In the Fall of 2019, the secretive Christian Right state legislative campaign, Project Blitz, became even more of a secret. When RD first reported on Project Blitz in April 2018 the website featured their annual state legislative playbook of model bills and talking points. They also named the members of the State Legislative Prayer Caucuses that drew on the model bills for their own legislation. But in the face of public scrutiny, RD’s revelation of a second playbook and the unwanted media attention that followed our reports (from The New York Times, Salon, The Guardian, Religion News Service, USA Today, Church & State magazine and many more) the sponsoring Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF) scrubbed everything under the rubric of Project Blitz from their site. One Ohio state senator went so far as to lie to a reporter about even knowing about Project Blitz—despite being the state’s co-chair.
The Project Blitz playbooks for the state legislative sessions of 2019-2020 (PDF) and 2020-21 (PDF) remained hidden—until now. They’ve added some new bills—including a dramatic attack on the integrity of public libraries—but the Dominionism-driven Christian nationalist agenda remains the same. 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.
But the newly-surfaced playbooks also tell a story of the resilience of democratic institutions and leaders in the face of movements seeking to undermine or end them.
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. Whether the dip in the number of bills introduced is attributable to Covid-19, the toxicity of the Project Blitz brand, or some other combination of factors is hard to say.
In 2020 and 2021, 24 of the bills introduced involved displays of In God We Trust in public buildings or on license plates, while 16 were largely about religious exemptions and state versions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.
“Project Blitz continues to push its harmful agenda of codifying Christian Nationalism,” Maggie Garrett, Legislative Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told RD. “But, public exposure has driven Project Blitz underground.”
“We know Project Blitz will continue trying to force everyone else to live by their beliefs,” she concluded, “but our laws cannot favor one set of religious beliefs over others or allow anyone to use religion as a license to discriminate.”
Scrubbed but not forgotten
The newly surfaced playbooks, like their predecessors, seek to provide Christian Right legislators with the benefit of the “collective wisdom,” “strategic analysis,” and best practices of like-minded legislators and advocacy groups. They’ve also continued to reframe the Christian Right agenda on a range of matters in terms of religious freedom. The new playbooks are still sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (a non-profit related to the Congressional Prayer Caucus comprised of some 90 Senators and Representatives); the National Legal Foundation, a small Christian Right law firm; and the ProFamily Legislative Network, led by the Christian historical revisionist, Dominionist activist, and Republican political operative, David Barton.
Texas-based religion scholar David R. Brockman originally described the purpose of the secretive project as “a covert campaign for conservative Christian dominion over law and public policy,” which remains true today.
The 2020-2021 playbook offers slicker arguments than previous years. 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.
They say, 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.” However, 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 that they “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. And still they allege that “tolerance [is] sorely lacking in those who reject various aspects of religious teaching,” an old talking point framing rejection of the imposition of religion in public spaces as “intolerance.”
Brockman observed that the original playbook frames religious freedom resolutions (on heterosexual marriage, birth gender, and adoption) as seeking to advance “biblical values,” which is still the case. But, he said “they caution policymakers not to frame legislation in biblical terms,” because “courts have frequently found such justifications ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’ and not based on ‘reason’ or ‘science.’”
Although CPCF’s new Project Blitz playbook, same as the old playbooks, advises legislators to engage in political sleight-of-hand in the framing of legislation, the CPCF’s about page remains unambiguous about their intentions. Their mission, they say, is to unite “government leaders at local, state and federal levels, as well as everyday citizens” to restore “Judeo-Christian* principles to their rightful place.” To carry this out, they say, “We support legislators who promote policies that uphold and advance America’s dynamic Christian legacy.”
They know they’re playing a long game.
Cat 5 Playbook
There are five categories in the latest manual.
Category 1 comprises bills and resolutions about God and country; notably posting In God We Trust displays in public schools. These bills were intended to rally the two-dozen state legislative Prayer Caucuses that the CPCF had organized with what they viewed as easy wins.
They also wanted to set up opponents with an ambush of negative publicity, advising, “If any legislator opposes this, it will be helpful to get him or her on the record against this heritage and freedom.” This is just what they did to Minnesota State Senator John Marty (D-Roseville), who was cast as part of an “anti-faith movement” that seeks to “suppress” religion and “wipe it out of government.” (They underestimated Marty, however, who stood up to them on Fox News—and the smear campaign stopped.)
Category 2 comprises proclamations that “focus on our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.”
Category 3 limits access to reproductive health care and health care for LGBTQ people by allowing religious or conscience exemptions from the law. (These bills don’t directly deal with abortion access, ceding that area to Americans United for Life, which has served as the main bill mill for state antiabortion legislation.)
“Opposition to the measures in this category,” the new playbook warns, “will often be well-organized and well-financed. More care must be taken to avoid bringing this legislation to a vote unless the vote can be won. A defeated measure can often hurt more than help and will put allies and leadership in a difficult position.”
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. Generally, they insist that there cannot be inherent civil rights regarding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” because the terms are said to be too vague and there’s too much disagreement over their meaning. It also provides arguments against bans on “conversion therapy” and against repeal of state versions of RFRA.
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.
Criminalizing libraries and librarians
While most of the new playbook isn’t really new, and simply builds on its original themes, there is one new model bill that bears special attention because it builds out a new dimension of Project Blitz’s religious and political vision, and exposes their view of democratic institutions. Indeed, the bill became infamous months before it morphed into a secret model in the Project Blitz playbook.
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. Baker is an Assemblies of God minister, a graduate and former Dean of Students of the tiny Ozark Bible Institute, a former Mayor of Neosho, and past president of a local anti-choice clinic known as a crisis pregnancy center.
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. Similar bills, apparently based on the Missouri bill, went nowhere in Maine and Colorado, but gained some traction in committees of both houses in Tennessee before being added to the Project Blitz playbook.
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’s view is more ominous. He told The New York Times that what inspired his bill was events held at public libraries “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 [sic] objectionable sexual nature.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the Chicago-headquartered American Library Association, told RD that the Project Blitz model bill “raises a lot of issues around the ability of individuals to access perfectly legal, constitutionally protected materials based on the values of one group in the community.” Contrary to Project Blitz disclaimers, in other words, this bill would allow conservative Christian values to determine what is legal and proper for all citizens.
She believes that librarians, following the example of the Missouri chapter of the ALA, effectively argued against the bills in those states, and stood up for the professionalism and integrity of library staff and trustees.
She says, however, “There are a number of organizations that argue that Drag Queen Story Hours are inappropriately sexualizing young children; are attacking conservative Christian values around sexuality.” But, she avers, “we always circle back to the fact that these are not programs that anyone has to attend, that parents are always part of the program and are invited to be there with the children. Some of the worst caricatures of these events are just that. Caricatures.”
If the bill became law anywhere, it may not just be Drag Queen Story Hour that would get censored. Libraries may not, she says, “be able to do Pride Month displays and given some of the rhetoric that we are seeing these days, they also might not even be able to mount Black History Month displays.”
Nevertheless, CPCF crafted a model for the playbook, which it acknowledges is based on Baker’s bill.
Baker, an ambitious politician, has introduced other bills based on Project Blitz models, including the Adoption Protection Act (now titled in the playbook, the “Child Welfare Maximization Act”) requiring religious exemptions to civil rights laws in adoption and foster care; and the Bible Literacy Act, which encourages public schools to teach the Bible’s significance in history and culture—which was signed by the governor. Baker has announced that he’s running to be Missouri House Speaker Pro-Tem in 2022.
The Project Blitz public library model bill feigns a democratic method to achieve an anti-democratic result. The parental-review boards wouldn’t be chosen in a general election, but by any voter that shows up for “a regularly convened hearing of the [appropriate political subdivision, such as “village, town, city, or county”] in which the majority of the library’s geographical area lies.” Thus the boards could be elected by small groups of zealots able to pack an otherwise routine evening meeting of a town council.
“This particular model bill, Deborah Caldwell-Stone said, “is interesting because really, if you look at it structurally, it is an attack on local control.”
“The vast majority of public libraries in the United States,” she explained, “are governed by locally elected boards of trustees, members, whatever, or they may be appointed by the local county government or city council, which means they do represent the community and they are there to govern, set policy, and hire and fire the director.”
But the Project Blitz bill, she says, “proposes destroying that local control, at least over an aspect of the operation of the library that is traditionally allocated to the library board.” A parental review board could override a decision of the duly elected library board, and “supplant it with their values judgement about what is age appropriate or not age inappropriate, and then mandate the censorship of materials, by sequestering them.”
“There is an assumption, she observed, “that there is one set of values that should be applied to public institutions [because] this is taxpayer money. Well, the last time I looked, taxpayers came in all colors, races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities. Family make-ups are wildly disparate—and a public library needs to serve them all. Serve everyone in the community.”
The 2019 Project
The playbook for the 2019-2020 state legislative session was different from its predecessors in that it focused solely on bills related to sexual orientation and gender identity, or “SOGI.” These same bills and supporting materials appear in the previous as well as the current 2020-21 playbooks.
Nevertheless, the model bills, talking points and fact sheets present exclusivist, conservative Christian points of view about marriage, sexuality and gender. They nevertheless seek to provide ostensibly secular and scientific justifications for them. For example, the “Fact Sheet” accompanying the Resolution Establishing Public Policy Favoring Adoption by Intact Heterosexual Marriage Based Families, includes material that’s long confirmation bias from dubious sources. For example, some of the alleged science being used to make a case against adoption by same-sex parents—a study by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas—has long been discredited, exposed as biased, and was funded primarily by the Christian Right. Even the playbook now acknowledges, “the [Regnerus] article itself is preceded by a strongly worded disclaimer/disavowal by the publisher, along with expressions of concern from other academics who believe the article led to conclusions that were suspect.”
“They contend,” Brockman said, “that the state has a ‘compelling’ health and safety interest in promoting heterosexual relations, maintenance of birth gender, and adoption by married heterosexuals. Whatever the merits of those health-and-safety arguments,” he explained, “what is critical is intent. And the authors make their dominionist intent quite clear: to ‘define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.’”
The ongoing Project Blitz effort in state legislatures runs parallel to a current Christian Right, anti-trans legislative campaign called Promise to America’s Children. The actual Promise includes three detailed sections and is summarized thusly:
We believe that America’s children are the nation’s greatest resource. While a culture – and sadly, a government – around us seek [sic] to sexualize children for the sake of a political agenda, we seek to protect children and nurture their minds, bodies, and relationships. That’s the heart of the Promise to America’s Children.
Launched in February 2021, Promise is a bill mill and state legislative distribution network led by Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Policy Alliance, and The Heritage Foundation, though its state campaign “partners” are almost all affiliates of the Family Policy Alliance. The Promise itself suggests that their (hidden) state model bills are based on four pieces of federal legislation that have been introduced in Congress.
The organizing model of bill mills and distribution networks, as well as the general content, are not surprising since, according to CPCF executive director Lea Carawan, it’s part of what she called the First Freedom Coalition, which isn’t a formal but a “relational coalition,” intended to increase communication and coordination between members of the “religious freedom movement.” Indeed, CPCF’s efforts may have paved the way for the Promise campaign.
“Just as we have seen Project Blitz adapt and incorporate new bills, similar campaigns have adapted and widely promoted Project Blitz-type bills,” Alison Gill, the chief legislative analyst at American Atheists told RD. “These efforts are best understood as a loosely affiliated network of Christian nationalist lawmakers and activists using these resources to take advantage of every opening to promote their harmful agenda.”
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.
*The phrase “Judeo-Christian,” as many have pointed out, far from being a nod to pluralism, is more often a fig leaf for efforts to give preference to or legislate based on (usually conservative) Christian beliefs.