Randy Forbes, the founder of the Christian Right state legislative campaign Project Blitz, recently told affiliates on a recorded conference call that they are “trying to respond to attacks on faith,” which he described as a problem of “geometric proportions.”
Project Blitz seeks—among other things—to promote Christian nationalism and the Bible in public schools; religious exemptions from civil rights laws protecting LGBTQ people in adoption and foster care, and religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health, all grounded in distorted notions of religious freedom. The campaign was launched in 2016 by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), a Chesapeake, VA group that is closely related to the informal Congressional Prayer Caucus, both founded by former U.S. Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA). The latter is waging the Project Blitz campaign in consort with the Christian Right groups, WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network and the National Legal Foundation.
The recorded October 24 Project Blitz strategy call reveals a campaign that is at once growing in organizational infrastructure and capacity, and escalating its rhetoric against opponents of its theocratic agenda. The recording also reveals an organization that is attempting to go into stealth mode in the face of mounting public criticism and strong counter campaigns.
During the call, Lea Carawan, executive director of the CPCF, explained that the original Project Blitz playbook was necessary because they felt they were “getting beat… as it relates to religious freedom legislation.” She said they wanted to combat what she called “this swarming, and these anti-faith groups that are trying to come against us, en masse.”
Carawan further explained to the legislators and staff from “nearly 20 states” that they have now “strategically” renamed Project Blitz, since, “the other side’s finally caught on to what you all were doing and the mass of legislation that was going forth across the nation, incredible successes… and they were scratching their head saying what in the world happened?”
“They started talking about Project Blitz,” Carawan laughed as she tried to show how CPCF had buffaloed the opposition. “And as soon as we understood that they knew they were onto us, we changed the name; shifted things around a little bit; now they’re talking about something that nobody else is really even talking about, we’ve renamed and moved on.”
Carawan said they now call Project Blitz, “Freedom for All” –– although that name does not appear on the CPCF web site. This rebranding, which seems to be more of a debranding, may have been wise in the wake of the disastrous public response to Project Blitz. But the move was neither as nimble or as swift as Carawan claims.
About a year passed between the time I first exposed Project Blitz on April 27, 2018 to the time CPCF finally scrubbed it from their web site. During that year ––and since–– some remarkable organizing by religious, secular and civil rights groups has been taking place, notably by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and by the Blitz Watch Coalition. Project Blitz also garnered a lot of unwanted press attention over that time and right up to the present – scores of stories, in fact –– from The New York Times, to The Guardian, to the nationally syndicated Religion News Service, The Jerusalem Post, Salon and USA Today. But the Internet Archive Wayback Machine shows that about a year passed between my original expose and the replacement of the Project Blitz page with a “Toolkit” page. Although Wayback does not archive every date, it documents the Project Blitz page on the CPCF site as recently as April 25, 2019.
Although the Project Blitz legislative playbook is now billed as a “Religious Freedom Measures Toolkit” –– for legislators only, they are probably stuck with the name, Project Blitz.
Throughout the call, Carawan and Forbes described their purpose as “the fight for faith” and cast unnamed political opponents as attacking faith itself. This is the template for the method they then turn on groups and individuals.
For example, in a notorious incident on Fox News last year, State Sen. Dan Hall, the co-chair of the Minnesota Prayer Caucus, cast Democratic State Senator John Marty (a lifelong Lutheran) as “anti-faith” because he opposed their plan to post the In God We Trust motto in public schools. Marty then went on Fox himself to defend the integrity of his faith and his stance against the motto measure. He later explained that the posting of “In God We Trust” in the public schools is “offensive” to both many religious believers and the non-religious. Speaking as a Christian, he said that the “government-sanctioned motto does not strengthen our religion, but it demeans, devalues, and cheapens our religion.”
The Project Blitz leaders’ remarks on the call suggest that the Minnesota episode may be the rule rather than the exception going forward. But the contours of public debate may change as the rest of society gets wise to their methods.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Washington, D.C. headquartered BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), said, “We aren’t seeing anything new here. For decades, those pushing for government-sponsored religion have tried to claim to have God on their side. It ignores the fact that our constitutional system separating the institutions of church and state is both for religion’s benefit and the government’s interest.”
Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists, also takes exception to Carawan and Forbes’s characterizations of their opponents as necessarily “anti-faith.”
“Project Blitz has repeatedly smeared lawmakers that stand against its Christian nationalist agenda as ‘anti-faith’ in order to undermine their position,” Gill said. “To be clear, one’s position on faith has no bearing here—atheists and others who do not claim a faith are some of the strongest supporters of religious freedom. People of all faiths and none can see that Project Blitz is using religion as a political weapon to attack their opponents and impose their beliefs upon others.”
The National Strategic Center & Political Cells
Carawan and Forbes spent most of the call outlining the status of Project Blitz and their plans for growth. Carawan claims that their state legislative network now comprises some 950 legislators, organized into Prayer Caucuses in 38 states. They expect to have 42 state Prayer Caucuses by the end of 2019. Thirty two state Prayer Caucuses are said to be staffed with state directors. (Dale Witherington, the Minnesota State Director was on the call.)
Participants also learned about CPCF’s new “state of the art” National Strategic Center of which Forbes serves as “senior strategist.” The Center boasts 10,000 square feet of space. It’s not clear exactly who or what fills that space, but Carawan said its purpose is to provide “strategic, legal, and grassroots support” to the Prayer Caucuses. Forbes says it has the capacity to analyze “strategies that are being used against you.”
Forbes, a former Virginia state legislator and Republican State Party Chair, says legislators often can’t rely on official state legislative services to give them the “true information… on faith issues.” As a result, CPCF has an alternative team of lawyers from the National Legal Foundation, a small Christian Right non-profit law firm, to provide background research and legal analysis.
Forbes claimed that a “21st century strategy”–– analogous to national defense measures against terrorism–– is required because “things have geometrically changed in our country in terms of faith.” He emphasized that advances in “the ability to collect and analyze and disseminate information faster and more efficiently” could make these tools a “game changer.”
Forbes says they are making “faith assessments” of state political landscapes and making plans in consort with “virtual networks” of strategists. All this eventually takes the form of “Toolkits.” He emphasized that this also includes gathering intelligence on “the anti-faith groups, where they are located, what they are doing; and here’s the pro-faith groups, what they are doing, and where they are.”
Another element of their organizing plan has been the development (particularly in their headquarters city of Chesapeake, VA) of what they call “Faith Impact Groups.” These are essentially grassroots political cells, some of which have been started from scratch, and others developed from existing prayer or Bible study groups. Whatever the provenance of particular groups, he says, they “understand [that] faith is under attack in America.” Forbes’ intention to mobilize these groups toward his theocratic objectives is clear, even if the efficacy or extent of this network at this point is not.
According to the CPCF website, these groups “are the mechanism for articulating and implementing the strategies developed by some of our nation’s greatest strategists, getting equipped with specific training and resource materials, while also strengthening each other personally and spiritually.”
While Forbes and Caraway consistently frame their mission in terms of the “fight for faith,” the CPCF web site’s description of Faith Impact Groups goes deeper, by further conflating their contemporary faith with “the Biblical principles of our founding.” This is the method of Dominionist-driven Christian nationalism that has been central to Project Blitz, and is foundational to the ideology of the wider Christian Right. They claim that these are the principles they are fighting for.
BJC’s Amanda Tyler is concerned about the conflation of faith with vague notions of Biblical principles of the founding of the nation. “For one, the historical record of America’s founding is decidedly more mixed and nuanced than those driving a Christian nationalist narrative will acknowledge,” she said. “But even more troubling, for most Christians, our faith is much larger than any one country. To state the obvious, not all Christians are Americans, and not all Americans are Christians. Efforts to merge the two identities are just as dangerous to our faith as to our unity as Americans.”