This morning’s prayer breakfast began predictably enough. In a hotel ballroom here in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Republicans are gathering ahead of Monday night’s candidates’ debate, the room was packed with hundreds of social conservatives and evangelical Christians. The emcee’s opening remarks declared, “It is not in government we trust; it is in God we trust.” Then came a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Organizers had forgot to bring in an American flag so the audience was asked to recite the pledge “to the flag inscribed upon our hearts.” (A flag was promptly rushed in.) Next a pastor led an invocation, asking God to help America “turn from our wicked ways” and “heal our land.” Some in the audience prayed with their eyes closed, others with a hand upraised. “Contrary to what so many believe,” he declared. “We are still a God-fearing Christian nation.”
But then, rather than turn to traditional social conservative issues of abortion, marriage, or school prayer, the agenda turned abruptly to foreign policy. (Almost an hour of breakfasting would go by before the word “abortion” was mentioned.)
The first item on the agenda was a “Prayer for Israel.” The speaker was Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who has argued some landmark religious liberty cases before the US Supreme Court. Sekulow launched into a critique of Obama’s policy toward Israel, which he called “dangerous”: “I am confident that the Republican nominee will defend our ally more than the current administration has.”
Turning to the Middle East, Sekulow continued to attack Obama’s foreign policy: “The Arab Spring has turned into the Fall and Winter of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Sekulow. He blamed the president for ignoring Iranian freedom activists. “The president backed a revolution in Egypt and left 1.5 million Iranians by themselves on the streets calling for the removal of a regime that is the most dangerous regime in the region. We the United States of America did nothing. Then we bragged about the fact that Mubarak is out of power and now look what has replaced him: 65% of the new Egyptian legislature is Islamist.” Sekulow asked the audience to pray for “the peace of Jerusalem” and “the protection of our countries and our leaders.”
It turns out that it was no accident that the Middle East got top billing at an event geared at evangelical Christians in this conservative state. The breakfast along with other events to be held later in the day was organized by the “Faith and Freedom Coalition” – a new incarnation of the powerhouse Christian Coalition which helped elect Republicans and fight Bill Clinton’s policies in the 1990s. This new Coalition was founded in 2009 by Ralph Reed, who was the executive director of Pat Robertson’s fundamentalist and evangelical Christian Coalition founded 20 years earlier. Reed has touted the group as the “21st century version of the Christian Coalition.” The group’s principles include the traditional issues “sanctity of life”, “traditional marriage”, but also “limited government,” and: “Victory in the struggle with terrorism and tyranny while supporting our democratic allies, including Israel.”
The group’s leader, Reed, also spoke at the breakfast. “We had a very strong Christian Coalition organization here in the 1990s. But I want to tell you: you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Reed said. “The Faith and Freedom Coalition is going to be the strongest pro-family conservative movement in the history of this state and we’re going to make sure that from the court house to the White House that we have office holders and candidate that aren’t afraid to stand up for the Gospels and the principles that made this country great!”
Reed then went on to introduce former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, whom he called “the most effective conservative and pro-family legislator of his generation.” Santorum is also a foreign policy hawk who has said he “hopes” the US has been involved in the killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, and has advocates air strikes to “take out” Iran’s nuclear facilities.
On Saturday, Santorum had been endorsed by a group of 150 evangelical and social conservative leaders who met in Texas and went through several rounds of balloting to meet their goal of rallying behind a single candidate. The result was a blow to Rick Perry who did not make it past the first ballot – and to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been polling ahead of Santorum in South Carolina. The social conservative leaders had been urging one another to coalesce behind a single candidate in order to defeat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who they consider unreliable on social issues.
Santorum told the breakfast crowd that he considered their endorsement “miraculous.” Santorum’s remarks to the breakfast hewed to traditional social issues. (“Life begins at conception. This is not a belief; it is a biological fact.”) He also linked social conservatism to economic issues. (“When the family breaks down, the economy breaks down.)
Meanwhile, the conservative author, Eric Metaxas, who has endorsed Santorum, called on Perry to drop out. “It’s more likely that some of these wonderful men that are running will hear God’s voice and get out of the race before Saturday for the good of this country.”
For his part, Perry, showed no sign of pulling out of the race before the vote. He made a personal and emotional appeal to the religious voters: “At the age of 14, I walked down that aisle and gave my heart to Jesus Christ,” he said. “A few times in my life I tried to take it back, but he would never leave me alone.”
Perry got a standing ovation too.