Rubio’s supporters are the future of evangelicalism. But will they vote?

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Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio reaches out to a supporter at a campaign rally in Raleigh, N.C. (Photo: Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

As the Republican presidential primary approaches its first contest in Iowa on Feb. 1, attempts by two of the top candidates to win over the influential evangelical Christian voting bloc reflect a split in the contemporary evangelical world.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is often spoken of as “the evangelical candidate,” and to some extent that’s true, especially in Iowa. But it’s also an oversimplification that masks both the complexity of evangelicalism and the appeal of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to a younger evangelical generation that is different than the one Cruz has so far appealed to.

Evangelicals play a big role in determining the winner of the Iowa caucuses, a contest that since the 1970s has had an outsize role in winnowing the field of presidential candidates. Almost 60 percent of caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as evangelical or born again. And a good number are supporting Donald Trump, who has run a close second in recent Iowa polling behind Cruz and well ahead of Rubio.

But if you want to know whether an evangelical Christian — in Iowa or beyond — is supporting Cruz or Rubio, ask them one simple question: Is America a Christian nation? Most Cruz supporters would answer yes unequivocally. But if they pause before answering, it probably doesn’t matter what they say after that. You’ve more than likely found a Rubio voter.

Here’s the rub: the kind of evangelical who pauses when asked the “Christian nation” question – the Rubio type – is most likely to be under 45 and less politically active than the Cruz evangelical. These younger evangelicals are also less numerous in Iowa, an agricultural state that loses large numbers of college graduates each year and ranks in the top five of states with the most senior citizens.

The older, more reactive evangelicals in Iowa hear Cruz speaking their language. And they are the ones who were trained to turn out to vote by the George W. Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and before that by Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition in the ’90s, and even before that by Moral Majority movement during the Reagan ’80s.

These Cruz evangelicals view the world much like Jerry Falwell, the founder of Liberty University in Virginia, did. For the late Falwell, politics was a forum in which to wage combat for cultural supremacy. He founded the Moral Majority, a political movement aimed at mobilizing Christians who had been politically and culturally reclusive for much of the 20th century.

The very name of Falwell’s group is now an anachronism, since the conservative Christian worldview is no longer culturally dominant. And for this very reason, Falwell evangelicals are fearful and angry. If America loses its religion, the thinking goes, then hope is lost. “God’s blessing has been on America from the very beginning of this nation, and I believe God isn’t done with America yet,” Cruz said in March when he announced his candidacy at, where else, Liberty University.

The Falwell evangelicals view the growing pluralism and secularism in American culture as something to fight and overturn, and they see politics as a primary way to do that.

Conservative radio host Erick Erickson has described the Falwell wing as “dying,” referring as much to the long-term intellectual, spiritual and political energy of the Falwell evangelicals and groups such as Family Research Council as to demographics. But in the short term, Cruz’s Falwell evangelicals are still more politically active than Rubio’s evangelical demographic.

“That wing of evangelicalism is aging and not replicating itself very well in the younger generation,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “But it still maintains quite a bit of presence now, especially in early state Republican politics.”

Someone like Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is a fitting archetype or symbol for the kind of evangelical that is more likely to lean toward Rubio. Keller is 65 years old but has become a leading thinker and writer representing the generation of conservative evangelicals that grew up watching Falwell’s Moral Majority and didn’t like what it saw.

Keller evangelicals are turned off by Cruz’s insistence on fusing religion and politics in such a way that equates his own campaign for president with a religious revival, as he did last week in Mason City. Cruz asked supporters to pray that God “keep this revival going” and “waken the body of Christ that we might rise up to pull this country back from the abyss.“

Rubio’s faith outreach liaison, Eric Teetsel, took issue with this kind of language. “I have heard advocates for other candidates say, ‘America is in need of revival and my candidate is the one who can bring it. And I say, 'No. That is not where revival comes from,’” Teetsel said.

“A Rubio voter wants cultural redemption too. Every Christian yearns for that. It is a promise of scripture,” Teetsel added. “The key is where does it come from? How does it happen? What is our role? We’re called to be political, but in God’s way.”

So Rubio does have an evangelical constituency, and it could play a role in an extended primary. If Rubio is competing with Cruz or Trump deep into the primary calendar, they will be competing for faith voters in states that lack an already organized Falwell wing and have large numbers of Keller evangelicals who have never seen a primary that mattered in their state. (This constituency could also potentially turn to Jeb Bush if he somehow surged again, and possibly also to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But Christie, Moore told me, “has done the worst job of any candidate of connecting with religious voters of any sort.”)

But even in an extended primary, Rubio will face a challenge mobilizing younger evangelicals to the polls. Much of this generation’s formative experience politically has been to recoil from the way that older evangelicals, in their view, conflated America with the kingdom of God, rather than keeping the two spheres separate. The younger generation of evangelicals wants their faith to inform their politics, but they do not shy away from the fact that America is less religious and that other faiths are more prominent than they were a few decades ago. They see this first of all as the simple reality, but also as an opportunity for the Christian faith in the West to rediscover its sense of vibrancy and originality.

Teetsel described it this way: “We want to focus on liberalism in its truest sense, a place where every American is free to live out their beliefs and values in proximity with those who don’t necessarily share them and respect one another’s differences.”

It’s the opinion of many observers, however, that to even reach a drawn out primary Rubio must finish in the top three in Iowa and then place very high in New Hampshire in order to potentially consolidate those Republican voters who are opposed to Cruz and Trump.

The Rubio campaign hopes to surprise Cruz with their outreach to younger evangelicals in Iowa, a tall order. Teetsel and his wife and young child have moved to Iowa to help the effort. But Rubio has also begun to make overtures to Falwell evangelicals, most explicitly in the form of a 30-second television ad. The ad has all the subtlety of, well, a Cruz appeal.

Thanks in part to a script that makes Rubio sound like he is stringing together a run-on sentence, the ad seems to lack coherence or a central idea. But more than anything, it comes off as if Rubio’s campaign — which has boasted of its prioritization of cable news appearances above organizing on the ground — has realized late in the game that since the spring when Cruz stepped onto an octagonal stage in Lynchburg he was targeting the type of evangelical voter that is most likely to caucus in Iowa.

Even Rubio’s hire of Teetsel, whose background is from among Keller evangelicals, was not announced until just two months ago.

Meanwhile Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz — a fiery traveling evangelist — has been beating a path across Iowa to one evangelical church after another, spreading the gospel of Ted Cruz for much of the past year.

On that matter, by the way, of whether America is a Christian nation, the elder Cruz has left no doubt.

The U.S. Constitution, Rafael Cruz said in 2013, is “a divine revelation from God.”

“Yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation,” he thundered. “The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.“