Republicans To Get Free “Spiritual, Historical” Trips to Israel

Remember a few weeks ago I wrote that Israel will be a 2016 litmus test for evangelical voters? Here’s more evidence that I’m right: Zeke Miller reports in TIME that all Republican National Committee leaders are being offered a free trip to Israel, thanks to the American Family Association and the American Renewal Project:

The 168 members of the committee, three from each state, district, and territory, have been invited to visit the country from Jan. 31–Feb.8, 2015, paid for by conservative political operative David Lane’s American Renewal Project and the American Family Association. The meeting follows January’s winter meeting of the party committee in Coronado, Calif., where Priebus is set to be resoundingly re-elected to his post.

According to Priebus’ email, the trip is not an RNC event, but is reserved exclusively and is being coordinated by the RNC for members and their guests.

An RNC spokesperson said the trip was not officially a committee trip, but is a “spiritual, historic journey through Israel” organized by the groups in concert with RNC faith director Chad Connelly. According to the official, who declined to be named, about 60 members RSVPd to attend, or 36% of the full committee.

Lane’s Renewal Project made headlines during the 2008 Republican primary, when the group, which organized Pastors Policy Briefings, at which candidates spoke privately to groups of pastors in key primary states, came under fire over the perception that it was backing Mike Huckabee’s candidacy over the other Republican hopefuls. The watchdog group Texas Freedom Network sought, unsuccessfully, an Internal Revenue Service probe into whether the Niemoller Foundation, a non-profit that had helped fund the Texas Restoration Project, which hosted Pastors Policy Briefings featuring Rick Perry when he ran for governor in 2006, had violated its tax exempt status.

In 2011, Lane and the American Family Association were behind The Response, which started as Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer gathering in Reliant Stadium in Houston just before he declared his presidential bid, and continued throughout the primary season with smaller events in early primary states that weren’t organized around a particular candidate. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is planning a similar event in Baton Rouge next year, and Lane is reportedly inviting 100,000 pastors.

In the past, these events have focused on themes like “Rediscovering God in America,” and Lane has described his efforts—which he says date back to the 1990s—as “the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage.” About his mobilization of evangelical voters for the 2014 mid-terms (which saw a big turnout of white evangelical voters), Lane told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, “If the key to maintaining sustainable freedom is righteousness — the same virtue that produced freedom — what is the greatest threat to freedom? Unrighteousness. America has left God.” Lane also aims to persuade 1,000 pastors to run for political office.

Lane has already taken Rand Paul to Israel, after which the Kentucky Republican said, “Absolutely we stand with Israel. What I think we should do is announce to the world — and I think it is pretty well known — that any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States.”