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Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers remarks before announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run for president on March 23, 2015, at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz launched his campaign for the presidency Monday with effusive praise for the boundary-breaking women in his life and a call for mothers, sisters and daughters to join his coming campaign.

“The answer will not come from Washington,” he said of the challenges facing the nation. “It will come only from the men and women across this country—from men and women, from people of faith, from lovers of liberty, from people who respect the Constitution.”

In a speech at Liberty University, the world’s largest Christian school, he praised the entrepreneurship of his wife, Heidi, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, who started in business as a child, baking bread and selling it at a nearby apple farm. His mother, he said in video message earlier in the day, was “a pioneer in computer science, smashing glass ceilings at a time when women were discouraged from following their dreams.” Her father, he continued in the speech, “frankly didn’t think that women should be educated.”

The praise for gender equality was all the more resonant—or perhaps discordant—because of the setting. Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., bars women as a matter of theology from becoming pastors or holding high-ranking roles of church leadership. In fact, the leadership at Liberty, where more than half the student population is female, is almost entirely male.

The school’s executive leadership is composed of 21 men and one woman, the executive vice president and vice-president of human resources. Liberty University’s Board of Trustees is comprised of 38 men and two women whose husbands also serve on the board: Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America, and Gaye Overton Benson, for whose family the Liberty School of Business is named. The 32 positions on the committees of the Board of Trustees are also filled entirely by men.

Likewise, all of the faculty are male at Liberty University’s Baptist Theological Seminary, where despite the ban on women becoming pastors, women can receive degrees. At the larger school, just over half of the residential student body is female, and just more than 60% of the online student population is female. “Women need to be advised that few opportunities presently exist for ordination of women among Baptist churches and Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary supports the Baptist Faith and Message as amended by the Southern Baptist Convention of June 2000,” the school tells applicants on its website.

The larger Southern Baptist Convention believes the bible bars women from becoming pastors. “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” reads the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

There are some programs specifically designed for women. Liberty has a Center for Women’s Ministries, which educates “today’s woman in basic principles of Biblical femininity” and seeks to equip her “to effectively evangelize and disciple other women living in America and throughout the world,” according to its website. Career opportunities for women with this focus, the site says, include women’s ministry directors, teen girls’ leaders, and event planners.

Christine Caine, an activist with Hillsong Church in Australia, partnered with the school in January to launch a broader initiative called “Propel” to equip Christian women for broader leadership, especially when they work outside the home. “For generations, women have navigated the nuances of being a woman in leadership without a roadmap,” Caine said in a news release. “Gaps in leadership training have forced women to compartmentalize their lives, separating work, church, home and personal life.”

Liberty’s glass ceilings—and those of the religious constituency Liberty signifies and that Cruz is trying to court—could complicate his message going forward. In his announcement speech, Cruz cast himself as a values candidate, with a view of American history centered around faith. “What is the promise of America?” he asked at one point in his speech. “The idea that—the revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon, which is that our rights don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty.”

Stylistically, his speech had more in common with Sunday preaching than a traditional campaign address. He roamed the circular stage, often turning his back to the television cameras, with a microphone affixed to his neck, telling the stories of redemption that lifted his family, and charting a road map for lifting the nation. “Today, roughly half of born again Christians aren’t voting,” he said. “They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”

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