Recently, Donald Trump turned his guns on Ted Cruz (and by extension, on Marco Rubio) by questioning the authenticity of Cruz’ Evangelical faith. He urged Iowa caucus goers to consider, when they cast their votes, that “not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba” (see video at http://youtu.be/8Xo78F_yKc4 ). On the face of the matter, Trump’s comment was incredibly disrespectful and unmannerly. But just as importantly, it demonstrated his total ignorance (or intentional twisting) of the facts of Cruz’ history and of Evangelical faith itself.
First, Cruz never “came out of Cuba,” having been born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban immigrant father. But the greater ignorance on Trump’s part involves the very conversion experience that makes a person an Evangelical. If Trump considers himself a Presbyterian, it may be because he was born to Presbyterian parents who baptized him as an infant (possible, since he was confirmed at First Presbyterian in Queens, NY). Assuming that basis for his claim, he engages in a series of unfounded leaps of unreason: (1) Cruz father was Cuban, and half of all Cubans are Roman Catholics and roughly 40% are non-religious, therefore (2) there is a 90% chance that Cruz’ father was not an Evangelical and therefore (3) would not have baptized his infant son as an Evangelical. Not only does Trump twist the facts, but he commits a logical error known as the “genetic fallacy”–suggesting that Cruz’ identification as an Evangelical is false because of where he came from.
Trump has already demonstrated that he has no internal knowledge of Evangelical faith on prior occasions, but in this case he completely proves that he has no clue what it means to be an Evangelical. Although some Evangelical churches baptize infants, no one is an Evangelical based on natural birth. Evangelicals believe in a set of religious principles that include the centrality of Jesus Christ and his redeeming death on the Cross, the authority of the Bible, the responsibility of every Christian to evangelize others, and most importantly, the need for every human being to be “born again.” Even people born into Evangelical families become Evangelicals through personal conversion, not natural birth. So, the place of a person’s natural birth is utterly irrelevant. In the cases of Cruz and his father, both have compelling conversion narratives (and subsequent “personal testimonies”) that ring true to Evangelicals, unlike Trump’s hollow asseverations of being an “Evangelical, a Presbyterian,” and a “middle of the road” Christian. The largest Presbyterian body in America, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, is not Evangelical at all, but rather a mainline Protestant denomination like the United Churches of Christ, to which Barack Obama apparently still belongs. (Both denominations, however, do include a few Evangelical congregations.) Very few Evangelicals would consider themselves “middle of the road Christians.”
One more item that should be considered is the burgeoning Evangelical movement in Cuba. While accurate numbers on religious affiliation are hard to obtain in a communist country, Evangelicals now outnumber Catholics at Sunday morning worship in Cuba, showing a much higher degree of fervency. Somewhere between 10 and 20% of the population confesses Evangelical faith, and the percentage is rising rapidly. It is not ridiculous at all to expect new arrivals from Cuba to be Evangelicals, especially since they face considerable opposition from the government, resentment from Catholic neighbors, and greater economic challenges, and are thus more likely to immigrate to the United States.
Everything Donald Trump said about the faith of Ted Cruz is wrong, in terms of both common decency and the facts. And as I alluded earlier, although Marco Rubio identifies as a Catholic, his powerful conversion story also makes perfect sense to Evangelicals. His story of beginning in the Catholic faith, moving into Mormonism, finding Christ in an Evangelical church, and returning to serve God in the Catholic Church rings true to Evangelicals (even if they don’t agree with his decision to return to the Roman Catholic fold).
As for Donald Trump’s confession of Christian identity, it makes no sense at all to Evangelicals. While it is true that a group of Evangelical pastors recently prayed for him, it is the very essence of their faith to pray for people. There isn’t a pastor in the country who wouldn’t gladly “lay hands on him,” including Evangelical Latino pastors. I would be surprised to find out that Ted Cruz has not prayed for him, or that he wouldn’t like to lay hands on (or slightly below) his head. Trump would do better among Evangelicals to confess no faith at all while promising to support their political values. No matter what he says or does, Evangelicals like me should be praying for him, as well as for all the other candidates of both parties.