Ringing in a Christian Nationalist 2019 With an Even Larger Legislative Playbook

There's a new model bill intended to specifically advance priority one. The “National Motto License Plate Act” would allow citizens to opt for special In God We Trust license plates—to create what the Project Blitz manual calls “moving billboards.” Eli Christman / flickr

State legislatures across the country became showcases for Christian nationalist legislation in 2018. Leading the charge was the ominously named Project Blitz—a coalition of Christian Right groups that are unambiguous about their intentions for the short and long term, to restore America to a Christian nation that never was. The campaign, which I first reported on for Religion Dispatches, has captured the attention of a wide range of organizations, from American Atheists, and the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia University Law School, to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Human Rights Campaign. It also captured the attention of national media outlets including The New York Times, The GuardianReligion News Service, Church & State magazine, and Salon.

The Christian Right groups behind Project Blitz—The Chesapeake, Virginia-based Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation; the National Legal Foundation; and the Wallbuilders Pro-Family Legislators Conference—have published a new state legislative playbook for 2019. This year’s playbook has grown from 116 to 148 pages, thanks to some new bills, a discussion of three areas of “Prime Focus,” a new section on responding to critics, and a model resolution condemning religious persecution elsewhere in the world. But what’s past is certainly prologue with Project Blitz.

According to an analysis by Samantha Sokol in the legislation department at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, about 74 Project Blitz model bills were considered in 2018. “More than 60 percent involved promoting Christianity in public schools; more than a third were ‘In God We Trust’ display bills,” according to reporting from Church & State.

In 2017, there were only three such bills—but in 2018 over 25 were introduced. They passed in five states. Although this is primarily a Republican effort, these bills were sometimes passed under the leadership of, and always with at least some support from, Democrats. These states included Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

Other bills in Category 1, involved “encouraging schools to teach the Bible and encouraging students and teachers to express religious beliefs in school—both of which can lead to proselytism or denigration of non-Christian faiths.”

Still others sought to provide religious exemptions (or refusals) from the law in ways that would affect access to reproductive and LGBTQ health care. These included versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) which had been rebranded as the “Preserving Religious Freedom Act” and the “Marriage Tolerance Act.”

The authors suggested starting with the less controversial bills in Category 1. They call these bills “Legislation Regarding Our Country’s Religious Heritage.” Category 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 involving religious exemptions from civil rights laws such as FADA, which may be seen as decisive moves towards a theocratic state.

Indeed, the 2019 manual, “Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America,” is as clear as the previous version in its promotion of a Christian nationalist view of history and a long-term Dominionist political vision that’s profoundly at odds with what most would consider a reasonable approach to religious freedom.

When we speak of Christian nationalism, we’re talking about the idea that America was once, and must be again, a Christian nation. That this was the intention of both God and of the Founding Fathers, and that our culture and laws today should conform to this idea—from which we are said to have strayed. For many, this is a vague and nostalgic view for a time and nation that never really was. While there’s usually some room for religious tolerance on the part of Christian nationalists, there is no tolerance—at least not in the long run—from Dominionists who sustain a long-term vision of organizing all of society and government according to their understanding of the Bible.

Moving Billboards

There’s a new model bill intended to specifically advance priority one. The “National Motto License Plate Act” would allow citizens to opt for special In God We Trust license plates—to create what the Project Blitz manual calls “moving billboards.”

Of course, this motto was passed in the 1950s as part of the anti-communist crusade of the era, pitting Christian America against “Godless communism.” Project Blitz claims in the manual that the phrase doesn’t recognize “any specific religion,” though the disingenuousness of this claim is not only evident throughout the manual, it’s further belied by the mission statement of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which states that they are promoting the “Judeo-Christian heritage” of the country as they see it. (Though, of course, little in the vision can be construed as “Judeo.”)

The original U.S. motto since 1782, E Pluribus Unum, which still appears on the Great Seal of the United States, much better reflects the founding aspirations of unity amidst diversity. But that’s no longer the goal of the national motto, which of course is why the prominent display and invocation of In God We Trust is central to the Christian Right’s program.

The second Prime Focus, “Resolution Establishing Public Policy Favoring Intimate Sexual Relations Only Between Married, Heterosexual Couples” was published in the current and previous playbooks. The apparent purpose of the nonbinding model resolutions is to help to persuade legislators and executive branch program administrators that not only religious, but also public health, exemptions from the law need to be created, and perhaps litigated, to chip away at marriage equality so that not all marriages need be treated equally under the law. In addition they aim to more generally erode the rights of LGBTQ people. Resolutions on heterosexual marriage, birth gender, and adoption are, they assert, intended to advance “biblical values.”

The claim is that there’s sufficient social science data and research in support of their view that heterosexual relationships and marriages should be “preferred” by states, even if they can’t force them. The 2019 Project Blitz manual declares that “[e]ven if the resolution does not pass, there are great advantages in airing this information. The benefits of monogamous, heterosexual, conjugal intercourse are well documented, including the avoidance of enormously expensive disease, the cost of which is largely borne by the public.”

Just as in the 2018 manual, “this information” refers to pages of material of questionable scientific value about LGBTQ people, leading to the conclusion that LGBTQ people are diseased and dysfunctional. These are used in their argument, for example, in the anti-adoption and foster care bill, to suggest that LGBTQ people are a threat to children. This led them to title the model bill the “Child Protection Act.”

It’s important to note that the Prayer Caucus’ particular disdain for transgender people is evident in the proposed “Resolution Establishing Public Policy Favoring Reliance on and Maintenance of Birth Gender” and talking points to “Counter Adding ‘Gender Identity’ as a Civil Rights Category.” In the “Fact Sheet” accompanying the proposed resolution to favor and maintain birth gender, the playbook’s thin scientific basis and strong religious bias become clear. The playbook frequently cites the work of Paul McHugh, disgraced former director of John’s Hopkins University’s Department of Psychiatry. McHugh left the University after decades of denying affirming, comprehensive health care to transgender patients, and has spent his career since continuing to advocate against care for trans people. McHugh was a featured speaker at the 2018 Values Voter Conference sponsored by the Christian Right’s Family Research Council.

The third Prime Focus, “Enforcing Federal Law Mandating Compliance by Public Schools with Free Speech Guidelines,” also comes with a model bill, The “Preserving Religious Freedom in School Act,” which essentially seeks to fully enforce a guidance regarding school prayer issued in 2003 by the federal Department of Education. The manual explains that “Federal law requires certification of compliance with Department of Education guidance assuring the religious freedom of students and staff in the public schools. The act provides assurance that the federal funding conditioned upon that compliance continues.” Of course, how one interprets the meaning of religious freedom and expression beyond the issue of prayer (which can be complicated enough), and where expression impinges on the rights of others, is the flashpoint of most contemporary disputes.

Finally, there is a new section titled “Talking Points to Counter Anti-Religious Freedom Legislation.” This section insists that there cannot be inherent civil rights regarding “sexual orientation” because the term is too vague and there is too much disagreement over its meaning. Similarly, the manual declares:

The term “gender identity” has no fixed meaning and, by definition, is the product of an individual, subjective determination that may conflict with how the individual objectively appears to others. Because of its subjectivity, the term can be used by an individual in a temporally inconsistent manner, and legislation based on its use is vague and violates due process.

The manual goes on to detail arguments against bans on “conversion therapy” that have been enacted in several states and against repeal of state RFRAs.

It’s important to note that although Project Blitz includes little legislation bearing directly on matters of reproductive rights, it also reflects the central anti-abortion politics of our time. First, the manual notes that rather than reinvent the legislative wheel, Americans United for Life (which has produced model bills for many of the hundreds of targeted regulation of abortion providers laws which have been introduced and passed around the country), has that area well covered.

Nevertheless, one bill, (“Licensed Professional Civil Rights Act”) on conscience clause exemptions in professional licensing standards has implications for health workers and pharmacists (who might seek religious exemptions for their role in providing contraception or abortion care), as well mental health practitioners who refuse to help LBGTQ patients. It should also be noted that versions of state-level  RFRAs and FADAs include generous religious exemptions for both institutions and individuals on matters related to reproductive health care.

The 2019 legislative session has not yet begun, but Project Blitz is already getting attention. The national organization Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) recently hosted a webinar on their Online Academy featuring Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy affairs at the American Atheists; Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School; and me. I provided an overview of Project Blitz; Gill outlined the Project Blitz program, including a preview of the prime focuses of the 2019 Project Blitz manual; and Platt explained how the Project Blitz agenda, which is framed under the rubric of religious freedom, is more of an attack than an affirmation of this foundational and progressive value.

Platt stressed the importance of preventing the Christian Right from distorting the meaning of religious freedom and bending it to their purposes. She stressed that “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.”

Platt also identified the dualistic framing posed by the Christian Right that’s too often mirrored back by supporters of reproductive and LGBTQ civil rights, and advocates of separation of church and state.

“Civil rights laws are what allow 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.”

“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.” Indeed, many Christian denominations, Unitarian Universalists and much of organized Judaism (to name a few) recognize and perform same sex marriages and include LGBTQ clergy and leaders. The Christian Right and their allies in the Trump administration conveniently ignore this, and too many advocates have a hard time grasping that the religious freedom of these religious communities are violated by these initiatives.

“My takeaway 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.”

It’s important to underscore that, although the Christian Right will have its ups and downs politically and electorally, and although their state legislative playbooks will change a bit from year to year, Project Blitz will be foundational for the Christian Right’s legislative efforts in the states for the foreseeable future.