While candidates talking to church congregations may sound like small beans local politics, this is 40,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church. Its Plano campus can seat 7,000, and pretty much all of the seats were full. Six candidates vying to be the Republican presidential nominee showed up, even though all of the major candidates from both sides of the aisle were invited.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Each candidate gave a 10-minute speech then answered questions from Graham that ranged from personal faith to foreign policy.
“Some people think evangelicals and conservative Christians just have a few issues that we’re interested in. Not true,” Pastor Jack Graham said. “We are interested in all of the issues that affect our way of life as Americans.”
Former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina opened the forum with frank talk about her spiritual journey and a jab at Hillary Clinton. She got big applause for saying the right is winning against Planned Parenthood. But mostly she talked about how religion has become more central in her life.
“My faith has been tested. I have battled breast cancer. I have buried a child. And through it all, the love of my family and my personal relationship with Jesus Christ has seen me through,” she said.
Where Fiorina was introspective, Texas Senator Ted Cruz was a firebrand. He talked up his role in legal battles around religious monuments on state lands – like a lawsuit to keep a Ten Commandments statue at the Texas capitol. And Cruz vowed he would not stop fighting against same-sex marriage.
“I believe 2016 is about religious liberty,” he said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also said religious freedom is in peril. A Catholic, he was a darling of evangelicals back in 2012, who boosted him to the top spot in the Iowa caucuses. He said he had a record of pro-life achievement in the Senate.
Former pastor and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said being a pastor is the best preparation for a career in politics. He talked about decades battling Clinton allies in Arkansas, but his biggest applause lines came from his foreign policy focus. For example, how he sees the threat from the so-called Islamic State.
“You either defeat them or they will kill us. Those are the options, and those are the only options,” he said.
After Huckabee left the stage, there were just two candidates left – but neither had actually arrived. During about 45 minutes of vamping -- a musical interlude, an announcement of local elected officials in the audience, and a long conversation between Jack Graham and Faith and Freedom Coalition president Ralph Reed -- Ben Carson and Jeb Bush raced from the airport.
When he finally spoke, Carson, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, said finding faith took him off of a self-destructive path – and he said investing in people will help others facing similar challenges.
“That’s one less person we need to be afraid of,” Carson said, “one less person in the welfare or the penal system, one more taxpaying productive member of society who may discover a new cure for cancer or a new energy source.”
By the time Jeb Bush took the stage, about a third of the crowd had left. He listed pro-life accomplishments as Florida’s governor, and he stressed the need for local control. But the biggest applause line when he was on stage came from Pastor Jack Graham.
“And, by the way, George W. Bush did keep us safe, no matter what anybody says,” Graham said.
The younger Bush didn’t disagree with that.
Video: GOP Hopefuls Talk Faith In Plano