In a room full of evangelical Christian conservative leaders on Monday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz did not hold back in his criticism of President Barack Obama. Cruz blasted the President on foreign policy, focusing in on his strategies against the terrorist group ISIS, labeling Obama an “apologist for radical Islam.” He’d made the incendiary comments before, but this appears to be the first time he’s used the attack line in Iowa. He then went on to suggest that Obama uses similar rationales that terrorists employ to downplay ISIS, slamming Obama for making a reference to the Crusades in explaining the history of religious violence.
Cruz made his remarks to a crowd of about 200 attendees behind closed doors at a Des Moines hotel ballroom, though Starting Line and several reporters were able to hear the entire speech in the hallway outside. The American Renewal Project hosted the day-long event called “Pastors and Pews,” designed to encourage conservative evangelical leaders to mobilize their churchgoers to support candidates of their choosing.
The entire first half of Cruz’s speech focused solely on foreign affairs and Islam, often stressing his belief that America needed to “confront the evil that is radical Islam.” He argued that the 21 hijackers on 9/11 “weren’t a bunch of ticked-off Presbyterians,” and often referred to violence against Christians in the Middle East. When he turned his focus to more domestic affairs, he stuck with a theme of Christian persecution, relating a long story about church leaders getting subpoenas from the government in Texas.
In a brief Q&A session from the audience afterwards that asked him about gay marriage and Israel, Cruz decried what he saw as a “unrelenting assault on traditional marriage.” He said he worried about what the Supreme Court would do with their upcoming decision on gay marriage rights. He appeared to be auditioning for the most bombastic of the likely Republican candidates, commenting on marriage equality progress by saying, “the forces of darkness is advancing.”
“I believe our country is in crisis,” Cruz explained in an interview with press following his speech. He said that instead of focus on changing minds in the Senate, he’s been committed to doing “everything I can do to energize and mobilize an army of pastors, of small business owners, of young people, of women, of Americans passionate about reigniting the miracle of America.” In terms of his own ability to win over the evangelical crowd, Cruz praised Huckabee’s comments against gay marriage, but noted “it was disappointing, the relative silence of other potential candidates in the field.”
Progressive Faith Leaders Respond
At a later press conference hosted by Interfaith Alliance, leaders of a number of Iowa churches and synagogues pushed back against the purpose of the American Renewal Project event. Connie Ryan Terrell, the executive director of Interfaith, criticized the policy path that American Renewal takes. “That path is extreme, and divisive, and it does not include the beliefs of most Iowans,” Terrell said. “Across our state we see Iowans expressing and living out their faith in a way that lifts up our neighbors. We see Iowans advocating for the rights of women, workers, people of all races and sexual orientation.” She praised people of faith’s volunteer work for the needy and work on policy issues like raising the minimum wage.
Reverend David Sickelka, the senior minister at Urbandale United Church of Christ, remarked that “the American Renewal Program seeks to reset the course of our democracy. The project seeks to recruit and give support to evangelical Christians in order to legislate an agenda that they are confident is Christian, but that most in my congregation would not recognize as anything remotely resembling the way of Christ.” Sickelka warned that the group tries to roll back equality rights, force “creationist pseudo-science” on public schools, and damage public education in general by diverting money to private schools.
Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank also spoke on his concerns that the evangelical organization advocates policies that “lack inclusiveness, a sense of fairness, and love for one’s fellow.” Edelman-Blank also pointed out the “great ability that I see that they have to ignore who else is in the room, no matter what other room it is and speak in those terms as if there’s only one perspective.”
Terrell particularly disputed portions of Cruz’s speech when described. “We would not agree that Christians are being persecuted,” Terrell said. “People who are Christian are the majority in our country and their rights are well-protected.” Still, she noted the effectiveness groups like American Renewal has had in garnering press coverage. “It’s easy for the media to grab onto because it’s extreme. It’s exciting to write about, it makes a good headline.” Interfaith Alliance plans on continuing to put out a different message on faith issues and progressive policies throughout the caucus season in the hopes of counteracting such organizations.
by Pat Rynard