Bud Kennedy

Cruz leaves evangelicals in ‘uncharted territory’

Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and front-runner Donald Trump in January.
Former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and front-runner Donald Trump in January. The Associated Press

No longer a novelty act, Donald Trump returns to North Texas Friday as the unlikely leader in the so-called Republican evangelical primary.

Trump’s hiring on Thursday of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, helps cement the New York developer’s connection with evangelical Christian conservatives desperate for a victory in November.

Somewhere along the way to next week and Super Tuesday, Huckabee and Houston attorney Ted Cruz had a falling-out.

Back as early as summer 2014, Huckabee’s entrenched Southern Baptist backers were saying Cruz couldn’t connect spiritually with believers, and that was before Trump had located 2 Corinthians.

Looks like they were right.

When Trump joined the campaign, a few senior pastors such as the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas welcomed him. Cruz reeled in other Christian conservative endorsements and dollars, but antagonized Huckabee and eventually upset the genteel Ben Carson.

Four days before the Texas primary, Cruz’s hold on faith-and-values voters is tenuous.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s supporters include California pastor Rick Warren, like Huckabee an alumnus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Trump’s anti-establishment message has made inroads, particularly with nondenominational believers inherently wary of an evangelical political establishment.

The Rev. O.S. Hawkins, Jeffress’ predecessor at First Baptist Dallas and a longtime Huckabee backer, has not chosen a side. But he called Trump’s success “a total phenomenon.”

“I think people are just looking for real change,” he said Thursday by phone.

“There is just so much weariness over broken promises, from politicians especially. … It’s frustration. People are frustrated with the two parties.”

Hawkins acknowledged that Trump is “someone who to many is the antithesis of what they’ve said and stood for.”

“We are just in uncharted territory,” he said.

Hawkins, author of the new inspirational book VIP: How to Influence With Vision, Integrity and Purpose, said he finds much to like about both Rubio and Cruz, a member of a Southern Baptist church and the son of an independent evangelist.

“I think they are both good Christians,” Hawkins said.

But for Cruz, Hawkins added gently, “electability has been part of the discussion.”

(When Haltom City televangelist Mike Murdock endorsed Trump, he said Trump has a “warrior’s heart.”)

Trump is “saying what so many people would want to say if they had a platform,” Hawkins said, adding: “The way he’s saying it is not always the way I would say it.”

Hawkins said the pastors he knows are “stunned at the way this election has turned out.”

They’re not taking sides yet.

“The high-profile pastors I know would be very happy with Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz,” he said.

“And they had better learn to live with Donald Trump, it appears.”

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.