Ted Cruz’s Biblical foreign policy

Last night’s debate didn’t have an official theme, but the candidates spent most of their time talking about Syria, terrorism and related immigration issues. How few refugees will we let in? How wide of a net do we cast in monitoring our own citizens to see if they’re threats? Who will put the most boots up the most asses?

Donald Trump doubled down on his call to bomb the families of suspected terrorists. Ted Cruz created a new oxymoron with his plan to carpet bomb the Islamic State, but in a targeted way. Chris Christie all but promised to start a war with Russia. Rand Paul tried to remind them that these ideas were all some combination of war crimes and catastrophically stupid national security blunders.

Arguably the most consequential line of the night was when Marco Rubio cornered Ted Cruz on immigration, forcing Cruz to, in a transparently lawyerly fashion, say that, “I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.” Rubio was far slicker when, in responding to a followup question about whether his immigration plan ended with a path to citizenship (having not answered directly on the first try) he said that “I personally am open to allowing people to apply for a green card.” Green cards are not citizenship.

Going into this campaign, Marco Rubio’s past support for and reversal on comprehensive immigration reform was thought to be his greatest weakness, and that a conservative hardliner like Cruz would be the one to take him to task for it. Thus far, Rubio’s come out even, at worst, the few times his immigration record has been brought up.

But for all of the things the candidates explicitly said, I was most struck by one particular implicit appeal: For the viewers at home, especially those in Iowa, Ted Cruz put the Bible in the back of their minds every time he promised to “utterly destroy” the Islamic State.

Ted Cruz used those words — “utterly destroy” — or some variant thereof three times last night when discussing his plans for American foreign policy in the Middle East. If that didn’t ring any bells for you, don’t worry: you just haven’t picked up your King James Bible recently.

The most common English translation of the world’s most popular book contains the phrase “utterly destroy” no less than 30 times. The term is almost always used to describe the Israelites’ military conquest of their neighbors. Take Deuteronomy 20:10-18, for example (emphasis added):

When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, [that] all the people [that is] found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, [even] all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee. Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities [which are] very far off from thee, which [are] not of the cities of these nations. But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee [for] an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; [namely,] the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee: That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.

The message is pretty straightforward: Those people should be part of your empire. Go tell them. If the people who are currently there don’t give it to you, kill the men and take the women, children, cattle and whatever else they have as your property. As for the people occupying the land closer to you, don’t even bother leaving the women and children alive. Utterly destroy them.

Ted Cruz is a US Senator and a self-styled expert debater. He chooses his words carefully. He has chosen to use the words “utterly destroy” to describe his foreign policy for one of at least two reasons: First, those words associate him with the Bible in the minds of Evangelical voters. If a non-believer like me associates the phrase “utterly destroy” with the King James Bible after having read it once, then it’s safe to say that people who consider the King James Bible the literal word of God, reading it regularly and carefully, also made the connection Second, depending on how strong the association is, Evangelical voters will take Cruz’s use of the term as an indication that he understands what they consider to be the Biblical implications of the ongoing War on Terror. Evangelical voters see the Islamic State as fighting a holy war not just with the West, but with Christianity itself. And God is very clear that the punishment for such an offense isn’t containment or even mere defeat; it’s utter destruction.

When Cruz promises to “utterly destroy ISIS,” he’s telling Evangelicals that he “gets it” in a way that his opponents simply don’t. Marco Rubio’s got the slick, polished Washington consulting class behind him, and Donald Trump’s got his alpha-male bluster, but Ted Cruz has his Bible. For a massive subset of Republican primary voters, that’s the only thing that matters.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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