GOP presidential candidates and conservative stars celebrated some of America's most courageous Christians on stage Friday at the Values Voter Summit held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Several Republican contenders also rejoiced at Friday's announcement that GOP House Speaker John Boehner will retire at the end of October, and the declaration brought the crowd to its feet in ecstatic applause.
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Many of the GOP candidates shared their own visions for America and made compelling cases for why voters should send them to the White House in 2016.
Dr. Ben Carson
Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and one of the highest polling candidates for the Republican nomination, spoke of America's greatness during his speech at the summit. He also stressed the need for God to remain a part of American life.
"We have to stop allowing the progressives to drive God out of our land," he said.
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"You know, we must be willing – we must be willing to stand up for it, because as they drive Him out, look at the direction that we're going in. It's a downward spiral. We need to stop it now."
Carson also said he gets irritated when he hears people complain that America is a terrible place and a source of all evil in the world.
"If we're so bad, why is everybody trying to get in here and nobody's trying to escape?" he asked rhetorically.
Carson briefly touched on the immigration and refugee issue, saying the U.S. must be kind to people from other nations, but he warned that anti-American influences should never be allowed to infiltrate the country.
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"Anybody is welcome to come to America as far as I'm concerned, as long as they meet all of our criteria," he explained. "But they don't get to change who we are."
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David and Jason Benham – real-estate entrepreneurs who were famously dropped from an HGTV home-flipping show due to their belief in biblical marriage – invited eight courageous Christians on stage.
The brothers called on the following people who have stood for their Christian beliefs amid public opposition: Oregon bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein, Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman, former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran and Sgt. Phillip Mlyonk, who was relieved of his Air Force duties because of his traditional marriage beliefs. Joining them was Casey Davis, another Kentucky county clerk who is refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and Rich and Betty Odgaard, former owners of an Iowa wedding chapel.
All eight of those people have had their livelihoods threatened because of their Christian convictions, and the Benham brothers, who are exclusive WND columnists, thanked them for standing with courage.
Jason said Americans today have the wrong idea about standing up for their beliefs: They treat it like a chore when it's really an opportunity. He said Christians "get to" stand for biblical values; it's not something they "have to" do.
As WND reported, the Benham brothers were elated when a production company first approached them about starring in their own reality TV show.
Eventually five networks made offers, with HGTV submitting the best: six one-hour episodes, straight to TV, with no pilot episode necessary. The show was to be called "Flip it Forward" and would feature the Benham brothers transforming fixer-uppers into dream homes for families. As Christians, they felt graced by God.
Then it crashed. A liberal "watchdog" organization made a campaign of what HGTV already knew – that the brothers believed in the standards established in the Bible regarding marriage, life and more. It came out in the media, however, as "anti-gay." And "anti-choice." But the show was canceled because of pressure from liberal and progressive interests.
David told the Values Voter audience what he and Jason suffered was not persecution; it was pressure.
Persecution, he said, is when babies are aborted or Christians have their heads cut off in the Middle East.
The brothers urged Christians to have strong faith when facing pressure or persecution. Jason used fire as an example. When a person blows on a candle, he said, it goes out. But if he blows on a fireplace full of burning embers, it only ignites a bigger flame. Likewise, he said, persecution will only strengthen the resolve of those with an already-strong faith.
Part of the brothers' new platform is a book, "Whatever the Cost: Facing Your Fears, Dying to Your Dreams, and Living Powerfully," released after they were fired.
The brothers credit God for their business success. They now own and run 13 companies, not just in the real-estate industry, but also in automotive marketing and tax and financial services.
Sen. Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, promised to instruct the IRS, Justice Department and other government agencies that "the persecution of liberty ends today." He pointed to Kim Davis, who was at the summit.
"Six months, a year ago, if I had come and said that a Christian woman was going to be thrown in jail – locked up in jail – for living her faith, the media would have dismissed me as a nutcase," Cruz said. "That's where we are today."
Cruz also referenced Boehner's resignation Friday during his morning speech.
"You want to know how much each of you terrify Washington?" Cruz asked the audience. "Yesterday, John Boehner was speaker of the House. Y'all come to town, and somehow that changes. My only request is, can you come more often?"
Cruz sounded his familiar anti-Washington message during his speech.
"If you see a candidate Washington embraces, run and hide," he warned the crowd.
Cruz based his talk around the things he promises to do on his first day as president if he's elected. The first thing he promised to do is rescind all of Obama's unconstitutional executive actions.
"The president tells us he's got a phone and he's got a pen," the senator said. "Well, you live by the pen, you die by the pen.
"And my pen has an eraser," he quipped.
Other first-day priorities for Cruz include opening an investigation into Planned Parenthood, ripping up the "catastrophic" Iran nuclear deal and beginning the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
And that's only the first day of four, or possibly eight, years, he said.
"By the end of eight years, this ballroom is going to be a whole lot bigger," Cruz declared to cheers from the audience. "And by the end of eight years, there are going to be a whole lot of reporters and newspaper editors and journalists who've checked themselves into therapy."
Cruz warned that Washington wants to divide conservatives into warring camps so a moderate Republican can easily cruise to the nomination before losing the general election. The senator pleaded for unity among his ideological brethren.
"We have a simple task before us," he said. "If conservatives unite, we win."
Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio used the moment to make a new policy announcement during his Friday morning speech. The Florida Republican proposed a limited 25 percent nonrefundable tax credit for any business that offers between four and 12 weeks of paid family leave to its employees.
The candidate, as he often does, spoke at length about his Cuban immigrant parents.
"I was also privileged because I was raised with something that's become increasingly rare," Rubio said. "I was raised in a stable home by a mother and a father, a man and a woman who were married" – the audience interrupted with applause – "who loved each other, who loved their children, who were an active presence in our life."
But the senator acknowledged many parents do not have an active presence in their children's lives. Because of financial pressures, they must choose between working long hours to provide for their families and being physically present for their children in times of need.
Rubio said the 12 weeks of unpaid leave currently mandated by law is not enough for many Americans who can't afford such a long period without any pay. But rather than ask government to step in, he proposed the use of tax credits to incentivize businesses to offer more paid family leave.
In the middle of Rubio's speech, he announced to the packed ballroom that Speaker John Boehner would be resigning from Congress in October. The crowd erupted into cheers upon hearing the news.
"I'm not here today to bash anyone," Rubio said. "But the time has come to turn the page. The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country."
Rick Santorum, meanwhile, mostly sought to draw distinctions between himself and other GOP presidential contenders.
Santorum said most of the GOP candidates have unacceptable views on the immigration issue because they focus only on securing the border. While Santorum said that's a necessary step, he argued that it's only the first step. He said the U.S. must tell those who have overstayed their visas to return home.
He also stressed that America must limit legal immigration as well because more legal immigrants are flooding into the country than ever. The former Pennsylvania senator asserted he is the only candidate in the race who has proposed eliminating a couple of immigration categories and reducing the number of legal immigrants by 25 percent.
"Almost every single person in this race is for more legal immigration," he said. "Some want to double it, including the senators who spoke here this morning. Some want to take some categories and increase them by 500 percent, like some of the senators who spoke here this morning."
Santorum also lambasted fellow candidates who have indicated "it's time to move on" now that the Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right, even though dissenting justices believe the Court acted unconstitutionally.
"If you're not willing to fight for the Constitution, for the First Amendment, and for the American family, why are you running for president as a Republican?" Santorum asked.
The former senator also struck a populist tone, claiming the Republican Party is not the caricature many leftists imagine.
"I know who the Republican Party is," he said. "I know who the conservative movement is in this country. They're not Wall Street. They're not people who live in the big homes in the Hamptons. They don't vote for us anymore. [The people] who vote for us are people who love this country, who want an opportunity to rise, who believe in faith and family and opportunity, and are looking for a party."
Gov. Bobby Jindal
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal claimed the Republican Party is becoming the party of big business interests, and it wants open borders.
"I'm actually angrier with the Republicans than with the Democrats," he said.
Jindal wondered: Why won't Republicans fight half as hard for their values as Democrats do for theirs?
He decried what he sees as a choice between "honest socialists" and "lying conservatives." The inference was that socialists are open about big government intentions, but those who claim to be "conservative" are actually not conservative at all.
Jindal also offered his opinion of Speaker Boehner's resignation, saying it was one down, 434 to go.
"It's time to clean shop in Washington, D.C.," he declared.
The former governor said the country needs a doer, not a talker.
In a veiled reference to the filibusters of Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Jindal quipped, "I'm glad they've got big bladders. That doesn't qualify them to be president."
Jindal told the audience the "idea of America" is slipping away. He cited $18 trillion of debt, Planned Parenthood selling baby parts, Obama's refusal to say "radical Islam," and a Supreme Court that has redefined marriage, among other things.
"Shame on those fools in D.C. that are giving away the idea of America," he cried. "Shame on us if we let it happen!"
Mike Huckabee articulated a similar anti-Washington message during his afternoon speech. The former Arkansas governor touted the fact that he's never lived, worked or received a paycheck in Washington, D.C.
He claimed he doesn't want to be part of Washington, but wants to "burn down that which is corrupt."
Like Jindal, Huckabee said he is angry that Republicans in the majority aren't doing anything differently than when they were a minority in Congress.
He said most Americans have been pummeled.
"It's time to quit taking a punch in the gut, and give this government a kick in the butt!" Huckabee declared.
The governor said he offers true leadership, which means getting the job done.
"I've heard enough speeches in America," he said. "I want some leadership to change America."
Huckabee also promised to take the lead in pro-life matters. He said America must do more than cut funding for one abortion organization, Planned Parenthood.
As president, he promised to advocate for personhood of unborn children and use Fifth Amendment protections to safeguard human life.
Huckabee concluded by saying he doesn't want his grandchildren to walk through the "charred remains" of a once-great America, but through a still-great America.