PLANO, Texas — Six Republican presidential candidates vying for the Evangelical vote to become the party's nominee for the 2016 general election spoke about the challenges facing the nation and why they're the most qualified person to lead the country during the four-hour North Texas Presidential Forum on Sunday.
While candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties were invited to speak at the forum, which was hosted by the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Prestonwood Baptist Church, it was Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Govs. Mick Huckabee and Jeb Bush, and Dr. Ben Carson who accepted the challenge.
Religious freedom, Islamic State terrorism, abortion, education and the economy were among the top issues discussed by the candidates, who were given around 10 minutes for opening remarks followed by 15 minutes of Q&A with Prestonwood Baptist Church Pastor Jack Graham before an audience of 7,000 people.
Distinguishing herself from Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, Fiorina said she's not only met with nearly as many world leaders as the former secretary of State, but she also did more than get photo ops with them.
"I know more world leaders on the stage today than anyone running, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, only I didn't do photo ops, I had private meetings about business and charity and policy," she said.
"I've held the highest clearances available to a civilian; I've chaired the advisory board at the CIA; I've advised the NSA, two secretaries of Defense, a secretary of Homeland Security and a secretary of State," she added.
When asked by Graham to expound on her Christian faith and opposition to the legalization of abortion, which has led to the deaths of 60 million Americans, Fiorina said she came to believe in the sanctity of life after she witnessed the impact abortion had on the life of a close friend.
"When I was in my early 20s, a very good friend of mine asked me to accompany her when she had an abortion. We went to a Planned Parenthood clinic and I watched as she was given no choices. I watched what that procedure did to her physically, emotionally, spiritually."
She continued: "A little later, I met my husband — we've been married over 30 years — and when we married I learned that his mother had been told to abort him. ... Her son was the joy of her life and he is the rock of mine, and I've thought often how different my life would be had she made a different choice."
Fiorina shared that later in her marriage she learned "in a profoundly personal way how precious a gift life is" after she found out that she wouldn't be able to have children of her own.
Homing in on prayer and faith in leadership, Fiorina said she believes "people of faith make better leaders" because "faith gives us humility, empathy and optimism."
"Humility because we know each of us is made in the image of God and gifted by God," she said. "Faith gives us empathy. We know that every one of us can fall, and each one of us can be redeemed. And humility and empathy are vital in a leader if a leader is to serve and unlock potential in others. And finally, faith gives us optimism — the belief that things can be better and people will rise to the occasion. …"
Garnering a standing ovation when he mentioned his support for Israel, Cruz asserted that "America has receded from leadership in the world, and it's making the world a much more dangerous place," before delving into domestic issues.
"I believe 2016 is going to be a religious liberty election," he said, highlighting specific cases in which Americans have lost their businesses and livelihoods because they refused to participate in gay marriage ceremonies.
Noticeably absent from the North Texas forum was Donald Trump, whom Cruz described as being the most beneficial to his campaign. "Donald has really framed the central issue in this primary as 'who will stand up to Washington?' Now, if that's the central issue, the natural next question is 'who actually has stood up to Washington?' … In that regard my record is different than anyone else on that stage."
Speaking about Christians getting involved in the political process, Cruz asserted that Evangelicals have a responsibility to engage in the political arena and pastors should be leading the movement.
"Census data shows there are about 90 million Evangelicals in America. In the 2012 election, 54 million Evangelicals didn't vote," Cruz asserted. "If believers are staying home, if we are allowing our leaders to be elected by non-believers, is it any wonder we have a federal government that is assaulting life and marriage and religious liberty?"
Santorum, who referred to himself as an Evangelical Catholic, reflected on his record of achievement in Congress as both a member of the House and Senate when, during the Clinton administration, he worked with Senate Democrats on welfare reform, passed a bill to ban partial-birth abortion, and authored legislation to provide health savings accounts as well as impose sanctions on Iran.
The former senator said when he entered the presidential campaign in 2012, he did so because his daughter, Bella, was born with a genetic disability and his family "saw, personally, in our own situation, how care was being withheld."
Santorum said he also noticed that "in countries that use socialized medicine, survival rates of children with disabilities is infinitely smaller. They don't dedicate resources unless there is some useful purpose to the life that they're taking care of.
"So when I saw Obamacare and socialized healthcare, I jumped into it."
When Graham asked Santorum about the Islamic State and combating global terrorism, he was quick to note that he, specifically, was named as a threat by the terror group in its English language magazine.
"There's no doubt that the world is getting much more hostile and violence is on the rise," Santorum said.
"Seven months ago I was in IS' magazine. … I was in IS' magazine under a headline: 'In the words of our enemies.' And there was a picture of me. … IS knows who I am, Iran knows who I am, and when I get sworn into office in January, the enemies of America will know who they have to deal with."
While CNN didn't given Huckabee much airtime during its three-hour Republican presidential candidate debate last month, he got the opportunity to speak for 32 minutes at the candidate forum yesterday.
During his opening remarks, Huckabee quipped: "I've already been given more time than I got in the last debate. There was a point at the debate I was going to give the moderator my phone number [and say] text me if you should decide to ask me something, I'm going out for a sandwich."
A former governor of Arkansas, Huckabee said not only did he spend his time in public office fighting against the political machine in a state where, when he was first elected lieutenant governor he was the fourth Republican elected in the state in 150 years, but specifically, he had to fight against the Clinton political machine.
"You have no idea what a fight is until you spend your entire political life fighting the Clinton political machine, which I had to do in Arkansas, every single election, because they campaigned on behalf of my opponents each election cycle."
Huckabee said he's back in the presidential campaign for a second time (first time was in 2008) to help save the futures of his five grandchildren.
"I refuse to walk through the charred remains of what was once a great county called America and say to them, here it is, this is what we've left you: $20 trillion of debt; Islamic jihadism that is determined to kill you all; a world whose economy is collapsing and no more where people can go to work and expect that if they work hard they'll be rewarded for it, because they'll probably be punished for working hard; and a government that has been completely separated from the constitutional authority it's supposed to live under."
Huckabee then quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14 on "God's formula" to heal a nation.
"How can we ask God to bless a nation that for 42 years had ended the lives of 60 million unborn children?" He asked. "This is uncivilized savagery for which we must repent. But we must do more than be sorry about it, we must change it."
He then argued that passing legislation to defund Planned Parenthood would merely cut funding from one abortion business, not all of them.
"I would invoke the fifth and 14th amendments which already say you cannot deprive a person of their life and liberty without due process and equal protection. So there's only one question to be raised: Is that unborn child a person? And if it is a person, it already has its constitutional rights to life and liberty," he continued.
Speaking about Christian persecution throughout the world, Graham asked Huckabee if he believes Christians in America are also facing persecution, even though they're not facing physical persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ.
"We're already facing it," Huckabee asserted. "One of the reasons I went to Kentucky to stand with Kim Davis, the elected Democrat county clerk of that county, is because if you can put an elected public official in jail for believing the biblical view of marriage, you can criminalize Christianity."
Getting two standing ovations from the audience during his talk and Q&A, Carson, the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, shared his personal story (which is familiar to those who've listened to him speak in the past), of growing up in a single-parent household and how his illiterate mother transformed his education.
Carson also shared his personal testimony, and said he committed his life to Christ after he nearly stabbed a teenager he was fighting, which horrified him. The boy ran off and he ran home and cried out to God to temper his anger. He then locked himself in the bathroom and read the Bible for three hours, including Proverbs 19:19 and 16:32, and then and there his life was forever changed.
Delving into issues surrounding education, economic instability and race relations, Carson was asked by Graham to talk about violence in America, specifically the need for reconciliation and healing between police and the communities they serve, and how he, as a leader, would unite people.
The "Gifted Hands" author said he visited Ferguson, Missouri, a couple months ago and met with community leaders and police officers who were already working to form better relationships with one another. That experience reinforced his already held belief that communities need to form bonds and strong relationships with each other and their residents.
He added that he would start by not talking about "Democrat things" or "Republican things" but "American things."
On a much larger scale, Carson noted that with China's and India's populations dwarfing the U.S., not one American's talents can be wasted.
"We, as a nation, have to be willing to invest in each other. We only have 330 million people in this country. We're competing against China and India, places that have over a billion people. We have to develop all of our people, we can't afford to lose any of them [to incarceration, gang violence]."
Two threats to the nation's stability, Carson continued, are the national debt and the "failure to take our leadership role in the world."
"Thomas Jefferson said it was immoral to pass debt to the next generation. If we could bring him back right now, he would just stroke out right now, to see what we're doing," Carson quipped.
"I'm going to make sure the American people understand what the fiscal gap is … because you'll understand the economic instability that underlies our financial structure right now, and it is frightening."
"And when somebody comes along and says 'free college for everyone,' your reaction would be to laugh if you understood where we are right now."
Regarding leadership, Carson used NASA and the space program as one example of where the U.S. is no longer leading and falling behind.
"We have to get back into space. We now have to pay Russia $77 million to send one astronaut up to the space station. Also, look at the inventions that came out of the space program. Your cell phone came out of the space program. In the future, he who controls space will control the Earth."
Lastly, speaking about jihadists, Carson alluded to Obama's failure to name IS as a radical Islamic jihadist terror group and carry out a strategy to destroy them.
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, and son and brother to two former U.S. presidents, talked about his conversion from being an Episcopalian to a member of the Catholic Church, the faith of his wife, Columba, and how it has shaped her perception of life.
"The thing I admire most about the Catholic faith is the basic foundation element is that life is precious, it is a gift from God. It is not ours to take. Everybody has value; everybody has an asset. Whether you're a developmentally disabled child, a frail elder, or an unborn baby, life has value and should be respected from beginning to end," Bush said.
As governor, Bush said he acted on those core beliefs when his legislature defunded Planned Parenthood, banned partial-birth abortion, and was the first state to offer "choose life" license plates "to make sure money was going to adoptions."
Bush added that under his leadership, Florida was the first, if not the only state, to allocate $4 million a year to crisis pregnancy centers.
The second value of Bush's faith, he said, was the Catholic concept subsidiarity.
"Basically, it means that decisions need to be made from the bottom up. That we solve problems in our families, in communities, and then maybe through the government at the local, then state and ultimately, the federal government level," he said.
"In the last six years we've done the exact opposite. We've made it harder for families to make decisions for themselves. … My goal, as a candidate is to have strong, loving families as the most powerful political institution in our society, and that we solve problems locally. …"
Bush said that when he looks at legislation and laws, he asks one question: Will this strengthen families?
"We have a marriage penalty, where being married means you have a higher tax rate. We have welfare reform that makes non-work more relevant than work; then when you start to work you lose the benefits. To restore this we need a culture of work and we need to strengthen family life — that's how you get back to the basics of this great country," he continued.
"The final thing I say is: The next president of the United States is going to have to fight for religious freedom — fight for it with his heart and soul. … Why would we want to restrict people who are acting on their conscience to feed the homeless and care for the needy? But that's exactly what's going on in our country today. …"
"We need to make sure religious freedom is front and center [not just in the American church] but also around the world. Who's going to take care of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and Africa? No one but the U.S. stands for the values to protest the oppressed. I believe it's important as a country to restore those values once again.