Marco Rubio's crisis of faith

For the staunchly Protestant evangelicals, though, who form a core component of the Iowa primary electorate, that answer also contained a poison pill. “I’m fully, theologically, doctrinally aligned with the Roman Catholic Church,” Rubio had said—and for people like Joe Brown, the influential leader of the Marion Avenue Baptist Church in rural Washington in the southeastern part of the state, that no-wiggle-room declaration was a deal-breaker. “Most pastors and evangelicals do not believe you can be a Catholic and be an evangelical at the same time,” Brown told me. He is energetic in his support for Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and Rubio rival.

The main knock on Rubio as a candidate is his slipperiness on issues like immigration. And when he talks in speeches, debates and town halls, he can come off polished to the point of rehearsed. His religion is an exception. When he talks about his faith, he sounds off-the-cuff sincere. Rubio pitches himself, too, as the most 21st-century candidate, and he means generationally (he is only 44) and demographically (the child of two Cuban immigrants, he would be the first Hispanic president)—but with Americans increasingly moving from church to church, blurring long-drawn lines between denominations, the single-most 21st-century thing about him might be his religious path…

The problem here in Iowa, if it is a problem, with the kick-off caucuses a week and a half away, is not so much that Rubio is pandering for the votes of evangelicals. Or that he’s insufficiently authentic on this front. It’s that he’s entirely authentic. And it isn’t that he hasn’t “picked” a religion and stuck with it. For some, it’s that he has—and that he “picked” wrong. In this state that skews conservative, white and old, the question is paramount, but it’s no less crucial across the rest of the country, where politics and religion combine in shifting, consequential ways.