It was the best of the end times. It was the worst of the end times. It was the age of Trump. It was 2019. Trump was compared with the greatest of God’s biblical champions. Things would never be the same. The Christian Right, animated by a Dominionist-driven Christian Nationalism, gathered strength as the criminally inclined president bestowed grift and glory to many of his followers—while delivering on the policy promises he’d made. Some called him Cyrus. Others called him King Con.
Although he’s no longer president, the Age of Trump goes on. And the war for the world is full of opportunities for others. One of those poised to seize the day is Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert (R-Conway).
The former Chairman of the Arkansas State Legislative Prayer Caucus, (AKA Project Blitz) Rapert founded an offshoot bill mill in 2019 called the National Association of Christian Lawmakers (NACL). This emerging Christian Right network now has chapter chairs in 23 states, has held two small national conferences, enjoys the backing of some major leaders of the Christian Right, and, in August 2021, launched a weeknight radio talk show, with Rapert as host, on a Little Rock station (part of the Christian Right Salem Media network.) Most of his early guests have been NACL leaders but Rapert plans to expand to national platforms.
NACL is currently little known outside the leadership and the farther reaches of the Christian Right but it may be a bellwether of the movement’s evolution as a new generation of leaders emerges and movement strategy continues to mature.
The bill mill business
NACL isn’t Rapert’s first dance. He’s been involved in the Christian Right bill mill business since at least 2015 when he was a founding member of the Arkansas Legislative Prayer Caucus and for which he served as Chair or Co-Chair from 2017 – 2020. But even during his chairmanship, the ambitious state senator was quietly seeking to form a bill mill and national network of his own along with then-Georgia Republican State Rep. Delvis Dutton called the Legislative Appeal to Heaven Caucus.
All this bill mill activity and networking of state legislators was due to the historic successes of the Christian Right and the Republican Party in winning control of the majority of state legislative seats and chambers in recent election cycles, and various factions were figuring out what to do with the power they’d gained. The Appeal to Heaven Caucus initially enjoyed the support of such leaders as Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel and John Hagee of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). They had big plans.
Rapert and Staver planned to form an “institute” on land owned by Rapert’s charity, Holy Ghost Ministries, on the Arkansas River near the Conway Municipal Airport. It would seek to train state legislators from across the country “to become men and women of God who will not compromise Biblical principles.” But the project appears to have fizzled out when Project Blitz took off, and Dutton didn’t survive the 2016 election. Although it failed, it set the stage for the later emergence of NACL.
But 2019 was a difficult year for Project Blitz for reasons that had nothing to do with Rapert. Their secretive annual state legislative program, twice exposed by RD (here and here) had been then widely reported in national media, and vigorously opposed by many national religious and civil rights organizations. By the fall, the sponsoring Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation had scrubbed materials and references to Project Blitz from its web site, leaving only the names of the directors of its state legislative prayer caucuses in public view. While the state legislative prayer caucus members continued to file legislation, they did so more stealthily than before.
During this time, Sen. Rapert was not only forming what would become NACL but he also announced his intention to run for Lt. Governor of Arkansas in 2022. Curiously, his campaign bio makes no mention of his prior chairmanship of the Arkansas Legislative Prayer Caucus. Nor does it mention the Legislative Appeal to Heaven Caucus.
A little help from their friends
While some might be tempted to dismiss NACL as the podunk project of an obscure Arkansas pol, it’s clearly part of broader and deeper trends among powerful factions of the Christian Right, especially the Southern Baptist Convention.
NACL has had a lot of help from powerful groups and individuals from its earliest days. Their charter meeting was originally intended to take place at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC—a Christian Right project financed by the billionaire Green family, the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby stores. But Covid ultimately compelled NACL to relocate to a hotel in Florida. But even before its “launch,” then-Texas House Speaker Joe Strauss had forwarded a 2018 email from Rapert inviting state legislators to join the new organization.
According to a report by David Armia of the Center for Media and Democracy, the venerable rightwing business-focused bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provided a forum to NACL at its annual meeting in Austin, Texas in December 2019. There, Rapert claims to have secured nine state chairs. He says that NACL is modeled after ALEC and seeks to convene legislators like ALEC does, but “to address major policy concerns from a Biblical worldview,” and to “train and elect Christians to serve in public office so that our nation honors God once again.”
Rapert has said that NACL is the “culmination of a vision that we launched in 2018.” He doesn’t say who he means by “we,” but elsewhere he traces its origins to conversations he’s had with Mike Huckabee, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Janet Porter of Faith2Action (and the author of the idea of the “heartbeat bill”), Bob McEwen, executive director of the Council for National Policy (a secretive leadership group of the religious and political Right), and Chad Connelly a national Republican faith outreach operative.
Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the powerful evangelical lobby led by John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas is also deeply involved with NACL. Rapert says the relationship goes back to 2012 when he filed a resolution in the legislature in support of Israel. The following year, Hagee took him on a junket to Israel. CUFI hosted a reception at the Dallas conference in July, and the agenda announced a private meeting between them and NACL. One of the three founding NACL board members was Happy Caldwell, a longtime director of CUFI.
NACL leadership also overlaps with a powerful faction in the Southern Baptist world. Formed in February 2020, the Conservative Baptist Network backed the losing candidate in the 2021 election for SBC president. But their vision is long term. The organization’s Steering Council includes NACL chapter chairs and advisory board members, including Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley, Bob McEwen, Mike Huckabee, Rod Martin, (a member of the Executive Committee of the SBC) and Tony Perkins. Chad Connelly, who also straddles the two organizations, is, in the Fall of 2021, on a 13-state, 38-stop tour with Dominionist activist (and Southern Baptist) David Barton to politically engage conservative Christian (mostly Southern Baptist) churches.
23 chapters & 4 bills
The 23 NACL state chapter chairs are an eclectic group. Here are three snapshots. Texas State Rep. Tom Oliverson, who chairs the NACL National Legislative Council, is an anesthesiologist who views his legislative work as a “ministry.”
Missouri Rep. Ben Baker is an Assemblies of God minister who gained national notoriety for his unsuccessful 2019 bill that would have mandated parent oversight boards at public libraries. These boards would have had the power to remove material they deemed sexually inappropriate, and librarians who violated their decrees could have been fined or jailed. (The bill was subsequently added to the 2020-21 Project Blitz playbook of model bills—and therefore may reappear in state legislatures around the country.)
Former Democratic state representative and ordained Church of Christ minister, John DeBerry of Tennessee, was removed from the primary ballot in 2020 after the party grew tired of his campaigns being substantially underwritten by GOP donors and of voting too often with the Republicans. DeBerry went on to become an advisor to Republican Governor Bill Lee.
NACL’s models include two resolutions and two bills that were agreed upon at the NACL conference in Dallas.
The first resolution declares support for the state of Israel, which isn’t surprising in light of Rapert’s history and the organization’s alliance with CUFI. (Rapert often wears a lapel pin featuring the flags of both the United States and Israel.) But it also makes sense in terms of the eschatology of evangelicals from Paula White to Pat Robertson to John Hagee—who view the creation of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and as a sign of the End Times—in which many believe they’re currently living. The second resolution regarding “election integrity” takes a state’s rights approach to the regulation of elections in response to proposed federal voting rights legislation.
NACL’s featured model bill is based on the Texas heartbeat bill which the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to become law on September 1st 2021, by declining to intervene. The bill, endorsed at NACL’s first policy conference in July, bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as early as 6 weeks into a pregnancy (though some have argued that it’s more like a 2-week abortion ban).
Enforcement however, rests not with the state but by private lawsuits that can be brought by any American citizen, anywhere in the US, against anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion in Texas after 6 weeks. Medical experts note that people often don’t even know they’re pregnant until after 6 weeks, so for many, this is an abortion ban by legislative sleight of hand. NACL intends for the model bill to be introduced in other states.
Rapert bragged in a press release issued by his campaign for Lt. Governor, “I was proud to start the process toward state Heartbeat laws when we passed Arkansas’s bill over a governor’s veto.” (He doesn’t say that his bill was thwarted by a federal judge, as had happened with variations of heartbeat bills in 14 states.) Nevertheless, he congratulated Texas “on their new law that will protect unborn children from the crime against humanity that is abortion.”
“I am proud,” he declared, “the NACL has put forward this important piece of pro-life legislation that will protect children across the nation.”
The other model bill would allow public schools to post In God We Trust displays. The bill is based on a 2018 Arkansas bill sponsored by Rapert, which in turn was adapted from the Project Blitz playbook. Rapert was the state Project Blitz chairman at the time.
One of the distinctive components of the NACL bill is that it’s apparently seeking to thread the needle between incremental legislative approaches that have been the main legislative strategy of the antiabortion movement since the 1990s, and the growing movement of “abortion abolitionism,” that seeks to normalize “the criminalization of abortion at all stages and creat[e] small but meaningful shifts toward theocracy.”
Unlike these bills introduced under this rubric, the NACL model bill makes an exception for the life of the mother (although it’s careful to define the medical circumstances for the exception). Gradualist legislation generally seeks to make abortions more difficult to obtain and to provide through such tactics as mandatory waiting periods, while the criminalization camp views gradualist approaches as “regulating murder.” (The NACL life of the mother exception notwithstanding, Rapert declares himself to be an “Abortion Abolitionist” on his campaign web site.)
The latter was a feature of the far right of the anti-abortion movement for a decade before the Southern Baptist Convention surprised the world by making it policy at their June 2021 convention. The resolution explicitly called for “abolition” and rejected “any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors.”
In recent years, such legislation has been introduced in 6 states, including Oklahoma where conservative Baptists have been the driving force. The main spokesperson for the SBC resolution was Pastor Bill Ascol, who was also an advocate for the unsuccessful Oklahoma bill in 2020, which had been introduced by fellow Baptist, Republican state senator Joseph Silk, a founder of the movement.
The Roy Moore of Arkansas
Rapert may be seeking to emerge from the multi-candidate GOP field for Lt. Governor as the running mate of possible gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders. This is suggested by NACL’s relationship with Sanders’ dad, former Governor Mike Huckabee. Rapert not only claims to have consulted with him before founding NACL, but Huckabee has also spoken at the two NACL conferences, serves on the advisory board, and even made a promotional video for the inaugural conference in 2020.
As important as Huckabee’s blessing may be, Rapert may be looking to other rightwing Southern pols as role models; furthermore, his use of the federal courts as a foil for his political ambitions suggests that may be casting himself as the Roy Moore of Arkansas.
Nationally known as the ‘Ten Commandments Judge” in the 1990s, Moore had installed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the Alabama state court house shortly after he was elected Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court in 2001. He subsequently defied a federal court order to remove it. His actions at the time reminded many of Gov. George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door—rallying Alabama segregationists in defiance of a federal court order to integrate the University of Alabama.
Like Moore, Rapert’s moment may come in his confrontation with a federal judge over a monument to the Ten Commandments. His battle began in 2015 when he sponsored legislation to place a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol which was vandalized soon after it was installed in 2017. Rapert then raised private funds to replace it. During the inevitable federal lawsuit, Rapert has refused to provide documents about the origins of the legislation and the judge has ordered Rapert to explain why he should not be held in contempt of court.
Whatever his fate in federal court, the court of public opinion will have the opportunity to consider his resume as well as his record as he runs for statewide office. Rapert has a sketchy financial record that bloggers and reporters continue to dig into. While he got his BA from the University of Central Arkansas at Conway he also earned a Master’s from the online Midwest College of Theology, whose sword-emblazoned website’s only options are “Shop” and “Plans & Pricing,” though it names no faculty, classes, or program descriptions. Whatever his fate in these matters, Rapert epitomizes a number of trends on the Christian Right, here in the End Times.
While the notion that the Christian Right is dead, diminished or in precipitous decline may never die, the movement nevertheless continues to grow and adapt to the ever-evolving religious and political landscape. Its strength has never been in the raw numbers of conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics. It has always been in the breadth and depth of its cultural and political organizing capacity. These developments are further evidence of that. This was always the avenue to power. What we’re now seeing is some of what they intend to do with that power now that they’ve got more than they ever thought they would achieve in their lifetimes. And with a Supreme Court friendly to their agenda they may go further more quickly than they ever dared to dream.