Cruz: Religious liberty not just for Christians – for atheists, too

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) afternoon general session in Washington March 21, 2016. | REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said during a town hall meeting in Madison, Wisc., earlier this week that the religious liberty guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment to the Constitution is for everyone – including atheists.

Cruz was being interviewed by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly when he made the statement, the night before Tuesday's must-win primary for the candidate. Cruz soundly defeated Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in what he called a "turning point" in his campaign.

In a discussion on the Bill of Rights and his concern that personal freedom is waning in the United States, Cruz said he had been questioned at previous town halls by atheists.

"I've done town halls where someone will stand up and say, 'Well, I'm an atheist. Why should I support you?' And you know what? The First Amendment – religious liberty – it's the very first liberty protected in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, it applies to everybody."

Kelly then interrupted and said an atheist would object to participating in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or even watching it because it mentions God. They might also object to a prayer at a school ceremony.

The Bill of Rights protects all Americans. ... That's the beauty of the Bill of Rights. ... 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.

Cruz responded by claiming the Constitution "doesn't give [atheists] a heckler's veto."

"No one forces you to participate in anything. You have the right not to participate, but you don't have the right to silence everybody else," Cruz said to the crowd's roaring applause.

"The First Amendment protects the religious liberty of Christians, Jews, of Muslims, of atheists, every one of us. We have a right to seek out God, to live according to our own faith and conscience. If it's a religious faith you have a right to live according to that. If it's atheism you have a right to live according to that."

Cruz said that view of religious liberty is the tolerant view, but not many will find tolerance on the political Left.

"There is nothing so intolerant as a Leftist who says, 'Don't you dare say 'Jesus' around me. I will not tolerate the name of Jesus.' You know what? Live and let live and recognize that Americans can chose to follow our own paths."

In spite of Cruz's overtly constitutional description of religious liberty, his detractors claim his plan if elected is to suppress all other religions except Christianity. Some cite his recently formed religious liberty advisory council composed of prominent Christians. Others have claimed he is a "dominionist Christian," and plenty of his opponents have spilled ink explaining what that means.

A brief Google search of the phrase "Ted Cruz dominionist Christian" yields nearly 52,000 results. None of the publications, however, actually quote Cruz's views on the First Amendment. Instead, they cite the words of his father, a charismatic pastor associated with the Pentecostal group, Purifying Fire Ministries, founded by the wife of Benny Hinn. Cruz and his family are members of Houston's First Baptist Church and his pastor Gregg Matte has personally endorsed him.

According to John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College whose early February editorial tied Cruz to his father's ministry and which nearly all others cite, "Dominionism" is the idea that Christians will eventually take control of the government in order to return America to its Puritan roots.

"Cruz wants Americans to believe the country has fallen away from its spiritual founding and he, with God's help, is the man who can bring it back," Fea wrote in the op-ed, later reprinted in the Washington Post. "Cruz's campaign may be less about the White House and more about the white horses that will usher in the God's Kingdom in the New Testament book of Revelation, Chapter 19."

In particular, Fea charges that Cruz has adopted a version of the theology called "Seven Mountains Dominionism" – which claims the media, business, arts and entertainment, education, family, religion and government will all fall under the control of Christians as they prepare for Christ's return to earth.

Fea acknowledges that Cruz has never spoken openly in dominionist terms, but claims he also has not publicly repudiated his father's views. That argument – the failure to criticize his father – is used repeatedly as evidence that he holds the same views and considers himself a type of Messiah.

Is Cruz a believer in Dominionism? He is not, according to recent expose in Christianity Today, which claims the term and the theology behind it is a relatively late development. It was described in the later 1980s, long after Cruz had joined Clay Road Baptist Church as a child.

That doesn't mean a Baptist cannot hold dominionist theology, but in the article Robert Gagnon and Edith M. Humphrey, both of whom are professors of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, dismantle the notion that Cruz wants to oppress others.

Both claim that, while Cruz is not shy about his faith, articles critical of his views on religious liberty have only focused on his father's words. No writers, they claim, have actually talked to Ted Cruz or examined his words.

Gagnon and Humphrey then present Cruz's views on religious liberty – chief among them that religious liberty is meant for all:

"As a teenager he joined the Constitutional Corroborators, traveling throughout Texas reciting from memory the text of the Constitution up through the Bill of Rights. He was taught law at Princeton by Robert George, and at Harvard Law School by Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz, who is Jewish, observed that he was 'one of the brightest students we ever had.' Cruz, with his formidable knowledge of the Constitution, is a passionate proponent for a republican form of government with checks and balances, accessible to all."

Gagnon, who is Presbyterian, and Humphrey, who is Eastern Orthodox, then claim Cruz has evidenced this during his campaign. When Ben Carson said he did not believe a Muslim should ever be elected president, Cruz disagreed. He said he was a "constitutionalist" and the Constitution rejects the idea of a "religious test" for office.

Gagnon and Humphrey also point to his pledge to defend the Bill of Rights for everyone "whether they're Christians or Jews or Muslims or anyone else."

"The Bill of Rights protects all Americans. ... That's the beauty of the Bill of Rights. ... 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," Cruz said during a Milwaukee town hall.

At the conclusion of the article, Gagnon and Humphrey reject the use of "guilt by association" tactics and argue that Cruz's religious views would not receive attention is they were attached to the progressive policies of the opposing political party. The authors conclude Cruz is "committed not to a theocratic state, but to Judeo-Christian values that benefit all of American, and affirms the right of Jews Christians, and Muslims to act consistently with their beliefs."