May 2021 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Across the country, Republican state legislators are pushing bills that would make it harder for Americans to vote – and Christian nationalist leaders couldn’t be happier about it.

“We’ve got 106 election-related bills that are in 28 states right now,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), said during a recent online event for supporters. “So, here’s the good news: There is action taking place to go back and correct what was uncovered in this last election.”

As The New York Times reported in late March, Michael P. Farris, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a well-heeled legal organization that promotes the Christian nationalist agenda in the courts, was alongside Perkins.

“Let me just say, ‘Amen,’” Farris replied.

For many other Americans, the prospect of voting becoming more difficult might spark a different reaction, something less enthusiastic than an “Amen!” In a country where Black Americans’ right to vote was routinely suppressed until the 1960s, and still faces barriers, the idea of new restrictions isn’t just startling, it’s fundamentally un-American.

Yet it has become Christian nationalists’ weapon of choice to help their ideological allies in the Republican Party win elections without majority support.

Christian nationalist religious extremists joined a host of secular right-wing organizations in clamoring for new restrictions on voting in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s defeat in November. At first, organizations such as FRC, the American Family Association, Liberty Counsel and others focused on Trump’s outlandish claims that the election had been stolen from him through widespread voter fraud. (See “Welcome To Fantasy Island,” January 2021 Church & State.) When that failed, they quickly embraced voter suppression.

The line between failed claims of a stolen election and advocacy of voter suppression is clear. Trump and his allies filed dozens of lawsuits in states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan and others attempting to overturn the results of the election, which Trump lost by more than 7 million votes in the popular tally. But they were unable to produce any evidence of voter fraud or illegal actions by state officials, and all the legal challenges failed.

Christian nationalists soon turned their focus to making sure they don’t lose again by blocking access to the ballot box for certain populations – mainly, those who failed to support Trump.

The 2020 election was unusual in that nearly half of all ballots were cast by mail. Concerns about the spread of coronavirus led many Americans to avoid standing in line on Election Day.

Generally speaking, Democrats were much more likely to vote by mail than Republicans. According to an analysis by the Pew Forum, two-thirds of Trump voters reported voting in person, while 42% of Democrat Joe Biden’s backers said they voted this way.

Flexibility in voting, including voting early and voting by mail, may have helped spark a high turnout in 2020. Nearly 160 million Americans voted (almost 67%), and more than 100 million of those ballots were cast by mail or through early voting. It was the highest turnout for a presidential election since 1900.

Many Americans might celebrate the fact that more and more people are taking part in democracy. To Christian nationalists, it’s a threat – especially increased voting by non-whites.

In the 2020 election, 90% of Black voters cast ballots for Biden. Black voters, political analysts agree, turned the tide away from Trump in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia. Two months after the presidential election, Black voters played a key role in delivering two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia to the Democrats.

Black voters are often concentrated in urban areas, a fact that wasn’t lost on Trump and his backers during their post-election antics. Trump and others assailed cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta, asserting that Trump ballots had been stolen, votes had been changed from Trump to Biden or that people had voted more than once. While these conspiracy theories were widely embraced by the Trump brigades and likely motivated many of the people in the mob that assailed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there is simply no evidence for them.

Just days after the election, Christian nationalists began laying the groundwork for what was to come by amplifying Trump’s lies. Perkins alluded to unnamed “radical forces out there who will do whatever it takes to stop Donald Trump” and accused wealthy Jewish Holocaust survivor and businessman George Soros, a frequent foil for far-right conspiracy legions, of “plotting a sophisticated campaign to subvert the election process.”

Perkins offered no proof for these startling claims, but that didn’t matter to the masses in Trump world. It soon became an article of faith among many Republicans that millions of votes had been stolen, and that Trump was the real winner of the election. This coordinated campaign of disinformation had results: In February, Quinnipiac University issued a poll reporting that 76% of Republican voters believe there was “widespread fraud in the 2020 election.”

At the same time, right-wing legislators in the states and in Congress began pushing another narrative: People had “lost faith” in the election process, and thus “reform” was called for. The “reform” in this case isn’t that at all – it’s a host of voter-suppression bills.

They came fast and furious. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that by March, 250 bills filed by 43 state governments dealing with voter suppression had been introduced. The Washington Post called the flock of proposed voter-suppression laws “potentially amounting to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Black men…”

The voter-suppression measures pending in the states take many forms. Some roll back or abolish early voting, reduce the number of early voting sites, close polls early (e.g., at 5 p.m.) or require voters to produce forms of state ID that not all people possess.

Some measures are especially punitive. Georgia has just enacted a law that, among other things, makes it illegal to provide water or snacks to people waiting in lines to vote.

The Georgia law, which was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on March 25, also requires more rigid voter-identification requirements for those who vote via absentee ballots, and it limits the number of drop boxes for ballots. Perhaps most alarmingly, it strips the Georgia Secretary of State’s office of its power to oversee elections. Going forward, that power will rest with the State Board of Elections, whose members are appointed by the GOP-dominated legislature. The state board will also have the power to overturn decisions made by county boards. (Brad Raffensperger, current secretary of state who had personally voted twice for Trump, infuriated Republicans by rejecting Trump’s claims of voter fraud.)

Lawmakers in Georgia also considered curtailing early voting on Sundays. The proposal was clearly aimed at Black voters, some of whom travel to voting sites in groups after attending church services, a practice known as “souls to the polls.”

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) attempted to defend the move on religious grounds.

“Georgia is a Southern state just like Mississippi,” Hyde-Smith said during a Senate hearing in March. “I cannot speak for Georgia, but I can speak for Mississippi on why we would never do that on a Sunday or hold an election on a Sunday. You know, this is our currency, this is a dollar bill. This says, ‘The United States of America, In God We Trust.’ Etched in stone in the U.S. Senate chamber is ‘In God We Trust.’ When you swore in all of these witnesses, the last thing you said to them in your instructions was, ‘So help you God.’ In God’s word in Exodus 20:18, it says, ‘remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.’”

But groups working to protect access to the ballot box didn’t hesitate to label the new Georgia law as racist.

“We know that their targets are Black voters,” Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Atlanta-based group Black Voters Matter, told CNN. “[These bills] are dripping in the blood of Jim Crow.” (The section of the bill dealing with Sunday voting was watered down to make it less extreme after complaints from Black residents and business leaders.)

After Kemp had signed the measure into law, the NACCP vowed to fight it.

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, called the law “nothing more than an attempt to suppress voters and make it harder for Georgia’s most vulnerable communities.”

            Several corporations based in Georgia also blasted the new law, among them Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines. In addition, Major League Baseball moved the All-Star Game, which had been scheduled for Atlanta, out of state.

            The corporate assaults on the law infuriated Ralph Reed, a longtime Chris­­tian nationalist operative and Georgia resident. Reed, who ran TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in the 1990s and formed his own group, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, in 2009 after his attempts to launch a political career failed, threatened the companies during an April appearance on American Family Radio.

            “If these corporate CEOs keep this up, they better watch out because the left is already after their industry with taxes, regulations, boondoggles and massive spending and regulations,” Reed blustered. “The only friends they’ve got in terms of protecting their jobs and their industries is on the right, and if they keep kicking [them] in the teeth and telling lies about commonsense election reform like this, they may find themselves with no friends at all, on either side of the aisle.”

Voting-rights advocates nationwide have made it clear that there’s no need for the measures that have been introduced in so many states, given that there was absolutely no demonstrable widespread voter fraud during the 2020 election. Only a handful of cases of voter fraud were uncovered; ironically, most involved Republicans. One concerned a man in Delaware County, Pa., named Bruce Bartman who attempted to cast a ballot for Trump in the name of his dead mother.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said officials had received hundreds of tips of voter fraud, most of which didn’t pan out.

“For all the conspiracy theorists out there, this case today does not represent widespread voter fraud,” Stollsteimer said of the Bartman case.

Shortly after the election, as Trump and his minions continued to spread wild tales of crooked voting machines and Trump ballots being tossed into trash bins, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security felt it was necessary to reassure Americans that the election had been secure.

Officials from two Department of Homeland Security divisions, the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, released a statement saying bluntly, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”

Their Nov. 12 statement continued, “When states have close elections, many will recount ballots. All of the states with close results in the 2020 presidential race have paper records of each vote, allowing the ability to go back and count each ballot if necessary. This is an added benefit for security and resilience. This process allows for the identification and correction of any mistakes or errors. There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” (Both government bodies were answerable to the Trump administration at the time, and shortly after the statement was released, Trump fired Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in apparent retaliation.)

Indeed, several states and jurisdictions did undertake recounts. In Wisconsin, for example, Trump paid $3 million for a recount in Milwaukee and Dane counties, two Democratic bastions representing Milwaukee and the capital city, Madison, only to see Bi­den’s lead increase by 87 votes. In Georgia, Trump insisted on three recounts. None changed the results: Biden won the state by just under 12,000 votes.

None of this mattered to Christian nationalists. In a Feb. 3 column, Perkins called the 2020 election a “mess,” citing “weeks of election counting, recounting, and questions.” He opined that Democrats had taken “advantage of COVID” by embracing “cheat-by-mail.”

Perkins’ claims are belied by the facts: The election ran smoothly, and the only reason the nation endured weeks of recounting is because Trump refused to accept that he had lost and demanded it. All political parties had the same opportunity to urge people to vote by mail in light of the pandemic, and there was no cheating.

What did happen is that Perkins’ favored candidate, Trump, lost because record numbers of Americans voted – and Perkins and his allies in the Religious Right want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

Several national organizations are gearing up to oppose the wave of voter-suppression bills, including some religious groups that oppose Christian nationalism. Among them is the Poor People’s Campaign, run by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

In a press release, Barber noted that voter suppression “may have started in the South years ago but it’s all over the country and it means they’re scared. It means the extremists are scared, and that’s why they’re working so hard to block these votes, and we’re going to connect it to other issues.”

Alarmed by the wave of suppression bills, Democrats in Congress have put forth the For the People Act (H.R. 1), legislation that would boost ballot access, establish national standards for voting and override many voter suppression tactics.

The House passed the bill on March 3, but it has run into stiff opposition in the Senate, where conservatives have vowed to block it. One GOP senator, Mike Lee of Utah, went so far as to say of the proposal, “Everything about this bill is rotten to the core. This is a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself.” 

Christian nationalist groups rushed to attack the bill. In an email issued March 13, FRC’s Perkins called H.R. 1 “a bill that would cripple states’ ability to run their own elections. It is a massive federal takeover of our election system and puts our nation on track for one-party rule.”

A similar alert from the American Family Association asserted that the bill is “not about the citizenry but about Democrats preserving and cementing political power. They would remove the constitutional authority of the individual states to run federal elections and put that power into the hands of those in the U.S. Congress and the administrative state.”

Some Republican leaders in Washington seem to realize that undermining Americans’ access to voting creates bad optics. U.S. Sen Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in late March that the proposed legislation in the states is no big deal because many of the measures won’t pass.

But voting restrictions have already passed in Georgia, Arkansas and Iowa, and are on the way to being passed in Montana and Florida. And the measures just keep coming. Michigan Republicans on March 24 unveiled a sweeping bill of 39 election proposals that would make it harder to vote.

As Steve Benen, blogger for MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” put it, “Some of these voting restrictions have already passed, others will soon pass. The problem is a genuine national scourge unlike anything Americans have seen since the Jim Crow era.”

Voting-rights advocates say the trend is alarming.

“In our country, voters pick their politicians,” Corey Goldstone, communications manager for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C, told Church & State. “The potent combination of voter suppression and gerrymandering we see in politics today is democracy in reverse. Politicians are trying to cherry-pick their voters and carve out eligible citizens they feel might be less likely to vote for them. This is un-American.

“To truly realize the American ideals of an inclusive multi-racial democracy, we must enact a strong nationwide law that protects against discriminatory voting laws,” Goldstone continued. “We cannot afford to let public confidence in our elections and government continue to erode. The Senate and President Biden must act now to protect the freedom to vote.”