Religious liberty "has never been more in peril than it is right now," Ted Cruz told a crowd of Christian students Wednesday.
The senator from Texas was speaking at Liberty University's convocation, and he echoed the college's evangelical philosophy.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971 as an alternative to what he saw as the liberal indoctrination of other American universities. In his day, Falwell was a leader of the Republican Party's "moral majority" and was a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan. He was also vehemently antigay — in 2001, Falwell said homosexuality in the U.S. was partially to blame for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But today, the university's administration and its students are opting for less fire-and-brimstone and more soft Christian rock. (To get a sense of what student life is like at Liberty, read Brandon Ambrosino's piece in The Atlantic last year about what it was like to come out as a gay man while attending Liberty, or read Kevin Roose's book about "going undercover" at the university for a semester.)
In his speech, Cruz cited two cases he defended while he was a lawyer in Texas — one involving a Ten Commandments monument that was erected at the state Capitol, and the other protecting the phrase "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Another example of religious censorship he gave was the story of an Air Force chaplain in Alaska. The chaplain was ordered by his supervisor to take down a religious blog post he'd written, deeming it insensitive to atheists. "I sort of thought the job of a chaplain is to be insensitive to atheists," Cruz said. (He's said that line before, at a speech in Iowa last month.)
Cruz cited Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero for his faith, asking the audience how many of them had gone to jail for practicing their faith. "Religious liberty has never been more under assault," Cruz told the audience. "We are called to action ... to stand and speak, no matter what the consequence."
He also advocated for the release of Saeed Abedini, an American pastor who was detained in Iran in 2012 for "undermining national security." Abedini had been visiting Iran to help build an orphanage at the time of his arrest.
Before Cruz's speech, the university showed the senator's cinematic "stand for principle" video. Cruz also worked in a callback to his April Fools' joke. "I'm inspired to be with believers who are standing up with courage, who are standing up for the principles you believe in," he told the students. "I'm so inspired, I may get an eagle tattooed on my chest!" (Liberty's mascot is an eagle.)
Cruz's speech is like a Bizarro World version of Rand Paul's speech at the University of California (Berkeley) last month — or vice versa. In terms of campus political climate, Liberty and Berkeley are near opposites. And while they hail from the same freedom-loving faction of their party, Paul and Cruz often hold very different issues near to their hearts. Paul used his speech at Berkeley to advocate for data protection; Cruz for religious protections.
Politics aside, Cruz is a skilled orator. He can hold a room rapt with his mixture of rhetoric, anecdotes, and pure homiletic fire. In another lifetime, Cruz could have been his generation's Jerry Falwell. Instead, he wants to be his generation's Ronald Reagan.