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

(Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)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.

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.

(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)Republican U.S. presidential candidates and U.S. Senators Ted Cruz (L) and Marco Rubio shake hands and talk at the end of the debate held by Fox News for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates in Des Moines, Iowa January 28, 2015.

Theory 4: Restoration vs. Reformation

Cruz evangelicals seek to restore an imagined past while Rubio evangelicals seek a reformed never-seen-before future.

This difference is even in their campaign slogans:

Cruz: Reigniting the Promise of America

Rubio: A New American Century

The first point to notice about these differences is that non-white evangelicals should relate more to Rubio's approach. When your ancestors were enslaved, discriminated against in employment and housing, or denied access to the voting booth, returning to America's past sounds unappealing.

(This is not to say that Cruz supporters are racist. If you're racist, you're probably supporting Trump.)

Cruz, on the other hand, is more consistent with the themes heard often by most conservative white evangelicals. These evangelicals also comprise a large voting bloc in Republican nominating contests.

These differences can also be found in their campaign strategies and the arguments they make to voters. Cruz says he can win the general election by getting Christian voters who didn't vote in previous elections to the polls. Rubio, on the other hand, says he can win by bringing new voters who aren't traditionally Republican to the polls. The difference, in short, is between mobilizing non-voters and mobilizing former Democrats.

Theory 5: Religious Accommodation vs. Religious Acknowledgment

In The Divided States of America (2007), Dr. Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and executive editor of The Christian Post, describes three views of church-state separation: avoidance, acknowledgment and accommodation.

The avoidance position says all forms of religious expression should be banned from government property. The acknowledgement position says America's Christian heritage should be given a privileged position on government property. And the accommodation position says all religious groups should have the same access to government property; government property can provide space for religious displays but the displays are paid for by the religious groups. Land supports the accommodation position.

Cruz evangelicals tend to be acknowledgmentists while Rubio evangelicals tend to be accomodationists. David Barton and James Dobson are among the leading proponents of the acknowledgment view.

Jerry Falwell Evangelicals vs. Billy Graham Evangelicals?

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, generated some consternation among Cruz supporters last month for his description of the differences between the evangelical supporters of the top three candidates. In an interview with Roll Call, he said, Cruz leads the "Jerry Falwell wing" while Rubio leads the "Billy Graham wing" and Trump leads the "Jimmy Swaggart wing."

The description is fairly close, if one just needs a shorthand understanding of the differences between Cruz, Rubio and Trump's evangelicals supporters. It can be improved, however.

In reality, Graham's influence on the evangelical movement is so deep and wide that every evangelical today is, in a sense, a "Billy Graham evangelical." Also, Falwell's influence peaked in the 1980s and the Christian Right has changed much since he was its standard bearer.

Rather than saying Cruz leads the "Jerry Falwell wing" and Rubio leads the "Billy Graham wing," a better description is that Cruz leads the "Tony Perkins wing" and Rubio leads the "Russell Moore wing."

As mentioned above, Perkins endorsed Cruz, plus he's a political (rather than pastoral) leader more aligned with the restoration and acknowledgment views.

Though the alignment isn't perfect, Rubio's language and approach to politics is more attuned to Moore's vision of evangelical political engagement. While Moore can be considered a political leader, as head of the Southern Baptist's public policy arm, he has also been a pastor and theology professor. Plus, they co-authored a Washington Post op-ed.

Of course, don't expect Moore to put it this way. Russell Moore is too close to Russell Moore to recognize a Russell Moore evangelical. Plus, it would sound too much like an endorsement, something Moore will not do.

Bonus: The Quick and Easy Way to Tell a Rubio Supporter

If you hear an evangelical that uses the word "winsome" a lot to describe how Christians should behave in the public square, they're probably a Rubio supporter. They love that word.

Sometimes they'll even use that word to describe their favorite candidate.

For example:

Wayne Grudem: "Rubio is a winsome, likable candidate who has the best chance of soundly defeating Hillary Clinton."

Eric Teetsel: "Marco's winsome message and vision for a new American century appeals to citizens from across the political spectrum."

Two Important Caveats

1) None of these theories alone are sufficient. Exceptions can be found to all of them. Taken together, however, they provide a robust understanding of the differences between Cruz and Rubio evangelicals.

2) Evangelicals supporting Cruz and evangelicals supporting Rubio agree more than they disagree. These theories highlight differences because those differences are important when choosing a Republican presidential nominee. But on the big questions that split Republicans and Democrats, these evangelicals will more often unite than divide.

Contact:, @NappNazworth (Twitter)