God and the GOP: Religion pervades Republican debate

WASHINGTON -- On this particular debate stage, God's presence was never in doubt.

Republican presidential candidates offered stirring professions of faith during their final debate before the election season begins Monday.

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It was an example of the role religion plays in U.S. politics -- particularly in a Republican nomination contest, and especially in the first-voting state: in Iowa, evangelical and born-again Christians comprised almost 60 per cent of the party's caucus-goers last time, and their votes will likely be critical in anointing next Monday's winner.

Marco Rubio addressed them at length.

Three times during Thursday's prime-time debate, the senator steered the conversation to his spiritual beliefs. The first was when a moderator brought up a Time magazine piece that called him the Republican party's saviour.

"Let me be clear about one thing: there's only one saviour and it's not me," Rubio replied.

"It's Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins."

During a debate about ethanol fuel, two other candidates referred to the Lord having blessed the United States with an abundance of natural resources. In his closing statements, Rubio quoted Matthew 5:16.

And he interjected during a discussion about same-sex marriage to promise that faith would guide his actions as president, and to proclaim America the world's most generous country because of its religious values.

"If you do not understand that our Judeo-Christian values are one of the reasons why America is such a special country, you don't understand our history," he said.

The greater place of religion in U.S. politics reflects the broader society, with 19 per cent higher monthly attendance of religious services in the U.S. than in Canada in 2012, according to Pew.

In this election, it will be especially interesting to see where religious voters turn.

Evangelicals' history of strong turnout on Iowa caucus day is one reason some pundits believe Ted Cruz -- the scripture-quoting pastor's son -- might have the inside edge, despite polls putting him a few points behind the casino-owning, beauty-pageant-running, thrice-married billionaire Donald Trump.

Among Iowa evangelicals, Cruz led Trump by 12 percentage points, according to a Quinnipiac poll this week. And in a contest with a turnout rate of less than 20 per cent, their track record of showing up could make the difference.

Trump has countered by snapping up the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr. -- who explained that he wasn't picking the most religious candidate, just the most competent possible president.

He's not alone: Pew found that Trump scored high among evangelicals, despite respondents ranking him a distant last when asked to rank the party candidates by presumed religious faith.

"The fact is Donald Trump is getting some of those (evangelical) votes," said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political pundit who wrote for and edited the Des Moines Register.

He said those votes also matter to Iowa's also-rans.

Rubio would be delighted with a third-place finish in Iowa, he said. Any mainstream candidate who finishes behind Trump and Cruz could instantly become the anointed favourite of the party moderates and pick up donations and supporters while rivals drop out.

Rubio's religious road map has taken a few winding turns.

In his autobiography, "An American Son," he mentions that his family didn't attend weekly service. Then it converted to Mormonism while living in Las Vegas. Eventually, the Rubios left the Mormon church and reverted to Catholicism. He started going to Sunday school to prepare for the sacraments.

But Rubio confesses that he wiggled out of Sunday school, and got the date switched to Wednesday -- because he didn't want it to interfere with NFL football.

He later became a southern Baptist, and attended services in both the Catholic and Baptist churches. Rubio wrote about twice praying to God in moments of great financial distress -- and having his prayers answered.


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