The Righteous and the Damned: GOP Presidential Candidates Preen at Plano Church

A huge American flag hangs behind the stage of a Plano megachurch.
Plano megachurch Prestonwood Baptist hosted a handful of 2016 GOP contenders Sunday, offering them an opportunity to preen for the congregation.  Christopher Hooks

The book of Matthew, Chapter 6, contains stern admonitions for those who would follow the Lord.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven,” Jesus says during the Sermon on the Mount. A few verses later: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.”

That was not among the verses cited by the six Republican presidential contenders at the candidate forum hosted by Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church on Sunday, but perhaps that is understandable: Those words are relics of an ancient and barbarous time. In America, the country God blesses, the “practicing” of “righteousness before men to be noticed by them” is not blasphemous but a high and lauded political art, cheered by flock-tenders all over the land.

If that seems strange to you, Prestonwood is not your kind of place. If any larger, the compound, situated on 140 acres across from an LA Fitness, would exert its own gravitational pull, and a wispy atmosphere would begin to develop at the top of the church’s open lobby. It is a worship center that resembles a modern airport terminal, except that it also has a school, a gym, athletic fields, a giant rec room for preteens called “The Edge,” a dining facility that could probably hold within it the Church of the Nativity, etc., etc. It would not be especially surprising if the GDP of the Prestonwood enterprise was greater than that of Judea in Jesus’ time.

Still, what better place to host Republican presidential candidates, who have blended cocksure righteousness and the worship of commerce in such interesting ways this year? Frontrunner Donald Trump, the fellow who told Iowa evangelicals that he loved to eat “the little cracker” and drink “the little wine,” was not in attendance. But Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and J.E. Bush all came to speak.

Some 6,000 people sat in the Prestonwood pews, and the event was livestreamed. Each candidate talked for 10 minutes and was interviewed by Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham for 20 more. They all came to practice their righteousness, but each came with different goals.

First was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, whose intensely metronymic speaking style gives the impression, sometimes, of overpractice, but still seems to be going over well with the folks. Fiorina isn’t really an evangelical candidate: She’s more closely identified with the money-making class. So she spent a good deal of time on her own “personal faith journey,” reassuring the audience that she was one of them. She used to think of God as “the CEO of a big enterprise.” But then, she discovered that everyone can have a personal relationship with God.

She told the crowd she had “took a stand for life in the last debate,” when she riffed at length about the Planned Parenthood videos. At the debate, she described watching a scene that doesn’t exist in any of the tapes, and she caught some heat for it, refusing to acknowledge that she was in error — or had lied. The media “said the tapes didn’t exist,” Fiorina said, falsely. She riffed about two great American ladies: Lady Liberty, who “stands tall and strong like America must,” and Lady Justice, who carries “a sword by her side,” because she knows she must sometimes fight.

Fiorina, also a lady, was like them. There were lots of different kinds of ladies in America, and the libs’ conception of the conservative “war on women” was a mendacious falsehood. “Over half of this nation is women now,” she said. They take all kinds.

Cruz came next. This is his home turf, and he did exceptionally well. Unlike Fiorina, he doesn’t need to talk much about his own love of Christ. These people know already. He talked about the persecution of American Christians, and the dimming future this country held for people of faith. “I believe this is going to be a religious liberty election,” he told the crowd. If so, he was the man to back.

He told the crowd he had also attended the morning service at Prestonwood, and when Pastor Graham sat down with him for the Q&A, it was as if he was sitting down with a dear friend. They had known each other for ages. “The Lord seems to be elevating you and giving you favor,” Graham said. Cruz slammed other presidential candidates for not vocally backing the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, for which he got a standing ovation. Graham replied simply: “Courage. We like that.” The crowd loved him. Cruz couldn’t stop grinning.

Then there was Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, two men who have done stints as the great evangelical hope in the past — in 2008 and 2012, respectively — but have struggled mightily to gain traction this year. Huckabee has some support in the polls, but no real path to the nomination. He’s been eclipsed by newer-model Christian candidates. And Santorum has no polling strength and no money.

Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham and Ted Cruz.
Prestonwood Baptist Church pastor Jack Graham told Ted Cruz that “The Lord seems to be elevating you and giving you favor.”  Christopher Hooks

Santorum is a Catholic, but one who syncs with evangelical voters pretty well. He talked about the importance of the family — less “compassion” was needed through government, and the need for welfare could be eliminated by a concerted attempt to “reknit and restore the American family.”

He had walked the path of the righteous man, and had been beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil men, he told the crowd. He had been in “ISIS magazine.” And he knew full well what the libs were capable of. Years ago, when Santorum was a senator from Pennsylvania, he said some pretty offensive things about gay people. The masses made a concerted attempt to rename a foul byproduct of anal sex “Santorum.” In perhaps the most emotional moment of the night, he recounted the hell the left had put him through. “They’ve taken my name and turned it into something that’s beyond filth,” he said, choking up, the proud name of his children and his father and his immigrant ancestors.

Not that long ago, Mike Huckabee tried to make his name as the friendly evangelical, the jolly down-home pastor who’d have fun on the Daily Show even if he disagreed with its host about the Sodomites. But these days, with the peak of his political career likely behind him, he seems embittered and petulant. He started his speech with an extended riff on how little time he got to speak in the last debate, which doesn’t seem particularly surprising, given that he has 83 rivals and isn’t polling all that well. He was given a friendly reception.

The last two candidates were late, so a men’s choral quartet came on stage to sing an easy-listening version of “America the Beautiful.” Then Ralph Reed, the boy-faced Christian right powerbroker, hopped on stage to fill time. His group, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, staged this forum. He told the crowd 2016 could be 1980 again, if they worked for it.

Then Carson appeared on stage, revving up the crowd in the event’s grueling fourth hour with his sedate, hypnotic speaking style. He was received better than any candidate besides Cruz. He told the crowd of his youthful troubles in Detroit and rise to prominence. He said he didn’t want to run for president at first, but God kept the door open until he did.

Carson’s second in most primary polls, and he’s relaxed enough with the whole thing to say some unusual things. Among his priorities in office would be to harden the electrical grid, a demand of people concerned with electromagnetic weapons. He’d kick the space program into high gear. And he’d fix the nation’s finances. Thomas Jefferson said national debt was immoral, Carson said: “If we could bring him back right now, he’d just stroke out immediately.”

And finally there was J.E. Bush, who came to the event very late. As many as a quarter of the people in the Prestonwood pews may have left by the time Bush started speaking, though it’s impossible to know if that was a referendum on him or just the length of the thing.

He’s wasn’t a natural fit there. Other candidates paced the stage and took their time to interface with the audience. Bush spoke very briskly and clung to the side of the stage’s available podium, like a sitting president might. He talked up his adopted Catholic faith, and bragged about his involvement in the Terri Schiavo debacle a few years back as evidence he stood firmly for life.

Depending on your perspective, it might even speak to Bush’s favor that he’s uncomfortable with this crowd. But he is. He doesn’t need to win evangelicals over, but at some point, he does need to win someone over. It’s unclear, at the moment, who that will be.

The importance of the evangelical vote has faded a bit nationally since the Moral Majority days, but it could be more relevant this year thanks to the highly fractured primary landscape. That’s certainly Cruz’s hope. His time hasn’t yet come, but his practice of righteousness is a fine art. It’s something to watch.

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Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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