WINTER PARK, FL — It had all the makings of a bad joke: an adulterer-turned Catholic whose campaign is underwritten by a Jewish casino tycoon, walked into a Baptist church where the audience had been primed with speeches about how “God intended” marriage to be “between one man and one woman” and how their state was on the verge of being taken over by the “vice” of gambling.
But it wasn’t a joke, it was a Newt Gingrich campaign appearance at a Presidential Forum, hosted by the conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel and others, at Aloma Baptist Church in Winter Park, Florida, just north of Orlando.
Gingrich was running late, so the event co-sponsors filled time with over-the-top God-and-country songs, prayer, and speeches about the causes their organizations promote.
Liberty Counsel, the Christian right legal group headed by Liberty University Law School Dean Mat Staver, was the lead co-sponsor. Others included the Florida Family Action, which spearheaded the anti-gay marriage measure that passed here in 2008; the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, an offshoot of the American Principles Project, founded by Manhattan Declaration author Robert George; the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Personhood USA, the national organization pushing ballot measures declaring fertilized eggs persons; and Champion the Vote, the get-out-the-vote project of United in Purpose, the non-profit organization funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists which, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, “is using sophisticated data-mining techniques to compile a database of every unregistered born-again and evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic in the country.”
Although event organizers emphasized that their organizations do not endorse candidates, Staver has endorsed Gingrich, and serves on his national faith leaders team. Florida Family Action president John Stemberger endorsed Rick Santorum. That split was representative of the meeting of religious right leaders in Texas just before the South Carolina primary, which produced a contested “consensus” for Santorum, although many of the attendees were still in the Gingrich camp. Voters I spoke to at the event yesterday, though, either hadn’t heard about the meeting or were unswayed by its results, saying that the endorsements of leaders did not influence their decisions on who to vote for. (Later that evening at another event, Gingrich received the endorsement of Herman Cain, and Santorum cancelled Sunday’s campaign stops in Florida after his daughter Bella was hospitalized.)
Organizers said they had distributed 1,800 tickets, and the pews in the church were nearly full, with several hundred, if not nearly a thousand people in attendance. Gingrich was the only candidate to appear; Staver, the “forum’s” moderator took pains to point out that they had invited the other candidates. Santorum and Ron Paul had commitments outside of Florida. Mitt Romney, the candidate Staver and other leaders of religious right groups have attempted to stop by endorsing other candidates, did not respond to the invitation. (Romney has repeatedly declined to speak at forums held by Personhood USA, and has not signed the group’s pledge, a fact the group raises pointedly in public statements.)
Many Santorum supporters showed up for the event, including some of the Duggar children, who have been campaigning hard in several early states. “The whole Duggar family is glad to be supporting Rick,” Jill Duggar, 20, told me. “He is a humble servant, he is the true conservatives in the race.” She insisted that support for Santorum is not wavering even in the face of polls showing him significantly behind both Romney and Gingrich. For this one-of-19 daughter of a reality show that depicts a fundamentalist Christian view of the role of women, motherhood, and reproduction, supporters look at Santorum and say, “hey, he’s like us, he’s a man of character, he’s a humble guy, he’s on our level, he’s somebody we can relate to. He’s somebody who can make a difference for America. And that’s what we want to do, we want a voice that can speak for us.”
Still, despite the pro-Santorum sentiment, Gingrich brought the crowd to its feet with some of his responses to questions. Among his big applause lines: his statement that stem cell research was “never about science,” but about “the secular left” using “science to justify desensitizing us” to the “sacredness of life as a gift of God.” Others included his proposal to issue executive orders within two hours of taking office to “abolish all White House czars;” reinstate the global gag rule, which would prohibit foreign NGOs receiving U.S. aid from discussing abortion with clients; and move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
It’s hard to overstate how potent the Israel issue was with this audience. Each time it was mentioned it drew cheers and standing ovations. Staver, while he was awaiting Gingrich’s arrival, discussed his recent private meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling him “the Ronald Reagan of Israel” and added, “we need people who are running for office who will boldly stand for the nation of Israel.” Gingrich obviously anticipated the audience’s reaction to all things Israel, because he used it when he got a question from Stemberger, who had given a brief speech about his opposition to the the expansion of casino gambling in Florida, about the $10 million funding of the super PAC Winning Our Future by casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson and his wife. Gingrich first claimed that there’s no super PAC coordination between him and his “friend” Adelson, and then emphasized that Adelson’s “passion in life is the survival of Israel.” He and Adelson are in agreement, Gingrich said, “that Iran is a deep, immediate threat posing the risk of a second Holocaust.” The audience reacted with an emotional “yes.” Gingrich may not be their Esther, but he certainly knows how to eclipse the concern over the Adelson gambling money.
If the polls are right, Gingrich won’t be able to catch Romney here in Florida. And while Gingrich appeared to redeem himself at Aloma Church from a tepid debate performance Thursday night, every voter I spoke to—pro-Santorum, pro-Gingrich, and undecided—said they would vote for Romney over Obama in the general election. Gail St. Pierre, the Flagler County Chair of Santorum’s campaign, told me she believed Obama is a Muslim and an “illegal alien.” Indeed, suspicion about Islam ran high here. State Senator Alan Hays received probably the most boisterous standing ovation of the day when he was introduced as the sponsor of a bill that would ban the use of “foreign” (i.e., sharia) law.
Florida religious right leaders seem to see this moment, even if Gingrich or Santorum can’t catch Romney, to build a Christian get-out-the-vote drive for the general election and beyond. Don Wildmon, the American Family Association founder, bankroller of Rick Perry’s The Response rally, and now-endorser of Gingrich, introduced the list of registrants at The Response to United in Purpose, writing at the time that “research has shown that it takes only 5 million voters to influence the outcome of an election. This is a do-able goal, and Champion the Vote is seeking Champions—an army of volunteers—to help with the effort. A Champion is simply a Christian talking to other Christians about registering and voting.”
Stemberger has been involved in the United in Purpose events, too, according to the Florida Independent. He had originally endorsed Rick Perry, but switched to Santorum after the Texas meeting of religious right leaders. United in Purpose held “One Nation Under God” events at 34 Florida churches last year, at which they showed a DVD featuring Gingrich and other religious right figures. According to the group’s website, it is launching a new, nationwide “One Nation Under God” campaign, because “We’ve lost sight of our great heritage as a nation founded on Biblical truth, and the consequences are dire: schools are failing, the divorce rate is climbing, and our society is rife with scandal and corruption. It’s time to reclaim our Biblical heritage and bring God back to the center of American life.” Stemberger was undoubedly looking beyond the primary with this message. Florida, he reminded the audience, “is a key battleground state.”