WASHINGTON — Prospective Republican presidential candidates are promoting religious liberty at home and abroad at a gathering of evangelical conservatives, rebuking an unpopular President Barack Obama while skirting divisive social issues that have tripped up the GOP.
The annual Values Voter Summit opened Friday in Washington with speeches from several potential presidential candidates, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The program features ambitious Republicans with positions on social issues across the spectrum — from the libertarian-leaning Paul, who favors less emphasis on abortion and gay marriage, to Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor whose conservative social values define his brand.
"We need a president who will speak out for prisoners of faith," Cruz declared Friday, citing Christians around the world facing persecution.
The Texas senator later chastised those in the GOP calling for Republican candidates to downplay social issues ahead of the November elections.
"How do we win? We defend the values that are American values," said Cruz, a favorite of evangelicals who overwhelmingly won the Values Voter straw poll a year ago. "We stand for life. We stand for marriage. We stand for Israel."
Organizers of the event largely expect participants to unite around what they call Obama's attack on religious liberty, according to Tony Perkins, president of the host organization, the Family Research Council. Perkins cited an Obama administration rule that compels health insurers to cover female contraception in addition to a foreign policy he says doesn't do enough to protect Christian values abroad.
"Without religious freedom, we lose the ability to even address those other issues," Perkins said of social issues, adding that "a fundamental shift" is underway toward religious freedom but that evangelical voters would not forget conservative values such as traditional marriage come Election Day.
"It is not time to re-think our principles or shrink back from the conflict," he said.
The intraparty debate over social issues has broad implications for the GOP's struggle to improve its brand ahead of the November elections and the 2016 presidential contest. The Republican National Committee released an internal audit after the disappointing 2012 election season calling for party leaders to be more "inclusive and welcoming" on social issues.
"If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues," the report reads.
Libertarian favorite Paul focused largely on Christian persecution abroad, declaring that, "Not a penny should go to any nation that persecutes or kills Christians."
"Our moral compass is wavering," Paul added. "What America needs is not just another politician or more promises. What America needs is a revival."
Jindal's advisers said he would use a similar theme. The Louisiana governor plans to highlight "the silent war on religious liberty," a subject he outlined in a February speech at the Reagan Library.
While much the discussion at the podium focused on religious liberty, the conference will not ignore social issues.
Panel discussions are scheduled with titles like "Pro-Life Battleground 2014" and "The Future of Marriage: To the Supreme Court and Beyond."
There will also be a strong focus on national security and foreign policy.
A dinner reception Saturday will honor Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman initially sentenced to death for refusing to denounce her Christian faith. She left Sudan after a high court reversed her sentence and moved to New Hampshire.
Speakers also addressed rising tensions in the Middle East as the U.S. intensifies its fight against the Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.
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