June 20, 2014 11:06:46 AM
WASHINGTON -- Leading Republicans on Thursday insisted that America's leaders must do more to defend Christian values at home and abroad, blaming President Barack Obama for attacks on religious freedom as they courted social conservatives expected to play a critical role in the next presidential contest.
"Those of us inspired by Judeo-Christian values...have an obligation to our country and to our fellow man to use our positions of influence to highlight those values," Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio said at a conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by long-time Christian political activist Ralph Reed.
Rubio, the first of several prospective Republican presidential candidates scheduled to speak, charged that Obama's policies "completely ignore the importance of families and values on our society, thinking that instead those things can be replaced by laws and government programs."
Organizers said more than 1,000 evangelical leaders are attending the conference, designed to mobilize religious conservative voters ahead of the upcoming midterm elections and the 2016 presidential contest. While polls suggest that social conservatives are losing their fight against gay marriage, Republican officials across the political spectrum concede that evangelical Christian voters continue to play a critical role in Republican politics.
"You can ignore them, but you do so at our own peril," said Republican operative Hogan Gidley, who has worked for former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
In the 2012 general election, exit polls showed that white evangelical and born-again Christians made up 26 percent of the electorate. The group has far more power in lower turnout Republican primary elections.
This week's conference highlights the balancing act leading Republicans face as they work to bridge internal divisions and improve the Republican Party's image. While religious conservatives continue to wield influence in the GOP, just last year the Republican National Committee released an exhaustive report calling on Republicans to adopt an "inclusive and welcoming" tone on divisive social issues.
"The Republican Party has given up on even trying to change. They're not even pretending anymore," Democratic National Committee chairman Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said in a conference call shortly before the conference began. "They've given up on any attempt to rebrand or reach out to new voters -- and in many cases they've moved in the opposite direction."
"It's clear that the GOP has redefined the far right," she continued.
There was little talk of abortion or gay marriage on the main stage in the conservative conference on Thursday, however. Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz largely sidestepped direct mention of lightning-rod issues in favor of less-controversial themes.
Cruz highlighted what he called failures in the Obama administration that allowed attacks on Christians abroad, particularly in the escalating violence across Iraq.
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