Fred Clarkson, a senior research analyst at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, had studied the Christian right wing for decades when someone tipped him off about an intriguing link on the website of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF) — a group that seeks to “preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer.” In early 2018, Clarkson clicked on the link, which led him to what was essentially a roadmap of the Christian right’s theocratic vision for state legislatures — a 116-page manual of model legislation aimed at advancing an anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice, Christian nationalist agenda.
The manual revealed for the first time how seemingly disparate efforts by state lawmakers were all connected as part of an elaborate legal strategy devised by a coalition of Christian Right groups who called it Project Blitz. This project sought to advance bills that required public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” enabled discrimination against LGBTQ people and promoted denials of reproductive health care on religious grounds. The Christian Right groups behind Project Blitz, including CPCF, were trying to inundate state legislatures with bills promoting their interpretation of the Bible.
“It was like a scientific discovery or an archaeological find,” Clarkson told Truthout. “Suddenly, you see it, you recognize what it is, and the world changes in front of you.”
In the 2018 legislative sessions alone, state lawmakers considered 74 bills that echoed model legislation from the Project Blitz handbook, including measures to require or allow public school courses on the Bible, enable attacks on same-sex marriage and allow taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to deny placements on religious grounds, according to an analysis by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Beyond an obvious effort to undermine abortion and LGBTQ rights, Clarkson saw evidence of a more insidious agenda.
“It gets beyond the specifics of religious exemptions into an ever-expanding theocratic vision, where you can not only pick and choose which laws you’re going to honor, but you expand the extent to which you’re going to dishonor them, all the while stepping on the rights and interests of your fellow citizens,” Clarkson said. “It’s a radical breakdown of basic democratic ideas.”
The Project Blitz handbook divided its agenda into three categories based on the amount of opposition it expected the measures to receive. The first category, intended to appear the most innocuous, included bills to promote “In God We Trust” license plates (now offered in at least 20 states) and the display of the “In God We Trust” motto in public schools. (Some version of the display legislation has passed in at least 10 states.) The next batch of bills centered on emphasizing “Christian heritage” and “the importance of the Bible in history” to promote the notion that the U.S. is a Christian nation. The third category, which organizers noted might be “the most hotly contested,” sought to empower licensed professionals to deny health care and other services based on religious beliefs and to enable adoption agencies to reject adoptive families on religious grounds. (At least 10 states have laws that allow discrimination by child welfare agencies, most of which have been passed since Project Blitz launched in 2015.)
Clarkson and others have fought back against this agenda in part by attacking the historical inaccuracies that drive it. Among the organizers of Project Blitz is Republican operative and historian David Barton, who has promoted the false notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. In fact, Clarkson said, the framers of the Constitution — having dealt with an oppressive Anglican Church that promoted a singular vision of religion and operated as an arm of the British empire — were deeply concerned with promoting free thought, not Christianity.
In order to reclaim the more democratic vision of religious freedom intended by the founders, Clarkson and others came up with a model Religious Freedom Day resolution to commemorate the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson and enacted on January 16, 1786. “The Statute insists on equality as a guiding and governing principle,” the model resolution reads. “It specifies that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law.” Versions of the proclamation have been passed by the Washington, D.C., City Council and introduced by state Sen. John Marty in the Minnesota state legislature. The mayor of Pittsburgh issued a proclamation based on the model this year. Clarkson hopes these efforts will help promote a more historically accurate conversation about religious freedom.
These efforts are part of a growing grassroots movement to reclaim religious freedom from Christian nationalists that has brought together atheists and people of faith alike. Last summer, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) led a campaign called Christians Against Christian Nationalism, gathering signatures from more than 15,000 Christians from more than six dozen denominations in support of the idea that “Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.” Baptists, who were a persecuted religious minority when the U.S. was founded, have a particular interest in correcting the historical record, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler told Truthout. “I think that there are many Christians out there who do not agree with this agenda that’s being driven by groups like Project Blitz, but they haven’t perhaps had ways to organize or to show their opposition,” Tyler said.
Even as Tyler’s group and others have sought to reclaim religious freedom, Project Blitz has advanced its own Religious Freedom Day model resolutions; one version that passed in Kentucky omitted any mention of the Virginia Statute, the reason for commemorating the day. At the federal level, President Trump has departed from his predecessors by using his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day (first designated by Congress in 1992) to promote his administration’s wide-ranging efforts to enable discrimination against LGBTQ people and denials of reproductive health care on religious or moral grounds. These efforts include the establishment of a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the issuance of a new rule — struck down by a federal judge — to protect health care workers who deny services because of their religious beliefs.
Clarkson said the framers of the Constitution may have envisioned just this kind of threat.
“They knew that the theocrats and the monarchists would be back and that this fight was far from over,” Clarkson said. “And now the theocrats and the monarchists are in the White House.”