In the 2016 election, Trump got 81 percent support from white evangelical Christians, and a study by Clemson sociologist Andrew Whitehead and two colleagues (Salon story here) found that "the 'religious vote' for Trump was primarily the result of Christian nationalism," an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities that "can be unmoored from traditional moral import emphasizing only its notions of exclusion and apocalyptic war and conquest."
The targeting of good Samaritans for deportation, or blaming a refugee family for their seven-year-old daughter’s death in Border Patrol custody are features, not bugs, of the Christian nationalist worldview. Never mind what Matthew 25:35 says: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."
This week, new exit-poll data from this year's midterm elections re-emphasized how much the Trump-led GOP depends on evangelical voters, as opposed to the much more discussed "white working class." Among white non-evangelicals, non-college-educated men voted for Republicans, 53 to 44 percent, while women voted Democratic by 57 to 41 percent. But among white evangelicals there was virtually no difference between college and non-college voters in their GOP support: 78 percent among men for both groups, and 73 and 71 percent, respectively, for women.
All this amounts to a flashing red light warning that Christian nationalism is the most important and most overlooked factor behind Donald Trump’s presidency and the political power of the GOP generally. But it’s not just a passive or latent force, as Trump’s border cruelty suggests.
Last April, I followed up Frederick Clarkson’s report at Religion Dispatches about a major Christian nationalist initiative called “Project Blitz,” intended to pass a wide range of discriminatory laws through state legislatures, from the seemingly innocuous to the blatantly discriminatory. It was based on his discovery of a 116-page evangelical playbook for the 2017-8 legislative cycle. Now Clarkson’s has uncovered their playbook for the 2019-20 cycle, and will be publishing another report at Religion Dispatches shortly.
In the meantime, Clarkson took part in an online webinar called "Stopping the Blitz: A Coordinated Response to State Campaigns," hosted by the PFLAG Academy Online. (A recording is available here.) It’s an invaluable activist resource, covering both detailed specifics and broad frameworks for understanding what’s at stake and how to fight back. Anyone getting involved with Indivisible States, for example, should find it an hour well-spent.
Along with Clarkson, who is a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, presenters included Alison Gill, legal and policy director at American Atheists and Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School. It was hosted by Jamie Henkel, PFLAG's learning and inclusion manager. Clarkson presented an overview of Project Blitz, along with its background, Gill delved into the components of Project Blitz — legislative “prayer caucuses” formed to pass legislation and the state policy guide Clarkson discovered to guide them -- and Platt spoke about the meaning of religious freedom, how the religious right has distorted it, and how even those who oppose the religious right tacitly may accept key aspects of its dishonest framing.
Although she went last, Platt began with a point that belongs front and center, since everything in Project Blitz rests on its denial.
“I wanted to step back and start out by reminding everyone that religious liberty is a progressive value,” she said. “It's really important to ... remind ourselves what religious liberty really is, which is the freedom of individuals and communities to practice their religious beliefs, or to practice no religion, in a pluralistic society, free from government persecution, discrimination or coercion. So this is a foundational constitutional value, and it's a progressive value.”
It’s also reflected in our original national motto, coined by the founders: E pluribus unum — out of many, one.
“We do not often surface a document that fundamentally changes the way we view a subject. In the case of the strategy paper of Project Blitz, we have just that,” Clarkson said in his introduction. “The Project Blitz playbook shows us that while the Christian right see the bills as distinct, they are also envisioning a political building process that leads to a comprehensive vision of a conservative Christian nation, and even the more totalitarian idea of conservative Christian Dominion.”
In short, it’s not progressives, whether secular or religious, who say that there’s a vast, multi-threaded, right-wing strategy involved. It’s what the religious right's own game plan says.
While Christian nationalism revolves around “the idea that America was once, and must be again, a Christian nation,” it usually allows “some room for religious tolerance on the part of Christian nationalists,” Clarkson explained. But there is no such "tolerance from Dominionists, who have a long-term vision of organizing all of society and government according to their understanding of the Bible.” (If you think that includes death by stoning, the answer is yes, at least for some Dominionists, including Rousas John Rushdoony, known as the "father of Christian Reconstructionism.")
Three categories of proposed laws
Project Blitz organizes its model bills into three categories, or "phases," Clarkson explained:
The authors suggested trying the less controversial bills in phase one first. They call these bills “Legislation Regarding Our Country's Religious Heritage.” Category or Phase 2 Involves seeking “Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom.” The first two categories of bills are intended to pave the way for far more serious legislation … but suffice to say are decisive moves towards a more theocratic state, beginning with seriously eroding the rights of LGBTQ people.
“They start with the early phases with what are generally considered harmless or easy to pass low-hanging fruit,” Gill said, “and basically build momentum to pass more destructive 'religious-exceptions' bills that limit equality and freedom.”
“For the most part, these are not directly attacking equality or LGBT people, but instead working build momentum, establish Christian nationalist narratives,” Gill explained. “For example, the display of the national motto in schools, or teaching the religious nature of the U.S. founding, establishing this Christian nationalist narrative. The book would classify this as low hanging fruit in order to basically gain early victories, and establish momentum.”
There are two fundamental kinds of sleight-of-hand here. First, the national motto “In God We Trust” dates from the height of the McCarthy Red Scare. But, as Clarkson told me afterward, “The original motto since 1782, E Pluribus Unum, which still appears on the Great Seal of the United States, much better reflected the founding aspirations of unity amidst diversity.” Christianizing America means erasing the founders’ vision, the exact opposite of what Project Blitz pretends.
Second, Project Blitz is deceptive about its true intentions. “It allows [Christian nationalists] to get lawmakers on the record on these issues, and achieve victories that they can then build on and work together as a caucus,” Gill noted. “This is meant to be easy things to achieve that don’t give away the entire project.”
These issues seem generally unrelated to specific policy decisions such as religious exemptions on foster care and adoption, or religious refusal of medical care, Gill continued. “But the Project Blitz guide shows that they really are related because conceptually this is how the opposition is thinking about these issues, and they’re working to build momentum from one issue to another."
Furthermore, for progressives to "take these issues one by one" is a mistake, Gill said. "It makes it more difficult to actively oppose them. And as I mentioned, these bills are pushing through the legislature without enough opposition to really stop them, in many cases."
Without a well-informed opposition, there’s no telling how much damage Project Blitz could do. “While the 'In God We Trust' bills are presented as the least controversial, there is an ugliness that lies just beneath the surface that revealed itself in the wake of debate on the measure in the Minnesota state senate,” Clarkson said. “After Democratic Sen. John Marty spoke against the bill, he was smeared on Fox News ... falsely described as part of an ‘anti-faith movement’ that seeks to ‘suppress’ religion and ‘wipe it out of government.’
“Project Blitz strategists thought they could gain political advantage by getting opponents on the record, so their votes and statements could be used against them,” Clarkson continued. At least in this case, it backfired spectacularly.
In a subsequent appearance on Fox, Marty defended the integrity of his faith and his stance against the bill. He insisted that posting "In God We Trust" in the public schools is offensive to both religious believers and the non-religious. And, speaking as a Christian, he said that “the government sanctioned motto does not strengthen our religion, but it demeans, devalues and cheapens our religion.”
Marty explained that he is “the great-grandson of a Lutheran minister, the grandson of a minister, the son of one, the brother of a minister, and soon, the father of one.” Rather than continue to give Marty a platform, the right-wing smears stopped.
“The third category is 'religious liberty' protection legislation, and this is the real attack on equality, and the most impactful policy changes” Gill said. “For example, policy statements that are passed as resolutions that favor married heterosexual couples, or maintenance of birth gender, which is a very awkward phrase I'd never heard before seeing it in this document.” Bills in this category, “are basically religious exceptions to the law, either broader or more narrow … that would allow people to discriminate on the basis of their religion.”
Regaining clarity on religious freedom
This is where Platt’s analysis becomes essential. “The Christian right has been extremely effective over the past five or so years in branding progressives as anti-religious freedom, even while we know at the same time the far right and the Trump administration, is quite overtly attacking religious freedom through the promulgation of Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban,” Platt noted. “They’ve managed to conflate that term with particular, narrow protections for conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage and reproduction, while totally ignoring the enormous variety of views that we know people of faith – including Christians – have had on these matters. And, of course, ignoring completely the very existence of LGBTQ people of faith.”
Most importantly, Platt pointed out, “The primary way that they've been able to do this is by framing the issue of religious exemption as an absolute zero-sum conflict between the value of religious liberty on the one hand, and secular values like LGBTQ rights or abortion rights on the other.” The only way to resolve this conflict is via religious exemptions.
“On these terms, within this sort of zero-sum conflict, they manage to elicit quite a bit of sympathy from institutional actors, I can think, most notably, of someone like Justice [Anthony] Kennedy, who to some extent supports LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights ... but just feels very deeply uncomfortable coming off in any way as seeming to be anti-religious liberty.” Both in Obergefell (which legalized same-sex marriage) and Masterpiece Cake Shop (which allowed religious discrimination), Platt said that it was evident in Kennedy's opinions that he was “concerned about being perceived as being condemning anyone who holds conservative religious belief about sex and marriage.
“Even opponents of these Project Blitz exemption bills have sort of bought into this framework of accepting certain exemption bills as protective of religious liberty," Platt continued. "For example, when we argue against a law that specifically exempts religious objectors to a civil rights law by saying, ‘Well, religious liberty isn’t an excuse to discriminate,’ or ‘Religious liberty is a shield, but not a sword,’ I think there's a way in which we’re playing on their turf by assuming that this explicitly anti-LGBTQ law is actually in furtherance of religious liberty in the first instance.”
Her point might seem subtle, but it’s crucially important. “We’re sort of accepting this conflict between the value of religious liberty, and the value of LGBTQ people’s civil rights and we're just saying that we think that the civil rights should win out,” Platt said. “But I think a very strong argument can be made that the exemption bills that carve about narrow exceptions for conservative religious views don't protect religious liberty at all, and in fact do the opposite.”
It all comes back to basics, Platt explained: “If we know anything about the First Amendment, and about religious liberty law, it's that the government should not single out certain theological views for special protection, especially at the expense of other peoples who don't share those views. So at my project we have tried to be careful in reframing the way we talk about religious exemption to make sure we are clear that exemptions that advance conservative religious beliefs are not just bad for secular people and are not just bad for LGBT people or for women. They’re actually really harmful to religious liberty and religious plurality.”
In the Masterpiece Cake Shop opinion, “There's a real focus … on the importance of religious neutrality,” she said. “But a law that singles out only conservative religious views on sex, marriage and reproduction for this kind of sweeping exemption from all sorts of different laws -- that's not treating religion neutrally. It's placing the government in a position of taking a theological stance on a particular religious belief that deserves total exemption from the law.”
That’s exactly what government establishment of religion looks like. It’s the very negation of the First Amendment. But that’s not the only contradiction.
“I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that the court quickly abandoned its commitment to religious neutrality last session,” Platt said. “Just about week after Masterpiece Cake Shop, it issued its opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, the Muslim ban case, where the court not only overlooked the commitment to neutrality, it refused to even look behind the Trump administration's proffered non-discriminatory motive for enacting that travel ban, with a very clear evidence that it was being motivated by Islamophobic animus.”
Platt identified three ways the Project Blitz exemption bills “”limit rather than enhance religious liberties.” First, they favor certain views, rather than protecting everyone’s views. Second, “they require people to subsidize religious beliefs that they don't themselves hold.” And third, “some of the proposed exemptions overtly allow discrimination against religious minorities,” such as a recently-passed Texas bill that “allows religious foster care agencies to refuse to place children in non-Christian families.”
Rather than seeing religious freedom in zero-sum conflict with civil rights law, Platt suggested the opposite is true. “Civil rights laws are what allows religious minorities to participate in the public economy without having to hide their faith. So carving holes in civil rights law really harms the cause of religious liberty.
“My take away from all of this would just be don't play on their turf,” Platt said. “Don't buy into their idea that all religious exemptions enhance religious liberty, and don't buy into an inherent conflict between religious liberty and civil rights. These exemptions are ... actually violating religious liberty.”
Project Blitz’s two components
With these insights in mind, let’s return to some more of Gill’s detailed account of Project Blitz’s two components. First, she explained, “These prayer caucuses are fairly misleading. Lawmakers who are members of the prayer caucuses may not be aware that the prayer caucuses are a part of Project Blitz, or even aware what Project Blitz is. A prayer caucus sort of signifies a caucus devoted to religion or faith or prayer, and doesn't necessarily indicate that it’s a right-wing project to push for really conservative legislation.”
This deception is perfectly in keeping with the basic character of Project Blitz. By deceiving caucus members about its ultimate goals and purposes, it can then deceive others as well. “This has been used to ... create legitimacy for the bills that the prayers caucuses move forward with,” Gill said. “And this happened in several states to bring both Democrats into the prayer caucus to introduce or support bills, even though they might oppose some of the other aims of Project Blitz.”
The second component is the state policy guide, including the three categories of bills I’ve already discussed. In addition to those categories and the model legislation in them, there are also talking points and resources. “Interestingly, they include common arguments that they think the opposition — that is us — will use, and they talk about how to defuse our talking points, and how you basically work around them,” Gill noted.
What’s next from Project Blitz
Gill moved on to discuss what to expect from Project Blitz this coming year. First is bills they’ve had some success with last year — "In God We Trust" bills and religious exceptions in foster care and adoption. Second, in the wake of the Masterpiece Cake Shop decision, more "First Amendment Defense Acts," aimed at expanding religious exceptions. Third, the Project Blitz policy guide highlights three areas they intend to focus on.
“The first is establishing 'In God We trust' license plates,” which can be used to donate money to different organizations or causes, “in some states to even fund organizations that are opposed to LGBT equality. … It's not only about starting to spread this Christian nationalist narrative, it also can be used to fund negative causes,” Gill said.
“It’s of a piece with the wider effort to promote the display of the national motto everywhere they can. In this case via what they call 'moving billboards,'” Clarkson added in a followup email. “Project Blitz claims ... that the phrase has no specific religious meaning. But this is belied by the mission statement of the main sponsoring organization. They say they are promoting ‘the Judeo-Christian heritage’ of the country as they see it. There is, of course, little that can be construed as ‘Judeo’ about their vision.”
He went to note, “It's true that many backers of the slogan saw it as broadly inclusive enough when it was first adopted by Congress as the national motto in the '50s. But of course it does not include polytheistic and non-theistic minority religions or those who hold to no religious beliefs. By today’s standards it is rightly seen as exclusivist and offensive.” He again referred to John Marty, the Minnesota state senator, who “objects in part because he sees it as so generic and watered-down that it offends his own deep Christian beliefs.”
More broadly, Clarkson noted, “The backers of Project Blitz, notably David Barton, are at least Christian nationalists, and in some cases, overt Dominionists. This agenda is clear in the wider context of the Project Blitz legislative package. They see the 'In God We Trust' campaign as a step in the direction of their more oppressive legislation, as well as helping to build the political movement required to get it done.”
The second area highlighted would be “resolutions to establish public policy favoring heterosexual married sexual relations,” Gill said, resolutions that contain a lot of “medical garbage ... statistics and other sorts of language talking about how heterosexual married sexual relations are the only healthy kind, and that LGBT people are unhealthy or destructive.”
I found this puzzling, since Project Blitz can’t outlaw gay marriage, no matter how much its supporters may want to. I asked Clarkson what the purpose of such resolutions might be.
“Their apparent purpose," he said, "is to help persuade legislators and executive branch program administrators that not only religious but public health exemptions from the law need to be created and perhaps litigated, to chip away at marriage equality, in the sense that not all marriages need be treated equally under the law. But also to erode the rights of LGBTQ people generally.”
Clarkson elaborated on the "medical garbage" behind such resolutions. “There are pages and pages of material of questionable scientific value about LGBTQ people, but there is nothing about public health and medical data regarding heterosexuals,” he said. “For example, the costs of heart disease so prevalent among men or obesity in the population at large. Focusing a telescopic lens on certain data, without qualification, to the exclusion of all else is obvious, bigoted fear-mongering.”
The third area Gill cited was “religious speech in public schools, so teachers and students [may] engage in prayer in public schools.” Clarkson offered more information.
“There is a guidance issued by the Department of Education in 2003 that established guidelines regarding private religious expression in public schools, aimed primarily at certifying that schools are accommodating prayer during both instructional and non-instructional time,” Clarkson responded. ‘Christian right groups feel that it has been inadequately enforced over the years.”
Frankly, that guidance doesn’t seem especially helpful to the Christian right's cause. It reads in part:
The Supreme Court's decisions over the past forty years set forth principles that distinguish impermissible governmental religious speech from the constitutionally protected private religious speech of students. For example, teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities. Such conduct is "attributable to the State" and thus violates the Establishment Clause.
So what are they trying to accomplish here? “I think it has to do with getting states on board with enforcement and compliance,” Clarkson replied. “Getting all the states to focus on enforcement and getting that administrative piece in place may allow them to push the boundaries of the meaning of religious expression in the public schools. It may also set the stage for litigation against state, local and regional school boards.”
What all this shows is an increasingly complex battlefield unfolding. The more special exemptions are allowed under law, the more they will be used to open new battlefronts. And there’s likely no end in sight.
In his closing remarks during the webinar, Clarkson said he wanted to “underscore that Project Blitz is a serious effort" and that "whatever the ups and downs" of Christian nationalists' political fortunes might be, they're in this for the long haul. Progressives need a similar mindset. "What we learn about all this now," he concluded, "especially about what they have learned, will serve us well going forward.”