November 20, 2011 5:59 am

Religion on display in Republican debate

Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination espoused the depth of their Christian faith at a debate on Saturday that underlined the importance of strong religious values to the conservative right.

The candidates – with the notable absence of Mitt Romney, who is widely considered the inevitable nominee but who is viewed with suspicion in some quarters because he is a Mormon – vied to illustrate how God had led them into politics and was motivating their run for the Republican nomination.

The debate was notable for the level of social conservatism on display, something that is sure to appeal to the Tea Party movement.

Each of the six candidates who took part – Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum – took a strong stand against abortion and same-sex marriage.

Mr Paul, the libertarian representative from Texas, said that Congress “should have passed a ‘We the People’ act several years ago” overturning Roe vs Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion, and “saving thousands of lives”.

Ms Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, warned that Planned Parenthood, the health service that provides terminations, would soon begin offering “chemical abortions” in schools. “Everyone deserves protection from our federal government,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, warned that marriage equality “radically changes the entire moral fabric of our country” and said that “sexual revolution” was a “corruption of liberty”.

“Liberty is not what you want to do, but what you ought to do,” he said.

Mr Perry, governor of Texas, said he would push for a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages and marriage equality. He also said that he opposed aid to China because 35,000 abortions a day were performed there, a comment that elicited loud applause.

The debate was hosted by CitizenLink, part of Focus on the Family, a conservative group that describes itself as “a movement of like-minded citizens who want to protect the family and transform the culture of our country”.

Billed as a “Thanksgiving Family Forum,” it was markedly different from other debates, where the candidates stand at podiums on flashy stages. In this debate – more of a discussion since there was little disagreement – the candidates sat at a dinner table decked out with pumpkins and leafy centrepieces.

It also differed from standard debates in the number of viewers it attracted. There were only 7,000 people watching online when the debate started, rising to a maximum of 16,000. This audience paled in comparison to the millions of people who watch the televised debates.

Held in a church in Iowa, it was moderated by Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster who said during the forum that people who prayed were happier and healthier.

Mr Romney and another candidate, Jon Huntsman, who is also a Mormon, did not attend.

Liberals watching the debate derided it on Twitter, with one observer remarking: “President Obama should use campaign money to put [the debate] on network TV in prime time. Re-election guaranteed.”

While Mr Obama is a Christian, he generally does not discuss his faith unprompted and has tried to keep the subject personal. Some Tea Party activists have accused him of being a closet Muslim because some members of his Kenyan family followed Islam – hence his middle name, Hussein – and because he spent time as a child in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

The Republican candidates tried to outdo each other in their level of piety. Ms Bachmann told the audience that “My view of the world is a biblical worldview” while Mr Cain said “the political correctness police” had made devout people reluctant to express their faith.

Mr Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker who has been enjoying a surge in the polls recently, also took aim at the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protesters, a group angry about corporate greed that shares many of the same ideas as the Tea Party, even if diametrically opposed on social issues.

The ‘Occupy’ movement has led to encampments cropping up in cities across the US and around the world, as people – many of them looking rather bedraggled – vent their anger at the richest 1 per cent of society.

Referring to the movement, Mr Gingrich declared that “if you don’t work, you don’t eat,” and told the protesters: “Go get a job right after you take a bath”, to hoots from the crowd.

The movement was proof that “the left has collapsed as a moral system”, he said.

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