MIAMI -- If there were one thing about Marco Rubio that made him beloved to voters who elected him Florida's newest senator this month, it was his ramrod stance as a man of conviction: a die-hard tea party conservative, a fearless crusader against entrenched interests -- even in his own Republican Party -- and a husband and father who lived by the Catholic faith of his Cuban forebears.
But now some of Rubio's own fans on the Catholic right are questioning his religious bona fides since they found out that for much of the past decade, Rubio, 38, has been attending a Southern Baptist-affiliated church, Christ Fellowship
, here in South Florida. In fact, tax records show that from 2000 to 2008, Rubio donated more than $66,000 to charity, much of it going to Christ Fellowship.
Where Rubio attends church may seem like a relatively minor issue given Rubio's stature as a deeply committed Christian whose election-night victory speech began with a powerful statement
of faith in God and God's control over all things. Moreover, many Americans, strong believers among them, don't see denominational differences as such a big deal anymore.
But Catholics and Baptists, especially those of the conservative variety who have held Rubio out as the great new hope for the GOP, do take such matters seriously, and some of them are feeling duped by Rubio presenting himself as a dedicated Catholic while he in fact has been attending a Southern Baptist congregation.
"Is Marco Rubio talking out of both sides, the better to court both the Catholic and the Evangelical votes?" Eric Giunta, a Catholic law student and Rubio supporter, wrote at the conservative blog Renew America
. "Or is he just one more victim of the religious indifferentism that marks so much of today's practical Catholicism, thanks to decades of spiritual malnourishment suffered at the hands of wicked, inept, or lazy prelates? It's a question worth asking, and here's hoping Rubio soon answers it."
The story first came to light the morning after Election Day, when Damian Thompson, a traditional Catholic who writes about religion for The Daily Telegraph of London, was doing some post-electoral research on what he thought was a fellow Catholic and political wunderkind. Thompson read the PoliticsDaily bio
on Rubio, which notes that Rubio describes himself as Roman Catholic but has attended Christ Fellowship church in West Kendall, a suburb just west of Miami, for the last six years.
That set off Catholic alarm bells for Thompson, who noted in a Nov. 3 blog post that among many other things, Protestants and Catholics have a crucial difference in their understanding of the Eucharist, or communion, and that difference was one of the central dividing lines of the Reformation. Catholics maintain that Jesus Christ becomes present in a true and substantial way in the bread and wine that a priest consecrates at Mass, while Protestants (though their views can vary) tend to see communion in more symbolic and less miraculous terms.
Moreover, Catholics are obliged to take communion at least once a year, at Easter, and attend Mass every week.
When Giunta picked up on Thompson's report he was furious and said Rubio's affiliation was "also a question of honesty." He said that Rubio represented himself as a practicing Catholic "personally to a good friend of mine, who met him last year at a campaign stop in Tallahassee." Giunta added, "I also know that the Catholic clergy of Tallahassee are under the impression Rubio was, and is, one of their own."
Rubio also describes himself as a Roman Catholic at his official Web page
at the Florida House, and in an interview last February with Deal Hudson, former Catholic outreach director for the George W. Bush campaign, Rubio was explicit about linking his Catholic faith to his political life, and seeming to criticize those who do not do the same. Hudson titled his profile
, "Marco Rubio, A Catholic Candidate Who Will Not Compromise."
Giunta tried twice to get an explanation from the Rubio campaign about the apparent discrepancy, and after the second try received an e-mail from Rubio's director of faith-based outreach, J. R. Sanchez, who was not terribly happy about the inquiry.
Sanchez said that Rubio "is still a Roman Catholic. He was baptized, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church," and then he added: "If you find that there is a dearth of pertinent material to write about, perhaps you can focus on the many serious issues facing our nation, and the reasons why the citizens of Florida overwhelmingly elected Mr. Rubio as their next United States Senator."
Giunta didn't take kindly to that response, and titled his blog post
on the e-mail, "Rubio campaign to religious voters: Screw you, get a life!"
Damian Thompson at The Telegraph also wanted more information, and on Nov. 12 published a story
with a more expansive reply from Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos:
Marco "regularly attends Catholic Mass, and he was baptized, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church. On the final Sunday of the campaign, for example, he attended Mass at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa. . . . He also attends services at a Christian church with his wife and children."
The "Christian church" is apparently Christ Fellowship. Asked why Rubio attended a non-Catholic church regularly, Burgos said: "He attends both regularly."
Burgos sent much the same response in answer to a query from PoliticsDaily, adding that Rubio is "a practicing and devout Roman Catholic" and that "he just visited the Holy Land last week."
Many Rubio supporters have tried to play down Rubio's dual religious loyalty, but Giunta and others weren't buying it.
"This is a big deal because Rubio campaigned on his Catholicism to win the endorsement (and monies!) of a Catholic PAC while simultaneously sending signals he was a practicing Southern Baptist," Giunta wrote in a comment
on the conservative media criticism blog, GetReligion.org, which dissected the story last week.
It's a safe bet that if Rubio were a Democrat who presented himself as a Catholic but attended Southern Baptist church, he'd get a lot of grief from Republicans and conservative Catholic activists, and perhaps a few queries from Catholic bishops.
But it's unclear whether Rubio's split-the-difference Christianity will take some of the glow off his golden boy image among his faithful base.
In many respects, Rubio's faith practices are in line with a growing number of Latino immigrants to the United States who have found a more congenial religious home in evangelical-style churches, even as many maintain cultural or other ties to Catholicism. And Rubio is still a champion of the cultural and moral positions that conservative Christians care strongly about, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion.
This kind of "ecumenism of the trenches" -- a view that the culture wars are so important that sectarian divides should be overlooked for the greater good -- is apparently influencing a number of conservatives who would normally be passionately attentive to such differences.
For example, Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative author and polemicist
who is widely viewed as an important Catholic voice on the right, surprised many of his allies last August when he was named president of the King's College, an evangelical Christian school based in the Empire State Building with a goal of churning out evangelical grads who will take their faith into the public square in places like Manhattan.
D'Souza's appointment disappointed many evangelicals, who saw his Catholic affiliation as impossible to reconcile with being president of the King's College. D'Souza only seemed to complicate matters when, in an interview
with Christianity Today, he said that he has not seen anything in the literature at King's that described the college as Protestant, and that he himself is "non-denominational" and has been attending an evangelical megachurch in San Diego for several years.
"I'm quite happy to acknowledge my Catholic background; at the same time, I'm very comfortable with Reformation theology," he said. "Being a Protestant is a term defined in opposition to Catholicism and refers to a set of historical battles over denominational issues . . . As far as I can tell, those denominational issues are not the center of what's being argued today."
That is a rather sweeping statement, and one that didn't mollify some evangelicals. Earlier this month, Marvin Olasky, a leading conservative evangelical publisher and activist, resigned as provost of the King's College.
"It will come as no surprise to you that Dinesh D'Souza and I have different ideas about some things," Olasky said in an e-mail to Christianity Today. "I'd like to leave it at that and not do an interview."