There’s no way around it — the battle for religious liberty is a key part of the 2016 presidential election.
On that, the six Republican candidates who came to North Texas on Sunday clearly agree.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other GOP presidential hopefuls gathered at Prestonwood Baptist Church for a faith-based presidential forum were united on several other conservatives causes as well Sunday.
“Religious liberty is under threat in this country like never before,” Cruz told an estimated crowd of more than 7,000 gathered for the forum at the Prestonwood Baptist Church. “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up in Texas and across the country.
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“I believe 2016 will be an election like 1980,” the state’s junior senator and son of a preacher who drew several standing ovations said. “It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan. So I can’t wait to see where we are headed next.”
Pastor Jack Graham said he hopes that those who attended Sunday’s forum co-hosted by Prestonwood and the Faith & Freedom Coalition— or watched it as it was live-streamed — will now have information needed to “make the right decision” at the polls next year.
Neither Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, nor any Democrats in the race, attended.
“We made it clear everyone was invited to come, but we believe the right people are in the room today,” he said. “What happens today could shape the future of our country.”
Graham also noted, as the candidates touching on issues such as abortion and when life begins, that millions of evangelical Christians didn’t vote in the last election.
He hopes they will head to the polls next year after hearing personally from Cruz, Bush, business executive Carly Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
In their words
Bush, who touted work done during his time as Florida’s governor, talked about his personal faith journey which included religiously going to Sunday School with his family growing up, accepting Jesus Christ as his savior and later converting to Catholicism.
He too said the next president of the United States will “have to fight for religious freedom ... (with all their) heart and soul. ... We need to make sure religious freedom is front and center not just here, ... but also around the world.”
Bush talked about voucher programs created under his tenure and his desire to shift power away from the federal government and back to individual states.
Carson told the crowd how God made a difference in his life, helping turn him from an angry youth who at one time tried to stab someone into a leading neurosurgeon and presidential candidate.
He said he was horrified after he tried to stab someone and locked himself in a bathroom for hours. There, he found a Bible and read verses about fools and people who lose their temper. “It seemed they were all written about me,” he said. But that day was the last time he had an angry outburst. “When God fixes a problem, he doesn’t just do a paint job,” he said. “He fixes it from the inside.”
He went on and when least expected, there was a clamor for him to run for president, something he hadn’t considered. He said he told God that if He wanted him to run for president, and opened the doors, he would run. Now he is. “It’s time for us to bring God back to our country,” Carson said. “The president says we are not a Judeo-Christian nation. But he doesn’t get to decide. We get to decide.”
Santorum told the crowd he’s in the race because “I’m just trying to follow the path. ... What the Lord is calling you to do, that’s what you do.”
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania acknowledged that he’s Catholic, but said he’s “an evangelical Catholic” — and People magazine has even included him in a list of top 25 evangelicals in America.
After he lost during his previous bid for governor, he said he went to Flower Mound and created a small company to make faith-based films, one of which focuses on concerns about religious liberty. Change is needed in the White House, he said. And new leadership can “reknit” the country’s failing family structure.
Huckabee, a Fort Worth-trained preacher turned politician, told the crowd that no one knows a tough political fight until they have to fight the Clinton “political machine” in Arkansas, where he served as governor.
He said he’s running for president because he refuses “to walk (his five grandchildren) through the charred remains of a once great country ... and say, ‘Look, this is what we’ve left for you.’” And he said he went to Kentucky recently to support the county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
“If you put a public official in jail for believing the Biblical view of marriage, you have criminalized Christianity,” he said. “If a county clerk can go to jail for this, who’s next? You are,” he said, pointing to Graham, who endorsed him in the 2008 presidential race.
Fiorina, who said “people of faith make better leaders,” touched on issues such as the battle for life, the need for more prayer in public and how the 2016 presidential election will focus on issues such as the economy and shrinking government.
“But this election is also about the character of our nation,” said Fiorina, born in Austin. “We need a fearless fighter in the White House, not just to win this election but to restore the character of our nation.”
She shared that her faith has been tested as she battled breast cancer and buried a child. “Through it all, the love of my family and my relationship with Jesus Christ has seen me through,” she said. “And on this journey, my family and faith will see me through.”
For some, the event offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to listen in person to more than a handful of Republican candidates make their presidential pitch.
“This is a monumental occasion,” said Judge Lindsey, a 75-year-old Allen man. “I don’t know if I would see these people in one place ever again.
“It’s very exciting.”
Darby Dennis, a 21-year-old from Aubrey, said she hopes Sunday’s forum will help her make an informed decision when she heads to the polls next year.
“I like being informed on what’s going on,” she said. “I like to hear everyone’s side of the story.”
She and Emma Cunningham, an 18-year-old from Prosper, said they are big fans of Carson, but they wanted to hear all the candidates.
“I’m really happy to be here and hear from everyone,” she said, “so I can make an informed decision next year.”
A number of Republican candidates have been in and around North Texas in recent days — and some plan to be here next week as well, such as Carson, who is hosting a book signing Tuesday in Fort Worth — campaigning for votes or trying to raise money for their bid.
All presidential candidates were invited to Sunday’s presidential forum, including GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Political observers weren’t surprised Democrats didn’t show up.
“This event is important for Republican party politics,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “It’s an evangelical church that’s mainstream but conservative in orientation.
“Republicans find a much better fit here than Democrats would.”
Added Riddlesperger: “It’s a significant opportunity for them to get exposure. They are beating the bushes for votes and when there’s a significant opportunity, they will take it.”
The Plano forum also offers presidential hopefuls a chance to make inroads in Texas, the country’s largest conservative state. Officials moved the presidential primary up from May to March 1, and Texas is now set to be the largest of 13 states voting on “Super Tuesday.”
Former Gov. Rick Perry has already abandoned his short-lived 2016 presidential bid, but Cruz, who lives in Houston, has spent relatively little time in Texas as he campaigns across the country.
Bush was born in the oil-patch town of Midland, and his son George P. Bush was elected Texas land commissioner last year. But the former governor has done more fundraising than campaigning in the state thus far.