BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. Bobby Jindal told Christian evangelicals gathered at an all-day prayer rally Saturday that the nation needs a "spiritual revival," as he continued to court religious conservatives for a possible presidential campaign.
The rally attracted thousands to the basketball arena on LSU's campus but drew controversy both because of the group hosting it, the American Family Association, and Jindal's well-advertised headlining appearance.
Holding his Bible, the two-term Republican governor opened the event by urging a revival to "begin right here, right here in our hearts." Later Saturday afternoon, he described his conversion to Christianity as a teenager.
While people sang, raised their hands in prayer and gave their personal testimonies inside the arena, hundreds more protested the event outside early in the day.
Jindal insisted the rally was a religious event, not a political one — even as participants prayed for religion to guide political decision-making.
"Today is about humbling ourselves before the Lord. Today we repent for our sins," he said. Later Jindal told attendees: "We can't just elect a candidate to fix our country. … We need a spiritual revival to fix our country."
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry headlined a similar prayer event in 2011 only days before launching his White House bid.
And the event comes as Jindal has held meetings with pastors in the key presidential campaign states of Iowa and New Hampshire and spoken at gatherings of faith leaders and conservative activists in several states, trying to gain traction among a crowded field of potential candidates in the hunt for the 2016 GOP nomination.
Several state lawmakers and local elected officials appeared on stage for the rally. State Sen. Jonathan Perry prayed for "more born-again Christians" to be added to the Louisiana Legislature.
The governor's appearance at the prayer rally kept him from the Iowa Freedom Summit, a more prominent event with social conservatives that attracted several potential GOP presidential contenders.
Outside the prayer event, critics held a protest, saying the American Family Association, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group, promotes discrimination against people who are gay or of non-Christian faiths.
Protesters accused Jindal of using the rally for political gain.
"I just knew this wasn't what LSU stands for. These aren't LSU values, Louisiana values or American values," said Peter Jenkins, a 26-year-old graduate student and protest organizer.
Jindal hasn't commented directly on the views of the American Family Association, which has linked same-sex marriage and abortion to disasters such as tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina.
The governor was raised by Hindu parents but converted to Catholicism in high school. He has described himself as an "evangelical Catholic."
Saturday's prayer rally, however, wasn't embraced by local Catholic leaders.
Catholic leaders participated in an antiabortion march on LSU's campus that featured a speech from Jindal. But when the marchers merged into the prayer rally, the Catholic organizations weren't following them, said Robert Tasman, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"The event was viewed more as an evangelical event with a political tone to it, and the bishops don't participate in such events," he said.