Ted Cruz's Christian-Nation Candidacy

In this Jan. 8, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, holds a town hall at Praise Community
In this Jan. 8, 2016, photo, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, holds a town hall at Praise Community Church in Mason City, Iowa. With three weeks to go before Iowa kicks off the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Cruz are generating overwhelming enthusiasm among Republican voters in the state. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is making "religious liberty" a central theme of his presidential campaign at the same time as he promotes a divisive and exclusionary "Christian nation" worldview.

Cruz's campaign strategy is grounded in the belief that his path to the White House depends on energizing and mobilizing millions of evangelical Christians who did not vote in the last election. That's why he is hyping the supposed threat to Christians in the United States and positioning himself as a defender of the faith.

For example, in the epilogue to his father's recent book, Cruz writes, "What we are really seeing is an increasing hostility to religious liberty, and to Christians in particular." And he pledges that on his first day in office he would instruct every federal agency "that the persecution of religious liberty ends today."

Religious Americans are under such threat from intolerant secular humanists, Cruz declared last week, "We're just steps away from the chisels at Arlington coming out to remove crosses and Stars of David from tombstones." That statement is ridiculous on its face, but it matches the intensity of Religious Right leaders' rhetoric about what they say is the impending "criminalization of Christianity" in America.

Cruz held a religious liberty rally at Bob Jones University, which is most famous for its long insistence that it had a right to enjoy federal tax exempt status while enforcing racist, segregationist policies that school leaders said were grounded in their understanding of the Bible. For that principle, Bob Jones fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and lost 8-1). And that's where Ted Cruz chose to hold one of his religious freedom rallies.

It could have been -- and has been -- even worse: Cruz also attended a "religious liberty" event organized by a pastor who has repeatedly demanded that the government execute gay people in the name of God.

Cruz, like many right-wing pundits and candidates, isn't one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially where the "persecution" of Christians is concerned. Cruz promotes the claims of Phillip Monk, a soldier who continues to be portrayed as a martyr to political correctness in the military even though his bogus story of persecution for his anti-gay religious beliefs has been thoroughly debunked.

For all his posturing as a champion of the Constitution and of religious liberty, Cruz, like the Christian-nation advocates who are backing his campaign, is actually undermining core American principles with his campaign rhetoric, which disdains the religious pluralism that is both a reflection of our religious freedom and a defining characteristic of the American ideal.

"If our nation's leaders are elected by unbelievers, is it any wonder that they do not reflect our values?" he asks in his father's book. He said essentially the same thing at a recent campaign stop with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, warning that people of faith have consented to "allow nonbelievers to elect our leaders," leading to the advance of a "secular agenda."

Cruz's derogatory statements about "nonbelievers" suggest not only his contempt for the growing number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, but also his apparent belief that the millions of Christians who voted for Barack Obama somehow don't really count as "believers" - perhaps the same way the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins has argued that gay-affirming Christians don't really deserve religious liberty protections because their religious views are not sufficiently orthodox.

Christian-nation advocates like David Lane, who argues that America has a national mission to advance the Christian faith, and David Barton, who is running a pro-Cruz super PAC, teach that the U.S. was founded by and for Christians. That false history is used to fan resentments against religious pluralism, marriage equality, and other developments some conservatives see as evidence that their country has been taken away from them.

There's an answer, says Cruz. "If the body of Christ arises, if Christians simply show up and vote biblical values, we can restore our nation." By fashioning himself as the candidate of "the body of Christ," Cruz is trying to make it seem that he is the candidate of Christians writ large, when there are millions of American Christians who don't agree with Cruz's take on biblical values or politics.

This kind of rhetoric also sends a clear message to non-Christians that Cruz sees them as some kind of lesser Americans who have no real role in building our shared future. And that's not the only signal he has sent. He has said the U.S. should take in only Christian refugees from the conflict in Syria, but not Muslims. He has repeatedly insisted that an atheist would be unfit to be president, endorsing a de facto religious test for that office that violates the spirit of the Constitution.

The modern-day Religious Right political movement broke into American politics in the late 1970s with rhetoric from televangelists like Jerry Falwell suggesting that you couldn't be a good American if you weren't the right kind of Christian -- and couldn't be a good Christian unless your politics were far-right. It was as divisive and un-American then as it is now. But it might explain why Ted Cruz chose to launch his campaign at Falwell's Liberty University.