The Tuesday night before this past Thanksgiving, at a dinner in a small ballroom at the Holiday Inn at the airport in Des Moines, one of the 50 or so pastors who had come to listen to Marco Rubio stood up to ask him a question. Kenney Linhart, the broad-built boss of a nearby church called The Kathedral, had read about the complicated religious history of the Florida senator and Republican presidential hopeful. He needed a straight answer.
“You’re in a room full of Christians,” Linhart said, wrapping his hand around the hand of the man holding the microphone, “so you mentioned God, and you mentioned the king of kings, but tell us about your experience with the Lord Jesus Christ, using that name.”
“Yes, sir,” said Rubio, dressed in a dark suit and a blue tie, standing behind an unfussy hotel lectern.
Rubio has perhaps the most unusual personal religious story of anyone on the campaign trail. Given the audience, this might have been an opportunity for evasion, or to cherrypick parts of his “faith journey” that would appeal most to evangelicals. Instead, Rubio launched into a virtuoso, 10-minute-long, let-me-at-it telling of his circuitous faith—Catholicism to Mormonism back to Catholicism to a Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated evangelical megachurch and finally back to Catholicism—as well as passionate and particular evidence of the depth of his knowledge of the Bible. “Now I sound like the preacher,” a smiling Rubio said toward the end.
His answer was a big deal. It was watched, shared and talked about in churches around Iowa and among pastors around the country, and Linhart, who had supported Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal before that candidacy withered, heard what he needed to hear. He is now backing Rubio. “I make it clear to my congregation: ‘I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but this is who I’m supporting,’” he said later when we talked on the phone.
For the staunchly Protestant evangelicals, though, who form a core component of the Iowa primary electorate, that answer also contained a poison pill. “I’m fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church,” Rubio had said—and for people like Joe Brown, the influential leader of the Marion Avenue Baptist Church in rural Washington in the southeastern part of the state, that no-wiggle-room declaration was a deal-breaker. “Most pastors and evangelicals do not believe you can be a Catholic and be an evangelical at the same time,” Brown told me. He is energetic in his support for Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Rubio rival.
The main knock on Rubio as a candidate is his slipperiness on issues like immigration. And when he talks in speeches, debates and town halls, he can come off polished to the point of rehearsed. His religion is an exception. When he talks about his faith, he sounds off-the-cuff sincere. Rubio pitches himself, too, as the most 21st-centurycandidate, and he means generationally (he is only 44) and demographically (the child of two Cuban immigrants, he would be the first Hispanic president)—but with Americans increasingly moving from church to church, blurring long-drawn lines between denominations, the single-most 21st-century thing about him might be his religious path.
And yet in national polls, and in polls in Iowa, Rubio trails not only Cruz, the doctrinaire son of a Baptist pastor, but Donald Trump, the twice-divorced former casino tycoon who has said he doesn’t ask for forgiveness for his sins and who totes a Bible as a prop.
The problem here in Iowa, if it is a problem, with the kick-off caucuses a week and a half away, is not so much that Rubio is pandering for the votes of evangelicals. Or that he’s insufficiently authentic on this front. It’s that he’s entirely authentic. And it isn’t that he hasn’t “picked” a religion and stuck with it. For some, it’s that he has—and that he “picked” wrong. In this state that skews conservative, white and old, the question is paramount, but it’s no less crucial across the rest of the country, where politics and religion combine in shifting, consequential ways.
Rubio, who has never lost an election, is manifestly ambitious, a baby-faced, step-skipping climber ever since he got on the city commission of the tiny municipality of West Miami when he was 26 years old. His religious life, on the other hand, stands apart. He has been a seeker and a searcher. He has struggled always, he has said, to balance what he wants in this life with what he wants from the next. But Rubio wants to be saved more than he wants to be president. And the former could cost him the latter.
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