April 24, 2024

GOP Contenders Fight to Outshine Each Other at Christian Confab

When Donald Trump stepped on stage at a gathering of the religious right on Friday night, he had revenge at the top of his mind.

After boasting that a T-shirt featuring his mugshot was the highest selling “ever in history,” the indicted former president and 2024 hopeful laid out his plans, should he win the election, to begin handing out pardons “on day one.”

“The moment I win the election, I will appoint a special task force to rapidly review the cases of every political prisoner who has been unjustly persecuted by Biden,” Trump, who incited a riot on Jan. 6, told the crowd back in the city where it all went down.

“I’m the leading candidate by 50 points, and I’m leading Biden by a lot. And they want to see if they can silence me,” he said, accusing the Biden administration of “weaponizing” law enforcement to take him down—and then floating the idea of weaponizing the Justice Department himself.

“If I win, and let’s say somebody comes along on the Democrat side, and they’re looking very strong. I could call my attorney general, I guess, am I allowed to call and say, ‘You have to indict him… You can indict him for anything you want, just indict him,’” he said.

Trump, who spoke for just over an hour at the annual gathering called the Pray Vote Stand Summit in Washington, D.C., also took a shot at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying of his poll numbers: “He’s fallen like a very badly injured bird from the sky.”

The Christian confab, hosted by the Family Research Council (FRC), replaces the anti-LGBTQ think-tank’s longtime Values Voter Summit and will feature a presidential straw poll.

Throughout the event at the Omni Shoreham hotel, attendees worshiped God with song and prayer and heard speakers drive home the urgency to elect Biblically-minded candidates and protect children from “indoctrination” in public schools. More than a few times evangelical activists warned of “Marxist,” “radical left” and “transgender” ideologies.

Trump is no stranger to the gathering, in 2017 becoming the first sitting president to address the Values Voter conference, which launched in 2006 “to preserve the bedrock values of traditional marriage” and “sanctity of life” among other concerns.

On Friday night at nearly quarter to 10 p.m., Trump waltzed out as keynote speaker to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and a standing ovation with a smattering of MAGA hats.

“USA! USA! USA!” people cheered before his speech began. In the middle of his remarks, more than a few fans shouted, “We love you, Trump!”

Republican presidential candidate and former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy addresses the Pray Vote Stand Summit, organized by the Family Research Council in Washington, U.S. September 15, 2023.

Reuters

Meanwhile, Vivek Ramaswamy—who has floated a 9/11 conspiracy theory and called climate change a hoax—strolled on and off stage to “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. Perhaps inspired by questions the scripture-quoting candidate is facing about his Hindu faith, one heckler yelled, “Who is your God?”

The 38-year-old GOP upstart played his greatest hits, aimed at the ardently pro-Trump crowd.

“It’s like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. You get the wokeism down you here. You got the transgenderism over there. Got that down; COVID-ism over here,” Ramaswamy said to the applause of the conference-goers. “Got that down; climatism’s up again; globalism.”

The candidate, polling more than 40 points behind Trump, told The Daily Beast that he has no plans to toss in the towel—even if the ex-president were to offer him an administration post.

“No,” he replied when asked if he’d drop out in exchange for a Trump White House post. “We’re in this for a reason…I expect him to be my mentor and adviser during my first year in office because he’s a patriot.”

Asked if he thought Trump would take him up on the offer, Ramaswamy said: “I think if we’re successful, I think he will.”

DeSantis was the first of the candidates to speak that evening, railing against “threats to religious liberty—the likes we have not seen through most of American history.”

As soon as believers try to exert religious influence outside of Sunday services, he said, “the elites in our society are going to drop the hammer on that. And they basically want you to know their role.”

DeSantis made clear his intention to decimate the line between church and state. He vowed to “nominate and place constitutionalist judges on the courts of appeal and on the U.S. Supreme Court” similar to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr., whom he called “the two greatest justices on the court.”

He also said he’d banish “all government regulations that force groups to choose between government funding and their faith,” enact universal school choice nationwide, and provide public funding for private faith-based schools.

Among the laws DeSantis promised to gut is the tax code that prohibits 501(c)3 nonprofits and churches from endorsing political candidates.

“We’re going to create divisions of conscience and religious freedom in the Departments of Education, Labor, and HHS to protect religious liberty across all agencies of government,” he said. “Religious expression is a fundamental civil right.”

His “war on woke” includes plans to remove intersex and transgender people’s ability to select nonbinary genders on government documents. “Whenever sex and gender appear in a government document, we refer to the only two sexes that actually exist,” he said to cheers.

“Do not tell me that a man can become a woman. Do not tell me that a man can get pregnant and expect me to accept that. I will not, because it is not true. And our society must be rooted in truth,” he said.

“We are also the first state to prevent teachers from forcing students to identify their pronouns. We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in the state of Florida,” DeSantis added to applause.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis addresses the Pray Vote Stand Summit.

Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis addresses the Pray Vote Stand Summit, organized by the Family Research Council in Washington, U.S. September 15, 2023.

Reuters

Earlier that day, another candidate tried to woo the audience but without a primetime spot: former Vice President Mike Pence.

“Every crisis we face is man-made and that man’s name is Joe Biden,” Pence quipped, before highlighting the country’s problems with inflation, falling wages, rising interest rates, and the influx of migrants at the southern border. Pence then zeroed in on “the erosion of the traditional family in America.”

“The facts speak for themselves,” Pence said. “Today more young people are delaying having a family altogether. The share of never-married adults has tripled since 1980. People are getting married later, having children later in life; declining U.S. birth rates.”

Along with abortion, Pence added, these realities “are the hallmarks of decline.”

“If America is to survive, we have to strengthen our families and stand by the cause of life,” the ex-veep said.

Pence announced a “plan to rebuild the American family” that he said would make child adoption more affordable, restrict gender-affirming care for minors, and “shut down the federal Department of Education.”

Pence, however, didn’t seem to energize the crowd in comparison to the night’s more vociferous orators.

As Pence left the stage, a small contingent in a corner of the hotel ballroom yelled, “We want Trump! We want Trump!”

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