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Marco Rubio Finds God with Atheist Question in Iowa

January 19, 2016, 5:04 PM UTC
GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 14: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) participates in the Fox Business Network Republican presidential debate at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center on January 14, 2016 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The sixth Republican debate is held in two parts, one main debate for the top seven candidates, and another for three other candidates lower in the current polls. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson—Getty Images

The voters at the town hall in Waverly turned their heads as the self-described atheist stood up with a camera to challenge Marco Rubio about his faith. Justin Scott, a voter from Waterloo, asked the Catholic Republican presidential hopeful how his faith would impact his own belief in the absence of a higher power. The candidate was ready.

“No one’s going to force you to believe in God. But no one’s going to force me to stop talking about God,” Rubio replied on Monday. “No one’s going to take away my right, and your right,” pointing to the crowd, “to live out the teachings of your faith. No one.” At the same event, Rubio highlighted his opposition to abortion, spoke of his commitment to defund Planned Parenthood, and his support for business owners who don’t want to serve same-sex couples’ at their weddings. “You shouldn’t be worried about my faith influencing me,” he continued. “You should hope that my faith influences me.”

The exchange was swiftly posted by the questioner, and then reposted by Rubio’s campaign to the candidate’s YouTube channel. Barely five hours later, the exchange had already made it into Rubio’s stump speech. “America does not make sense unless we believe in a creator,” Rubio told a crowd of about 250 near Iowa City, referencing the question.

For Rubio, the moment couldn’t have been scripted better, providing a window he wanted to highlight his faith as he courts this state’s passionate evangelical Christian voters. In recent months, those voters have consolidated their support behind another freshman senator, Texas’ Ted Cruz, whose own belief and rhetoric more closely aligns with the state’s conservative strain of evangelical Christianity. Cruz’s father is a popular pastor who has traveled the state and the country preaching and boosting his son’s candidacy. Now, two weeks before Iowa caucuses, Rubio is looking to eat into Cruz’s lead, recognizing there may only be room for one senator in the race if the nominating fight is prolonged.

In recent weeks, Rubio has sought to spin his positions in a fashion more appealing to the state’s conservatives, leaning rightward as the moderate lane remains deeply divided. Nowhere has that been clearer than on immigration, with Rubio releasing an ad last week in Iowa declaring he was against “amnesty,” the phrase used by Cruz in criticizing the Gang of Eight legislation Rubio co-authored.

“First of all, let me be clear, I don’t support amnesty,” Rubio said in Johnston, Iowa on Saturday. “Amnesty is the forgiveness of wrongdoing without consequences. There are consequences to violating our immigration laws, and it depends how you did it.”