Milner, Ga. - The fight for evangelical voters landed squarely in Georgia as Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee urged a crowd of thousands gathered at a megachurch to brace for a bitter struggle against the Supreme Court's decision to legalize gay marriage.
The two White House contenders spoke minutes apart Sunday at a Fifth of July celebration at the Rock Springs Church, where they used words like "tragic" and radical" to describe the landmark ruling to a friendly crowd waiting to hear the Charlie Daniels Band and watch a fireworks spectacle at sundown.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won Georgia's primary in 2008, predicted a protracted fight against the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court (he called it the "extreme court" to scattered laughter) that struck down bans on same-sex weddings.
"Over the next few years I fully believe that people of faith, whether they Christians, Jewish, whatever they may be, are going to be called upon, and already are, to determine, 'Will you serve God or will you serve government?" he said. "And I wonder, will we be as faithful to our faith and to our freedom as those men who signed that declaration 239 years ago?"
Huckabee said the pendulum inevitably will swing back toward a stricter interpretation of marriage, adding: "The courts of man can no more suspend the definition and law of marriage that it can suspend the law of gravity. They simply don't have that much power."
Cruz, the Texas senator and another favorite of religious conservatives, spoke of a brewing "awakening" to defend the values of conservatives in the wake of the marriage ruling and the court's earlier decision to uphold a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
"In this last election, 54 million evangelical Christians stayed home," Cruz said, his voice rising. "It's my hope that that marriage decision serves as a spark to start a fire that becomes a raging inferno and awakening that sweeps this country as the body of Christ rises up to defend the values that have built America into this great nation."
Whether the ruling offers an extra incentive to evangelicals is an open question. A half-dozen people interviewed at the event said they planned to turn out to vote long before the Supreme Court's landmark rulings.
The gathering was a show of force for the church's leader, the Rev. Benny Tate, who is one of Georgia's most influential preachers and the pastor for U.S. Sen. David Perdue. The church sits in a town of about 600 whose population more than doubles every Sunday service, and the church's main campus includes schools, a cafe and coffee shop and a free clinic. And Tate, who spoke particularly highly of Cruz, signaled his involvement in politics is likely to grow.
"We are in Hooterville. The zip code is E-I-E-I-O. And we've got two presidential candidates," Tate said, marveling at the crowd. "What do you think about that?"