Social Conservatives’ 2016 Plea: Double Down!

Presidential hopefuls and others urge the GOP not to surrender the culture war

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Justin Hayworth / AP

Former Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during the family leadership summit in Ames, Iowa Aug. 10, 2013.

Facing a generational divide that is sapping their relevance, a group of evangelical conservatives argued Saturday that they need to become even more vocal in their support for often unpopular social positions.

“Don’t agree with the establishment Republicans that we have to change our policies to be more like Democrats,” former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who finished the 2012 presidential campaign as the runner-up to Republican nominee Mitt Romney and is contemplating a 2016 campaign, instructed a group of evangelicals gathered in Ames, Iowa.

But echoing others who said aggressive Democratic political strategies are a model worth emulating for Republicans, Santorum added: “But we do need to change our tactics to be more like Democrats.”

The refrain was a common theme throughout a summit of hundreds of Iowa conservatives organized by the group FAMiLY Leader, featuring a range of activists and politicians, from Santorum and Texas Senator Ted Cruz to National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown.

(MORE: 2016 Starts Early in Iowa)

FAMiLY Leader president and CEO Bob Vander Plaats introduced the gathering as an opportunity for local activists to be “empowered” to follow the group’s mission of “leading with principle over politics.” Nearly all were united by the belief that Romney’s campaign shied away from the culture war to its own peril.

“We’re losing this debate not because of politics,” Santorum told the crowd in the half-filled auditorium at Iowa State University, in response to “establishment” Republicans calling on the party to moderate on social issues and, if nothing else, tone down the culture-war rhetoric. “Politics didn’t change the culture. The popular culture changed America.”

He added: “For us to sit here and think that somehow we’re going to win this country back politically when the culture continues to show your children when they watch that people like them are weird, people who hold their values are bigoted or hateful — it’s no wonder young people are overwhelmingly supporting the other side.”

Iowa Representative Steve King, best known for his outspoken opposition to immigration reform, echoed Santorum’s diagnosis.

“We have faithful Christians in this building today,” he told reporters after his remarks to the crowd. “They are good people. They have been told the meek shall inherit the earth all their life. And all they want to do is raise their families and go to work or run their business and live this wholesome life. That’s what it’s about. And now we have to tell them you’re not going to be able to continue to do that if you don’t step up and fight for the things you believe in.”

(MORE: Iowa Democrats Ready for Hillary)

Santorum, who recently became CEO of the “family-friendly” EchoLight Studios, lamented conservatives’ inability to get their message across in films and on television.

“In the last 100 years, the worst art has been coming out of the church,” he said. “You as Christians who want to see films, you have to see inferior productions to see something that reaffirms your values … I say to you, can’t we make God beautiful?”

King called on Republicans to embrace the principle of “righteous anger.”

“Christ didn’t walk into the Temple and go up to the money changers and say, I want to make sure I don’t hurt your feelings here … He made a whip and ran them out of the temple and dumped their tables over,” King said. “And it was a great example of righteous anger. He didn’t care about hurting their feelings.”