TAMPA — Christian conservatives have said it before, but this time they say they mean it more than ever: President Barack Obama's "war on religion" makes this year's election the most important in American history.
"The church has allowed this to happen," said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, noting 17 million evangelical Christians didn't vote in 2008. "I vowed that after the 2008 elections that as long as I have breath in my body that was never going to happen in America again."
Newt Gingrich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas were among party heavyweights lined up by the Faith and Freedom Coalition on Sunday to berate Obama's social and economic policies.
Addressing 1,000 people at the Tampa Theatre, the speakers lauded Mitt Romney but steered clear of talking up his religious views. Only Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker who fell short of the party's nomination this year, somewhat addressed Romney's Mormon faith.
"I'm delighted that he has a faith, and I'm delighted that it matters to him," Gingrich said. "That's a big improvement amongst our left-wing secular elites."
Most of the focus was on Obama.
Incoming Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said Obama does not believe in "the very pillars that this country was founded upon." Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly skewered Obama for thanking everyone but God at a White House Thanksgiving celebration. Gingrich mocked Obama for bowing "to a Saudi king."
The White House has said the president is a committed Christian who prays daily. His autobiographies describe a winding road to his Christian faith.
Their fury went beyond Obama's support of gay marriage and abortion rights. Several targeted the administration's controversial rule requiring religious institutions to, as Reed put it, "violate their own religious conscience" by covering contraception in employees' health care plans.
"My friends, this is an injustice that we are not going to let stand, and either in the courts or on Election Day, we're going to end it once and for all," Reed said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who in June survived a recall election, was welcomed like royalty, save for a handful of Occupy Tampa and Occupy Chicago protesters. They waited quietly through the two-hour program but stood up and yelled "Walker hates workers!" as he began his address. Others in the balcony tried unfurling banners that said, "Walker hates working families." Police issued warnings to six protesters.
Safety Harbor resident Lora Platt teared up throughout the speeches and got emotional again when asked by a reporter what she thought of the event.
"Four more years of Obama," she said while wiping her eyes, "we won't have a country left."
Talk of the weather was inevitable. Cruz joked that the crowd should be thankful for the storm.
"If nothing else, it kept Joe Biden away," referring to the vice president's canceled Florida swing.
Mike Huckabee, the Fox News host and former Arkansas governor, used the hurricane as an anti-Obama metaphor.
"We will take a hurricane getting near us in August, but we will make sure that the hurricane of this administration is way, way, way away from us come January of next year," he said.
Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at [email protected]