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Faith issues take back seat at Republican presidential debates
Ramaswamy makes appeals to Christian conservatives despite his Hinduism
Although evangelical Christians are one of the key bases of the Republican Party, you’d never know it from watching yesterday’s debate featuring the seven major candidates seeking to wrest their party’s presidential nomination from Donald Trump. In contrast with their first debate, held last month in Wisconsin, candidates barely invoked the name of God and spent little time discussing abortion, the issue that during most of this century has been key to getting out the evangelical vote.
Faith issues not only weren’t at center stage, they barely made the stage (unless you count immigration, which is important as a moral issue to many liberal Christians, a constituency that these candidates aren’t courting).
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But if the two debates are considered as a unit, faith issues, while not prominent, did play a background role: Several candidates pointed or alluded to the nation being founded on Judeo-Christian values, and none said anything likely to alienate the evangelical voting bloc. Here are six takeaways from the two debates relating to faith issues:
Ramaswamy is quickest to point to his faith
Ironically, the first candidate in the first debate to mention God was entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — who is a practicing Hindu.
In the debate, as when he campaigns in person, Ramaswamy didn’t explicitly mention his Hinduism. But he did mention God. Introducing himself in his first debate, he pointed out that he and his wife are following the American dream by “raising our two sons, following our faith in God.” And in his closing remarks, he stated flatly that “God is real,” just as he often does in his campaign appearances.
Despite his Hinduism, Ramaswamy seems to delight in showing that he is familiar with the language of Christianity. That shouldn’t be surprising: He attended a Catholic high school and has studied the Bible.
Pence has given the most explicit description of his faith
Former Vice President Mike Pence was the first candidate to quote directly from the Bible and so far is the only one to refer to Jesus by name.
He did both in the first debate by explaining how he became a foe of abortion: “After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I opened up the Book and I read, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and see, I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life.’ And I knew from that moment on the cause of life had to be my cause.” (His quote combined Jeremiah 1:5 and Deuteronomy 30:19.)
Scott quotes the Bible too
Sen. Tim Scott is the other candidate who has explicitly mentioned his Christian faith as being a primary motive for his political activism. “Well, our nation was founded upon the Judeo-Christian values that has made this greatest nation on God’s green earth,” he said in the first debate. “I’m a big believer in Ephesians 3:20 that God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we ask or imagine. Our responsibility should be to model the behavior we want others to follow.”
3 candidates bring up gender issues
Although candidates have not been asked about gender issues, which are important to many conservative evangelical voters, three of them have brought up such issues on their own accord, with Ramaswamy taking the strongest position.
“I have to be very clear about this transgenderism, especially in kids is a mental health disorder. We have to acknowledge the truth of that for what it is,” he said in the second debate. And later: “And I’m sorry, it is not compassionate, to affirm a kid’s confusion. That is not compassion. That is cruelty. I met two young women Chloe and Katie early in this campaign, who are in their 20s, now regret getting double mastectomies and a hysterectomy. One of them will never have children. And the fact that we allowed that to happen in this country is barbaric. So I will ban genital mutilation or chemical castration ...,” he said before being interrupted.
Pence adopted a similar view: “We’re going to stand up for the rights of parents, and we’re going to pass a federal ban on transgender chemical or surgical surgery anywhere in the country. We’ve got to protect our kids from this radical gender ideology agenda.”
DeSantis used a question about student loan forgiveness to pivot to his opposition to college-level gender-studies departments.
Candidates stand by abortion opposition
Despite differing on specifics and in some cases acknowledging that it may not be a strong issue for Republicans, all candidates asked about abortion have maintained their opposition.
“I am unapologetically pro-life,” said former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley in the first debate, although she received some pushback from Pence for stating that a federal abortion ban was unlikely to happen.
“I believe in a culture of life,” said Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis in the first debate. In the second debate, he used the issue to attack Democrats: “I think we should hold the Democrats accountable for their extremism, supporting abortion all the way up until the moment of birth. That is infanticide and that is wrong.”
Former N.J. Gov. Chris Christie in the second debate pointed to his 14 vetoes of state funding for Planned Parenthood. “The Democrats just kept sending it to me, and I kept saying no because I believe in life,” he said while defending his view that abortion should be a state issue rather than fought at the federal level.
Official faith-related initiatives get little mention
President George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and the three subsequent presidents, of both major political parties, have organized similar offices. These efforts have not been mentioned by candidates in the debates, although last night Ramaswamy said he supports “faith-based approaches that restore purpose and meaning in the next generation of Americans.”