Ted Cruz’s Remarkable Nod to the Separation of Church and State

Ted Cruz

What Ted Cruz said about church and state during a March 29 town hall is remarkable—and very welcome to me as a secularist.

A student asked Cruz (see CNN’s transcript; hat tip to Craig Biddle):

[H]ow and why does your religion play a part in your political decision-making? Don’t you think it should be more of a moral belief and not something that can interfere with your decision-making when you’re making decisions for all religions in the United States?

In other words, the student asked about Cruz’s stance on the separation of church and state: Should government impose by force the tenets of sectarian doctrine?

Cruz replied:

Listen, with me, as with many people in America, my faith is an integral part of who I am. I’m a Christian, and I’m not embarrassed to say that. I’m not going to hide that and treat it like it’s something you can’t admit publicly and acknowledge. It’s an important part of who you are.

But I also think those in politics have an obligation not to wear their faith on their sleeve. There have been far too many politicians that run around behaving like they’re holier than thou.

And I’ll tell you, my attitude as a voter when some politician stands up and says, I’m running because God told me . . . to run, my reaction as a voter is, great, when God tells me to vote for you, we’ll be on the same page.

And so, listen, I’m not asking you to vote for me because of my personal faith with Jesus Christ. I’m asking you to vote for me because I’ve spent a lifetime fighting to defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, fighting to defend the American free enterprise system, and we need a leader who will stand up every day and protect the rights of everyone, whether they’re Christians or Jews or Muslims or anyone else.

The bill of rights protects all Americans. It protects atheists. That’s the beauty of the bill of rights, is that we have the freedom to seek out God, to worship and to live according to our faith and our conscience, and I think the Constitution and Bill of Rights is a unifying principle that can bring us together across faiths, across races, across ethnicity. And we need to come together behind the unifying principles that built America.

Notably, Cruz specifically mentioned atheists as part of the American fabric whose rights are protected equally by the Bill of Rights. He said that people properly have “the freedom . . . to live according to . . . [their] conscience”—a crucially important idea. And Cruz openly mocked those who claim they have a mandate from God to run for president.

On their own terms, Cruz’s remarks here constitute an endorsement—or at least approach an endorsement—of the separation of church and state as articulated by Thomas Jefferson (among others). They make me, a secularist advocate of free-market capitalism, more comfortable with the possibility of Cruz serving as president. Indeed, as a participant of Colorado’s upcoming Republican convention, I will do what I can to support Cruz over Trump for the nomination, and I will probably vote for Cruz should he win the nomination.

Of course, Cruz’s recent remarks on the issue of church and state do not erase his history of pandering to religious conservatives and even to outright theocrats, nor his history of endorsing faith-based policies in outright contradiction to his recent remarks.

To review briefly: Early in his campaign, Cruz made outreach to evangelical voters the centerpiece of his strategy. Cruz launched his campaign for the presidency at the evangelical Liberty University (which, incidentally, has its own “Center for Creation Studies” that promotes young-earth creationism).

Cruz actively campaigned with Kevin Swanson, who called for the eventual execution of unrepentant homosexuals. Cruz touted the support of Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, who called for the execution of abortion providers. (I detail these facts in “Ted Cruz’s Dangerous Pandering to Theocrats.”) While sharing a stage with Swanson, Cruz said that a nonreligious person is not “fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.” Cruz also actively campaigned with anti-gay bigot Phil Robertson.

In terms of faith-based policy, Cruz endorsed a total ban on abortion—even in cases of rape and incest—and even a ban on certain forms of birth control.

Obviously, although Cruz recently said that people have a right to live according to their conscience, he does not really believe that. If he could, he would impose at least some of the edicts of his religious faith by force of law.

So what are we to make of Cruz’s recent comments that seem to endorse the separation of church and state? Cruz’s shift from focusing his campaign on evangelical voters to explicitly appealing to nonsectarians and even atheists seems to suggest that Cruz’s earlier outreach to evangelicals was at least as much tactical as it was ideological.

What happened to Cruz, put bluntly, is that his strategy of winning with evangelical support blew up in his face. Rather than back him, as Cruz expected, evangelicals flocked to Trump in large numbers. Now that Cruz must play underdog with less evangelical support than he had hoped for, he needs to build up more support among other segments of the Republican Party, particularly those with free-market and “libertarian” views—people who are far more likely to be secularist in outlook.

Unfortunately for Cruz, if he does win the Republican nomination, his previous alliances with theocrats and his faith-based policy positions likely will haunt him and possibly will cost him the election. At some point, more journalists (not to mention PACs) are likely to seriously question Cruz about his alliances with Swanson and Newman, about whether he really wants to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest, about his views on the proper legal status of the copper IUD, about whether he wishes to legally punish women who get abortions or doctors who provide them, and so on.

If Cruz manages to win the Republican nomination as well as the presidency, he will seriously threaten to undermine the right to seek an abortion. Not only will Cruz almost certainly sign any abortion restriction sent to him by (a Republican) Congress, he will almost certainly choose Supreme Court justices comfortable with approving national and state restrictions on abortion. This is especially important given the spread of state restrictions, such as a law passed recently in Indiana that (among other things) forbids women to get an abortion if the fetus has Down syndrome.

Unfortunately for voters, the choice is not between Cruz (if he wins the nomination) and an ideal candidate; it is between Cruz and Hillary Clinton (assuming she also wins). As Craig Biddle points out, Cruz is quite good on a number of issues as judged from a secular capitalist perspective, especially the right to freedom of speech. Clinton, by contrast, has already promised to nominate Supreme Court justices who will allow censorship of paid political speech.

Given the dismal options this election cycle, I can see how a secular capitalist could support Cruz. But it is unwise to get too caught up in Cruz’s rhetoric—especially given how adept Cruz is at telling people what they want to hear—and to downplay or ignore his serious problems in terms of bringing his faith into his politics.

In any case, I’m thrilled to see Cruz’s recent statement supporting (at least to a substantial degree) the separation of church and state. Even though Cruz is far from consistent on the matter, the fact that he has expressed some support for the principle of separation sets a bar by which secularists can measure Cruz if and when he advances faith-based policies.

April 27 Update: Following is my entire “Ted Cruz and Religion” cycle. Please note that my views about Cruz evolved considerably over time. Although I’m still very concerned about Cruz’s positions on abortion (and related matters) and his alliances with theocratic-leaning conservatives, I’ve also come to appreciate more deeply his many virtues, including his partial endorsement of the principle of separation of church and state. I became active in Republican politics toward the end of 2015, and I came to support Cruz over Donald Trump for the nomination.
· Why I Will Vote for Any Democrat over Ted Cruz
· Voting, Political Activism, and Taking a Stand
· Ted Cruz’s Dangerous Pandering to Theocrats
· Yes, Ted Cruz’s Policies Would Outlaw Some Forms of Birth Control
· Ted Cruz Would Ban Abortion Even for Rape Victims
· Ted Cruz Touts Support of Anti-Gay Bigot Phil Robertson
· Republican Religion Undermines Capitalism
· Ted Cruz’s Remarkable Nod to the Separation of Church and State

· Trump, Cruz, and Freedom of Speech
· Reflections on the Presidential Race after Super Tuesday
· Republican Religion Undermines Capitalism
· Ted Cruz Touts Support of Anti-Gay Bigot Phil Robertson
· Reason and Rights Republicans
· The Needed Political Realignment
· Ted Cruz Would Ban Abortion Even for Rape Victims
· Yes, Ted Cruz’s Policies Would Outlaw Some Forms of Birth Control
· Ted Cruz’s Dangerous Pandering to Theocrats

Image: Jamelle Bouie

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Abortion Fear Is Overstated

I think the abortion fear is overstated. Cruz’ first political ideology is to the originalist view of the constitution and the enumerated role of the federal government. This makes abortion a state, not a federal issue. He said as much last night on Megan Kelly’s townhall—that the voters of the states should decide.

Additionally, it sounds a little like Republican derangement syndrome to suggest that a Republican controlled Congress would pass a federal anti-abortion bill. Abortion is a toxic issue. Only the most ardent supporters of the religious right would think it’s worth the political capital, and self preservation keeps the majority of Republicans away from the issue. Possibly we could see a renewed initiative to ban third trimester abortion (as exists in many states) but it’s such a wedge issue that it’s profoundly stupid political move that would likely be spurned by those in congress who are politically astute.

Politics is about appealing to special interests and Cruz’ attempt to appeal to theocrats should be no surprise. But his personal brand is as a defender of the Constitution, and as such it also makes sense that he would market to those of us who believe liberty means the freedom NOT to believe in Christianity. The Constitution and atheism are not mutually exclusive. While I can’t say I like his preacher like style, Cruz is more committed to governing according to the Constitution than any other candidate. I would like to see America give that governing philosophy a chance.

—Tim Anderson

Separation of Church and State in Context

If you haven’t already I recommend you google and read the correspondence between Jefferson and the Elders of the Danbury Baptist Church, which is the first time Jefferson uses that term “Wall of Separation”. It becomes crystal clear that Jefferson imagined that wall not as one which we do today prevents from people from expressing their faith in the public sphere or even being informed by their faith in how they create law, but to protect the Churches from tyrannical government.

The historical context is ridiculously plain. The major nations of Europe all had “state religions” which citizens by default belonged to and supported regardless of their desire. Among the first to settle here were Pilgrims who fled Europe and religious persecution. This ethos was integral in the early nation and for this reason the freedom to practice a religion without infringement was in the very First Amendment. The framers specifically set out to create a nation where there was no official federal state religion at the same time guaranteeing citizens the right to worship (or not) as they saw fit without any interference from government. That is what Jefferson was assuring the Danbury Baptist Elders of. Today I believe the contemporary understanding of the Establishment Clause is a complete inversion of its actual meaning.

Somehow the very plain black letter law of the 1st Amendment has been twisted from no infringement to complete infringement. The First Amendment did not confine religious faith to the closed doors of Churches or temples or to ones conscience. It put no limits it.

Its not there to put Atheists from being offended. Nor does it restrict the Judeo Christian heritage from being an important foundation for the law, it was simply a recognition of the fact Western Civilization is built on this ethos.

Scholars resort to trying to know what was in the mind of the framers when they wrote the First Amendment. The acid test is how did the nation at the time put these beliefs into practice. Expressions of religious faith were literally everywhere in most if not aspects of public and private life, not because everyone was necessarily devout but because to the greatest extent religious and atheist saw the world and the problem of good and evil in the same way, differing only in what animates the universe.

Whatever one believes of the growing gulf between secular and faith society, there is no foundation whatever to believe the Founders meant the secular to always and everywhere triumph at the expense of the religious.

—Dan Scerpella

Ari Armstrong replies: That people have a right to freedom of speech regarding religion is not in question. However, the purpose of the Wall is not only to keep government off the backs of churches; it is to keep churches from overtaking government. Anyway, the concept of the separation of church and state is broader than the text of the First Amendment. The best discussion I know of is by Onkar Ghate.

Cruz Is No Theocrat

Thanks for this balanced consideration, Ari. I believe Cruz’s earlier positioning has been mischaracterized. Essentially, he was talking churchy to churchy people, an important demographic for his strategy to win the nomination. He was not advocating an evangelical legislative agenda, whatever that might be. It’s revealing that the closest you can come to assigning religion to any Cruz proposal is his strong anti-abortion position. Other than that, people mistakenly got the vapors about Cruz the Theocrat, simply because he knew how to talk faith with the faithful.

Well, as we move into the general election, I suspect he will also know how to talk jobs with the unemployed, and financial reform with opponents of cronyism, etc.

—Shawn Mitchell

Abortion Should Be a State Issue

In a recent town hall, Cruz was asked about abortion, and he said that he was opposed to it in a lot of cases, but he went on to say that the way this issue should be resolved is for Americans to try to convince their friends, their communities, and ultimately their states to go along with their view. He said he believed that Roe v. Wade was a bad judicial decision that was not in keeping with constitutional powers, and he would hope that the Supreme Court would overturn it, not to ban abortion federally, but to return the issue to the states where it belongs.

Pre-Roe, that’s how it was. Different states had different rules about when abortion was allowed, and what procedures were allowed. He said that this way, there would be some states that would allow abortions under some circumstances, and others where it would be restricted more, according to what fits with what they believe are acceptable conditions. This is an endorsement of federalism. It’s what I’ve come to believe is a better way to go with the issue.

As we’ve discovered in the years since Roe, it’s a very divisive issue for us as a country. We’re never going to get complete agreement on it. States should be allowed to decide the issue for themselves. Let the pro-life and pro-abortion advocates battle it out there. It should not be a federal issue, not least because the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to enforce rules on it.

—Mark Miller

Ari Armstrong replies: I agree that Roe was a flawed decision; however, I do think that the federal government properly protects rights broadly as authorized by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. I believe that women do have a right to seek an abortion and that the federal government should intervene to prevent states from violating this right.