Bob Vander Plaats Invites 2020 Democrats To Iowa Evangelical Forum 'To Dig Deeper' NPR's Michel Martin talks with Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, a conservative organization, about his decision to invite Democratic presidential candidates to speak at the group's forum.
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Bob Vander Plaats Invites 2020 Democrats To Iowa Evangelical Forum 'To Dig Deeper'

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Bob Vander Plaats Invites 2020 Democrats To Iowa Evangelical Forum 'To Dig Deeper'

Bob Vander Plaats Invites 2020 Democrats To Iowa Evangelical Forum 'To Dig Deeper'

Bob Vander Plaats Invites 2020 Democrats To Iowa Evangelical Forum 'To Dig Deeper'

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NPR's Michel Martin talks with Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, a conservative organization, about his decision to invite Democratic presidential candidates to speak at the group's forum.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to presidential politics for a few minutes. Yesterday, we talked about the presidential forum hosted by women of color in Houston last week. Today, we want to talk about another presidential forum in the works - a very different one. Bob Vander Plaats is president and CEO of The Family Leader. He's invited the top seven Democrats to come and speak. The Family Leader is a conservative political organization based in Iowa that hosts a forum that's usually reserved for Republicans who are running for the White House. It's a way for them to make their pitch to conservative, mostly white Christian voters ahead of Iowa's caucuses. We wanted to know more about the invitation, so we've called Bob Vander Plaats, and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: Oh, thrilled to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what prompted you to issue this invitation?

VANDER PLAATS: Well (laughter), there's not a Republican primary, so we thought we'd go to where the game is, and that's on the Democrats' side. But really, if you listen to the candidates, they're talking about the same things. One is they want to be about unity, bringing the country together. And we thought, why not give them an unusual forum or invite them to an unusual forum to basically cast a vision of unity?

But then many, Michel, are talking about their faith and how their faith motivates them, how it drives them. And our leadership summits have always been about principle over politics. We want to get to know about a person's faith. We want to get to know about what motivates a person, what drives them. And then how does that translate into policy and politics and governmental leadership? So we invited the top seven as it was polling right now - former Vice President Biden, Senator Sanders, Senator Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. We'd love it if all seven would say yes.

MARTIN: Have you considered inviting the incumbent president? I mean, if unity is the issue, I mean, it's...

VANDER PLAATS: You bet.

MARTIN: ...Again, not a secret that many people consider this president to be a person who participates in the disunity, who has fomented the disunity. So have you invited him? And are you going to demand a message of unity from him?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, first of all, we won't demand a message of anybody. I mean, that's going to be up to them what message they want to cast at the summit because it's their candidacy. It's not our candidacy. Now, we have invited Vice President Pence to attend. If President Trump said that he wanted to attend, obviously, as president of the United States, we'd allow him. We would not demand anything, as you might suggest.

But what we have done is we've been very clear The Family Leader's calling balls and strikes. We've cheered him on for different policy decisions that we think are really good for this country. But we've also called him out on things that we believe is not the appropriate rhetoric. It's not that we won't invite President Trump. And maybe after this (laughter) - maybe after this interview, I'll make the decision - let's also extend an invitation to President Trump.

MARTIN: I understand that one of the candidates, Beto O'Rourke, has already said he would not accept an invitation from the group because of the rhetoric and positions of the organization that he considers...

VANDER PLAATS: Sure.

MARTIN: ...To be biased against the LGBTQ community. What's your response to that?

VANDER PLAATS: Well, first of all, my response is - I'll take this from one of the independent people who responded to me saying, that's all I need to know about Beto O'Rourke. And this guy's out shopping for a candidate that he can support. But he said, if Beto doesn't want to come and speak to a group like yours, he goes, I don't need to listen to anything more. When Mayor Pete Buttigieg comes out and says, you know, we're definitely going to consider the invitation, I think that opens up people's minds.

But the other thing I would say - and it's one of the reasons we're doing this forum and inviting Democrats - is instead of casting out rhetoric about, well, these guys believe in one man, one-woman marriage, these guys believe God has a design for sexuality, let's go to what the reality of it is. Even on deep disagreements, I think America needs to see that we can fundamentally disagree without being disagreeable or without being hateful and divisive.

MARTIN: How do you respond to the fact that many people who adhere to other religious traditions - progressive religious traditions or even religious traditions outside of Christianity - consider the current administration demeaning, abusive to people outside of a group of core supporters? And they are troubled and hurt by the fact that white evangelicals are such a strong base of support for this president when he engages in conduct that they consider so hurtful. How should they think about that?

VANDER PLAATS: First of all, for those of us who claim the Christian faith or be - or an evangelical Christian, Donald Trump is not our standard, nor should he ever be our standard. Jesus Christ - that's our standard. So we know he falls short. We all fall short. We take a look at leadership and some policy issues and abortion, or it would be marriage, or it'd be family or religious liberty. There's a lot of things, then, that go into that where we need to make decisions based on very flawed individuals.

Now, the beauty of this country, though, is that when you represent those groups, I'd say that they're just really upset with this administration for the things that you pointed out, this is why they get to participate in this process. Now, we have another election. And that's why I believe those who have the boldness and the courage to run for president should also have the boldness and the courage to go to stages that aren't typically their turf.

MARTIN: That is Bob Vander Plaats. He's the CEO of The Family Leader. That's a conservative political organization based in Iowa. He's issued invitations to the top seven polling Democrats to come and speak to his group in July. And he was kind enough to speak to us from Urbandale, Iowa.

Mr. Vander Plaats, thanks so much for talking to us. Keep us posted about your plans, if you would.

VANDER PLAATS: Will do.

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