GOP presidential candidates' appearance at a “Thanksgiving family forum” hosted by a Christian conservative group signals the far-right’s power — and more specifically, Christian nationalists’ power — over today’s Republican Party.
Vivek Ramaswamy, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis agreed to appear at the Family Leader's roundtable discussion Friday in Iowa. Donald Trump was invited but did not attend. The reason for the front-runner's absence is unclear, though one possible motivation could be that Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats has said it's time for someone to replace Trump as the party's de facto leader.
Nonetheless, the ultraconservative Christian organization doesn’t hide its goal of merging U.S. politics with its conservative Christian worldview. The group's website says its mission is “Inspiring the Church to engage Government for the advance of God’s Kingdom and the strengthening of Family.”
The site also says, “The FAMiLY Leader seeks to encourage the election of Christ-like leaders and promote righteous policy that honors God and blesses people, adding that the group "equips voters and elected representatives to be a voice for biblical values in government.”
These are widely understood as Christian nationalist themes, although Vander Plaats appeared to offer light pushback to the label in an interview over the summer while also claiming the government is "God's institution."
On Friday, Vander Plaats told Ramaswamy, Haley and DeSantis not to attack one another during the roundtable, and they seemed to abide by that rule when it came to their competitors in the room. DeSantis, however, apparently couldn’t help himself and zinged Trump, earning a bit of a reprimand.
And there were other barbed answers, as well.
For example, when Ramaswamy answered a question about how to promote healthy families, he pushed a racist stereotype about Black parenting, saying women on the South Side of Chicago — which he acknowledged is largely Black — are being paid “more money not to have a man in the house than to have a man in the house in the name of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society." A knock on social welfare policies.
The Family Leader event, which also featured its share of anti-abortion extremism, speaks to the influence of Christian nationalist worldviews in today’s GOP. The party’s standard-bearer, Trump, is widely viewed as a representative of the movement. Newly-minted House Speaker Mike Johnson is an unabashed Christian nationalist. And polling from earlier this year showed Christian nationalism is a quite popular view among Republicans.
At the same time, Friday’s event speaks broadly to the way insurgent forces in the Republican Party are asserting their power over the Republican National Committee. Citing a rule against participating in unsanctioned debates, the RNC previously threatened to ban candidates who appeared at the roundtable. But DeSantis vowed to attend anyway, and the RNC ultimately reached an agreement with the Family Leader to allow the event so long as it isn’t technically a “debate.”
That may have spared the RNC the embarrassing spectacle of their top remaining candidates (sans Trump) openly defying them by showing up. After all, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and her organization appear to have fallen out of favor with many conservatives these days. They’re both in the doghouse after Republicans stumbled in elections nationwide earlier this month.
And in that sense, Friday’s previously unsanctioned, unapologetically extreme “discussion” embodies the far-right’s rise in the Republican Party.