Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision to announce his presidential ambitions at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian college, was no accident. It gave the Texas senator an ideal platform to court Christian conservatives — the bedrock of his budding campaign — and to expound on his religious faith.
The school, which was founded in 1971, has become a perch for potential GOP candidates in recent years as they try to curry favor among evangelical voters, an important bloc in the GOP. Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith drew skepticism from some religious Christian conservatives, delivered the school’s 2012 commencement address, in which he praised and defended Christian values. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — who is also eyeing the Oval Office — spoke at Liberty University last year. Republican presidential candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and former congresswoman Michele Bachmann have also delivered remarks at the school.
The Lynchburg, Virginia, school was founded by the controversial late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. His son introduced Cruz, who began his speech by extolling how his troubled family eventually found Christ. He drew the applause of thousands of students, who were required to attend the convocation, by knocking out a veritable checklist of conservative principles and actions he’d take as president: Repeal Obamacare, abolish the IRS, strengthen border security, protect Second Amendment rights, defend the “sanctity of human life,” and protect “the sacrament of marriage.”
He envisioned a bloc of religious voters propelling him to office. “Imagine millions of courageous conservatives all across America, rising up together to say in unison, ‘we demand our liberty.’" He added, “Today roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine, instead, millions of people of faiths all across America coming to polls and voting our values.”
Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said Cruz’s pick of Liberty University clearly demonstrates that he’s making a play for the conservative religious vote. “He’s wise to do this. It’s good optics for Iowa,” she said, referring to the early voting state with a big evangelical voting component. “This has been a long-standing relationship with the religious right. If you want to get that crowd, you need to go to that place.” Requests for comment from Liberty University were not returned.
Of course, Liberty University isn’t without its own controversies.
When Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, the school sued the federal government, arguing the law’s individual and employer mandate violated religious freedom and the law’s requirement that large organizations provide employees insurance could lead to the forced funding of abortion.
Falwell, the school’s founder and an American Baptist preacher, made a series of eyebrow raising remarks, including a suggestion that gay people and abortion-rights supporters were partially to blame for the 9/11 attacks and insisting that Prophet Muhammad was a “terrorist,” a remark that sparked protests around the world.
In 2013, the school issued a new policy allowing guns to be carried on campus by students and visitors with valid licenses. And the school’s strict code of conduct has been scrutinized with rules prohibiting R-rated movies, music with “lewd lyrics,” in addition to prohibiting dancing, drinking and kissing on campus.
As Butler points out, however, in Cruz’s world, many of these issues “are not red flags. It’s a belief structure” and if anything “it’s waving the flag in front of them — the American flag.”
During his speech at the school, Cruz referred several times to how his religion has shaped his views on policy.
“Our rights don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty,” Cruz declared. “And I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”
Overall, Cruz was well-received at the event, where attendance was mandatory. Some students, however, expressed their displeasure with a group showing up with red "Stand with Rand" T-shirts. Others took the to anonymous messaging board YikYak. "I'm here so I won't get fined," one person wrote. "Why are people standing up and cheering?" asked another.