The Christian nationalist assault on democracy goes stealth — but the pushback is working

Salon's 2018 reporting helped drive the Christian right's Project Blitz underground. Now it's back, on the down-low

Published July 24, 2021 12:14PM (EDT)

American Flag and Christianity Cross (Getty Images/Javier Art Photography)
American Flag and Christianity Cross (Getty Images/Javier Art Photography)

In April 2018, researcher Frederick Clarkson exposed the existence of Project Blitz, a secretive Christian nationalist "bill mill" operating below the radar to shape and enact legislation in dozens of states, using a network of state "prayer caucuses," many of which had unsuspecting Democratic members. Its plan was to start with innocent-seeming bills, such as requiring public schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust," and to culminate with laying the foundations for a "Handmaid's Tale"-style theocracy, enshrining bigotry in law under the guise of "religious freedom."  

Salon was the first to report and build on Clarkson's findings, as well as subsequent progressive organizing efforts which eventually drove Project Blitz back underground, following a high-profile USA Today exposé (Salon follow-up here.)  Now, three years later, Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, has unearthed the playbooks Project Blitz has used since going dark, and discussed their implications with Salon in an exclusive interview.

"The playbooks advise legislators to cloak their religious mission in the guise of more secular intentions and they've renamed several bills to make them sound more appealing," Clarkson reported at Religion Dispatches. But there's another, more hopeful message: These playbooks "also tell a story of the resilience of democratic institutions and leaders in the face of movements seeking to undermine or end them." 

Clarkson told Salon, "While most people to the left of the Christian right view the Project Blitz playbook with revulsion, I see it as a gift to democracy. The playbook and their accompanying briefings and events laid bare their intentions and their game plan." Because of that, he continued, "We were handed a vital tool for the defense of democratic values and, arguably, the wider defense of democracy itself. The things that happened in response, I think, are underappreciated, even by some of those who should be taking great pride in their victories."

In particular, Clarkson said, "We were fortunate that Rachel Laser, the then-new president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recognized this right away and made taking on Project Blitz a signature campaign of her presidency." One highlight of Laser's work was "organizing dozens of national religious and civil rights organizations to issue a joint letter to state legislators opposing the anti-democratic, Christian nationalist intention" behind Project Blitz.

He also cited the webinars staged for various national groups by Alison Gill of American Atheists, Elizabeth Reiner Platt of Columbia University Law School and Clarkson himself, which "laid out the implications of the Project Blitz campaign," Clarkson said. (My reporting on that is here.) That in turn led to the formation of Blitz Watch, which focused attention on the continuing threat. 

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In Clarkson's article for Religion Dispatches, he writes, "In 2020, depending on how one counts, 92 bills were introduced, 8 of which passed. In 2021, so far, 74 bills have been introduced, 14 of which have passed, according to Blitz Watch." So Project Blitz is still in action, and still a threat. But it's not the massive and successful onslaught that its founders intended and hoped for — and the fact that it was forced into stealth mode shows how successful the pushback has been. 

At the end of his story, Clarkson offers this summary:

The ongoing exposure and response to Project Blitz has taught us several things. First, that it's possible to stand up to and prevail against anti-democratic movements and measures, and that our democratic institutions are more resilient than they sometimes seem. Sen. John Marty showed that — when he spoke up for the integrity of his faith and stood down a national smear campaign led by Fox News, as noted earlier. Librarians and their allies showed that, even in the face of demagogic attacks on the competence and integrity of public libraries, state legislators could be made to see reason. Efforts since 2018 by scores of national organizations organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Blitz Watch, have also shown that it's possible to defend democracy and its institutions against a secretive and formidable opponent of democratic values, and of democracy itself. What's more, journalism has once again shown that sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

Elaborating on this last point, Clarkson told Salon, "Scores of national media outlets covered either Project Blitz directly, or covered the patterns of bills introduced in legislatures across the country, especially the most common, In God We Trust bills…. Thus Project Blitz was exposed as part of wider problem of manipulation of state legislatures, and found itself compared to the tobacco and the pornography industries as corruptors of democratic institutions."

What's equally important is that these lessons can also provide tools and strategies to counter the right's latest culture war offensive — the racist backlash flying under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." Although the two campaigns are dissimilar in some respects, in both cases the right is defending a founding myth (America as a "Christian nation," or America as a flawless "beacon of liberty") and perverting or taking hostage a progressive value to claim it as their own (religious freedom or racial equality). In both cases, the reliance on blatant deception tells us that conservatives themselves understand that progressives hold the stronger hand.  The right may be more mobilized now — just as it was before Project Blitz was first exposed — but it won't win if progressives can learn, and adapt, the lessons of their recent success.

How we got here

As Clarkson first reported, Project Blitz originally divided its bills into three tiers. The first tier aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere. A signature example is 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," aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, largely by promoting bogus historical narratives. For example, Clarkson told me, the model "Civic Literacy Act and the Religion in History Acts," required the study or posting of "the founding documents" in the public schools, but with a twist:

"Curiously, the Mayflower Compact is included as a founding document," he said, "but there is no mention of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty [the law Thomas Jefferson wrote which served as the model for the First Amendment] ... 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."

The third tier contained three types of proposed laws that "protect" religious beliefs and practices specifically intended to benefit bigotry. "Although category three is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," Clarkson explained in a later story. "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.'"

The basic structure of Project Blitz's agenda hasn't changed much, but its presentation has. "The 2020-2021 playbook offers slicker arguments than previous years," Clarkson notes. "For example, they deny that they seek a theocracy, try not to be overtly Christian, present secular arguments for their legislation and attempt to give the appearance that they respect religious pluralism. But they don't quite succeed." 

The contradictions he notes are not surprising. Authors of these proposed laws insist, for example, that they're not out to "change our model of government into a theocracy" and that the bills don't "mimic or enact any particular religious code." But the inclusion of "The Ten Commandments Display Act" isn't very convincing on that score. They further insist that the model bills promote "religious tolerance" and "do not force any religion on anyone," yet the "National Motto Display Act" calls for the posting of the Christian religious slogan "In God We Trust" in public schools and buildings. Still they allege that "tolerance [is] sorely lacking in those who reject various aspects of religious teaching," an old talking point that frames rejection of imposed religion in public spaces as "intolerance."

That last point is another example of how the right attempts to usurp progressive values and turn them on their heads. It also represents an attempt to erase religious liberals, progressives and radicals from the public sphere, by pretending that only "secular humanists" can possibly oppose what they are doing.

The 2019-2020 playbook was more narrowly focused, dealing only with bills related to sexual orientation and gender identity. That made sense, since it was the rapid shift in public attitudes around LGBTQ rights that put the religious right into its current defensive posture, out of which it conceived its counter-offensive: recasting religious bigotry as a defining feature of faith, and claiming a right to discriminate as an essential aspect of "religious freedom." The fact that the other tiers were dropped from the 2019-2020 playbook is a tell of sorts — but of course the playbook's authors never expected it to become public.

The 2020-2021 playbook returned to the full three-tier format, under a new rubric of "categories," adding two additional ones. "Category 4 offers 'talking points to counter anti-religious freedom legislation,' which is simply a breakout of the talking points previously included in other sections," Clarkson notes, while "Category 5 provides four new model policies dealing with prayer in public settings — three for public school settings and one for municipal settings, such as city council meetings."

One important new ingredient 

One new bill that Clarkson draws attention to would criminalize libraries and librarians, and became infamous even before Project Blitz adopted it: 

The "Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act," introduced by then-freshman Missouri State Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho), ignited a state and national controversy in January 2020 shortly after he took office. …

His bill sought to create "parental review boards" with the authority to "convene public hearings" and restrict access to anything they deemed "age-inappropriate sexual materials." Not only would their decisions be "final," but the bill also prescribed fines or jail for librarians who "willingly" violated board decrees regarding what is inappropriate, and included the potential state defunding of libraries accused of violating the statute. 

This bill is deceptive in two key ways. First, as Clarkson notes, it "feigns a democratic method to achieve an anti-democratic result." These board members wouldn't be chosen in a general election, but by voters who show up in person at a scheduled public meeting where the issue is raised. "Thus the boards could be elected by small groups of zealots able to pack an otherwise routine evening meeting of a town council," Clarkson writes. These boards would then be given powers to overrule existing library boards, which are either democratically elected or appointed by democratically elected officials. In short, this is an attack on local democratic control, the very principle it pretends to embody.

The second deception is over the term "age-inappropriate sexual materials," since the impetus for the original bill wasn't about sexual content at all, but rather gender representation: 

Baker said he was originally concerned about the popular-but-sometimes-controversial  Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries and bookstores around the country.

Drag Queen Story Hour describes its events simply as "drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores … [where] kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real."

Baker sees something more sinister at work. Any break in rigid gender stereotypes is inherently subversive to his snowflake sensibilities, as he explained  to the New York Times: "What inspired this bill is becoming aware of what is taking place at our publicly funded libraries with events like Drag Queen Story Hour, and materials that have a clear agenda of grooming our children for the L.G.B.T.Q. community with adult themes and content that fit the description of a objectionable sexual nature." 

In this worldview, any breakdown in rigid gender stereotypes is associated with "grooming our children" for the LGBTQ community," a trope used by the right dating back at least to the Eisenhower-era John Birch Society, when scientific knowledge about gender orientation and identity was virtually nonexistent. Not only does this lack any scientific credibility, it's also a hysterical overreaction, since no one is forced to attend Drag Queen Story Hour. If this law were passed, as an official with American Library Association warned, not just Drag Queen Story Hour could be censored, but also displays relating to Pride Month, Black History Month and other specific commemorations.

This attempted intrusion into local library politics is just one example of how Project Blitz overlaps with the new wave of white backlash under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." For several decades, the right has repeatedly mobilized to take over nonpartisan school boards, and occasionally library boards, as a way of building grassroots power and grooming candidates for higher office. Such elections usually have low turnout and relatively little campaign organization, which makes them attractive targets for extremists running scare-tactic campaigns. The parental oversight bill takes things one step further by empowering small activist groups who invadie local government meetings, but the organizing principle is the same: Use fear and stealth to seize power, and use simulated democratic legitimacy to advance a divisive, reactionary agenda.

These library-centered battles served to underscore a broader point that Clarkson made to Salon. "When people are invested in democratic institutions like public libraries, or any aspect of government, it is important not to 'other-ize' government, which in a democratic society is intended to be an expression and function of what we need and want to do together, and is necessarily an expression of democratic values," Clarkson said.

"That librarians and allies around the country rallied to the defense of the archives of democratic knowledge, culture and practice is a case example of how we need not be bullied by Christian right demagoguery. Screechy charges may make headlines and bring in ad revenue on right-wing talk radio, but most people, most of the time, do not want their schools and libraries messed with by authoritarian bigots and mobs of the easily led." 

Reflecting on lessons learned

Exposure was the key to success, according to two important figures in this struggle, both mentioned above. Rachel Laser is president of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, and Alison Gill is vice president for legal and policy matters at American Atheists.

"To oppose Project Blitz effectively, we first had to raise awareness about this campaign," Gill said. 

"Project Blitz's strategy was to start with seemingly less controversial legislation that organizers thought they could slip past the public," Laser said, "then build to even more harmful, more controversial bills. They had some success early on. But once we exposed that strategy and people became aware of Project Blitz and its agenda of codifying Christian nationalism, the initiative began to unravel, because people don't want to force religious beliefs on public schoolchildren and they don't want our laws to license discrimination in the name of religious freedom."

Gill focused more on exposing the secretive workings behind the Project Blitz operation. "At first, the campaign worked discreetly and without broadcasting their intentions to lure unsuspecting lawmakers into state prayer caucuses," she said. "These caucuses then provided a structure with which to pursue the Project Blitz legislation. By elevating the campaign to media and lawmakers, highlighting its connection to Christian nationalism and showing that these bills were not organically driven by in-state interest, we succeeded in neutralizing their advantage."

Gill cited two other lessons as well. "Our work to oppose Project Blitz reinforced the importance of cross-movement collaboration," she said. "Project Blitz is a campaign that targets civil rights in multiple fields — LGBTQ equality, access to reproductive services and religious equality — and so coordination with organizations across affected movements was required to effectively oppose it."

That took time and crucial information, Laser added: "It wasn't until we learned of the Project Blitz playbook and their organizing strategy that we were able to build a coalition of allies to fight this movement at its source, rather than only state by state and bill by bill."

Gill cites the pooling of resources as another important factor. "Project Blitz provided Christian nationalist lawmakers and activists with all the tools they needed in one place to pursue these bills and flood state legislatures with harmful legislation," she said. "However, the resources necessary to oppose these varied bills were scattered and less organized, so initially the opposition work was less cohesive. By bringing advocacy and messaging resources together at BlitzWatch.org, we helped ensure that lawmakers and advocates opposing Project Blitz had access to all of these tools."

More worrisome than Project Blitz itself, Gill said, are the forces behind it. "The same forces pushing forward Project Blitz have now seized upon new issues, and they are already flooding state legislatures with dangerous model bills," she said. "There were at least four major waves of harmful legislation propagated in 2021: anti-trans youth legislation, religious exemptions to COVID-related public health protections, broad denial-of-care bills, and bills that undermine abortion access." 

Of those, she says the most dangerous element is a "renewed emphasis on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) measures at the state level. RFRAs create a limited exemption from state laws whenever religious organizations say that their activities are burdened. RFRAs have been used to attack nondiscrimination protections, access to contraception and abortion, and even child labor laws." 

Such laws were a major focus of conservative activism during Barack Obama's presidency, although "none were successfully passed after significant public setbacks in 2015 in states like Indiana," Gill noted. "In the wake of the pandemic and state-imposed public health restrictions," she said, "activists have rebranded these bills as necessary to protect churches from government overreach." Three states — Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota — passed RFRAs this year, and we should expect to see many more coming in 2022, she warns. 

It's also important to consider how these lessons can be applied to the racist backlash formulated around the bogeyman term "critical race theory," which Fox News has repeated thousands of times without ever clearly defining it. This can be seen in the state legislative map as well. Chalkbeat has tracked efforts in 27 states to "restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics," compared to efforts in 12 states to expand education. Brookings reports that seven states have passed such laws, though only one explicitly mentions "critical race theory." Brookings lists actions taken by state boards of education, other state actors and local school boards as well. So the scope of right-wing activism is clear, as is the need for an effective response.

For Laser, the parallels are clear. "White Christian nationalism is the belief that America is and must remain a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must reflect this premise," she said. "They completely reject church-state separation. White Christian nationalists oppose equality for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and the nonreligious.

"The same white Christian nationalist ideology that is behind Project Blitz is also driving the backlash against a deliberate caricature of critical race theory," she continued. "Therefore, a similar strategy to the one that has hamstrung Project Blitz — recapturing the narrative about our nation's ideals, exposing the real intent of the extremists, making clear how their agenda harms freedom and equality for all of us, and bringing together a diverse coalition of people and groups to speak out against this harmful movement — should be part of the strategy to combat opponents of racial justice."

Gill sees similarities, but differences as well. "Both campaigns are similar in that they focus on redefining and manipulating language for political advantage — 'religious freedom' and 'critical race theory,' respectively," she said. "However, there are also significant differences. The anti-CRT campaigns seem at once better funded and less organized than Project Blitz. Moreover, there is a degree of moral panic associated with the anti-CRT efforts that was not as present for Project Blitz." 

Still, she offered three specific lessons learned from the resistance to Project Blitz:

  1. Raise awareness about the anti-CRT campaign and bring to light where it came from, who is funding it and for what purposes.
  2. Build collaboration between the various sectors that support diversity education in schools to push back against anti-CRT efforts. Successful coalitions must include educators, experts in diversity education, political leaders, civil rights leaders, parents and students. 
  3. Ensure that tools and messaging to oppose anti-CRT efforts are effective and widely available.

If America's founding was really "as pristine as the religious myth requires it to be," Clarkson observed, "it cannot be marked by the racism and genocide that the facts of history reveal. History is thus an existential crisis for Christian nationalist beliefs. That's why history must be revised and the evils that mark so much of our history be erased, rather than acknowledged and addressed. The attack on the straw man of CRT is of a piece with what we might call the purification of American history in the name of God's history." 

But history and politics tend to be messy, not pure. "The Christian right, supported in part by the Project Blitz playbooks, is using — and mastering — the tools and institutions of democracy in order to erode or end them," Clarkson said. "They know that well-organized factions can win elections, beginning with low-turnout party primaries, and that the Christian Right minority can gain the mantle of democratic legitimacy by out-organizing those of us who actually believe in it." So it's up to "everyone to the left of the Christian Right," as Clarkson puts it, to mobilize for democracy. 

"This includes identifying some common approaches to history, as well as religious freedom, which will remain a battleground," he said, "as well as better approaches to electoral organization at all levels of government. This will mean jumping into electoral democracy with both feet, and learning the mechanics and calendar of electoral democracy." This may mean, he warns, avoiding the distractions of cable news, social media and other forms of entertainment in favor of real-world organizing. "To borrow from and with apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron," Clarkson said, "the mobilization will not be televised."

By 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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