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Ted Cruz speaks to members of the media at Morningstar Fellowship Church on Feb. 11, 2016 in Fort Mill, SC.
Alex Wong—Getty Images

Caitlin Flanagan is a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic

And it came to pass that Jesus entered the city of Capernaum, where a sinful woman came to him while he was at table. Weeping, she washed his feet and anointed him with oil, and He told her, “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Because that’s the kind of Guy he was – always with the prostitutes and the destitute, the unclean women and the lepers and even with the tax collectors.

Not so Ted Cruz. When his campaign discovered that an actress in one of his Internet ads had a porn past, it pulled the ad, and issued a grossed-out apology: “Unfortunately, she was not vetted by the production company,” a campaign aid said. “Had the campaign known of her full filmography, we obviously would not have let her appear in the ad.”

She wasn’t good enough. Her past wasn’t right. She might have been living in the light and truth of an honest day’s work, but she had to go.

Safe to say, Ted Cruz has lost the sex worker vote. But shouldn’t he also be in hot water with Christians? If porn actors are victims, or sinners – a point of view shared by most Evangelical Christians – then the Cruz campaign has committed a grave wrong. It spurned and publicly humiliated a sinner in the very act of moving from sin toward grace. Moreover, she herself turns out to be a believing Christian. You know you’re in trouble when you find a death threat with your name on it, smack in the middle of the Gospels of Jesus Christ: “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

And so—with apologies to the Baltimore Catechism—a question and answer:

When is it right to stand in judgment of the religious beliefs and practices of a political candidate?

When that candidate makes those beliefs and practices a centerpiece of his campaign, and when he envisions an America closely shaped around them.

The next move he made was to send the wife out to clean things up a few hours after the mini scandal broke. “Christians are loving people, are nonjudgmental people,” Heidi Cruz told told a conservative radio host; “but there is right and wrong.” It’s true: there really is right and wrong, and what had happened earlier that day was wrong, judgmental and unloving. But there was worse to come: her husband, she said, was running “to show the country the face of the God we serve.”

And this is one of the reasons that Christianity, the religion of forgiveness and grace and clean slates, of sins washed clean and all of those things that have kept so many of us broken down old sinners going for so long – is waning in this country. It’s not just that the sea of faith is at low tide and all that. It’s that so many of the self-appointed spokespeople for the cause are the kind of guys you try like Hell to avoid at your neighbor’s pool party. You see Ted Cruz headed your way to show you the face of God, and suddenly you have an urgent hankering to go find another Diet Coke.

By all means, Cruz should promote his various economic and social programs, his foreign policy and whatever else he thinks the electorate should know about him. But when he reports that he’s also–primarily, in fact–going to spread around his very special understanding of Christianity, that’s when we should all be very concerned.

Throughout the course of this election season, as the various candidates make their various unlovely gestures, I am repeatedly reminded – by those much better schooled than I am in the way the world really works – that all of this is merely … politics. When Hillary Clinton (the child advocate!) happily shares a stage with Madeline Albright, a woman complicit in the deaths of countless children—it’s politics. When Ted Cruz learns he accidentally hired an actress with a porn past and quickly distances himself from her – it’s politics. These are candidates with their eye on the big picture; they see something larger, and they are willing to sully themselves along the way as they progress toward that grand vision. It’s all on our behalf. But how much of yourself can you give away until there’s nothing left in that big picture except your own dream of great personal power?

And here is why so many young people have fallen in love with Bernie Sanders. It’s not because–well, it’s partly because–they have an insufficient understanding of the various ways socialism has actually panned out, lo these past hundred years. It’s because here is a man in a rumpled suit, with a rumpled wife, who looks into the camera and does something unusual: he tells the truth. These young people look at Bernie Sanders and see in him the person Hillary Rodham once was, a thousand dreamy summers ago: uncompromised, uncorrupted, alive with outrage at the fate of this country’s poor. They see a Jewish socialist who is doing a better job of showing people the values of Jesus Christ (Goldman, Sachs?) than his Methodist opponent.

It is our job, apparently, to disabuse these young people of their belief in the abstract concepts of valor and fair play, to tell them that it’s all Chinatown and to line them up behind abortion (Hillary) or Christ (Cruz). But increasingly–as I watch my teenage son plan to pull the lever for Bernie in his first ever time in the voting booth, an experience that will surely be more thrilling than it was to cast my lot with Walter Mondale–I am not the person to do that job.

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