Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ted Cruz and the Meaning of Freedom

Thanks to my years in media, I've met a lot of famous people, and not just musicians or TV and radio stars.  I've volunteered on several senatorial and presidential campaigns (I know what my conservative friends are thinking-- "bet you only volunteered for Democrats"-- but you're wrong about that).  In fact, over the years, I've met and chatted with politicians from just about every major and minor party.  On the other hand, there are some political figures I've never met, and I really wish I could.  To cite two examples, I've never met Bill Clinton, nor George W. Bush; I'd welcome an opportunity to sit and chat with them, given how influential each has been on the history of the past several decades.

Among the more recent politicians I haven't met is Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  By all accounts, he's quite intelligent, a good debater, well-versed on the issues, and passionate about his beliefs. I'm sure we could have an interesting conversation, even if I doubt we'd agree on much.  Several days ago, Senator Cruz announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for president.  How he announced was interesting:  he made a speech at a well-known Christian college, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  He spoke to an audience comprised of "10,000 cheering evangelical Christian students," and he specifically tailored his speech to that audience, delivering "an overtly Christian message, roaming the stage like a megachurch pastor with a wireless microphone." (It is worth noting that attendance at his speech was not voluntary; he may have gotten an enthusiastic reaction because students agreed with his message, or they may have responded because he is a very entertaining speaker.  But  in either case, they still had to be there.  For more about this, see Politifact, which fact-checked the claim that attendance was mandatory, and found it to be "true."

Throughout Mr. Cruz's speech, he made reference to how "people of faith" felt ignored and unheard by the (presumably secular) Washington establishment; he pledged to be the kind of candidate who would take a strong stand for traditional Christian values.

None of this surprised me:  after all, Mr. Cruz has long appealed to Christian conservatives, and his rhetoric often includes calls to restore religion to a central place in American life.  In fact, during his speech, he asserted that if evangelical Christians would become politically engaged and vote in large numbers, "the promise of America" could be restored:  "It's going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to help make America great again, and I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight..."Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren't voting.  They're staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values."

As a student of politics, and a professor of political communication, I have no problem with Ted Cruz's call for Christian conservatives to become more active. It makes sense for him to target a group he believes he can win.  (Whether he actually can become their preferred candidate is an open question, however.  There are other Republican candidates who are also in good standing with evangelicals, most notably former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.  An ordained Baptist minister, Huckabee is very popular with Christian conservatives.  Further, he does not have the incendiary and polarizing reputation Ted Cruz has.)

But what concerns me as a Jewish person and a political moderate is what Mr. Cruz means when he talks about "freedom."  For Ted Cruz, it's an article of faith (pun intended) that today's America discriminates against conservative Christians, and that President Obama is waging an "assault" on "religious liberty."  I have heard this claim before, from other religious conservative candidates, and I must admit I don't understand it; I find it equally puzzling when my conservative friends claim there is a "war on Christmas."  (I wrote a commentary about the alleged War on Christmas for my local newspaper this past December: As far as I can see, nobody is stopping Ted Cruz from attending the church of his choice, or reading Christian books, or attending Christian movies.  Nobody is telling him he can't teach his kids about Christianity, and yes, he can observe Christmas without fear of arrest.  (Sadly, in some countries, members of minority religions are arrested for trying to worship.  But that is not the case in the United States.)

But what Ted Cruz cannot, and should not, do is advocate for a theocracy.  America is not a "Christian nation," contrary to various online myths.  A majority of Americans are some denomination of Christian, yes, but there is no official church in America, nor did the Founding Fathers want there to be.  I don't think I'd want to live in the country where only one version of religion were promoted-- the Puritans tried that in America's early years, and it did not turn out very well for those who were either not Puritan at all, or not Puritan enough.  I would hate to go back to those bad old days, when government and religion were intertwined.  Such a mixture is rarely good for those of us in the minority.

I guess that's the main reason I would like to talk to Mr. Cruz.  I would want to ask him if he sincerely believes separation of church and state is a bad idea.  I would want to ask him if in his America, those who do not share his interpretation of Christianity (or who are not Christian, or not conservative) would be welcome.  And I would want to ask him what he means when he talks about his respect for the Constitution.  If he respects the Constitution, does he also respect the First Amendment?  As I said, I am fine about his political decision to court evangelical Christians.  But I am not fine about any politician who claims America would be a better country if only one certain set of beliefs (theirs) were followed.  Like it or not, we are a melting pot, home to people of many religions (and some of no religion).  I'd like to see it stay that way.  And I'd like to know why Ted Cruz would not. 

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