Rand Paul And Marco Rubio Pitch Christian Conservatives

Image credit: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Two potential 2016 presidential contenders shifted their focus, briefly, from the wave of scandals buffeting the Obama administration on Thursday and turned their attention to more worldly matters - specifically the persecution of Christians around the globe.

But in separate speeches at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appeared to suggest different roles for the United States.

"It angers me to see my tax dollars supporting regimes that put Christians to death for blasphemy against Islam, countries that put to death Muslims who convert to Christianity, and countries who imprison anyone who marries outside their religion," Paul told conference-goers. "There is a war on Christianity, not just from liberal elites here at home, but worldwide."

He cited U.S. foreign aid dollars flowing to Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq as a concern.

And Paul sharply criticized efforts by some members of his own party to put pressure on the Obama administration to arm the anti-government rebels in Syria.

"The Senate is attempting to arm the rebel forces in Syria, many of whom are Al Qaeda or affiliates. They do so out of a misguided attempt to stop the violence in Syria," he told the gathering of Christian conservatives. "Instead their actions will bring more violence and more persecution of Christians, who have long been protected in Syria."

Rubio also addressed the plight of Christians in volatile countries, counseling a more interventionist role for the U.S.

"If America does not step forward and say, 'This is wrong and something should be done about it,' who will?" he said. "There is nothing to replace us. I promise you, it's not the United Nations. I promise you, it's not China. I promise you, it's not the European Union."

Rubio added, "If we lose either the willingness or the power to be an influence on the global stage, there is nothing to replace us."

An appearance before the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group founded by former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, is a requirement for Republicans like Paul and Rubio who are considered likely contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also spoke at the opening session of the organization's "Road to Majority" conference on Thursday. Lee warned the group that conservatives have spent far too much time "defining ourselves by what it is that we're against" rather than "communicating what we, as conservatives, are for."

Earlier this year, a comprehensive post-election assessment conducted by the Republican National Committee concluded that when it comes to many of the social issues that animate the Christian conservative electorate, "the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming."

"If we are not," the authors of the report wrote, "we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues."

But in an interview with the Associated Press before the conference, Reed pushed back on those recommendations.

"You've got to grow the movement and grow the party," the Faith and Freedom Coalition leader acknowledged. "But you don't do that by taking the most loyal constituents that you've got and throwing them under the bus."

Over the next two days, the group will hear from a raft of other conservative luminaries, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump.