Many Southern Baptist leaders appear to lean toward backing Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2016 presidential campaign with the first votes just three weeks away.
Because conservative evangelical voters play a particularly important role in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, Southern Baptist leaders are among those pursued by campaigns.
Cruz joined about 300 faith leaders in a behind-closed-doors meeting in Texas at the close of 2015.
Cruz, a member of First Baptist Church of Houston, currently leads in Iowa polls ahead of the first-in-the-nation vote on Feb. 1. Last month, Cruz announced that his pastor, Gregg Matte, endorsed his campaign.
The recent off-the-record meeting in Texas involved many-known conservative Christian leaders, including James Dobson (who previously endorsed Cruz), televangelist John Hagee and activist David Barton.
Southern Baptists in attendance included Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, former Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, National Religious Broadcasters CEO Jerry Johnson and evangelist Voddie Baucham.
“Listened last night to Ted Cruz,” Patterson tweeted about the gathering. “Frankly, the finest presentation I ever heard from a candidate. Great prayer meeting also for America.”
Scott Lamb, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a writer for the Washington Times, attended the Cruz gathering and echoed Patterson’s assessment of it being a spiritual event.
Lamb’s latest book, “Huckabee: The Authorized Biography,” came out in November and looks at the life and work of another Republican presidential hopeful.
Lamb told EthicDaily.com that while there was a political aspect, “one-third of the evening was spent in prayer for our nation” and “one-third of the evening was spent eating good food and talking with friends.”
“In other words, very little separated the event from a typical fellowship meal and fervent prayer meeting at a Baptist church,” he added. “I’ve been to numerous Cruz rallies now. But the Texas meeting was not that.”
One of the key figures involved in the Cruz faith gathering was evangelist James Robison, a former Southern Baptist. Robison moderated the question-and-answer session Cruz held with the faith leaders.
EthicsDaily.com broke the news of a previous behind-closed-doors effort Robison convened between a Republican presidential hopeful and Christian leaders.
In 2010 and 2011, Robison hosted a series of meetings in Texas that included a private session with then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in that cycle and again this time.
Cruz previously announced endorsements from dozens of Baptist pastors, including many in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Among the endorsers are Baptist Convention of Iowa Executive Director Tim Lubinus and Director of Missions for the Jefferson Baptist Association (in Missouri) Chuck Hoskins.
Not all Baptists are on the Cruz bandwagon, however. Some appear to back Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. A Catholic who frequently visits a Southern Baptist church, Rubio is also working to garner support from conservative evangelicals.
Although membership does not necessarily mean endorsement, it includes Rick Warren, Baylor University professor Thomas Kidd, author and theologian Wayne Grudem and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Samuel Rodriguez.
World’s monthly survey of about 100 evangelical leaders shows strong support for Rubio, although Cruz gained in recent months. No other candidate currently garners more than single-digit support.
Bucking the trend of support for Cruz and Rubio among evangelical leaders, First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress cheerleads for Donald Trump. Currently the national frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Trump also leads among evangelical voters with Cruz second.
Lamb, a friend and biographer of Huckabee, offered some thoughts on why the former Southern Baptist pastor continues to struggle to gain much support from Baptists and other conservative evangelicals during this campaign.
Early in his career, Huckabee worked for Robison and assisted the evangelist in leading a large religious-political rally with then-Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Lamb told EthicsDaily.com that Huckabee ran in 2008 when “freshly coming off actual governance in Arkansas,” while “now a lot of folks know him firstly from Fox.” He added that many people do not even know Huckabee used to serve as a pastor before entering elected office.
Lamb argued there are “a lot of other similar candidates” this time, which Huckabee did not face in 2008 (although Huckabee did see competition in that cycle from former Sen. Fred Thompson and then-Sen. Sam Brownback).
He also explained Huckabee continues to face questions about electability and that the Republican Party has shifted since 2008.
Lamb added that he does not think there is “a ‘Baptist trend’ so far” among average Baptists since many people are not really paying close attention to the campaign.
He emphasized, however, that Baptists will continue to vote mostly Republican.
“I don’t think most Baptists have yet awoken to the realization that this is an election year,” Lamb explained. “And, nothing wrong with that. For most citizens, life should be about real life, not politics and campaigns.”
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.