06/04/2011 08:29 am ET | Updated Aug 04, 2011

Faith And Freedom Conference: How Will Religion Affect Evangelical Votes?

WASHINGTON, D.C. –- Fifteen years ago, Phil DaCosta spent Sundays passing out voter guides at his church about where congressional candidates stood on abortion and school prayer as part of a Christian Coalition chapter he lead at his Southern Baptist congregation in Florida.

Now a married father of a three-year-old living in Atlanta, the self-described “values voter” hopped on a bus this week with dozens of Tea Party supporters who came from as far as Florida and Iowa to attend the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the nation's capital. The two-day event ending Saturday night is intended to reinvigorate the religious right ahead of 2012 elections.

“I vote on Jesus first,” said DaCosta, 42, who recently joined a Tea Party chapter and said he wants lower taxes and a smaller government. “Israel, abortion, marriage, those are my first issues.”

He's the exact kind of voter that Ralph Reed, the veteran political strategist and former Christian Coalition director, wants to unite under his relatively new organization that aims to fuse the Bible-based value voting of traditional social conservatives with the grassroots momentum of the Tea Party to form a bloc of voters big enough to influence state and national elections.

But DaCosta may be a unique example.

Attendees donned American flag-print outfits, there were speeches on fiscal restraint and top-tier Republican presidential candidates and potential candidates touted their patriotism at Friday's high-profile event. The two dozen of attendees interviewed by The Huffington Post included a mix of political strategists, campaign volunteers and curious Americans from across the country who came to see speakers such as Utah Gov. John Huntsman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneota Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Yet the role of faith in the attendees' politics was less clear.

“I'm Christian, but I don't go to a church. I believe in the Bible, but I vote on policies,” said Harold White, a 62-year-old from South Carolina who had joined on the Tea Party bus to the conference. “I would never vote for a Mormon,” he added, such as Huntsman or a former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also spoke, “because their beliefs are plain weird.”

The conservative Christian political landscape has changed since the 1990s, when the Christian Coalition rose to prominence with its extensive voter lists, big pockets and outsized influence among politicians. Scholars who study the religious right say a more fragmented relationship between faith and voting trends could make it more difficult to unite conservative Christians behind candidates now. A the absence of evangelical presidential favorite and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has surely dampened evangelicals' moods.

“Our American cause was and is rooted in ... Judeo-Christian faith heritage,” Reed told the crowd Friday. Voters could send Republicans to the Senate and White House only “by [God]'s power,” he said. Pawlenty and Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour echoed the message.

“We need to be a nation that turns towards God, not away from God,” Pawlenty said Friday evening to a packed ballroom, adding that “rights are endowed to us by our creator.” Earlier, Bachmann emphasized her position against same-sex marriage and Huntsman talked about his pro-life stance.

But few politicians made a direct references to how religion influences their beliefs. Romney, a Mormon, avoided direct references to God but said he was “united” with the crowd on social issues and called the economy a “moral crisis."

“I'm a Baptist. I'm a Christian and I believe in Christ. But I believe all people of faiths should practice their faith. Why say you are Jewish if you don't practice Judaism, or the same if you are Christian but don't talk about it?” said Joanna Freeborn, a Kansan who attended Friday with her granddaughter.

Freeborn, who usually votes Republican, said she was undecided about which candidate she favored for the Republican presidential nomination. Promises of lowered taxes, she said, mattered more to her than religion. Social issues, she said, also mattered to a lesser degree. “I don't agree with Mormonism, but I might vote for one,” Freeborn added.

A Pew Research Center survey released this week found that one of four people were less likely to support a presidential candidate who is a Mormon. Over a third of white evangelicals such as Freeborn wouldn't support a Mormon, the poll found, the highest percentage of any religious group polled.

Another challenge for political candidates at this weekend's event was trying to win over Tea Party supporters and religious conservatives at the same time. Polls have shown that despite some shared positions, evangelicals and Tea Party supporters differ on many issues, including the importance of faith to their voting decisions. And across the board, polls have shown that the economy tops Americans' concerns.

In addition to politicians touting their conservative and religious credentials, the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference included panels on “Anti-Christian bigotry,” “Catholic Citizen Action,” and “Defeating Terrorism and Jihad.”

While the bigotry panel was largely a discussion of Christian influence on the nation's founding and the Catholic panel was notable as the coalition's attempt bring conservative Catholics into the fold, the terrorism discussion aroused controversy over religious liberties. While some panelists spoke out against a trend in state legislatures of measures to ban Sharia law, Frank Gaffney, a controversial former defense official and president of The Center for Security Policy, roused an audience when he warned of “stealth jihad” invading American institutions.

Shuffling from panels and the ballroom to listen to Republican leaders, Kathy Lore, a 72-year-old from Pennsylvania, said she was undecided on many issues, including who she would vote for in a Republican presidential primary. Lore added that she was leaning toward Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who also spoke Friday, because he is "very much a Christian."

“I'm pro-life, I go to a Methodist church, but I believe in the gospel, in the Bible. I don't believe in what one person or another tells me to think,” said Lore, 72. “I just came to learn.”