OXON HILL, Md. — Messages of faith and freedom washed over attendees at the the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, but the annual effort to fire up a key GOP political base featured plenty of raw meat for those interested in other issues.
The annual CPAC event, which is designed to fire up a traditional GOP base of values oriented voters and serve as an audition for potential presidential candidates, took a decidedly faith-based focus this year with comments from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and others.
“This president seems to believe that our religious rights, our First Amendment rights, start and end in the pews on Sunday,” Jindal told the CPAC crowd in a Thursday address. “It is amazing: I knew this administration didn’t like the Second Amendment to the Constitution; I thought they might still like the First.”
Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who spoke Friday, cited America's divine roots in his speech, "There’s no other way that can explain our history except by his hand of providence.”
Huckabee added, "I know that this nation exists by the providence of His hand, and that if this nation forgets our God, then God would have every right to forget us. ... I hope that we repent before we receive his fiery judgment.
But neither Jindal nor Huckabee finished in the top five of the 2016 presidential "leader board" unveiled at the end of the day. Instead, it was retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin S. Carson Sr., an African-American whose quiet conservatism brought some listeners to tears, who garnered 9 percent of the vote, edging out New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who drew 8 percent.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won the poll with 31 percent, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz polled 11 percent support for second place. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker each had 7 percent of the vote.
Carson, who polled only 4 percent at last year's CPAC and was a write-in in this year's straw poll ballot, brought the audience to their feet with a 15-minute speech that had all the earmarks of a campaign address.
But Carson — who told the Deseret News in advance of the CPAC event that he would rely "on the Holy Spirit" to tell him what to say there — was more oblique about religious liberty matters, sticking instead to issues such as a need to repeal the Affordable Care Act and combating political correctness.
"When the facts were shown, people made adjustments," Carson said of his decades in medicine. "That doesn't happen in the political world, because we are dealing with ideologues. The only people who can stop it is us."
He said, "The majority of (the American) people have common sense, the problem is they have been beaten into submission."
As the audience rose to its feet, many holding "Run, Ben, Run" banners distributed by an unaffiliated political committee, Carson declared, "It's time for people to stand up and proclaim what they believe and stop being bullied."
Clearly in sympathetic territory, Carson, who drew dozens of fans who paid extra for a six-second "meet and greet" photo before his speech, assailed the culture of political correctness, which he said blunts the exchange of ideas.
"I am not a fan of political correctness, I hate political correctness," he said. "I will continue to defy the PC police who have tried in many cases to shut me up. I actually find them pretty amusing. I still believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Because I happen to mention that nobody gets to change the definition of marriage, and mentioned some other categories, they claim Carson said gay marriage and beastiality is the same. Of course it isn't."
He added, "Gay people should have the same rights as everyone else, but they don't get extra rights."
Carson said he would defy critics who attempted to block him from speaking at an Atlanta banquet next weekend, saying they claimed his views would "poison" the minds of his hearers.
He elicited cheers when he asked "would it be the 'poison' of putting what God says in front of what any man says?"
According to the Associated Press, some Republican leaders warned against CPAC speakers emphasizing hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage in this year's midterm elections.
But Sara Palin, the GOP's 2008 vice presidential nominee, suggested Republicans should ignore the advice of the party establishment.
"We're the party with the plank that protects even our littlest sisters in the womb," she said Saturday. "We are the real women liberators."
Along with the highly charged reception from the CPAC audience, Carson was warmly praised by the man who introduced him, Timothy Goeglein, external relations vice president at Focus on the Family.
"Ben Carson embodies everything we believe about our first principles," Goeglein said. "I remember what the original conservative, Edmund Burke, once said, that 'One man, with conviction, makes a majority.' Perhaps he was thinking about Ben Carson ."
Carson drew emotional reactions from his hearers. Along with the "Run, Ben, Run," banners, the physician's words touched Michael and Susan Najvar from Gonzales, Texas. Each, separately, said, "I love Ben Carson" when asked their response to his remarks, with Michael Najar telling a reporter, "I'm going to tear up again, but I cried three times during his speech."
Patience Cox, a homeschooled high school freshman from Cascade, Md., said the speeches were "very good," and said she was glad "there were people who talked about religious freedom" at the event, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
And 62-year-old David Newman of Crofton, Md., said he found the CPAC speakers "stimulating and motivational," prompting him "to do more" politically in his community. Was he anxious to hear about religious liberty issues? Yes, he said, since "most conservatives have a strong faith."