Two possible GOP presidential candidates joined with prominent leaders of the religious right in Charlotte on Sunday night to mark the 200th anniversary of the poem that became America’s national anthem.
Called “Star Spangled Sunday,” the evening of speeches, Bible verses and music from First Baptist Church in uptown Charlotte was simulcast to 351 conservative evangelical churches across the country.
These churchgoers and the event’s headliners – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Hucakbee, each exploring a 2016 run for the White House – also heard about a longer, religion-tinged version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” than is sung at baseball games and Fourth of July celebrations.
Near the end of the 90-minute gathering, vocalist Charles Billingsley led the audience of 500 at First Baptist in singing the familiar first stanza of the national anthem, with its “rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” But before that, Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America, read the little-known fourth stanza, with its religious lyrics.
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“Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause is just, and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’ ”
Key, a lawyer and Episcopalian, wrote his poem, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” in September 1814, after watching British ships bombard the Baltimore fort during the War of 1812, which actually lasted until late 1814. His words were set to a then-popular tune that had been written for a men’s social club in London. Re-titled “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was named the national anthem by Congress in 1931.
“Star Spangled Sunday” was advertised as a tribute to the national anthem. But Cruz, Huckabee and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose group co-sponsored the event, took political swipes at Democrats and liberals during a news conference Sunday afternoon at the church.
Cruz charged that many Americans have been left stranded by “the Obama economy” and criticized the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” a reference to the president and Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state and the Democrat Cruz might face if both he and she run for president.
Neither Cruz nor Huckabee would say during the news conference whether he would be a candidate in 2016, but Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who hosts a talk show on Fox News, said he would be helping GOP Senate candidates in this election year in hopes of sending Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “to the back of the room.”
A ‘strategic state’
Perkins, who told reporters that the event was based in Charlotte because North Carolina is a “very strategic state for many reasons,” acknowledged that his group wants to energize conservative Christian voters in this election year and in 2016.
“I’m tired of the direction this nation is going in, and it’s time to change,” he said. “We are speaking to churches across America, challenging people to be sure they are registered and voting. We need to put feet to our prayers. … And if we’re going to change the course of this nation, we’re going to have to change the people who are driving it.”
Also part of Sunday’s lineup of speakers was the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist, who ran unsuccessfully this year for the GOP Senate nomination in North Carolina, and Scarborough of Vision America, the event’s other co-sponsor. Scarborough said at the press conference he hoped for the reawakening of “God’s people, who outnumber the left that’s about to destroy and weaken this country.”
If Cruz or Huckabee decides to run in 2016, they would need strong support from Christian conservatives – still a key constituency in the Republican Party and in GOP presidential primaries.
On Sunday night, each delivered a speech that sounded more like a sermon, quoting Scripture and asserting God’s role in America’s survival, through war, Depression and a power-hungry federal government.
“There is no explanation for America other than God’s hand of providence,” said Huckabee, who got cheers and a standing ovation. During the American Revolution, “it was a bunch of farmers and merchants and preachers who took the muskets off their mantels” and defeated what was then the most powerful military in the world.
Huckabee also called on the spirit of the War of 1812 to fire up the audience about America’s current conflict with the radical Muslims of ISIS.
For those who fear that these “sons of Ishmael” – Islamist militants – will prevail in the Middle East, Huckabee said, “I have read the end of the (Bible) and I can tell you that … our flag still stands.”
The crowd stood and cheered for Cruz, who expressed his agreement with those who argue that the United States was formed by believers who enshrined religious liberty above all else.
“This country was founded on the radical concept that our rights don’t come from kings or queens but from Almighty God,” Cruz said.
He went on to charge that religious liberty was being challenged today by the IRS, the Pentagon and even a Justice Department that is going to court against the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who run nursing homes, over coverage of contraceptives for their employees.
“If you’re litigating against nuns,” Cruz said, “you’ve probably done something wrong.”
Letting politicians woo voters from the pulpit is not limited to conservative churches. Many African-American churches, for example, have traditionally allowed Democratic politicians access to their flocks.
Asked whether “Star Spangled Sunday” amounted to a political rally in a tax-exempt church, Perkins insisted the celebration of Key’s words was an appropriate tribute to the religious heritage that shaped America.
“If you read the final stanza (of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’),” Perkins said, “it is, I would say, nothing short of a prayer.”
At least one Key descendant appeared to agree with that characterization: Francis Scott Key, the fifth-generation grandson of the famous Key, led Sunday’s audience in the Pledge of Allegiance to a giant American flag that covered a wall of the church.