a candidate to unite behind. They chose Cruz.

After that meeting, endorsements came from Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, the leading Christian Right organization since the late 1990s, James Dobson, former head of Focus on the Family and the most influential Christian Right leader of the 1990s, and Richard Viguerie, whose direct mail fundraising prowess helped build the Christian Right in the 1980s. Bob Vander Plaats, the most influential Christian Right figure in Iowa, is on Cruz's campaign team, and David Barton, the unofficial pseudo-historian of the Christian Right, coordinates Cruz's super PACs.

On the other side, the head of Rubio's faith outreach is Eric Teetsel, who was once used by The New York Times to shock its readers with the knowledge that there actually are millennials opposed to gay marriage. Rubio also nabbed the endorsement of Tony Saurez, a young pastor well known in the Hispanic evangelical community.

While this "young versus old" theory describes some tendencies, Cruz has some young supporters, and some of Rubio's high profile evangelical endorsers, such as Michael Cromartie and Joni Eareckson Tada, are not young.

Theory 2: Political vs. Pastoral

Evangelical leaders supporting Cruz tend to head political organizations while evangelical leaders supporting Rubio tend to be pastors and theologians.

As mentioned above, many heads, or former heads, of Christian Right political groups have endorsed Cruz.

Before the Iowa caucus, the Rubio campaign announced endorsements from 26 of the state's pastors. His campaign also has announced advisory boards on religious freedom and life issues that include many prominent pastors, such as Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Samuel Rodriguez, Rick Warren, and Ravi Zacharias.

Membership on these boards does not necessarily imply an endorsement. Some pastors are uncomfortable endorsing politicians while others are fine with it. Warren, for instance, stated he is not endorsing while Grudem said he does endorse Rubio. The boards are, however, indicative of the general pastoral/political tendency within the evangelical split over Cruz vs. Rubio.

Theory 3: Immigration

Evangelicals are split on what to do about immigration. This cleavage likely overlaps closely with the Cruz/Rubio evangelical split.

In 2013, the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical groups from the left, right and center of the political spectrum, called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. That legislation, EIT said, should include a path to citizenship for current unauthorized immigrants who meet certain restitutionary requirements. Rubio led that effort in the Senate.

Polling data at the time suggested that the EIT represented a majority of evangelicals (as well as a majority of white evangelicals) in their advocacy. There were, however, a strong minority of evangelicals who opposed Rubio's efforts.

These evangelicals are likely supporting Cruz today. At the time, Cruz supported most of what Rubio supported, but thought current unauthorized immigrants should have a path to legal status rather than citizenship. Today, Cruz has attempted to position himself as a more strident opponent of comprehensive immigration reform.

Contact:, @NappNazworth (Twitter)

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