Election seasons are long, especially when the news cycle is measured in tweets. In a week, Marco Rubio went from a third-place finish in Iowa to looking like a likely nominee to many in the Republican Party. But after his bad debate performance in New Hampshire on Saturday, he started to look like an amateur prematurely promoted beyond his rank.
These cycles can be larger than a week, of course. A little over a year ago, I argued that Marco Rubio's chances were underestimated. And a few weeks ago I argued that Rubio was consistently overestimated. Perhaps, during another low point in the Rubio cycle, it's worth explaining why Rubio is esteemed.
When I argue that Rubio's success is inflated or against his merits as a candidate, my chief antagonists tend to be people just like myself: religious, highly educated people under 40, who identify as conservatives. Without revealing names, many of them were very spooked by the recent battles over religious liberty, as in Indiana last year. They think that religious liberty is a crucial issue and imagine the fate of the institutions they support — like evangelical colleges — depends on it. Although many of them profess some ambivalence about the Republican Party, they want Republicans to win the next election to prevent a liberal president from replacing Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia with left-wing jurists and ending any hope of reversing the Court's commitment to abortion rights.
Rubio is refreshing to this kind of voter for a number of reasons. Previous religious right candidates tended to blend their Christian faith within a larger American civic-religion. They would hide the theological details behind a rood-screen of "traditional values," or even "American values." Many younger Christians find that rhetoric to be stale, distasteful, dishonest, or socially grasping. They are convinced that an earlier generation of conservative Christians witnessed a cost-less Christianity. And they believe that generation's mistakes have led to the rise of the religiously unaffiliated "nones" and a more confident, crusading secularism.
Rubio, however, gives many indications that he is willing to let his faith cost him something in politics. See how he explained to George Stephanopoulos that his "with no exceptions" stand on restricting abortion is rooted in principle, even if that puts him at odds with the sentiments of a majority of Americans. "The broader point I've made, however, is I believe all human life is worthy of the protection of our laws," Rubio said. "That's what I deeply and personally believe. And I'm not going to change my position on something of — that is so deep in me in order to win an election."
These voters appreciate that Rubio is willing to talk about religious faith on its own terms, as in the video of him responding to an atheist at a campaign event. This video has gone viral among religiously engaged Facebook users, in part because it showcases Rubio doing two things that young religious conservatives aspire to do: 1. boldly proclaim a faith that influences "every part of my life," as Rubio put it, while remaining winsome; 2. explain why their faith is good on terms non-believers might understand, or at least accept. Rubio even outlines his faith in theological terms. He hired a faith outreach director, Eric Teetsel, who was a signatory to the Manhattan Declaration, a Christian manifesto. In his biography, Rubio explains his return to the Catholic Church with references to the kind of theologically serious authors that Catholics read today.
In other words, Rubio is the kind of Christian who young Christians believe is truly committed to his faith and who won't embarrass them constantly. That is a powerful connection for young voters who mostly sense that their faith is merely (and barely) tolerated in the elite circles of culture that they aspire to influence.
Many of these young people are less troubled by Rubio's previous support for comprehensive immigration reform because they too saw "welcoming the stranger" as part of their religious duty and a handy way of signaling that they were not committed to any political orthodoxy, not even a conservative one, that would impinge on their creed. They are unlikely to be moved by rumors about Rubio's hard-partying youth, as they experienced or succumbed to similar temptations themselves.
For many of the reasons above, I also find Marco Rubio the most relatable candidate in the 2016 Republican race. But I haven't fallen in love with Marco Rubio, as many of his fans (and my friends, and peers) have. I suspect he would still support an immigration bill as badly conceived as the Gang of Eight. And his rhetoric on foreign policy promises a return to the worst excesses of the Bush years: knocking over regimes in the Middle East, when the United States can make no promises as to the kind of order that will emerge from their downfall. And I would remind Rubio's fans, my friends, and peers of the costs this foreign policy has imposed on our co-religionists in Syria, Iraq, and throughout the world.