Marco Rubio reaches out to believers, pushing something called the 'free exercise' of religion

If you are following the madness that is the GOP pre-primary season, then you know that one of the most interesting showdowns is over in the Cuban-American bracket, where Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio are facing off.

At the heart of that crucial battle is the bond between Cruz and large parts of the Sunbelt evangelical world, which is a huge advantage in crucial states such as Iowa, South Carolina and, of course, Texas. The Rubio people know that and have been making strategic moves to reach out to the world of cultural conservatives.

That effort is complicated, a bit, by two issues -- both of which are addressed in a recent New York Times news feature that ran under the headline, "As Marco Rubio Speaks of Faith, Evangelicals Keep Options Open."

The first issue is quite simple, and the Times team handles it quite well. Rubio's religious background is complex, to say the least. The world is not full of Cuban-Americans who were raised Catholic, converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and then went back to Catholicism, while also attending his wife's Southern Baptist congregation.

Also, The Times dedicates quite a bit of space to Rubio's ties to New York financier Paul Singer, a strong supporter of same-sex marriage causes.

This leads to the crucial passage in this report:

Mr. Rubio’s more open discussion about his religion is cracking a window into a part of his life he does not often discuss. Sometimes he goes on at length, as at the dinner in Des Moines, demonstrating a fluency with Scripture that surprises his audience. ...
Many of his other gestures are small, but do not go unnoticed by evangelical voters. There was the time last month when he said on “Good Morning America” that he experiences financial strain like any other family, in part because “I send my kids to private Christian schools.”
He speaks often of the importance of religious liberty as not only a right to believe but also “the right to exercise your faith in every aspect of your life,” a nod to people who are worried they will be forced to accept same-sex marriages.

Ah, so Rubio believes that people have a right to act on their beliefs, not just cling to them in the private space between their ears?

This is a classic nod, by the Times, to the current White House stance that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of "worship," or even just belief, as opposed to freedom of religion. Thus, the world's most powerful newspaper opines that Rubio's statement that citizens have the "right to exercise your faith in every aspect of your life" is a mere "nod" to those who reject same-sex marriage.

But wait. Isn't that "exercise your faith" language more likely to be a "nod" to this?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
-- The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

In other words, Rubio did not dream up that language, nor did traditional religious believers who oppose gay marriage. Note that it refers to the "free exercise" of religion, as opposed to private beliefs and actions inside church doors. The strong support of First Amendment rights used to be a central, respected plank in what was called "liberalism." (I might add that this First Amendment thing is also a piece of the Bill of Rights that is rather important to journalists.)

This brings me to a question that the Times team failed to ask about Singer. Perhaps he supports gay marriage, but he also supports the free exercise of religious convictions? Perhaps he is in favor of legal compromises (think North Carolina) that would protect marriage rights for gay couples, while also striving to protect religious freedom for traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons and others who cannot, because of centuries of religious traditions and doctrine, embrace the redefinition of marriage?

This may not be the case, with Singer. Still, it is a question worth asking. There are old-school liberals and many conservatives who, after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 Obergefell decision, have tried to support the rights of traditional religious believers, as well as same-sex couples. Supporting Rubio might make sense, if Singer was willing to support such a compromise.

Meanwhile, this Times piece -- ironically -- does a much better job of documenting Rubio's attempts to show that he is paying attention whenever and wherever he is in a pew -- even noting a passing reference to scripture or two.

It is clear that the stake are high. The winner of the Cuban-American primary has a great shot at being the alternative to Donald Trump, winning the endorsement of most cultural and moral conservatives. After all:

In 2012, 57 percent of Republican caucus voters in Iowa described themselves as evangelical or born again. And many of them now say that Mr. Rubio is getting a late start with them.
After hearing Mr. Rubio speak in Des Moines, one prominent Christian leader, David Lane, said he could not understand why the senator had not given a speech like that sooner. “He’s very, very conversant in the word,” he said. “This guy is not just a casual Christmas- and Easter-only churchgoer.”

Stay tuned.

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