Trump, DeSantis take shots at one another at Pray Vote Stand Summit

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Pray Vote Stand Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel on September 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The summit featured remarks from multiple 2024 Republican Presidential candidates making their case to the conservative audience members. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump was the headliner of the Family Research Council's Pray Vote Stand summit in Washington, D.C., Friday night following his GOP competitors in the presidential race who weren’t shy about making their case to conservative Christian voters.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the second candidate to take the stage after former Vice President Mike Pence, and from the start, his speech was squarely focused on making his case to voters.

Throughout his speech, DeSantis repeatedly referred to his gubernatorial record, and while he criticized the Biden administration for ‘borrowing and spending this country into oblivion” and “opening” the U.S. southern border to illegal immigration, he acknowledged that the country faces not just a political but a spiritual decline.

He pointed to how some Democrat-led states forced churches to shut down while strip clubs and liquor stores remained open.

“Not in the state of Florida. We didn’t do that,” he said. “We protected your right.”

DeSantis shared his thoughts on the central role that faith plays in his leadership as Florida’s governor.

“I don't know how you could be a leader without having faith in God,” he said. “How do you become a good leader? One of the first things you need to do is put on the full armor of God.”

With a warning that America is becoming “unmoored from our traditions, faith and even common sense itself,” DeSantis spoke about the grave threats now facing religious liberty that have largely been unseen through “most of American history.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Pray Vote Stand Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel on September 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The summit featured remarks from multiple 2024 Republican Presidential candidates making their case to the conservative audience members. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Describing the battle lines as the fight to restore religious freedom “as the Founding Fathers intended,” DeSantis outlined a number of specific policies he would pursue as president, including nationwide universal school choice to “ensure funding for private non-religious school must also be available to private faith-based schools.”

He also vowed to work to “ensure Judeo-Christian values and traditions are respected.”

“Religious expression is a fundamental civil right,” he said. If elected, he would seek the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which, he said, “suppresses the speech of our religious leaders.”

DeSantis also said sex and gender in government documents will refer to “the only two sexes that actually exist” and pledged to stop men from competing with females, which he called “wrong and unfair.”

As he closed, he also voiced a sense of urgency with a thinly veiled criticism of Trump, who is considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. 

"We must win in 2024. The time for excuses is over ... we need to get the job done. I can tell you this: I will get the job done."

By the time entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy took the stage, the tone of the night had shifted following an emotional plea from Pastor Jack Hibbs of Calvary Chapel Chino Hills.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Ramaswamy, who, if elected, would become the first Hindu to serve as president, spoke less on matters of faith and more about what he called a “national identity crisis.”

He said he vehemently disagrees with what he called the “one bipartisan consensus” left, namely that the U.S. is a "nation in decline."

“I don’t believe that we have to be ancient Rome. I don’t think we have to be a nation in decline, he said. “I think the truth is, as a nation, we’re really just a little young, actually. Goin’ through our own version of adolescence, figuring out who we're really going to be when we grow up.

“… The truth is we are still yet a nation in our ascent, maybe the early stages of our ascent. Maybe we’re not even yet at base camp ... still that shining city on a hill.”

At times resembling a young then-Senator Barack Obama in his affectation, rhythm, and even his effervescent optimism, Ramaswamy — a 38-year-old self-identified “millennial” — said his generation is “starved for purpose and meaning.”

“We’re in the middle of a national identity crisis right now. … When you have a black hole that runs that deep, poison fills the void. … We are hungry for a cause. We are starved for meaning and purpose and identity.”

While Ramaswamy spoke eloquently on his background as the “kid of legal immigrants” and the urgent need to eliminate national quota systems, his speech’s only real foray into the Christian faith was an illustration from the book of Exodus.

Speaking of the Israelites after they had escaped from Pharaoh in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, he pointed to humanity’s universal desire for worship.

“What do they say? We want to go back and be ruled by the Pharaoh,” he said. “See, if you don't bend the knee to the real thing, you’re going to bend the knee to something.”

Midway through his speech, Ramaswamy was reportedly asked by a heckler, "Who's your god?" but was unfazed by the question and pressed on with his address. It’s unclear whether Ramaswamy heard the comment or who the heckler was.

Above all, he urged Americans to speak up for what they believe, regardless of the cost.

“The best litmus test for America’s civic health is the percentage of people who feel free to say what they actually think in public,” he said. 

Where Ramaswamy seemed to avoid matters of faith and religious liberty, Trump spoke of both as foundational to his 2024 campaign.

Before the former president could even take the stage, however, he paused as the crowd delivered what was easily the loudest reception of the night, one which included chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

He then wasted no time in reminding the audience of his record of standing in the gap for religious liberty in general and Christians in particular, touching on what he called America’s great “Judeo-Christian heritage” and his leadership in standing with Israel and reopening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

“No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have and I will keep fighting for Christians as long as I can,” he said. 

Trump later spoke of that fight as a spiritual battle involving “evil and demonic forces.”

“I wanted to and had to stand up to the communists, the Marxists, the atheists, the evil and demonic forces that want to destroy our country,” he said. “They're destroying our country. I took their fire and I did it gladly. I'm protecting the people in this room; I'm protecting the people of this nation.

 “And I have to tell you, it's not easy, but it's something that's such an honor to be doing.”

Referring to himself as the “most pro-life president in American history,” Trump received another standing ovation when he said he was proud to appoint the U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn “the moral and constitutional atrocity known as Roe v. Wade.”

He also touted his work to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy, stopping taxpayer funding for what he coined the “abortion industrial complex,” and being the first sitting president to attend a March for Life rally.

Turning his sights on the 2024 election, Trump described the legal “trials and tribulations” he’s facing after the indictments in Georgia and elsewhere as “election interference.”

“What they’re doing is high-level election interference … just like they stuff ballot boxes, just like they do so many other things,” he said. “It’s happening for a single reason, because I’m the only candidate they don’t want to run against.”

He added, "In South Carolina, Ron is in fourth place now. I’m leading by 35 points. ... We’re leading by a lot. But Ron has actually dropped to fourth place [in South Carolina].  And he’s dropped to second place in other states. And it’s pretty amazing what’s happened. 

"It’s a beautiful thing to watch. Oh, I shouldn’t say that. We have religious people. I should not be saying that, right? But religious people want to win. We want to win. And we want to win because we’re going to do a great job for the country. We have to finish what we started. 

"I will say that … if I wasn’t running, or if I was in fifth place or fourth place or third place or 10th place, none of this horrible election interference would have happened. It wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be going through any trials and tribulations. I wouldn’t have had the mug shot."

Trump said while he believes the 2020 election was “rigged,” America as a nation cannot afford a repeat in 2024.

“We didn't lose. It was a rigged election,” said Trump. “So they rigged the presidential election in 2020 and were not going to allow them to rig the presidential election in 2024 …we’ll lose our country, we’re not gonna have a country.”

Denouncing what he called an “outrageous attack on Christians everywhere,” Trump condemned what he said was the Biden administration’s role in getting a D.C. jury to convict five pro-life activists for protesting outside an abortion clinic — all this, he added, while all this while ANTIFA and other groups burn down Portland,Minneapolis, Seattle and other U.S. cities.

“The political oppression is immoral and un-American and very dangerous,” he said, pledging to appoint a special task force to “rapidly review the cases of every political prisoner who has been unjustly persecuted by the Biden administration."

Pledging to “never again” allow the federal government to target “religious believers” and other Americans of faith, Trump also made what could be considered more conventional political promises, including regaining energy independence and protecting Medicare and Social Security for seniors.

But it was his promise to bring an end to the war between Ukraine and Russia that led him to point to Scripture.

“As the Bible says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ and I was a peacemaker,” he added. We got out of Syria, we got out of Iraq.

“I will prevent World War III … this will be an obliteration of the world, and I will stop that.”

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