WASHINGTON—Major evangelical leaders are disputing an emerging media narrative that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has wrapped up their support for president.
The pushback comes in the wake of a December National Review report that detailed almost two years of secret meetings designed to coalesce conservative leaders around a single Republican candidate. After five ballots, 75 percent of the group voted to endorse Cruz—which they agreed to do one at a time to “help create a perception that the conservative movement was uniting behind a candidate organically.”
While the article described evangelicals as only part of the group—citing Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins—a spate of subsequent news reports, including a widely circulated Washington Post article, used it as evidence that all evangelical leaders were coalescing around Cruz. But several prominent evangelicals said that’s not true.
“It would be presumptuous, inaccurate, and premature to allocate the evangelical vote squarely in the corner of any one candidate, including Sen. Ted Cruz,” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the world’s largest coalition of Hispanic Christians, representing some 40,000 U.S. churches.
National Review reported that Perkins—who declined to comment for this article—led the group in question, but the actual moderator was former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (see WORLD’s profile of Cuccinelli from 2011). Cuccinelli is a Roman Catholic and president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a grassroots organization dedicated to electing conservatives to the U.S. Senate. Cruz is the group’s biggest fund-raiser and helped bring in a record haul in 2013 when he led a government shutdown over Obamacare.
The known members of the Cuccinelli group could be more accurately described as social conservatives sympathetic to the tea party movement, rather than evangelicals. Many fall into the so-called “Teavangelical” category, which Cruz has dominated in gaining support, but others do not align with the far right. “There is no single person or group that speaks for all evangelicals,” pastor and author Rick Warren told me.
Warren is one of the many influential evangelicals who will not endorse a candidate because they do not see it as part of their role as Christian leaders. Still, some have found ways to align with a candidate without endorsing one. Warren, Rodriguez, theologian Wayne Grudem, and Cedarville University President Thomas White are all part of Sen. Marco Rubio’s new religious liberty advisory board—a position that does not require them to endorse the senator from Florida. Although Grudem told WORLD’s Jamie Dean he would endorse Rubio if the campaign asked him.
Two weeks after the National Review report, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, co-authored with Rubio a Christmas Eve op-ed in The Washington Post on persecuted Christians. That’s as close to an endorsement as any candidate is going to get from Moore, who was not invited to join the Cuccinelli group, even though he represents the country’s 15.8 million Southern Baptists. Moore confirmed to me that he will not endorse a candidate in either the primaries or the general election.
Rodriguez, who also was not part of the Cuccinelli group, said some NHCLC pastors support Cruz but more favor former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Rubio. Rodriguez said he will not personally endorse a candidate until summer.
Jim Daly, the current president of Focus on the Family, promoted the same wait-and-see approach in a blog post shortly after Dobson’s endorsement. Daly didn’t mention Dobson by name, but he left no doubt about his disagreement: “It’s premature to coalesce behind a single candidate (as some evangelical leaders have recently done). … Negotiating for a consensus candidate behind closed doors, given the depth of the current field, does a disservice to the broader faith community.”
California pastor Jim Garlow, one of the country’s most politically outspoken megachurch pastors, told me he supports the Cuccinelli group’s goals but thinks it picked the wrong candidate. On Dec. 28 Garlow went public with his support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whom he chose over Cruz and Rubio because Huckabee is the only candidate who has vowed to “defy” the U.S. Supreme Court’s “anti-constitutional opinions.”
For other evangelical leaders, Cruz’s stance on immigration explains some of their coolness toward him. Last month Cruz vowed never to support legalization of any kind for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants—a position that endears him to some Donald Trump supporters while alienating some evangelicals.
Daly, Moore, and Rodriguez are all part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a large coalition of evangelical leaders that has lobbied Congress hard for comprehensive immigration reform. One of the group’s six core principles is a path to legal status and/or citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Rodriguez said he doesn’t support amnesty and wants Cruz to “continue to push for border security and stopping illegal immigration,” but added he wants “the Sen. Ted Cruz of a few years ago that supported a pathway to legalization.”
Last year LifeWay Research found 68 percent of born-again evangelicals support immigration reform that includes both border security and a pathway to citizenship—only 16 percent were opposed. Fifty percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who backs both policies.
WORLD’s monthly evangelical insiders survey, which includes traditional leaders and others who wield influence, has found Rubio the favorite for six straight months. Cruz is a strong second and has gained ground the last two months.
One of the problems in accurate reporting is defining “evangelical.” Some surveys suggest that 40 percent of Americans are in that category, but those that dig deeper into beliefs and church attendance say 6 percent is a more realistic figure.