Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas only needed a few minutes to cover nearly all the major issues being discussed at this week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in Kissimmee, Florida.

He spelled his concerns out in short sentences, like he was striking nails into wood.

“I’m going to commit a radical act. I’m going to speak the truth,” Cruz began. “America is great. Christopher Columbus discovering America was a good thing. … Our Founding Fathers were extraordinary patriots. America has been a force for good in the world.” 

“Police officers keep us safe,” he continued, beginning to allude to more specific policy debates. “Marriage is a holy covenant before God. An unborn child is a child. Children do best when they’re raised by a mother and a father. Israel is our friend.” 

“And there is a difference between boys and girls,” he said to cheers and applause.  

Cruz and other high-profile speakers at the event, which some political experts describe as a chance for presidential hopefuls to workshop their future campaigns, repeated the same buzzwords I heard from members of the crowd.

Religious freedom, education, critical race theory, socialism, Marxism — these are the issues that will anchor the conservative agenda in the lead-up to 2024 if Faith and Freedom Coalition supporters have their say.

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A crowd listens to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., on Friday, June 18, 2021. | Octavio Jones, for the Deseret News

Road to Majority event thinks local

Speakers and attendees also share the same vision of which political races the Republican Party needs to focus on in the months ahead.

The GOP’s been overly consumed by presidential campaigns and congressional seats, they said, while the Democratic Party filled the ranks of local government. Now religious conservatives want Republicans to adopt their opponents’ approach.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, remarked that one way to stave off socialism was to “pay attention to all these down-ballot elections: school boards and mayors and judges.” 

In a breakout session on state legislative victories, Karen Jaroch of Heritage Action for America suggested that attendees themselves throw their hats into the political ring. 

“Maybe it’s time for you to run for office,” she said as she concluded her speech. 

Some of the conference attendees I’ve spoken with are already ahead of the game.

For example, Tanzy Wallace, a 63-year-old Black woman from Shelby, North Carolina, previously ran for mayor. Her bid was unsuccessful, but she’s now weighing the idea of seeking a city council seat.

At the Road to Majority event, the idea of taking control of local offices and school boards, in particular, has been presented as part of the struggle against critical race theory, a hot topic across the country these days. Both speakers and attendees framed critical race theory as a divisive and racist tool of the left.

Religious freedom has also been front and center in conference discussions with Democrats being painted as the enemy once again.

The Democrats “are coming after your First Amendment rights,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee during her appearance on stage. “And if they get the First (Amendment), they’re coming after the Second.”

Numerous speakers mentioned the Supreme Court’s ruling this week in a high-profile clash between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. Comments on a Catholic foster care agency’s victory in the case were met with robust applause.

During his speech, former Vice President Mike Pence praised the Trump administration’s lasting impact on the judicial system, including the Supreme Court.

The administration “confirmed nearly 300 conservatives to our federal courts, including Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney-Barrett,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump appointed almost as many federal judges in four years as former President Barack Obama did in eight, according to Pew Research Center.

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Conference attendees pray during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., on Friday, June 18, 2021. | Octavio Jones, for the Deseret News

Faith and Freedom Coalition plans for the future

Conference attendees want to see conservatives play a bigger role in other halls of power in coming years, including the White House in 2024.

Many of the religious voters I met hope Trump will run again. If he doesn’t, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was overwhelmingly their man.

And it’s not just conference attendees who like the way DeSantis handled the pandemic. Many speakers also praised Florida as a well-run state.

“We have excellent health care” in Florida, said Rep. Neal Dunn, who represents the state in Congress. He continued, “A balanced budget, a great economy, a stellar record on the environment, low crime, no sanctuary cities and a great educational system — a system in which Governor DeSantis banned critical race theory.” 

Some Gen Z attendees said they’d like to see a GOP presidential ticket that includes Trump alongside Candace Owens, echoing young, Christian Trump supporters I spoke with while covering President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January.

Regardless of who runs, participants in the Road to Majority conference said it’s imperative for the Republican Party to retake the White House. Many described the political struggle between Republicans and Democrats as a battle between good and evil.

Speakers and attendees often described Democrats as socialists and Marxists and pointed to Marxism as a source of the country’s decline.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., on Friday, June 18, 2021. | Octavio Jones, for the Deseret News

“Marxism is the single most evil and destructive ideology that mankind has ever known,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.

Pence called on people of faith to “stand up and be heard and turn back the radical left.”

“We don’t have to accept a future of economic decline and moral decay,” he said. “We don’t have to exchange the American dream for a socialist nightmare.”

To protect America, attendees should get people registered to vote, speakers said.

The church is key to that, Blackburn noted.

She told attendees that when they go to church, 40% of the people around them aren’t registered to vote. She encouraged audience members to take voter registration forms with them to worship.

Similarly, Cruz warned that “the church is asleep.”

“There are over 90 million evangelical Christians in the United States; fewer than half of them vote,” he said.

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Cruz noted that his father, the Rev. Rafael Cruz, often chides other pastors for not doing more to protect biblical values.

“If we are going to defeat the woke assault then all of us need to wake up,” Cruz said. “The slumbering church needs to wake up.”

Pence also called on conference attendees to do everything they can to protect the country’s future.

“God is not done with America yet,” he said. “Now, let’s get to work.”

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