EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics

Two networks of conservative, state-level think tanks have matured rapidly over the past three decades. By crafting public policy, collaborating with Republican state legislators, and fostering new leadership for the Right, they have significantly shaped recent U.S. politics. And their work has only just begun.



Via the 2013 SPN Annual Meeting promo video

Screencap of 2013 SPN Annual Meeting promo video, via Corey Burres

The Democratic Party’s wins in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and its modest successes in recent Congressional elections, have obscured a series of setbacks for the party in the states. As National Journal put it, the GOP “wiped the floor with Democrats” in the 2010 midterm elections, setting a record in the modern era by picking up 680 seats in state legislatures. The next-largest harvest of legislative seats was the Democrats’ 628-seat gain in the Watergate-dominated election of 1974.[1]The 2010 landslide gave the GOP the upper hand in the subsequent Congressional redistricting process, allowing Republicans to tilt the playing field in their favor and shape U.S. elections for years to come. In the meantime, conservatives have used friendly, GOP-dominated state legislatures to ram their agenda through legislatures—in “red” states and even some states that lean “blue”—on a range of issues: imposing harsh voter restrictions in North Carolina, for example, and passing dramatic anti-labor legislation in Michigan.

The roots of this debacle go far deeper than one or two election cycles and cannot be explained by the normal ebb and flow in electoral fortunes of the two major parties. The seeds were actually sown in the late 1980s, when strategists in the conservative movement came to an important realization. If they were successful in their efforts to devolve much of federal policy-making authority to the states—a key goal of the “Reagan revolution”—they would need relevant resources to elaborate their vision, and the organizational capacity to implement it. The two networks of state-based think tanks that emerged from that realization amount to one of the great under-reported stories in modern American politics. We are just now seeing the implications of the networks’ work, and of the conservative strategists’ vision.

Though several Washington, D.C.-based think tanks were profoundly important in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, few state-level groups existed at the time. Reagan encouraged the creation of think tanks in state capitals, and two related networks of policy shops and advocacy groups emerged from this idea.[2] Both have become part of the deep infrastructure of the conservative movement, and they play a critical role in taking the movement’s agenda to the states, where a fierce battle over the role, size, and scope of government is playing out.

The State Policy Network (SPN) comprises think tanks that are modeled after the Heritage Foundation, in that they conduct research and make policy recommendations to government agencies and legislative bodies. SPN currently comprises 63 member organizations—at least one in each state. SPN members vigorously promote a “free market,” anti-labor agenda, and they are joined in this mission by dozens of conservative and libertarian groups with which they liaise, including national institutions like the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Alliance for School Choice, Americans United for Life, and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.[3]

The second network comprises organizations that are modeled on the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the foundational organizations of the Christian Right that was, for several years, the public policy arm of Focus on the Family (FOF). These think tanks are called Family Policy Councils (FPCs), and they take policy research and political advocacy to state capitals the way the FRC does in Washington, D.C.[4] They focus primarily on reproductive rights, traditional “family values” (especially marriage), and, increasingly, religious liberty. This is in keeping with the agenda of the 2009 Christian Right manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration.[5]

Though the individual institutions tend to command our attention, the influence of the networks is much greater than the sum of their parts. Comprising part of the core infrastructure of the conservative movement, they create synergies by sharing information, resources, and best practices. These synergies allow even the smallest members to rely on the same research as the networks’ largest and best-endowed institutions. Crucially, they also equip the Right with a common set of talking points and understandings, even as the individual institutions maintain the flexibility to tailor their strategies to state-level circumstances.

“The states are our first and final frontiers of liberty,” an SPN video declares. “Just as the pioneers journeyed to the wild west to discover new frontiers and stake their claim for a new life, we must stake a claim for freedom for us and the generations yet to come. Moving the locus of power from DC to the 50 freedom frontiers requires fortitude, bold strategies and a network of equipped trailblazers.”[6]

Division of Labor

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 1989, Republican political operative Don Eberly outlined
how the networks would operate, explaining that there would be a business-oriented group (the Commonwealth Foundation) and a Christian Right group (the Pennsylvania Family Institute). “We have organized a leadership team,” he said, “that is implementing . . . the Pennsylvania Plan.” He explained that the Commonwealth Foundation, of which he was founding president, would function as the state-based equivalent of the Heritage Foundation, while the Pennsylvania Family Institute, where his wife Sheryl was on the board, would be the equivalent of the Family Research Council.

“We now have both economic and social issues coalitions on the state level that meet regularly and are developing agendas,” Eberly continued. “This September [1989], we had our first statewide conservative conference for local leaders and activists, patterned after [the Conservative Political Action Conference] in Washington. The conference, which will become an annual event, attracted 320 people from all across the state and sent shock waves throughout the political establishment.”[7] The conference is still staged annually and it has served as a model for similar conferences held elsewhere—for example, in North Carolina.[8]

The Pennsylvania Plan was a model for two incipient national networks of think tanks—one wing focusing on economic issues, the other primarily on social and cultural concerns—that would share a common free-market ideology and sometimes a common agenda. Initially, both Pennsylvania groups were substantially underwritten by right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife and other “strategic funders” of the Right, as journalists called them at the time.

The State Policy Network was formed in 1992 to coordinate the activities of the business wing, and it was underwritten by South Carolina businessman Thomas Roe. A small predecessor—the Madison Group, which included Roe’s South Carolina Policy Council, Scaife’s Commonwealth Foundation, and the Independence Institute, underwritten by the Adolph Coors Foundation and other Coors interests—became the core of the SPN. Roe, Scaife, and Joseph Coors—the Colorado beer magnate who led his family into political prominence—were all major funders and board members of the Heritage Foundation at the time.[9]

In recent years, members and associates of the State Policy Network have been the recipients of massive infusions of cash that have come largely from secretive, donor-advised funds serving as financial funnels for individuals, corporations, and foundations. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Donors Trust and the related Donors Capital Fund have quietly funneled nearly $400 million from about 200 private donors (including the ubiquitous Koch brothers) to free-market causes since 1999. The Center also reported, in 2013, that Donors Trust had given $10 million to the SPN over the course of the previous five years, and that in 2012 “SPN used the money to incubate think tanks in Arkansas, Rhode Island, and Florida, where it hosted its yearly gathering in November.”[10]

An investigation by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) in November 2013 unearthed an internal list of SPN’s major funders for 2010. It included Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, as well as such major corporations as BMO Harris Bank, Microsoft, Facebook, and the tobacco companies Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) and Reynolds American.[11]

SPN spends about $5 million annually to support existing groups and help start-ups develop the management and leadership skills of their staff and board; recruit and mentor staff; teach strategic marketing and branding; and network with other think tanks to leverage knowledge and resources. Thomas Roe, SPN’s late founding chairman, wanted it that way. “We still do it today,” said Lawrence Reed, president emeritus of the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It keeps us knowledgeable about what everyone else is doing, it keeps us talking, and it stops us from reinventing the wheel over and over again.”[12]

SPN member organizations have used this strategic capacity in the fight for a range of major initiatives, notably anti-labor legislation.[13] According to a 2011 report in Mother Jones, SPN’s affiliates have led the charge at the state level in the Republican Party’s “war on organized labor. They’re pushing bills to curb, if not eliminate, collective bargaining for public workers; make it harder for unions to collect member dues; and, in some states, allow workers to opt out of joining unions entirely but still enjoy union-won benefits. All told, it’s one of the largest assaults on American unions in recent history.”[14]

In Michigan, for example, the Mackinac Center made four policy recommendations to give unelected ‘emergency managers’ more power to terminate union contracts and fire municipal elected officials “in the name of repairing broken budgets,” Mother Jones reported. “All four ended up in Governor Rick Snyder’s ‘financial martial law,’ as one GOP lawmaker described it.”[15] A writer for Forbes called it “one of the most sweeping, anti-democratic pieces of legislation in the country,” investing Snyder with the power “not only to break up unions, but to dissolve entire local governments and place appointed “Emergency Managers” in their stead [emphasis in original].”[16] The legislation became law in March 2011.

Some SPN institutions are small but exert disproportionate influence by keeping a high media profile. Other institutions, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the Mackinac Center, have multimillion dollar budgets and large staffs, and they play an outsized role in state politics by partnering with other institutions, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Since 1975, ALEC has developed model, business-oriented legislation in cooperation with a national network of state legislators and began a more formal and coordinated relationship with SPN and member organizations beginning in the mid-2000s. A study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that two dozen SPN groups, including the SPN itself, are organizational members of ALEC and serve on one or more of its legislative task forces. CMD identified several areas of ALEC’s policy foci in which SPN members play a role: privatizing public education and public pension systems; rolling back environmental initiatives; disenfranchising people of color, the elderly, and students; and attacking workers’ rights.[17]

Several SPN members have shepherded bills through the process of becoming official ALEC “model” bills. For example, Arizona’s Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center were responsible for ALEC adopting five model bills targeting public-sector unions.[18]

According to an investigation by the Institute for Southern Studies, the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation—SPN member organizations in North Carolina—published more than 50 articles, op-eds and blog posts fomenting unfounded fears of voter fraud. These helped catalyze passage of a strict photo ID law, an end to same-day registration, and a shorter early voting period in 2013.[19] The legislation will likely suppress turnout among African Americans and young people. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to block enforcement of key provisions of the law.[20]

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in many ways personifies how SPN provides infrastructure, develops personnel, and hatches ideas for the conservative movement. Prior to his election to the Senate in 2012, he served as a senior fellow with TPPF’s new Center for 10th Amendment Studies. In 2010, he co-authored a report that became the basis of ALEC’s model legislation to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).[21]

The SPN’s recent mixing of Tea Party activism (largely funded by the Koch brothers) with more buttoned-down business conservatism is not without its challenges. An SPN “ToolKit” featured on its web site in 2013, for example, urged members to avoid language that smacks of “extreme views,” advising: “Stay away from words like radical, nullify, or autonomy,” and especially “states’ rights.”[22]

Origins of a faux news network

The State Policy Network has now been developing and deepening its capacity—not only to do research and policy work, but also to absorb and integrate new projects—for more than two decades. At the same time, it has faced new challenges and taken advantage of new opportunities in an era of digital activism and new media.

SPN’s adaptability in the new era is illustrated by its development of a news network. Three dozen SPN affiliates now field their own “investigative reporters” on behalf of a recently created member, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which describes its mission as “exposing government waste, fraud and abuse.”[23] It seeks to fill a void created by the loss of a third of the nation’s journalism jobs since 1992. The Center was created by the now-defunct Sam Adams Alliance, which began as a Tea Party organization and was folded into SPN.

SPN’s state news websites collectively produce Watchdog Wire, which publishes work by “citizen journalists.” As the website describes the project, “by covering stories in your local community that are otherwise ignored by the establishment media, you can make a difference!”[24] The Franklin Center claims that it “already provides 10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide.”[25] The basis for the claim is unclear, but whatever its truth, it does speak to the Center’s ambitions.

The Sam Adams Alliance also separately created three websites modeled on Wikipedia: Judgepedia, Ballotpedia, and Sunshine Review. They offer right-wing analysis of (respectively) the judiciary, election issues, and governmental performance. These projects have since been folded into the Lucy Burns Institute, an SPN member based in Madison, WI.  Like many SPN organizations, it has extensive ties to the Tea Party and funding from the Koch brothers.[26]

The Franklin Center and the Lucy Burns Institute are part of a surge of recent development in SPN’s infrastructure that has expanded its capacity to influence both media and public policy, as well as the range of ways by which it carries out its mission. Donors Trust has funneled cash to both the Franklin Center and to many SPN affiliates for their “news” operations. Its $6.3 million donation to the Franklin Center constituted 95 percent of the Center’s revenue in 2011.[27]

This network has had some success. While some affiliates do little more than blog off of Associated Press stories, others feature established conservative journalists. In Oklahoma, the former editorial page editor of the Oklahoman newspaper, Patrick B. McGuigan, serves as the local bureau chief, and he has a weekly segment on the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City, called Capitol Report. [28] And stories in the Pennsylvania Independent, a Franklin Center online publication supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, have been picked up by mainstream outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer.

To date, though, the network has shown little capacity to stand on its own and depends almost entirely on funding through Donors Trust. As of August 2013, the Pennsylvania Independent had only one ad—for the Commonwealth Foundation’s own campaign to privatize state-owned liquor stores.[29]

Building for the future

While the State Policy Network has mostly limited itself to the role of influencing public policy through the traditional work of think tanks—research, media work, and lobbying—the Family Policy Councils are more explicitly involved in mobilizing the Right’s grassroots base to become active in electoral politics.

There are 36 state FPCs, which typically have the word “family” in their names, such as the Massachusetts Family Institute, Louisiana Family Forum, and the Family Foundation of Virginia. Others are less obvious, bearing such names as the Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian Civic League of Maine, but they are all outgrowths of the original Reagan era plan to take the Christian Right’s agenda to the states.

A change in the federal tax law in 2004 required 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations to be less political than they had been, necessitating separately incorporated political action arms. As a result, FOF formed Focus on the Family Action, which later changed its name to CitizenLink for the sake of clarity.[30]

While the Family Research Council and its feisty spokesmen, Tony Perkins and Jerry Boykin, disproportionately make headlines, CitizenLink quietly cultivates the grassroots. Spending about $13 million annually (as of 2012), CitizenLink coordinates the work of the FPCs, ensuring accreditation and compliance and providing services to increase the capacity of the institutions to carry out their mission.[31] It also does candidate trainings and works primarily for Republicans in national elections. CitizenLink reportedly spent $2.6 million on independent expenditures in 2012, mostly on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.”[32]

The network has played an important role in the political development and subsequent raw political power of the Christian Right. Many of the older FPCs have been active for more than two decades, crafting an activist religious-political culture, affecting electoral outcomes, and ultimately developing the clout to influence legislation and policy outcomes on such matters as abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Indeed, FPCs have often been leading actors in the state-level battles over marriage equality. The Christian Civic League of Maine played a central role in the seesaw battle over same-sex marriage, which was endorsed by the legislature and repealed by the voters in 2009, then restored by a second referendum in 2012. The League’s executive director and one of its board members[33] launched a new political action committee, Protect Marriage Maine, to carry out the political organizing and advertising drive against the ballot initiative, collaborating closely with the National Organization for Marriage.[34] Such collaborations have been a hallmark of the FPCs from the earliest days.

An important trend in recent years, indicating the significance of the role of the FPCs in the wider Christian Right, has been the gradual adoption of the integrated, three-part agenda of the Manhattan Declaration. This is evident in many ways, including the way that “guest posts” from FPC leaders are introduced on the national web site. For example: “CitizenLink is proud to work with The Family Foundation of Virginia and other family policy organizations across the country to stand for marriage, life and religious freedom.”[35]

“These councils are independent entities,” according to CitizenLink, “with no corporate or financial relationship to each other or to Focus on the Family.”[36] But if FOF and CitizenLink are legally separate entities with different tax statuses, they are best viewed as two parts of the same organization. They share the same offices, board of directors, top executives, and president, James Daly.[37]

There is a method to the disclaimers, though, because stretching the rules regarding federal tax-exempt status of the member agencies has been an issue over the years. Many of these groups engaged in lobbying and electoral activities—such as the dissemination of biased voter guides—beyond what the privilege of federal tax exemption allows. Quietly coming into compliance with the law, and becoming more sophisticated regarding how best to use the several relevant legal categories available for politics and public policy, has been a trend for both state networks, following the lead of The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council.

The creation of separate-but-related groups that can legally carry out various political, lobbying, and electoral functions is an important development in the history of these groups at all levels. For example, the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC), which has focused on anti-marriage equality, antichoice, and pro-school privatization issues in recent years, has divided into three closely related but legally distinct entities: FIC itself; FIC Action (a 501(c)(4) lobbying group); and the Family Institute of Connecticut Action Committee, a political action committee (PAC) that focuses on candidates for state-government offices.[38]

Efforts to draw bright lines for legal purposes notwithstanding, the lines still sometimes blur. “Needless, to say,” wrote Jim Daly in a joint Focus on the Family/CitizenLink annual report, “2012 was extremely busy for our CitizenLink staff as they were actively involved in multiple state legislative and election efforts. More than 2 million emails were sent to CitizenLink constituents regarding important issues. In addition, CitizenLink produced mailers for the November election that went to more than 8 million homes in 16 swing states. And that was just the beginning!”[39]

Two paths converge

Member organizations across both networks share some common issues, such as school privatization and the idea that public education should be controlled locally, though there are often differences of emphasis. The Boston-based Pioneer Institute primarily promotes corporate-style charters and makes little mention of homeschooling, for example, while the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI) is primarily interested in homeschooling. “The public schools here have become a primary battleground in the culture war,” MFI declares, “with homosexual activists using them to indoctrinate students with their agenda.” Consequently, “MFI supports the restoration of decision-making authority over school policy and finance to parents, locally elected school committees and taxpayers.[40] In Louisiana, both networks have mobilized to promote and defend Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s controversial voucher program, which extended vouchers even to marginal religious schools, some of which use crackpot textbooks to teach science. One claims that the Loch Ness Monster is both real and a proof against evolution.[41] The Pioneer Institute has promoted New Orleans—where 80 percent of the public schools after Hurricane Katrina became charters—as a model for Boston.[42]

Cross-network collaborations are facilitated by having seasoned leaders who share a common vision and are able to mobilize the resources to carry it out. In creating the State Policy Network and the Family Policy Councils, the conservative movement’s strategists sought to create a deep infrastructure that would be build capacity over time, both in terms of policy development and electoral strength. They were also developing a talent bank of research and policy experts and organizational executives who would create synergies for the movement and shape the priorities of the Republican Party.

And in fact, SPN affiliates sometimes serve as governments-in-waiting for Republican administrations in the states, in much the way that Republican administrations in Washington, D.C., often draw staff from such national think tanks as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. In Massachusetts, Gov. William Weld “hired almost everybody” out of the Pioneer Institute following his election in 1994. Succeeding governors Paul Cellucci and Jane Swift also appointed Pioneer staff or board members to crucial positions that enabled them to implement their ideas, notably in shaping the state’s charter school policies. Cellucci, for example, appointed Pioneer executive director James Peyser as chairman of the state board of education.[43]

SPN think tanks have also provided leadership opportunities for policy professionals and politicians. Veterans of the board of directors of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation include former Lt. Governor William W. Scranton III and current U.S. Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA). Three members of Congress—Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and former U.S. Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO)—ran SPN member groups before coming to Congress.

Likewise, the FPCs serve as talent-development agencies. Ron Crews, who led the Massachusetts Family Institute from 2000 to 2004, rode the notoriety he gained in the wake of the historic 2003 Goodridge v. Department of Public Health decision (in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized same-sex marriage) to an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004. Tony Perkins was the executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum before coming to the Family Research Council. Brian Brown directed the Connecticut Family Institute before leading the National Organization for Marriage.

All of this is important because the cumulative experience of these two networks—in fostering leaders, working with government officials, creating collaborations, and becoming part of the furniture of public life in state capitals around the country—is transforming American politics from the state level up. The networks’ growing ability to craft and influence public policy, working in tandem with the American Legislative Exchange Council, corporate interests, and Republican state legislators, has justified the persistence and long-range ambitions of conservative strategists three decades ago, when the movement was just beginning its long march to state power.

[1] Jeremy P. Jacobs, “Devastation: GOP Picks Up 680 State Leg. Seats,” National Journal, Nov. 4, 2010,

[2] John J. Miller, “Fifty flowers bloom: Conservative think tanks—mini-Heritage Foundations—at the state level,” Hey Miller, Sept. 16, 2009, Republished from the National Review, Nov. 19, 2007. See also John J. Miller, “Safeguarding a Conservative Donor’s Intent: The Roe Foundation at 39,” Foundation Watch, Capital Research Center, May 2007,

[3] “Directory,” State Policy Network,

[4] Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” Public Eye, Summer/Fall 1999, In addition to the pieces cited in this essay, see Jason Deparle, “Right-of-Center Guru Goes Wide With the Gospel of Small Government,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 2006,; and Lee Fang, “The Right Leans In: Media-savvy conservative think tanks take aim and fire at progressive power bases in the states,” Nation, Mar. 26, 2013,

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Public Eye, July 23, 2013,

[6] “SPN Annual Meeting Promo 1,” YouTube,

[7] Don E. Eberly, “The States:  The New Policy Battleground, Lecture # 225,” The Heritage Foundation, Oct. 27, 1989,

[8] “Conservative Leadership Conference,” Civitas,

[9] Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-level Think Tanks.”

[10] Paul Abowd, “Donors use charity to push free-market policies in states: Nonprofit group lets donors fly ‘totally under the radar,’” Center for Public Integrity, Feb. 14, 2013,

[11] “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,”, Center for Media and Democracy, Nov. 2013.

[12] John J. Miller, “Safeguarding a Conservative Donor’s Intent:  The Roe Foundation at 39,” Foundation Watch, Capital Research Center, May 2007,

[13] “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,”

[14] Andy Kroll, “The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions,” Mother Jones, April 25, 2011,

[15] Kroll, “The Right-Wing Network Behind the War on Unions.”

[16] Erik Kain, “Michigan Governor Plays Fast and Loose with Democracy, Invokes Radical New Powers,” Forbes, March 11, 2011,

[17] EXPOSED: The State Policy Network, The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,

[18] Paul Abowd, “ALEC anti-union push includes key players from Michigan, Arizona think tanks,” Center for Public Integrity, May 17, 2012,

[19] Sue Sturgis, “Special Investigation: How Art Pope helped turn back the clock on voting rights in North Carolina,” Institute for Southern Studies, Aug. 2013,

[20] Charlie Savage, Justice Department Poised to File Lawsuit Over Voter ID Law,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2013,

[21] Mary Tuma, “Ted Cruz Used Texas to Create ALEC’s Anti-Obamacare Legislation,” Current, Oct. 16, 2013,; Ted Cruz,  “Texas Public Policy Foundation report gives states options for pushing back on federal overreach,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, Nov. 18, 2010,; Ted Cruz and Mario Loyola, “Reclaiming the Constitution Towards and Agenda for State Action,” Texas Public Policy Foundation, Nov. 2010,

[22] “A Tool Kit to Keep Government Local People, Local Decisions, Local Solutions,” State Policy Network and State Budget Solutions, 2013,

[23] Jason Stverak, Media Shield Law Doesn’t Protect First Amendment, Free Press, The Franklin Center, Sept. 16, 2013,

[24] “About Watchdog Wire,” The Franklin Center, Watchdog Wire, May 25, 2012,

[25] “Driving the News:  How right wing funders are manufacturing news and influencing public policy in Pennsylvania,” Keystone Progress, Aug. 2013, (subscription required).

[26] Sara Jerving, “The Lucy Burns Institute (Publishers of Ballotpedia, Judgepedia and WikiFOIA) and Her Right-Wing Bedfellows,” The Center for Media and Democracy, Nov. 26, 2012,

[27] Abowd, “ALEC anti-union push includes key players from Michigan, Arizona think tanks.”

[28] McGuigan reported on SPN’s national convention in Oklahoma City without disclosing his relationship to the Franklin Center or the Franklin Center’s relationship to the SPN and the host affiliate, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. See “Capitol Report: National gathering in Oklahoma City focuses on public policy,” YouTube, Sept. 30, 2013,

[29] “Driving the News: How right wing funders are manufacturing news and influencing public policy in Pennsylvania,” Keystone Progress, Aug. 2013, (subscription required).

[30] Electa Draper, “Focus on the Family rebrands political arm as CitizenLink,” Denver Post, May 20, 2010,

[31] “CitizenLink,” Charity Navigator,

[32] “Exclusive: Largest Dark Money Groups Share Funds, Hide Links,” OpenSecretsBlog, Sep. 10, 2013,

[33] In the run-up to the 2012 initiative, Emrich was employed by the Family Research Council as its new “Northeast Field Ambassador”: “Bob Emrich joins Family Research Council,” Christian Civic League of Maine, Oct. 27, 2011,

[34] This followed a split with former League executive director Mike Heath, whose extreme statements were seen as counterproductive. The split also led to a rebranding in which the League sought to become known as the Maine Family Policy Council. The change apparently didn’t take, and the organization is now known by both names. Brian Tashman, “Ron Paul’s Iowa State Director Dedicated His Career to Fighting ‘Evil’ Gay Rights,” Right Wing Watch, Dec. 30, 2011,

[35] See Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.”

[36] “Family Policy Councils,” CitizenLink, Individual FPCs rarely mention their close connections to FOF, or CitizenLink, or FRC, which maintains a similar, but not identical, list of affiliates. FRC Action, the 501(c)(4) political arm of FRC, also lists the FPCs as state-level affiliates.

[37] For example, see “Focus on the Family and CitizenLink 2012 Annual Report,” Focus on the Family, A separate annual report for CitizenLink is at Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is also a member of both boards.

[38] “Latest FIC Action Committee’s 2010 Endorsements,” Family Institute of Connecticut, 2010,

[39] “2012 Annual Report,” Focus on the Family.

[40] “Parental Rights and Education,” Massachusetts Family Institute,

[41] Bruce Wilson, “Nessie a Plesiosaur? Louisiana To Fund Schools Using Odd, Bigoted Fundamentalist Textbooks,” Talk to Action, June 17, 2012,

[42] Jim Stergios, “6 Takeaways on New Orleans’ charter initiative,” Pioneer Institute, Oct. 19, 2013,

[43] Paul Dunphy and Nikhil Aziz, “The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth,” Political Research Associates, July 2002,; Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-level Think Tanks.”

Profiles on the Right: World Congress of Families

WCFThough based in Illinois, the World Congress of Families (WCF) has a global mission. It seeks to spread anti-choice, anti-LGBTI policies and ideas worldwide, as well as a conservative definition of the family. In 1998, the WCF gathered in Rome to define “the natural family” as “the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage.” WCF campaigns at local, national, regional, and international levels to insert this restrictive definition into laws and policies as a way to actively exclude LGBTI people – and many others – from the rights, privileges, and protections afforded to legally recognized families.

Historian and author Allan Carlson founded WCF in 1995 as a project of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. WCF describes itself as a “rallying center for the world’s family systems grounded in religious faith” and a “response to a militant secular individualism found in parts of the ‘post modern’ West.”

WCF’s international conferences, or “Congresses,” consistently draw thousands of participants, and they have helped build WCF’s international influence by bringing together elected officials, religious leaders, scientists, and scholars from around the world. Congresses have been held in Prague (1997), Geneva (1999), Mexico City (2004), Warsaw (2007), Amsterdam (2009), Madrid (2012), Sydney (2013), Salt Lake City (2015), Georgia (2016), and Budapest (2017). Among the 2017 Congress partners were several Christian Right organizations, including National Organization for Marriage, Heartbeat International, and Family Watch International. The headlining speakers are typically leaders of the U.S. Christian Right, and the organization’s leadership team is entirely American.

In addition to large-scale international gatherings, WCF coordinates smaller, regional events. In 2009, it hosted its first African conference in Abuja, Nigeria. WCF convenings have taken place in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Malawi, and the organization is constantly expanding its influence. Sponsors for “The African Family and Cultural Colonialism,”  its most recent conference in Malawi in November 2017, included Family Watch International and the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, the Malawian arm of the Anglican Church.

WCF’s work in Africa is primarily coordinated by Theresa Okafor and Ann Kioko. Okafor is CEO of Life League Nigeria, director of the Foundation for African Cultural Heritage, and a leading opponent of LGBTI and reproductive justice on the continent; Kioko is the founder of the African Organization for Families (AOF), a project that emerged out of the 2015 WCF gathering in Salt Lake City, Utah, and now works as the Campaigns Manager for Africa for CitizenGO, a right-wing advocacy organization based in Spain. Brian Brown serves on CitizenGO’s Board of Trustees.

In December 2016, under the leadership of its new president, Brian Brown (also head of the American anti-LGBTI group, National Organization for Marriage), the Howard Center rebranded itself as the International Organization for the Family (IOF), but reassured supporters that WCF would remain one of its key projects. The same week, IOF announced the launch of “The Cape Town Declaration: Universal Declaration on Family and Marriage,” a new platform aimed at creating a united global front of conservative leaders.

Next ProfileFor more details, see American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism. 

Updated 5/8/18.



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How Well-Meaning Social Justice Groups Are Misinterpreting Kuwait’s “Gaydar Testing”


An interesting aspect of journalism and blogging is the filter through which the information is processed. Journalists have the ability to impact opinions about and perceptions of certain issues. Coming from a solid journalist, this can provide us vital insight into oppositional ideologies and viewpoints. This can become dangerous—particularly in instances of unintentional misreporting, reactionary reporting, and reporting that attempts to portray opinion as fact. Such is the case with the recent reporting about Kuwait’s proposed legislation to “screen out gays using gaydar.”

Misinterpreting Yousef Mindkar 

Though much of the reporting was done with good intentions, a lot of journalism relating to Kuwait director of public health Yousef Mindkar’s proposal to screen individuals using “gaydar” is reactionary reporting and misconstrues the proposed legislation. By reporting before checking on the facts, popular publications like The Daily Mail, Huffington Post, and International Business Times have unintentionally misinformed the public about the basic “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of the situation.

Most importantly, slightly-off translations and misunderstandings of Kuwaiti cultural norms have led to misreporting who the legislation will affect.

Up in arms (reasonably so) about recent human rights violations in Russia, Western reporters have been quick to react to the news coming out of Kuwait. Titles like “Kuwait plans checkpoint to block gay people at airports” have been used. Claims that the tests will “‘detect’ gays traveling to those nations in order to deny them entry,” are running rampant, and many have demanded a preemptive boycott of the 2022 World Cup, asserting the new law “will mean that gay players and spectators will be banned from attending.”

In reality, the legislation arising out of Kuwait will only affect individuals who are what Mindkar characterized as al-mithliyeen, or “third-sex”. “Third-sex” is a derogatory term used to refer to those who do not conform to gender norms. This legislation may end up encompassing all gender non-conforming individuals, but typically “third-sex” refers to transgender individuals, in both English and Arabic. A Human Rights Watch report explains a 2007 amendment that furthered the persecution of “third-sex” Kuwaitis: “A previously generic public decency law now stipulated that anyone ‘imitating the opposite sex in any way’ would face one year in prison, a 1,000 Kuwaiti dinar fine (approximately $3,600 in U.S. currency), or both. The amendment did not criminalize any specific behavior or act, but rather physical appearance, the acceptable parameters of which were to be arbitrarily defined by individual police.”

While this legislation may indeed end up affecting all sexual minorities, reporting that the legislation targets “gays” is inaccurate, and neglects to assert that transgender individuals will probably be the most directly affected. It is also inaccurate that this will affect “gays” of the world, the screening is for expatriates looking to work in the Gulf Cooperation Countries once again. So the international banning of gays is highly unlikely, unless the legislation drastically changed. To be sure of either of these issues, we will probably have to wait until November.

Regardless, the use of “gay” in attempt to qualify gender-nonconforming people or the LGBTQ community as a whole points towards a larger issue that faces both the Eastern and Western LGBTQ communities: a hyper-focus on the stereotypical gay men, and a lack of focus on other identities such as lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, queers etc. Too often, the transgender community does not get the attention it needs from media, activists, and politicians alike. 

Right Wing Responses 

The response from the far-Right also brings forth the natural conflict of interest inherent to that ideology. Many of these right-wing groups are both anti-Islam and anti-LGBTQ. It is intriguing to see how they react when one group they target goes after another group they target. There is not enough of a Right wing reaction to Mindkar’s proposal to be sure which side conservatives will fall on, but it is important to keep watch for it. For now, looking at the way the Right has responded to this conflict of interest in the past and near-past will have to suffice.

Based on the Right’s enthusiastic exportation of homophobia to Africa and rhetoric like Family Research Council’s Peter Spriggs’ 2010 statement that he would “prefer to export homosexuals from the United States . . . because we believe that homosexuality is destructive to society”, one of my gut reactions while reading about Mindkar’s proposal was “when the far-Right reacts, they will love this.

Recently, the World Congress of Families, which promotes anti-gay and anti-choice legislation abroad, issued a press release in support of Russia’s “gay propaganda” ban. Five other conservative U.S. based groups also signed the statement, in which signatories not only support the Russian law but condemn the international outrage surrounding the issue. U.S. signatories who are historically anti-Islam have had to put this agenda aside in order to support the anti-LGBTQ agenda, as numerous UK-based Islamic groups also signed.

Conversely, the Right can be (occasionally) quick to condemn the torture and murder of LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East, using this violation of human rights to point out flaws in this particular society. Pamela Geller, editor and publisher of, even went as far as to write an article titled “Pro-Gay Equals Anti-Sharia”. This presents a good place to debase extremist right-wing arguments. Anti-LGBTQ groups so often use their religion to validate their persecution of sexual minorities. Individuals like Mindkar are coming at the issue from the same religious angle that deems non-normative sexual behavior and identities as sinful, they just use a different religion. It’s decently simple logic:  if a (Evangelical) = b (anti-LGBTQ) and c (Muslim) = b (anti-LGBTQ), then a (Evangelical) = c (Muslim).” Leading to the question: How are what these two groups doing any different?

While the issue is, of course, much more complex, the equation reinforces the idea that the social activism is a very symbiotic issue—whether this relationship is inverse or direct, when one minority is affected, the other is affected. It is important to note that anti-Islam groups may try to pit LGBTQ people against Muslims, and vice versa. And while I think it is a given that anyone who is violently persecuted for their inherent identity needs protection, the fact that the suffering of persecuted communities is linked makes it even more imperative to approach social justice issues holistically. It also makes it imperative for disenfranchised groups to recognize one another’s suffering rather than lashing out at each other.

Pope Francis: Liberal Leader or Benign Conservative

Pope Francis (right) and his predecessor Pope Benedict Photo credit: AFP

Pope Francis (right) and his predecessor Pope Benedict
Photo credit: AFP

A recent interview with Pope Francis conducted on behalf of America Magazine has been making waves in the Catholic community. The interview highlights what many people see as an important step in modernizing the Catholic Church, a movement that has stagnated during the previous two papacies following John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.

The Second Vatican Council, presided over by Pope John XXIII from 1962-1965, addressed the relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world. Notably, the Council weakened the papal hierarchy, granted members of the church permission to celebrate mass in vernacular languages, and encouraged lay participation in liturgy. The forward momentum created by the Council, however, was halted by the ascensions of Popes John-Paul II and Benedict. Both were conservatives, with Benedict calling for “a leaner, smaller, purer church.” This stagnation and renewed conservatism of the church has created rifts within the Catholic community, a scenario that Francis might be able to attenuate. In his interview, Francis endorsed the Second Vatican Council, stating “its fruits are enormous.”

Since his ascension, Pope Francis had made a number of comments about atheism and LGBTQ people that have hinted at a more liberal outlook than his two predecessors, and has garnered appeal with Roman Catholics who have more liberal religious and political inclinations, as well as those who approve of religious and ideological pluralism.

In his interview with American Magazine, Francis chastised the church for locking itself up “in small things, in small-minded rules,” citing an obsessive focus on culture war issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Latching onto these excerpts, a deluge of commentary from both the Right and Left Wing has praised, lamented, and expressed general antipathy towards Pope Francis’ comments.

Francis’s interview often came across as an indictment of the conservative, traditionalist Catholic environments created under John-Paul II and Benedict. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective,” Francis said, “but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teachings as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.” He goes on to say, “If a person says he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is proof that God is not with him.” Quotes like these seem to rally against religious dogmatism, and in light of his comments on social issues, seem to suggest a more modern understanding of Catholicism.

Many right-wing pundits and Catholic leaders, have been quick to do damage control on the pope’s comments. American uber-conservatives such as Ave Maria Radio CEO Al Kresta, Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, Catholic Priest and Fox New contributor Jonathan Morris, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights Bill Donohue, and AFTAH’s Peter Labarbera have all come forward to point out that the church has not changed its view on homosexuality, and that the pope did not say anything new or groundbreaking in his interview. LaBarbera went so far as to accuse the Pope Francis of being “naive about the aggressive homosexual agenda.”

Some liberals have also expressed antipathy towards the interview, claiming a few benign comments that amount to less than an endorsement of homosexuality are nothing to be happy about. Others have pointed towards an issue Francis side-stepped in the interview: the role of women in the church. Francis’s discussion of the role of women in the church amounted to “We have to work harder to develop a profound theory of the woman,” a non-stance that rubbed many liberals and progressives in the church the wrong way.

Francis’s views on homosexuality, contraception, and abortion are nuanced enough to be confusing. He says that if someone is, say, gay, once they accept Jesus as their savior they will renounce the sin of homosexuality, and that the church needs only to “heal” people by showing them Jesus’s love. In other words, the church does not need to convince someone being gay or having an abortion is wrong, only that Jesus loves them. Put another way, Francis still believes homosexuality—and abortion—are antithetical to being a good Catholic.

The day after American published the interview, addressing his perceived relaxed stance towards social issues, Pope Francis delivered a strong anti-abortion message, encouraging Catholic doctors to refuse to perform them.

The focus on the Pope’s comments on social issues, however, ignores the bulk of the content of his interview. His comments on homosexuality, women’s reproductive health rights, and contraception only constitute a small portion of the interview that Pope Francis tries explicitly to efface in favor of what he perceives to be the true vocation of the church. “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess,” he says, “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” His vision of the church is one of the people. It is ironic and unfortunate that the issues Francis tries to efface are the ones the media has latched onto. While Francis’s stances on women’s rights and homosexuality barely register as anything new for the church, more liberal Catholics are also correct in noting that his overall tone seems to suggest a more modern and less dogmatic pope, and there is reason to see Francis as an improvement over his more conservative predecessors.