WASHINGTON – Republican presidential contenders on Friday condemned the deadly shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, as an attack on faith, offering deeply personal responses to the murders, but none suggested that they see gun control as part of the answer.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he was in a hotel just a block away from the church attack Wednesday night. He'd come to campaign but canceled his appearances.
"This was an evil act of aggression," Bush told the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual meeting. "This had a big impact on me."
"In times like these," Bush continued, "all of us must come together and at least reflect on this, and fortify our strength, and love of Christ, and love of God, to be able to continue to go forth."
"The idea that anyone, that any human being, would walk into a church and sit there for an hour and pray with people that he intended to murder, is depraved, it's unthinkable," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the gathering of evangelical Christians and GOP hopefuls.
Police have arrested 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof in the shooting deaths of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Officials consider the murders a racially motivated hate crime. The victims were black; the suspect, white.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a favorite of some conservatives in the Republican race and the only black candidate in the field, said: "These things hit so close to home, and if we don't pay close attention to the hatred and division that's going on in our nation, this is just a harbinger of what we can expect."
He said he had spoken to one of the victims just weeks earlier, referring to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church's senior pastor and a state senator.
Bush, Christie and Carson were the first of nearly a dozen White House hopefuls addressing the three-day conference. The Faith and Freedom Coalition is led by Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, who continues to wield great sway in national politics.