Christian writers are incensed with Sen. Ted Cruz, and argue that the Texas senator is putting politics before his fellow religious brethren.
Cruz was the keynote speaker Wednesday evening at a dinner put on by In Defense of Christians, a group dedicated to raising awareness about persecuted Christians in the Middle East. During his speech, the Texas senator argued that Christians have "no greater ally" than Israel. Soon after, heckling from the crowd cut off his remarks, and an address that started by emphasizing the unity of Christians ended with shouting and disagreement.
"If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you," Cruz told the audience as he walked off the stage.
Much of his pro-Israel conservative base would have had no problem with these comments, so Cruz may not have expected a backlash. But the response among key Christian thinkers and writers was fierce and immediate.
Cruz was accused of ignorance about the dynamics of Middle Eastern Christianity; of suggesting that he would not stand with Christians who didn't agree with his political stance on Israel; even of orchestrating a crass stunt on the backs of persecuted Christians.
"Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that holding the same political views on Israel was more important than the fellowship we share as Christians," Mollie Hemingway, a senior writer at The Federalist, a conservative website, told The Daily Beast. "We shouldn't fight the global persecution of Christians only if the victims share our political views."
Added Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy: "Must overseas Christians pass a political litmus test, even if it further endangers them, to gain American support and sympathy?"
Jeff King, the president of the watchdog group International Christian Concern, said that Cruz was "off-topic and rude" (the crowd was rude too, King added), but mainly did not understand the nuances of the persecuted Christian minority groups he was addressing.
"They can't be pro-Israel where they live, because they will get the snot beaten out of them or worse. If you don't understand the dynamics going in… you've got to question what he was thinking," King said. "He just doesn't understand the reality of Middle Eastern Christians."
Others went so far as to question whether Cruz purposely went to the conference as a stunt, that he was aware of the dynamics and wanted to show that he would support Israel in front of an audience where this would be unpopular.
"He used arguably the most persecuted and powerless minority in the world, Middle Eastern Christians, who are supposed to be his brethren in Christ, as a prop for a self-aggrandizing political stunt," said Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Catholic writer, in The Week.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was particularly scathing, pointing out that Cruz’s “co-religionists are being murdered.”
“[B]y making a statement at *this* event, he basically flipped the bird to people and churches that are dying right now,” he tweeted.
Some conservative websites weighed in in support of Cruz, but may have overstepped in doing so—with two websites implying that the Middle Eastern Christians present at the event were not Christians at all.
Both Breitbart News and Townhall wrote defenses that put the word “Christian” in scare quotes—as if those who heckled Cruz might not appropriately be termed so. Breitbart has since taken down the quotation marks.
Christian writers were mixed on whether Cruz’s remarks could have an enduring political effect.
"There are potential repercussions—particularly if this becomes a trend. To be sure, there is often a stark dichotomy between so-called opinion leaders and rank and file believers. But there's a reason they're called leaders," Daily Caller writer Matt Lewis, who was critical of Cruz’s speech, told the Beast. "The folks who have voiced concern about his actions buy ink by the barrel and paper by the ton, and people turn to them for interpreting events. There is always the potential for this sort of thing to trickle down."
Countered Tooley, "Religious persecution has rarely been major issue in electoral politics.”
Democrats might also seek to capitalize on Cruz’s statement. Michael Wear, a strategist who led White House evangelical outreach during President Obama's first term, said that Republican “voters will be looking for a candidate who can support Israel without demeaning an audience gathered to defend persecuted religious groups, a cause Senator Cruz has now distracted from in order to defend himself.”
Catherine Frazier, a Cruz spokeswoman, told the Beast that the senator will continue to speak out on behalf of religious minorities everywhere, and has made a point of bringing public attention to persecuted Christians in particular.
"He does not agree or stand with those who do not believe that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state," Frazier said. "But that does not change his passion and priority for standing with persecuted Christians across the region and across the world."
In the meantime, however, Cruz’s remarks appear to have at least temporarily shattered Christian solidarity on the issue of persecuted Christian minorities.
“Fighting persecution of Christians is a unifying message among voters, particularly on the right,” Hemingway said. “For better or worse, Cruz's political speech may have broken that unity.”