By Katherine Stewart
Ms. Stewart is the author of “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.”
America’s Christian nationalists have a new plan for advancing their legislative goals in state capitols across the country. Its stated aim is to promote “religious freedom.” Not shy, they call it “Project Blitz.”
“Blitz” accurately describes the spirit of the enterprise, but the mission has little to do with what most Americans would call religious freedom. This is just the latest attempt by religious extremists to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.
The idea behind Project Blitz is to overwhelm state legislatures with bills based on centrally manufactured legislation. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources out in opposing this,” David Barton, the Christian nationalist historian and one of four members of Project Blitz’s “steering team,” said in a conference call with state legislators from around the country that was later made public.
According to research provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, more than 70 bills before state legislatures appear to be based on Project Blitz templates or have similar objectives. Some of the bills are progressing rapidly. An Oklahoma measure, which has passed the legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature, allows adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate on the basis of their own religious beliefs. Others, such as a Minnesota bill that would allow public schools to post “In God We Trust” signs on their walls, have provoked hostile debates in local and national media, which is in many cases the point of the exercise.
“ ‘Project Blitz’ Seeks to Do for Christian Nationalism What ALEC Does for Big Business,” reads the headline of a recent piece Frederick Clarkson wrote for Religion Dispatches that highlighted the danger. ALEC, of course, is the corporate lobbying group that crafts and promotes model legislation advancing business interests.
In their guidebook for state legislators and other allies, the authors of the Project Blitz program have grouped their model legislation into three categories, according to anticipated difficulty of passage. The first category consists of symbolic gestures, like resolutions to emblazon the motto “In God We Trust” on as many moving objects as possible (like, say, police cars).
Critics of such symbolic gestures often argue that they act as gateways to more extensive forms of state involvement in religion. It turns out that the Christian right agrees with them.
“They’re going to be things that people yell at, but they will help move the ball down the court,” Mr. Barton said in the conference call.
The second, more difficult category for Project Blitz consists of bills intended to promote the teaching and celebration of Christianity in public schools and elsewhere. These bills are a means of spreading the message that Christian conservatives are the real Americans, and everybody else is here by invitation only.
The sponsors of Project Blitz have pinned their deepest hopes on the third and most contentious category of model legislation. The dream here is something that participants in the conference call referred to in awed tones as “the Mississippi missile.” The “missile” in question is Mississippi’s HB 1523, a 2016 law that allows private businesses and government employees to discriminate, against L.G.B.T. people for example, provided that they do so in accordance with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill offers extraordinary protections, not to all religious beliefs per se, but to a very narrow set of beliefs associated mostly with conservative religion. If you hold a different set of religious beliefs, like, say, a commitment to gender and L.G.B.T. equality, there is no liberty in this bill for you.
In another piece of model legislation, the blitzers’ goal is to get state legislatures to resolve that, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage, “This state supports and encourages marriage between one man and one woman and the desirability that intimate sexual relations only take place between such couples.” We have known for a long time that Christian nationalists seek to control what goes on in other people’s bedrooms. The striking thing about this model bill is the cruelty with which it advances the argument. The bill claims that people in same-sex relationships have a “higher instance of serious disease.”
It would be touching to think that the sponsors of Project Blitz have at last turned their attention to health care, but, no — their concern here, according to the guidebook, is that all of this gay sex is costing taxpayers lots of money — “estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually,” according to the bill template.
If you examine the roster of people and organizations behind Project Blitz, it becomes clear that demeaning whole groups of people in society is really just a means to an end. The aim is political power. In their language, it’s sometimes called “dominion” — meaning, specifically, the domination by those with the correct “biblical” worldview over all aspects of politics, culture and society.
David Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, an organization that promotes the view that America is a nation of, by and for Christians of a very specific variety. Buddy Pilgrim, another member of the Project Blitz steering team, is a businessman who founded Integrity Leadership, a ministry focused on “equipping Christians with biblical principles for the workplace.” According to Mr. Pilgrim’s website, “Dominion in earthly realms of authority (business & politics) is a biblical mandate.”
A third steering team member is Bill Dallas, a convicted embezzler who later founded United in Purpose, a data-collection operation that aims, among other things, to increase turnout of conservative evangelical voters in local, state and national elections. “We have about 200 million files, so we have pretty much the whole voting population in our database,” Mr. Dallas said in a Sept. 5, 2016, interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “What we do is track to see what’s going to make somebody either vote one way, or not vote at all.” In October 2016, Mr. Dallas offered a neat summary of his political philosophy, one built on an idea by Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a place in the universe where Christ does not shout out, ‘Mine!’ ”
One of the most remarkable features about Project Blitz has to do with the mood of its organizers. This is a very upbeat crowd. “We have this window of opportunity now; I think we’re all feeling it,” said Lea Carawan on the conference call. Ms. Carawan is a co-founder and the executive director of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which supports Project Blitz, and she is the fourth member of Project Blitz’s steering team. “We believe this is just the beginning,” she said.
There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s “true believers” are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. Why should they doubt that they can pull off the same trick again?
What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach.
As with most of what Christian nationalists do these days, Project Blitz and its form of religious freedom is as bad for religion as it is for freedom. Religion, as most Americans understand it, has something to do with care of the soul — not ramming bills through gerrymandered legislatures. And faith has something to do with showing love for other people, not writing contempt for them into the law.