Ted Cruz setting himself on fire at the GOP convention is a good example of how things are not always what they seem. The Wuss Right cheered because they hoped it would hurt Trump. They never cared for Cruz, which is why they refused to back him until the last days of the primary. Even those who were willing to back Cruz early on were muted in their enthusiasm. Once there was nothing to lose and he was throwing one last rock at Trump, they could let loose with full-throated cheers for Lion Ted.
The Wuss Right’s reticence with regards to Cruz is not all wrong. Cruz is a weasel, who can’t be trusted. He proved that the other night. He’s also revealed himself to be a fanatic, fully capable of stepping on a rake that he laid in front of his own path. Cruz seems to believe the things Glenn Beck says about him. He imagines himself as the throne half of the team, while Beck imagines himself representing the altar side of their thing. Their thing is a strange movement that blends evangelical Christianity, Mormonism and evangelical Constitutionalism.
Conservatives tend to define themselves as people who are faithful to the spirit of the law, as well as the letter. When it comes to the Constitution, the Right typically takes a narrow view. If it is not explicitly in the document, then it is assumed to not be in the document. This is in line with the traditional negative liberty that is the bedrock of the American system of governance. The state only has powers specifically granted to it. Put another way, the state must get permission from the citizens to act.
Listen to a Ted Cruz speech and he talks about the Constitution in the same way preachers talk about Scripture. You either read the document as the literal word of God or you are a sinner. An America that is not organized around the literal reading of the original document is failing in its duty to God. Similarly, liberty is a stand-in for salvation. One is either in a state of liberty or outside the light of the Founders. When a guy like Ted Cruz talks of religious liberty, it clearly means more than just being left to worship as you please. It’s liberty as a religion.
The irony of this evangelical constitutionalism is that it was Evangelicals who ushered in the whole “living constitution” stuff. The Christian reformers of the 19th century badgered the courts to accept a more expansive role in law making. This always meant chipping away at property rights in order to eradicate immorality from national life. The Abolitionist Movement was, after all, an attack on property rights. Slaves were property and freeing slaves is, legally speaking, no different than “freeing” someone’s car or their cash.
Treating the founding documents as holy texts and the Founders as messengers of God seems like a natural evolution of Evangelical politics. In the 70’s and 80’s, Christian conservatives got involved in politics and ended up as a reliable Republican constituency. This traditional approach to politics got them nothing but disappointment as the liberals steamrolled conservatives in Washington on social issues. Strategy shifted to backing coreligionists, thinking that would result in more reliable politicians. Eight years of George Bush disabused most Christians of that belief.
Holding up a holy text as something more than words on a page is to expected. Religions only work when the rules are set forth by an authority higher than man. Otherwise, it’s just coercion. Deifying the Constitution the way we see with guys like Cruz and Beck, inevitably deifies the men who wrote it. It also assumes a transcendence that the writers never imagined. The men who wrote the Constitution fully understood that it was a grab-bag of compromises that were necessary in order to organize thirteen nations into a single country.
Just as important, the men who founded the country relied upon the work of others to form their opinions and debate how to best organize the newly independent country. Jefferson, for example, borrowed heavily from The Declaration of Rights with which Parliament asserted its rights against the King in the Glorious Revolution. Imbuing the Constitution with sacred authority inevitably turns the writers into something they were not and strips them of their humanity. The Founders were just men, but they were still men.
That’s what makes the Cruz speech and his refusal to back Trump interesting. The Wuss Right, filled with hatred for the rise of Trump and his nationalist backers, cheered Cruz as the heir to Reagan. The Cruz people, however, are not looking for Reagan. They tried that and got nowhere. They saw the Cruz speech and saw their savior, a man in the line of the Founders, sent by God to bring his people back into the light of the Constitution. It’s why his followers are sure God will punish America for rejecting their man.
Ted Cruz says he will run in 2020 no matter what happens in 2016. It remains to be seen whether this movement he is leading has legs. These things often fizzle out. With high profile people like Glenn Beck and Erick Erickson signing on and preaching from their Internet pulpits every day, it’s probably going to be with us for a while. Ted Cruz is the leader of the political version of the Westboro Baptist Church now. The founding documents are holy scripture and the leaders are men of God, sent by God.