WINTER PARK, Fla. -- Hundreds of Christian conservatives convened here Friday for The Awakening, a two-day combination of strategy session, prayer meeting and Tea Party reunion aimed at jump-starting a religious revival they say will defeat the "secular, socialist" White House incumbent, Barack Obama.
Even if that means electing "the lesser of two evils," as many here referred to Mitt Romney. That's how Angelica Garnica, 33, of Orlando, described the choice in November. Wearing a "Change It Back 2012" T-shirt, the publishing company manager said Romney is "the only option we have," even if he "is not as conservative as we would like."
Friday's gathering opened in the cavernous sanctuary of Calvary Assembly, a mega-church in suburban Orlando that looks more like a convention center than a house of worship. It included fiery preaching, the lifting of hands in worship and a chorus of "amens" with a heavy Spanish accent showing conservatives' concern at losing their huge and important voting bloc in this year's election. A large, orange cross was lighted on the stage as people rose and sang hallelujah with arms raised and eyes closed.
Though billed as a "federation of multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-generational faith-based and policy organizations," the crowd was mostly white. Still, here in Florida, a battleground state where more than one in five are Hispanic, the focus on opening night was on a key demographic that polls show leans strongly toward Obama. A panel of Hispanic pastors talked about the need to unite Christian minorities and whites on the basis of shared conservative values that include opposing abortion and gay marriage and showing compassion to immigrants.
The meat of The Awakening comes Saturday in breakout sessions on hot-button political issues. Among them: "winning the battle and messaging the masses" against gay rights, "families under attack" from pornography and sexual promiscuity, and panel discussions on abortion, immigration, Israel and women. And there will be political hands-on sessions titled, "Pastors, Churches and Political Activity: Re-energizing the Pulpit" and "Utilizing C3s, C4s and PAC," references to the IRS codes that define social and political fundraising groups.
Scheduled speakers include Republican Florida congressmen Allen West and Jon Mica. Also scheduled are Lou Engle, the controversial Kansas City evangelical leader of The Call Ministries who has praised Uganda for "courage" in pushing the death penalty for gays who have AIDS or engage in homosexual sex, as well as Frank Gaffney, the neo-conservative defense analyst whose Center for Security Policy is bankrolled by Israel settlement supporter Irving Moskowitz. Gaffney in 2008 said Obama sought "the Jihadist vote."
Not showing up in person, despite weeks of being advertised: Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich and ex-candidate Herman Cain. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose appearance was heavily promoted, appeared from Washington by video. Rubio said earlier this week he has no interest in being Romney's running mate.
The conference, expected to attract about 1,000 social conservatives from Florida and elsewhere, is sponsored by the Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy group aligned with Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Va.-based Christian university founded by the late Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell.
Many here compared the event to the Great Awakening of the 18th century that led to the American Revolution.
"Before every revival in a nation, whether it's a spiritual revival, a cultural revival, a political revival …. there has to first be an awakening," Matt Barber, vice president of Liberty Counsel Action, said in explaining the name of the conference. "The trajectory we are now on is counter to the vision of our founding fathers, counter to the biblical principles on which our nation was founded."
Sheila Talley, 42, a nurse from St. Petersburg, Fla., came "to pray for our leaders, even if we don't agree with them." Clutching a large, well-thumbed black Bible, she said she was troubled that prayer was banned in schools while abortion was legal.
"I vote Bible," Talley said. "I pray for Barack Obama, but I'm not going to vote for him. I don't like the whole socialist agenda."