By Steven K. Green
Regular readers of Church & State are familiar with the Religious Right’s new effort called Project Blitz (See “Bracing for the Blitz,” November 2018 Church & State and “Blasting Back at the Blitz,” March 2019 Church & State).
Project Blitz is the creation of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and operates in partnership with WallBuilders, headed by Christian nationalist David Barton; and the National Legal Foundation, which was created by TV preacher and Religious Right figure Pat Robertson.
The project promotes Christian nationalist-oriented legislation in state legislatures, some of it subtle, such as bills authorizing so-called “Bible literacy” courses and the posting of “In God We Trust” in public schools; and in other cases bills that are more revealing of its agenda to affirm the Religious Right’s vision of a Christian America, such as protecting “conversion therapy” aimed at members of the LGBTQ community.
Minneapolis’ City Pages called Project Blitz a “Christian nationalist [legislative] bill factory” after the Minnesota Senate passed an “In God We Trust” bill last year. City Pages is correct: Project Blitz’s 148-page playbook contains 21 model bills and was distributed to 750 state legislators last year. Many of these legislators are conservative Christians who have organized their own state prayer caucuses to promote this Christian nationalist agenda.
Recently, I personally experienced the power and wrath of a state prayer caucus. In March, I gave two presentations as part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s History Forum, an annual lecture series that brings scholars from around the country to Minnesota for an exploration of U.S. history and its relevance to modern life.
Steven K. Green, the Fred H. Paulus Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of History and Religious Studies at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and former legal director of Americans United
The Minnesota Historical Society invited me to give lectures on my 2015 book, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding. It was published by Oxford University Press, the world’s leading academic publisher, and has received widespread acclaim for its scholarly and balanced examination of this issue.
Before I could give those lectures, members of the Minnesota Prayer Caucus got wind of the invitation and tried to derail my appearance. In a series of letters to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Caucus objected to my upcoming lectures, calling my book biased and one-sided – though admitting they had not read it – and demanding that the Society cancel the events.
According to one letter signed by 25 state senators and representatives, I was “promoting a narrative about our nation’s history and founding that was patently false” and based on “false presuppositions.”
While the charges of scholarly bias stung, I’ve been called worse. (Jerry Falwell once labeled me a “liar.”) My larger concern was over the effort by the Minnesota Prayer Caucus, and a significant number of legislators, to censor a presentation simply because they disagreed with its perspective.
In his response to the Prayer Caucus, the Historical Society’s director affirmed the organization’s commitment to promoting historical scholarship and public dialogue. That did not satisfy the Caucus, which continued to pressure the Society. My lectures went forward nonetheless, although the Religious Right group’s efforts had some effect. To the disappointment of many regular attendees, the Society self-censored by deciding not to distribute an accompanying brochure containing quotations and images it usually prepares for the lecture series.
Sandwiched between the demands to cancel my lectures were not-too-subtle threats that the matter needed to be resolved to the Prayer Caucus’ satisfaction before the Minnesota Legislature considered its annual funding of the Society this month.
There is another aspect of this episode that is more troubling: In their letters to the Historical Society, the members of the Prayer Caucus reminded the Society that it receives considerable state funding for its operations. Sandwiched between the demands to cancel my lectures were not-too-subtle threats that the matter needed to be resolved to the Prayer Caucus’ satisfaction before the Minnesota Legislature considered its annual funding of the Society this month.
Even though the Historical Society is a private charitable organization, it houses the Minnesota State Archives and receives approximately two-thirds of its $60 million budget from state appropriations. So the Prayer Caucus’ message to the Historical Society was quite clear: censor yourself or risk your financial well-being.
This tactic does not just sound wrong, it is wrong, constitutionally. It is called an “unconstitutional condition.” The unconstitutional-conditions doctrine is a cornerstone of First Amendment jurisprudence. It states that a governmental entity cannot condition the receipt of a benefit – usually a financial benefit – on a requirement that the beneficiary surrender a constitutionally protected right.
This principle developed during the Cold War, when the federal government attempted to require veterans to renounce any communist leanings in order to receive their earned veterans’ benefits. But this was exactly what the legislative members of the Minnesota Prayer Caucus were doing: threatening the Historical Society’s general funding on the condition it sponsor only lectures and events that promote the Caucus’ particular pro-Christian nationalist perspective.
This is not a situation where the Minnesota Legislature is providing funds for a specific project advocating one perspective – such as why ice-fishing is the most exciting sport in the world. (In fact, the History Forum lecture series is funded entirely through private contributions and ticket sales.) Rather, this was a threatened quid pro quo: censor yourself or lose general funding. Even though that threat may never be carried out, it may still have the same effect if the Historical Society second-guesses its topics for future lectures. In essence, the threat chills free expression just as readily as a funding cut-off itself. That’s unconstitutional.
I fear this episode will only embolden the prayer caucuses to try to suppress free expression in the future. This is one more reason to be concerned about the machinations of this extremist group and its Project Blitz agenda.