Six GOP White House hopefuls pander to evangelicals at Texas megachurch
Ben Carson speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

PLANO — Endeavoring to tighten the knot between evangelical Christianity and their presidential aspirations, six GOP White House hopefuls appeared before a gushing crowd of more than 6,000 Sunday, lamenting the receding role of Christianity in public life and expressing alarm about growing threats to religious freedom.

One-by-one over four hours, the candidates paraded before the packed sanctuary of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, a 40,000-member mega-church that organized the event to seize on Texas' expanded influence in the 2016 nominating process.

In prepared remarks and onstage interviews with Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham, the candidates sought to tap into deep anxiety about the state of Christianity in America, an issue already front and center in the GOP race.

"We do have a Judeo-Christian foundation," said Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon at the top of most polls on the GOP field. "It's in our core founding documents, it's in our courts, it's in our pledge and it's on our money, but we're not supposed to talk about it?" 

Among the hottest topics at the North Texas Presidential Forum was religious liberty, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the most vocal, recalling at length a rally he held earlier this year in Iowa spotlighting people who believe they were discriminated against for religious reasons. 

"As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and across this country," said Cruz, who received a rock-star reception from the home-state crowd.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee cited a more recent example: the jailing of Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples. Huckabee traveled to Rowan County, Kentucky, last month to headline a rally with Davis upon her release from jail. 

"If you can put a newly elected public official in jail for believing the biblical view of marriage, you have criminalized Christianity," Huckabee said at the forum. 

Running through much of the discussion Sunday was what Graham and the speakers called "judicial tyranny," alleged acts by the U.S. Supreme Court that violate religious values. Cruz was among the candidates stressing the importance of the next president appointing socially conservative judges to the high court, a quality he said was lacking in recent administrations.

"Many of the most egregious judicial activists" were picked by GOP presidents, Cruz said, adding that the next commander in chief must be "willing to spend the capital" to put the right justices on the bench.

Other candidates volunteered less political appeals to religious voters, including Carly Fiorina. The former Hewlett Packard CEO spoke in deeply personal terms about a number of experiences that she said drew her closer to God, including her breast cancer diagnosis, her child's death and accompanying a friend to a Planned Parenthood clinic for an abortion. 

The women's health organization — and abortion, more broadly — was in the crosshairs of multiple candidates. Following the release of undercover videos taken at its clinics, Planned Parenthood recently said it would stop taking reimbursements for offering fetal tissue for medical research, a decision Fiorina attributed to the anti-abortion outcry following the release of the videos.

"We are winning this fight," she said to loud applause. "But it is a fight. It is a fight for the character of our nation."

The candidates with elected experience pointed to their records as evidence they would stand up for Christian values in the White House, particularly the sanctity of life. Jeb Bush said he had the chance to "act on this core belief" as the governor of Florida, cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood and fighting to keep alive a brain-damaged woman.

"I got a lot of grief by standing on the side of life in the case of Terri Schiavo, but I'm proud of what I did," Bush said. "You should always err on the side of life."

Bush was not the only hopeful to highlight withstanding blowback for decisions based on religious beliefs. Fiorina described the scene awaiting her at a campaign stop following her remarks on the Planned Parenthood videos during the last GOP debate — "Protesters pelted me with condoms. They dressed up like birth control dispensers." — and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania lamented how his critics have paired his name with a sexual fluid in Google search results.

"They've taken my name and ... turned it into something that is beyond filth" because I defended traditional marriage, he said.

Some candidates framed their own campaigns as journeys of faith. Carson recalled how he never expected to run for president until supporters convinced him to join the race after his speech criticizing President Barack Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Since then, Carson said, God "opened the doors, and he continued to open the doors." 

The candidate's remarks were spread out over a four-hour forum that gave each one 10 minutes to deliver a speech then another 10 minutes to answer questions from Graham. Organizers had invited all Democratic and Republican hopefuls to participate.

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune