By Harlan Garbell
For those of you who are fortunate to not have a cable news habit, the veteran newscaster Brian Williams has a nightly program on MSNBC. During the Trump Administration he started out every program announcing how many days had passed since Trump became president, as in “This is day 763 of the Trump Administration.” Much like when Walter Cronkite, starting on November 4, 1979, announced every evening how many days United States Embassy personnel were being held hostage in Iran.
But finally last November, the day came when Trump was voted out of office. You could almost hear a huge collective sigh of relief from millions of anxious Americans who were waiting for this day for four long years. For many, the end came to a recurring political nightmare of venality, lies, incompetence, and corruption. The election result was like the emotional equivalent of Dorothy throwing that bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West at the end of the “Wizard of Oz.”
However, for those of us who see a cloud in every silver lining, this welcome development may be just a temporary respite. It is becoming increasingly clear that, notwithstanding inciting a mob to storm the Capitol building, Trump (and Trumpism) has retained a stranglehold on a major political party. This is not good news in that millions of people still support a wannabe autocrat who would stop at nothing to undermine our democracy in the support of a far-right agenda: a democracy that has already been considerably weakened through many years of corruption, voter suppression, and huge amounts of “dark money.”
The conventional wisdom in the media is that in 2016 Trump “hijacked” a mainstream western, conservative, center-right party. However, the modern Republican Party is not your grandfather’s GOP. Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize it. It is dominated by a radical mélange of conspiracy theorists, anti-abortionists, white supremacists, climate deniers, and other assorted cranks and fabulists. And Trump didn’t hijack the party as much as elevate the most extreme elements of his base to a position of unparalleled power and privilege. And the most organized, best-funded element of Trump’s base is a network of evangelical and fundamentalist church organizations, and their wealthy supporters, who underwrite a plethora of anti-democratic action groups.
These radical groups now essentially drive the various social, political, and cultural agendas of the Christian Right. Where in the past the Republican Party largely represented middle-class voters from moderate Christian denominations (e.g., Episcopalians, Methodists), Evangelical Christians and similarly aligned Catholics are now the face of the party when it comes to promoting the core social and cultural issues of its base. And usually at the top of the list of these issues is abortion, taxpayer-supported vouchers for private schools, and the insertion of Christian values in public institutions.
Most people have not heard of Project Blitz (recently renamed Freedom for All and operating through the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation). This is a coalition of Christian Right groups that openly espouse the need, in their own words, to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square.” They are committed to supporting conservative legislators at all levels of government to promote their religious agenda in public schools (e.g., Bible study), as well as rolling back the hard-won legal rights of women and gays.
Project Blitz/Freedom for All provides its support to the Christian Right in myriad ways, but its key contribution is providing “model legislation” to conservative legislators at the state, and even local levels. The aim is to introduce the same (or similar) model laws in as many state legislatures as they can. For example, laws on gender and sexuality, biblical literacy in public schools, and the recognition of Christian heritage. This group provides not only ready-made legislative bills, but also messaging and public relations expertise.
Although the majority of our members live in the progressively leaning Minneapolis/St.Paul metro area, we sometimes forget that a committed Evangelical Christian conservative movement exists in other areas of the state — and it supports legislation that is inimical to the values of our organization.
Another organization created to push the agenda of the Christian right is Judicial Crisis Network (JCN). This is a dark-money group that serves as the vehicle for wealthy conservative donors to support the confirmation battles that occur when right-wing judges are nominated to the Supreme Court. JCN can raise millions of dollars on short notice to saturate the public with ads in support of judges who will be rock solid in upholding the Christian Right agenda. Usually this means judges already vetted by another conservative organization, the Federalist Society, to make sure they adhere to a “strict construction” of the Constitution in ruling on cases.
There are numerous other conservative think tanks, foundations, PACS, etc., that form a powerful network for the purposes of funding and actively promoting conservative Christian values. Many of these are funded by billionaire families like the Kochs and Mercers. These organizations are not going away just because one incompetent, venal politician lost a presidential election. In fact, there are clear indications that they may come back stronger than ever.
The 2020 national elections saw the Democrats take control of the White House and Senate from the Republican Party. The Democrats also retained control of the House of Representatives, albeit the Republicans picked up a net of 12 seats. If historical electoral trends continue, however, the Republicans are likely to take control of the House after the 2022 midterm elections, and possibly the Senate as well. This could provide considerable momentum for Republicans to recapture the White House in 2024.
However, what may be more of an urgent and immediate concern for those who believe in the separation of religion and government is that most public policy in this country is enacted into law at the state and local levels. And it is at the state level where conservative (i.e., Christian) control over the levers of power is most noticeable, and could grow worse in the coming years due to gerrymandering and enhanced voter-suppression tactics. Currently, Republicans control 54.27% of all state legislative seats nationally, while Democrats hold 44.86%. Republicans hold a majority in 61 chambers, and Democrats in only 37 chambers. Therefore, the Republicans will have a noticeable advantage in determining legislative districts throughout the 2020s.
It is in these state chambers where much of the action will take place in the current decade, and beyond, to determine whether the Christian Right’s agenda will come to fruition. Yes, Trump and his evangelical supporters lost the 2020 national presidential election, notwithstanding that the great majority of these supporters believe it was “stolen.” However, the long twilight struggle with the Christian Right will need to continue unabated if we are to preserve the secular, democratic society on which this nation was founded. These battles will be fought not only in Washington, D.C., but also in state capitals around the country.
Although the majority of our members live in the progressively leaning Minneapolis/St.Paul metro area, we sometimes forget that a committed Evangelical Christian conservative movement exists in other areas of the state — and it supports legislation that is inimical to the values of our organization. For example, Republicans in the state legislature (and some Democrats) have vigorously opposed the medical aid-in-dying bills that have been introduced over the past few years. This is legislation that HumanistsMN has strongly supported as it is consistent with our core values that people 1) should have agency to make important decisions affecting their own lives, and 2) be free from having to suffer unnecessarily.
Minnesotans will also need to continue fighting in the political arena to preserve a woman’s right to choose. The Christian Right is currently aggressively pursuing legislation in many states that would outlaw abortion the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected through an abdominal ultrasound. Some of these laws have passed. A similar bill was unsuccessful when introduced a couple of years ago in the Minnesota state legislature. However, like a zombie that refuses to die, it has been re-introduced for the 2021-22 legislative session (MN SF223). Should Republicans be successful in upcoming elections in controlling the Governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature, this type of bill would likely be enacted into law.
However small our efforts may be in the in the grand scheme of things, it is our mission as humanists and secularists to participate in this struggle. If you are committed to helping in this effort please contact one of our Social Action Team co-chairs, Christine Retkwa or Marcy Woodruff, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.