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Onward, Christian soldiers: Right-wing religious nationalists launch dramatic new power play

Evangelical extremists mount "Project Blitz," a covert campaign to re-create a Christian America that never existed


Paul Rosenberg
April 29, 2018 4:00PM (UTC)

It’s just beginning to dawn on folks how much Donald Trump’s presidency relies on religious support. All the scandals surrounding Trump have brought intense attention to the 81 percent support he received from evangelical Christians in the 2016 election. New research by Andrew Whitehead, meanwhile, explicates such support in the context of Christian nationalism, and historian John Fea has written an important new book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump," to be published in June.

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But the power of the presidency isn’t the only way Christian nationalism is advancing its agenda in America today. As Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, reported last week at Religion Dispatches, a coalition of Christian right groups — including the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, Wallbuilders, the National Legal Foundation and others — have organized a major legislative initiative called “Project Blitz.” Its goal is to pass an outwardly diverse but internally cohesive package of Christian-right bills at the state level, whose cumulative impact would be immense.

The agenda underlying these bills is not merely about Christian nationalism, a term that describes an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, and meant to sharpen the divide between those who belong to those groups and those who are excluded. It’s also ultimately "dominionist," meaning that it doubles down on the historically false notion of America as a “Christian nation” to insist that a a particular sectarian view of God should control every aspect of life, through all manner of human institutions. Christian nationalists are not in a position to impose their vision now, and to be fair, many involved in the movement would never go that far. But as explained by Julie Ingersoll in "Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction" (Salon interview here), dominionist ideas have had enormous influence on the religious right, even among those who overtly disavow them.

“The authors of the Project Blitz playbook are savvy purveyors of dominionism,” Clarkson told Salon. “They are in it for the long haul and try not to say things that sound too alarming. ​But they live an immanent theocratic vision, and they sometimes cannot help themselves, such as when they describe the resolutions as seeking to ‘define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.’

“Among the ways they are seeking to implement 'biblical values,'" Clarkson continued, "is by seeking religious exemptions from civil rights laws and professional licensing standards.” The two-tiered society this would create reflects the essence of Christian nationalism, as Whitehead describes it.

Whitehead told Salon: “Our work shows that believing that the United States is a ‘Christian nation’ and desiring a close, symbiotic relationship between Christianity and civil society is significantly associated with a number of stances like opposition toward same-sex marriage, antipathy toward religious minorities and a tendency toward endorsing stricter racial boundaries in romantic and family relationships." So it makes sense, he continued, "that these groups who advocate for a formal recognition of the 'Christian nation' narrative are also seeking to formalize support for particular definitions of marriage, gender identity and family structure” — definitions that elevate some people and effectively subjugate others.

So far this year, supporters of this initiative, and their allies, have introduced 71 bills nationwide (or carried them over from last year) -- and those are only the ones tracked by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (Some of the bills counted are similar in intent, but may not directly draw on the Project Blitz playbook.)

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Most of those have innocuous or feel-good names like the National Motto Display Act (23 bills), the First Amendment Defense Act (10 bills), the Child Protection Act (four bills), the Bible Literacy Act (eight bills) and the Clergy Protection Act (six bills). The goal is to come across as wholesome, apple-pie Americans, while copying the strikingly successful approach of the pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The guiding vision behind Project Blitz is heavily influenced by pseudo-historian David Barton, a leading propagandist for the myth that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” John Fea, author of the aforementioned "Believe Me," told Salon: “David Barton has been discredited by every American historian I know, including evangelical historians who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges in the country, including Bob Jones University and Liberty University. He is a politician who uses the past for his own political agenda."

Nonetheless, Fea continued, Barton “is one of the most important people in American politics today.” How could that possibly be true? "If Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues are correct, evangelicals supported Trump because they believe America was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation," Fea said. "No one has promoted this narrative more effectively than David Barton.”

The war imagery conjured up by the name “Project Blitz” is no accident. This is religious war in the minds of those waging it, and they’ve got specific goals and strategies in mind. But it’s not easy for outsiders to see what’s going on here, as Clarkson explains in his story:

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The bills are seemingly unrelated and range widely in content — from requiring public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT); to legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people; to religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health. The model bills, the legislative strategy and the talking points reflect the theocratic vision that has animated many in the Christian Right for some time. In the context of Project Blitz’s 116-page playbook, however, they also reveal a highly sophisticated level of coordination and strategizing that echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which infamously networks pro-business state legislators, drafts legislation, and shares legislative ideas and strategies.

The bills are organized into three tiers, “according to the degree of opposition they anticipate — 1 being the least,” Clarkson reports. “The general plan is to begin with the less controversial measures to get legislators comfortable with the subject matter; to seek small victories first.” The full meaning and significance of the earlier measures will not become readily apparent until later measures build on them and covert synergies are revealed. 

The first tier, “Legislation Regarding Our Country's Religious Heritage,” aims at importing the Christian nationalist worldview (including Barton’s bogus history) into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere. It starts simply with a display of the motto “In God We Trust,” a Cold War replacement for “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one — which better reflects America’s pragmatic, pluralist foundations. The second tier, “Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom,” aims at making government increasingly a partner in “Christianizing” America. The third tier, "Religious Liberty Protection Legislation," has three subcategories, one dealing with “public policy resolutions,” the other two with specifically targeted but sweepingly conceived “protections” for religious practices.

“Category 3’s focus on religious liberty is especially relevant today," in the wake of the Supreme Court's historic Obergefell decision, said Daniel Bennett, author of "Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement." With same-sex marriage a settled issue, right-wing Christian groups "will want to prioritize protection for religious liberty, defined in their specific way. The Christian legal movement is fighting these battles in the court, but these sorts of legislative proposals show how wide-ranging the broader movement’s strategy is.”

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It’s a defensive fight now, but it’s also laying the groundwork for a possible future counter-offensive. “Although Category 3 is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," said Clarkson. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate. This is one way that the agenda of theocratic dominionism is reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"

Bills protecting the “right” to discriminate against the LGBTQ community are the most salient example of how Project Blitz aims to produce a radically altered “Handmaid’s Tale-style America. But even the most innocent-seeming proposal — introducing the motto “In God We Trust” into schools — has a divisive, discriminatory, damaging impact, sharply at odds with its presentation.

“To an ex-evangelical such as myself, Project Blitz is deeply concerning,” Christopher Stroop told Salon. Stroop is a scholar, writer and Twitter personality with a history and humanities Ph.D. from Stanford, who is currently senior research associate with the Postsecular Conflicts project. As he says, he spent many years in the evangelical world.

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“When I was growing up in the 1980s," Stroop said, "two issues that were frequently lamented in my evangelical community were the legalization of abortion and the supposed banning of prayer in school — ‘supposed’ because the right-wing evangelicals I grew up with usually failed to note that the Supreme Court had only ended officially school-sponsored prayer, and had not outlawed private prayer in schools. Extreme exaggeration of the ostensible persecution we supposedly faced as Christians was prevalent in my childhood milieu.”

The attempt to reverse that imagined persecution can have real damaging effects, as Stroop notes. In examining the goal of requiring "In God We Trust" to be displayed in public schools, he said, "I cannot help but associate this goal with evangelical resentment over legal limitations on prayer in school, and to see it as an attempt to take a step toward the Christianization of public schools. On its own, posting the motto 'In God We Trust' in schools would already embolden Christian nationalists present in those schools, leading Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, liberal and atheist children to feel alienated and pressured to conform.” 

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Although the first tier of Project Blitz bills pretends to be concerned with the role that “religion, and particularly our Judeo-Christian heritage, have played … in the founding and history of this country,” the history they promote is not just selective and distorted, but in crucial ways opposed to what actual historians view as the truth.

“The American history behind these initiatives is highly suspect,” Fea said. “Yes, Christianity has deeply influenced American culture, and one could even say that it has held a privileged cultural position, but this is because most Americans have been Christians,” he explained. “Now that America has become more diverse, particularly in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act, some conservative evangelicals have gone into panic mode. They have offered up a one-sided, revisionist view of the past that is more nostalgia than actual history. This approach to history is one-sided and tends to cherry-pick the parts of the American past that are useful to the Christian right's political and moral agenda.”

Our actual history stands in ironic relationship to this narrative impulse, Fea argued. “One can make a solid case that the Founding Fathers' views on religious liberty anticipated this moment. They were not founding a Christian nation. They were founding a nation in which religious liberty for all faiths must be defended. The Christian Right claims to be defending their own religious liberty here, but they can't be champions of religious liberty and at the same time promote symbols and commemorations claiming America's Judeo-Christian heritage and privileged position.”

Stroop offers a complementary argument, arguing that “the vast majority of white evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians in America understand ‘religious freedom’ as a species of positive freedom." In their view, that means not just "the negative freedom from state interference in the private practice of their own religion, but the positive freedom to impose that religion in the public square as the norm.” 

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He also draws on his own personal experience to explain the relationship between evangelical Christians and Donald Trump, in chilling terms. “Growing up with intense religious indoctrination in hardline evangelical churches and Christian schools was immensely psychologically harmful to me, and to many other people who are now speaking out as part of the ex-evangelical community.

"We have long since understood that evangelicalism is authoritarian through and through, and when we see evangelicals pushing for greater recognition of God in America's public life and institutions, we understand that this effort is not about inclusive patriotism or even robust pluralism. We know that most evangelicals would be more than happy to impose their beliefs with the force of coercive law however possible, because we have been privy, for decades, to how they talk among themselves.”

Clarkson cites the call for "Religious Freedom Day" proclamations as particularly revealing, once you know how to read them. “These measures epitomize the strategy of going for soft targets first. But they also reveal how the measures are intended to advance their flawed vision of the Christian nation that never was,” he said. 

“Religious Freedom Day, declared by Congress in 1991, commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786," Clarkson continued. The Virginia Statute "is recognized by historians as the forerunner to the approach taken by the Framers of the Constitution and later, the First Amendment."

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While the Christian right's model bill "celebrates the idea of religious freedom, it does not even quote from the Virginia Statute itself,” Clarkson said -- and the reasons are obvious. “The key point in the Virginia Statute states that ‘all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.’ In contemporary English, we might say that people’s religious or non-religious views shall be neither an advantage or a disadvantage to their status as citizens. Thus, the religious freedom that Madison and Jefferson sought to establish was equality.”

But the subterfuge involved in Project Blitz is much broader than that. “The omission is compounded in the model Civic Literacy Act and the Religion in History Acts," Clarkson continued, "which respectively require the study or posting of ‘the founding documents’ in the public schools. Curiously, the Mayflower Compact is included as a founding document, but there is no mention of the Virginia Statute ... because it throws a monkey wrench into the  Christian nationalist narrative, which seeks to link Christianity and national identity from the British colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth to the present.” 

Actual study of the Virginia Statute and its legacy would show, of course, that when the United States was founded, "the Constitution didn’t acknowledge Christianity or any religion,” as Clarkson told me. “The framers of the Constitution looked to the Virginia Statute as the underlying principle in how to approach religion and government; this set in motion the disestablishment of the colonial-era state churches and embarked the country on the journey towards greater religious equality.”

Where is all this leading, and how successful can Project Blitz possibly be amid the political and cultural turmoil of 21st-century America? That's a big question. “I read this proposed legislation as a sign of desperation,” Fea said. “The Christian right has lost the culture war and its members believe that they can somehow turn back the clock through various symbols and commemorations. They are afraid and, true to their past, have chosen to respond to social and cultural change with an appeal to a nostalgic past that may not have ever existed in the first place.”

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In some ways this recalls the cultural and political struggle that led to the Civil War, when Southern slaveholders waged a futile campaign to preserve a non-existent past. That failed, but the damage to our society was devastating and in some ways is still with us. Let’s hope this new struggle over an imaginary past can end before it does similar damage.

 


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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