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One Party Divided By God?
Mike Lindell is on a mission from God to lead the Republican National Committee. At least that’s what he thinks. While wearing a cross lapel pin and speaking in front of a poster of Jesus and a lion, the election-denying pillow-hugger announced in late November on Steve Bannon’s podcast that he would seek to lead the GOP after considering it “in prayer.”
Ahead of the vote later this week, Lindell showed up Friday (Jan. 20) in Nashville, Tennessee, for the latest iteration of the ReAwaken America Tour (or RAT for short). A regular at RAT events, he joined Eric Trump, Roger Stone, Sean Feucht, self-proclaimed “prophets,” and others preaching a MAGA gospel of election lies, COVID conspiracies, and anti-vax pseudoscience. He rehashed his normal liturgy about how he’s about to prove the 2020 presidential election was stolen, calling his work part of “a spiritual battle of biblical proportions.” He also talked about his RNC candidacy, sparking the RAT congregation to erupt with cheers and applause.
“God wanted me to run, and so I ran,” Lindell said. “And I plan on winning.”
He insisted he’s running a “grassroots campaign” and has been hearing good things from key GOP donors and some of the RNC voting members. But as he does about his 2020 election claims, Lindell attacked the media for ignoring him and “trying to silence me.” He claimed “every journalist in the world has my direct number” (but since I apparently missed that secret meeting of global journalists, I’ve been unable to get a response from him to my requests for comment).
Lindell also criticized both of his opponents, current RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and attorney Harmeet Dhillon. While Lindell seems the least likely to win, he continues to push ahead as the race gains attention. An election to be held with only 168 people eligible to vote is sparking a lot of public campaigning, including media appearances, speeches at rallies, campaign websites, and candidate debates. For instance, in addition to announcing on Bannon’s show, Lindell also talked about his candidacy on the TV network of “prosperity gospel” preacher Kenneth Copeland.
As Lindell pushes his longshot candidacy, he also even trekked to the church of Jimmy Swaggart. Yes, that Jimmy Swaggart. A significant Pentecostal televangelist in the 1980s until his high-profile fall after sex scandals involving prostitutes, he was suspended and then defrocked by the Assemblies of God. But Swaggart just kept going as a non-denominational minister, continuing today to lead a church and broadcasting network in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, along with his son and grandson. As Lindell campaigned for RNC chair with assistance from an RNC member from Louisiana, he showed up at Swaggart’s church the Sunday before Christmas and was repeatedly recognized from the pulpit as “a very special guest.” (And Swaggart family members during the service endorsed MyPillow products, which might be too much information.)
But beyond Lindell showing up at Christian Nationalist events and the church of a modern Elmer Gantry, religion has also been injected into the RNC chair race through whisper campaigns pushing religious bigotry. So this issue of A Public Witness looks at what’s happening in the divisive quest to lead the Republican Party as it preps for the 2024 elections, and offers a warning about the danger of weaponizing religion in politics.
The chair of the Republican National Committee (or the mirror position for the Democratic National Committee) might not be a position that kids imagine getting when they grow up, but the role can have significant sway in government. When your party occupies the White House, the president typically announces their pick to lead the national party, which will help oversee candidate recruitment, fundraising, advertising, and the planning of the quadrennial convention to nominate a presidential ticket. But when there’s not a president placing a thumb on the scales, the members of the committee might get multiple candidates to consider.
Shortly after winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump chose then-RNC Chair Reince Priebus as his first White House chief of staff (where Priebus lasted just six months, the shortest tenure in history). Trump announced Ronna Romney McDaniel as his choice to take over the RNC, which she was officially elected to in January 2017. She won new terms without opposition in 2019 and 2021. She eventually stopped using her maiden name on RNC statements as her uncle, Mitt, became an outspoken critic of Trump.
Beyond family feuds, McDaniel’s RNC tenure has been controversial. She regularly criticized anti-Trump Republicans and led the effort to censure Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for voting for Trump’s second impeachment. She mocked now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman after he suffered a stroke last year. She awarded RNC contracts to companies connected to her husband and key supporters. She was accused of a “possible pay-to-play scheme” to sell a Trump administration ambassadorship. And she pushed false claims about the 2020 presidential election that Trump lost.
There’s also the issue of underperforming in elections as the GOP lost ground in the U.S. House in 2018, lost the presidency and the Senate in 2020, and failed to gain the Senate or see a promised “red wave” in 2022. But as some Republicans started pointing fingers after November’s midterm results, McDaniel quickly announced she wanted another two-year term and claimed she had support from more than a majority of the 168 voting members.
But unlike her first three RNC chair elections, this time McDaniel faces opposition, making it the first contested race since 2011 when Priebus ousted Michael Steele in a five-candidate contest that took seven rounds of balloting. Mike Lindell entered the race just two weeks after McDaniel indicated she would seek another term. Then Harmeet Dhillon, an RNC member from California, announced her run in early December on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight. An attorney, Dhillon filed numerous lawsuits challenging COVID public health measures and also served as a legal advisor for Trump’s reelection campaign (and made an unsuccessful public appeal to Supreme Court justices to intervene to change the results). State parties in Alabama and Louisiana recently passed official resolutions urging McDaniel’s defeat.
Like far-right Republican lawmakers who criticized Kevin McCarthy during 15 rounds of voting for House speaker, both Lindell and Dhillon are challenging McDaniel from the right, even suggesting the MAGA chair isn’t sufficiently Trumpian. As Lindell talked about the RNC race over the weekend at the ReAwaken America event, he praised the “heroes” who forced concessions from McCarthy. And he suggested a similar result could occur with the RNC vote, insisting that “whatever comes out” of the RNC meeting, “it’s going to be something different.” That suggests he thinks he can help force multiple ballots and at least get McDaniel to make new promises even if she wins.
But before the voting started, the race quickly got dirty.
GOP & God
Ronna McDaniel insists she has the votes to win on the first ballot. But some of her allies apparently aren’t willing to risk it.
Politico reported recently that some McDaniel supporters have raised concerns about Harmeet Dhillon’s ability to lead the RNC because of her religion. Dhillon, who was born in India, is a practicing Sikh. Something she hasn’t hid. In fact, she sang the opening prayer for the second day of the 2016 Republican convention, which was the first time the Ardās (a Sikh prayer performed before a significant task) was given at a national party convention. She explained her prayer and covered her head before starting.
But multiple individuals, including a voting RNC member supporting McDaniel, brought up Dhillon’s Sikh faith to other RNC members as a concern. One RNC member allegedly said Dhillon’s election would hurt “the gains made by the Faith Advisory Board.” And a Republican leader in Alabama who supports McDaniel was even willing to publicly suggest Dhillon shouldn’t be elected because of her religion.
“People aren’t bigots because they ask questions,” Republican activist Chris Horn said. “That’s a legit question: Is the Republican Party, or even the Democratic Party ready for someone of the Sikh faith? … If someone from another faith wants to be the leader of our party, then you’re going to be the leader of tens of millions of Christians. And there’s not been any conversation about that at all.”
To her credit, McDaniel criticized the “religious bigotry” of the whisper campaign. She also noted she’s part of a faith tradition that’s also been targeted in the past: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly referred to as Mormons).
“We are the party of faith, family, and freedom, and these attacks have no place in our party or our politics,” McDaniel said told Politico. “As a member of a minority faith myself, I would never condone such attacks. I have vowed to run a positive campaign and will continue to do so.”
Dhillon also criticized the attacks on her religion, noting that the nation’s founders “considered religious liberty to be so foundational that it is the very first item referenced in the very first amendment of our Bill of Rights.” She stressed that her faith wouldn’t “impact my ability to champion our nation’s Judeo-Christian values that are encapsulated in our party platform.”
Lindell, on the other hand, hasn’t been as quick to rebuke the whisper campaign. One of his supporters also raised Dhillon’s faith to RNC members, writing in an email urging votes for Lindell: “She is an Indian Sikh by birth and heritage, not of Judeo-Christian worldview. … None of these core character positions aligns with the Republican Party platform, planks, or conservatism in general.” Asked by Politico for comment, Lindell responded, “Shove it.”
Lindell addressed the topic last weekend at the ReAwaken America event in Tennessee, noting the criticism of Dhillon “for her religion.” He then mentioned McDaniel is Mormon and Dhillon is Sikh (though he called it, “sleek or whatever”). He brought up the topic not to address the substance but to criticize reporters for asking him about it. He claimed he would be attacked for either saying it matters and therefore thinking his religion is better or saying it doesn’t matter and therefore he “doesn’t stick up for Jesus.” Thus, he refused to answer whether he thought religion should matter in the race.
And religious outreach (and perhaps attacks) will continue as the RNC members gather later this week. There will be a couple days of meetings and candidate forums ahead of Friday’s vote. In addition to the voting members, invited guests will be there to help whip votes on behalf of the chair candidates. Among those expected to be present to push McDaniel’s reelection is Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, while Dhillon is reportedly planning on bringing Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA. This isn’t just a fight for different MAGA visions for the GOP but also competing far-right evangelical approaches.
The only religious reference originally in the Constitution is the prohibition in Article VI against religious tests for public office. While the RNC chair position doesn’t technically fit under that provision, it still seems highly problematic to suggest someone should be of a certain religion to lead an organization that plays such an important role in recruiting and electing our public officials.
It’s also dangerous because attacking people for their religion in the name of political expediency normalizes bigotry. And that can lead to it spreading beyond the targeted person or faith. That’s a warning John F. Kennedy explained when he addressed Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, amid concerns about his Catholicism during the 1960 presidential campaign.
“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist,” Kennedy said. “It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”
Nearly a half-century later, another presidential candidate also addressed the issue of religion as he found himself criticized for it. Mitt Romney differed from Kennedy’s words in key ways, but he too saw the danger of faith being a voting criterion.
“A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith,” Romney said. “My faith is the faith of my fathers; I will be true to them and to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people.”
Romney may have been too optimistic. His own niece helped lead the RNC to embrace a man who ran on a promise of religious bigotry. And just a week after putting his hand on a Bible to take the oath of office, Donald Trump issued an executive order to implement his promised “Muslim ban.”
With three Trumpian candidates running for RNC chair, we shouldn’t be surprised to see religious bigotry involved. Perhaps Dhillon didn’t think the “Muslim ban” was a problem because Sikhs weren’t targeted, but normalizing religious bigotry helps it spread. And Sikhs have in the past been the accidental targets of Islamophobic violence. Yesterday it may have been Muslims, today it may be Sikhs, but tomorrow it could be Mormons or Pentecostals.
An RNC chair race with religious attacks in the age of Trump really shouldn’t surprise us. We reap what we sow.
As a public witness,
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