Marco Rubio’s Appeal to the Evangelical Mainstream


GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently announced the creation of a campaign advisory board that will focus on religious liberty issues.  It is an impressive group of scholars, activists, theologians, and legal experts.  Though it is doubtful that the members of this committee will play a major role in the Florida Senator’s day-to-day quest for the White House, its makeup tells us a lot about the religious sensibilities of the Rubio campaign.

The advisory board was the brainchild of Eric Teetsel, the Rubio campaign’s director for faith outreach.  Teetsel is a 2006 graduate of evangelical Wheaton College, an architect of the Values & Capitalism project at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, which he describes on his website as a “ ‘call of Christian conscience’ on life, marriage, and religious liberty.”

Teetsel has assembled nothing short of an all-star team of conservative evangelical leaders—men and women who have been outspoken defenders of religious liberty as the GOP understands it.  The roster includes Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Barack Obama’s choice to pray at his inauguration in 2008; Samuel Rodriguez, the most prominent Hispanic evangelical in the country and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Michael McConnell, the Stanford University Law School professor who was considered by George W. Bush as serious Supreme Court nominee in 2005.

Rubio’s board is also religiously diverse, at least as far as the Judeo-Christian tradition goes.  It includes a Jewish Rabbi, several Roman Catholics, and, of course, a large number of Protestant evangelicals.

But it is Teetsel’s choice of evangelicals that speaks volumes.  In addition to Warren and Rodriguez, the board includes Wheaton College theologian Vincent Bacote, the author of a recent book on evangelical political engagement and a strong advocate for the role of Christianity in cultural renewal; Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a prolific writer on matters related to religious freedom and the American founding whose work is respected by liberals and conservatives alike; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian known best for his popularity among young Calvinist evangelicals and his defense of a “complementarian” view of marriage.

These evangelicals not only have respected academic credentials, or have proven to be thoughtful defenders of religious liberty, but they reveal Rubio’s appeal to a rational, sane, and more informed evangelical constituency than the kind of evangelicals that his GOP opponents have chosen to work with in recent months.

For example, Ted Cruz has sought to make inroads among evangelicals through his relationship with Texas Republican activist David Barton, the country’s foremost defender of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Barton’s use of the past to promote his political agenda has been almost universally discredited by historians, including nearly all evangelical historians.  But he has a large following and currently heads a Cruz super-Pac.  He still appears to have the ear of the Princeton and Harvard-educated Senator.

Donald Trump has found his own niche among the evangelical community.  In September 2015 the New York businessman and GOP presidential candidate met and prayed with a group of religious leaders dominated by Pentecostal Christians, many of whom adhere to the prosperity gospel, a brand of evangelicalism that teaches financial blessing will come to all true followers of Jesus Christ.

Granted, few American evangelicals will vote for Marco Rubio because of the make-up of his religious liberty advisory committee, but in assembling this group he has carved out a niche for himself as the candidate of the thoughtful evangelical mainstream.