How secular candidates fared in the 2020 election

Members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus (Races Won)

D-CA (District 2) — Rep. Jared Huffman 2013
D-CA (District 9) — Rep. Jerry McNerney 2007
D-CA (District 19) — Rep. Zoe Lofgren 1995
D-GA (District 4) — Rep. Hank Johnson 2007
D-IL (District 6) — Rep. Sean Casten 2019
D-MD (District 8) — Rep. Jamie Raskin 2017
D-MI (District 5) — Rep. Dan Kildee 2013
D-MI (District 13) — Rep. Rashida Tlaib 2019
D-PA (District 7) — Rep. Susan Wild 2019
D-TN (District 9) — Rep. Steve Cohen 2007
D-WA (District 7) — Rep. Pramila Jayapal 2017
D-WI (District 2) — Rep. Mark Pocan 2013

D-D.C. Del. — Eleanor Holmes Norton 1991

U.S House (Races Lost)

D-AZ (District 4) — Delina DiSanto (Challenger)
D-CO (District 5) — Jillian Freeland (Challenger)
D-OH (District 16) — Aaron Godfrey (Challenger)
D-TX (District 26) — Carol Iannuzzi (Challenger)
D-WA (District 10) — State Rep. Beth Doglio (Challenger)
D-WI (District 8) — State Rep. Amanda Stuck (Challenger)

U.S House (Races Not Called Yet)

D-NY (District 1) Dr. Nancy Goroff (Challenger)

State Legislatures (Races Won)

AZ House District 18 — Rep. Jennifer Jermaine 2019 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
AZ House District 26 — Melody Hernandez (Challenger) Agnostic
AZ House District 26 — Rep. Athena Salman 2017 – Current Atheist
AZ Senate District 9 — Sen. Victoria Steele 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
AZ Senate District 26 — Sen. Juan Mendez 2017 – Current Atheist
CA House District 20 — Rep. Bill Quirk 2012 – Current “Scientist”
CO House District 11 — Karen McCormick (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
CO House District 13 — Judy Amabile (Challenger) Atheist
CO House District 23 — Rep. Chris Kennedy 2017 – Current Agnostic
CO House District 27 — Rep. Brianna Titone 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
CO House District 52 — Rep. Cathy Kipp 2019 – Current “Does not belong to any organized religion”
CT House District 88 — Rep. Joshua Elliott 2017 – Current “Agnostic atheist”
CT House District 96 — Rep. Roland J. Lemar 2017 – Current “Agnostic & humanist”
FL House District 47 — Rep. Anna Eskamani 2018 – Current Secular
FL House District 49 — Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith 2017 – Current Agnostic
FL House District 113 — Rep. Michael Grieco 2018 – Current “Not religious”
HI Senate District 9 — Stanley Chang 2016 – Current “No religion”
MD House District 20 — Rep. David Moon 2015 – Current Nonreligious
MA House Bristol 2 — Rep. Jim Hawkins 2018 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
MA House Essex 18 — Rep. Tram Nguyen 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
MA Senate Second 
Suffolk & Middlesex Dist. — Sen. William Brownsberger 2012 – Current Nontheist
NE Senate District 8 (Unicameral) — Sen. Megan Hunt 2019 – Current Atheist
NV House District 10 — Rep. Rochelle Nguyen 2018 – Current Not religious
NV House District 15 — Rep. Howard Watts III 2018 – Current Agnostic
NH House Cheshire 5 — Rep. John Bordenet 2014 – Current Unitarian Universalist
NH House Grafton 8 — Rep. Suzanne Smith 2008 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
NH House Grafton 8 — Rep. Joyce Weston 2018 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 12 — Rep. Amanda Bouldin 2014 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 12 — Rep. Andrew Bouldin 2018 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 17 — Rep. Tim Smith 2012 – Current Atheist
NH House Hillsborough 27 — Rep. Kat McGhee 2018 – Current “Does not practice religion”
NH House Hillsborough 28 — Rep. Jan Schmidt 2016 – Current Nontheist
NH House Hillsborough 30 — Rep. Sherry Dutzy 2018 – Current Nonbeliever, atheist, & humanist
NH House Hillsborough 42 — Rep. Jacqueline Chretien 2018 – Current Humanist
NH House Strafford 16 — Rep. Sherry Frost 2016 – Current Atheist
NH House Strafford 25 — Rep. Amanda Gourgue 2016 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
NJ House District 16 — Rep. Andrew Zwicker 2016 – Current Atheist
NM Senate District 37 — William Peter Soules 2013 – Current Spiritual but not religious
NY House District 74 — Rep. Harvey Epstein 2018 – Current Agnostic
NC Senate District 49 — Julie Mayfield Challenger Agnostic
OR House District 5 — Rep. Pam Marsh 2017 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
OR House District 14 — Rep. Julie Fahey 2017 – Current Religiously unaffiliated
OR House District 47 — Rep. Diego Hernandez 2016 – Current Openly agnostic
PA House District 182 — Rep. Brian Sims 2013 – Current Openly nonreligious & very outspoken
VT House Addison-1 — Rep. Robin Scheu 2017 – Current Humanist
VT House Bennington-4 — Kathleen James 2019 – Current Spiritual but not religious
VT House Chittenden 6-6 — Barbara Rachelson 2013 – Current Nonreligious Jew
VT House Windsor 4-2 Dist. — Rep. Rebecca White 2019 – Current Atheist
VT House Washington-4 Dist. — Rep. Warren Kitzmiller 2001 – Current Humanist
VT Senate Windsor Dist. — Sen. Dick McCormack 2007 – Current “Governs with reason”
WA House District 21a — Rep. Strom Peterson 2015 – Current Agnostic
WI House District 76 — Francesca Hong (Challenger) Humanist
WI Senate District 16 — Rep. Melissa Sargent 2013 – Current Agnostic
WI Senate District 26 — Kelda Roys (Challenger) Atheist & Secular Humanist

State Legislatures (Races lost)

AR House District 68 — Lisa Hassell (Challenger)Agnostic
AR House District 74 — June Anteski (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
AZ House District 8 — Sharon Girard (Challenger) Agnostic
AZ House District 23 — Eric Kurland (Challenger) “Not religious”
AZ Senate District 20 — Douglas Ervin (Challenger) Humanistic Judaism
CO House District 16 — Stephanie Vigil (Challenger) Atheist
CO House District 56 — Maria-Vittoria “Giugi” Carminati (Challenger) Secular Humanist
CO House District 57 — Colin Wilhelm (Challenger)Spiritual but not religious
FL House District 69 — Jennifer Webb 2018 – Current Spiritual but not religious
FL House District 73 — David Fairey (Challenger) Atheist
GA House District 24 — Natalie Bucsko (Challenger) Non-theist Pagan
GA House District 44 — Connie Di Cicco (Challenger) “Not religious”
IA House District 22 — Shawna Anderson (Challenger) Humanist
IN House District 11 — Keegan Damron (Challenger) “Not religious”
IN House District 20 — Tim Gust (Challenger) Agnostic
IN House District 41 — Greg Woods (Challenger) Atheist
IN House District 49 — Amanda Qualls (Challenger) Agnostic
NV Senate District 18 — Liz Becker (Challenger) Secular Humanist
NH House Belknap 2 — Natalie Taylor (Challenger) Atheist
NH House Belknap 6 — Don House (Challenger) “Spiritual humanist”
NH House Grafton 9 — Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Challenger) “No religious affiliation”
NH House Hillsborough 20 — Nikki Fordey (Challenger) Agnostic
NH House Hillsborough 21 — Rep. Wendy Thomas 2018 – Current Spiritual but not religious
NH House Hillsborough 37 — Brett Gagnon (Challenger) No religious affiliation
NH House Rockingham 3 — Michael DiTommaso (Challenger)Secular Humanist
NH House Rockingham 4 — Ben Geiger (Challenger) Atheist
NH House Rockingham 4 —Matthew Krohn (Challenger) Agnostic Unitarian Universalist
NH House Sullivan 5 — Liza Draper (Challenger) Nonreligious
NY House District 130 — Christopher S. Comegys (Challenger) Spiritual but not religious
NC Senate District 50 — Victoria Fox (Challenger)Agnostic
ND House District 40 — Kalyn Dewitt (Challenger) Humanist
OH House District 76 — Garrett Westhoven (Challenger) Not religious
TX House District 11 — Alec Johnson (Challenger) Deist
TX House District 20 — Jessica Tiedt (Challenger)“Omnistic”
TX House District 33 — Andy Rose (Challenger) Agnostic
TX House District 150 — Michael Walsh (Challenger) Atheist
VT House Caledonia 3 — Brice Simon (Challenger) Secular Humanist
WA House District 31b — Thomas Clark (Challenger) Agnostic
WA Senate District 9 — Jenn Goulet (Challenger) Secular Humanist
WI House District 89 — Karl Jaeger (Challenger) Nonreligious
WI Senate District 18 — Aaron Wojciechowski (Challenger) Nonreligious

State Legislatures (Races Not Called Yet)

IL House District 90 — Seth Wiggins (Challenger) “Does not practice religion”
NY House District 3 — Steven Polgar (Challenger) Atheist
NY House District 105 — Laurette Giardino (Challenger) Humanist
OR House District 11 — Rep. Marty Wilde 2019 – Current Unitarian Universalist
TX House District 135 — Rep. Jon Rosenthal 2019 – Current Agnostic
UT House District 38 — Ashlee Matthews (Challenger) Agnostic

Total on the ballots: 14 state senators, 85 state reps, 8 Congress
Total (results so far): 10 state senators, 41 state reps, 1 Congress

Election heartening for FFRF’s work

For the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the results of the U.S. presidential election mean the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal government should end. The Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration will mean a renewed chance to advocate for secularism and a return to rational debate.

“We the People” have spoken. Unfortunately, the Senate is unlikely to flip (barring two positive outcomes inGeorgia seats up for runoff elections), which will complicate recovery from a Christian Nationalist executive. However, the results overall look like a victory for science over faith, for reproductive and individual rights over theology, and for reason over ideology.

After years of playing defense, FFRF can now push forward.  It appears there is a path cleared to achieving gains for FFRF’s movement to keep religion out of government and public policy.

Donald Trump was carried into office on a crest of Christian Nationalism four years ago, a wave that was hostile to everything FFRF works for. We trust the relentless religious assault we’ve been beating back for four years will diminish — and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that.

FFRF is poised for the opportunities ahead. Our team of attorneys and 30-some staff, and our 33,000 members, are the watchers on the wall separating state and church. We’re the largest U.S. association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) and the third-largest association of nonbelievers in the world. We’ve added a strategic response campaign, a D.C. lobbyist, and our educational efforts have played a major role in the secular surge. We’ll continue to fight and remain vigilant no matter which party is in the White House or controls Congress.

FFRF has been working with our allies to develop a common secular agenda that Congress and the new administration can quickly implement. We look forward to repairing damage inflicted on secularism and its values. This will entail repealing many Trumpian executive orders, regulations and extrajudicial bodies (such as the Religious Liberty Task Force), but must also include major judicial reform.

Unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate blocked President Obama not only from nominating Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, but also from filling more than 100 seats on the federal bench. The Trump administration has since packed the courts with more than 200 individuals handpicked by the Federalist Society, including unqualified zealots who do not reflect the American people, trampling Senate rules and norms along the way. An illegitimate process allowed Trump to make his third Supreme Court appointment in the midst of the national election — an appointment that clearly endangers abortion and LGBTQ rights, as well as decades of First Amendment precedent separating religion from government.

FFRF has a talented legal team, and it believes that any legal defense of the First Amendment — of the cherished American principle of the separation of state and church — must necessarily mean reforming our federal courts. We face a hostile federal judiciary, more dedicated to Christian Nationalism than the rule of law.

Regardless of the Supreme Court, we’re gaining in the court of public opinion — reflected in the increasingly secular U.S. demographics. But we can’t let theocratic court-packing jeopardize civil rights, the Establishment Clause and our nation’s future. Even with the election results, it is clear that for reason, humanistic values and our secular Constitution to prevail, our nation will need to unpack, correct and rebalance the judiciary.

With your help, we’ll get to work.

Military atheists want to be heard by DoD

FFRF Member Joseph Cunningham stands next to FFRF’s “Atheists in Foxholes” monument outside its national office in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

By Ryan Jayne

Members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation associated with the military have a message for the Department of Defense: Acknowledge their existence and quit proselytizing.

Following national protests against systemic racism, the DoD announced a multistep process to address diversity and inclusion concerns. This included an anonymous “crowdsourcing” brainstorm of the problem and possible solutions. FFRF invited its qualifying members to submit comments — and the response was overwhelming.

These true “atheists in foxholes” provided dozens of thoughtful examples of how the military could better accommodate and acknowledge nonreligious service members. About 20 percent of FFRF’s 33,000 members around the country are either active service members or veterans, dispelling the tired myth that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”

The Defense Department’s presumption of religiosity begins with the required paperwork when individuals enter the armed forces: “There was no box to check under ‘religious preference’ for ‘atheist,’” one nonreligious veteran wrote. “Instead, I checked the box ‘None,’ which was read by the clerk as ‘None of the above,’ rather than my preference being no religion.” This vet described representatives of Gideons International being invited onto federal property to distribute bibles, and being forced to sit through a Christian church sermon just before beginning basic combat training. “I vividly remember the pressure to attend religious services,” wrote another.

Enlistment oaths typically include the religious phrase, “So help me God.” “I find it almost humorous,” a service member wrote, “that the oath taken to defend the Constitution, which expressly prohibits a religious test, includes religious wording.” The proposed fix was to remove religious language from all Defense Department regulations and to return to the nation’s original motto, “E Pluribus Unum.”

Some went for church services only because the alternative was a work detail for those who didn’t attend. Recalled one nonreligious vet: “I chose to do the work detail instead of repeating the church nonsense. . . . Peeling potatoes allowed me to sit alone and avoid the circus at the church. It was much better.” Others noted that bibles were placed in drawers at military temporary housing.

Another FFRF veteran made the alarming disclosure that he did not re-up because “there was so much Christian Nationalist evangelism [in my branch of the U.S. military] that I was often scared for my own safety. There was always pressure to toe the line to keep the military nonsecular. It was for this reason that I could not continue serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

In addition to cataloguing myriad examples of the military’s mistreatment of nonreligious service members, respondents offered many concrete, constructive suggestions on steps the military could take to address this widespread problem. The most common ones were regarding religious chaplains in the military.

“Begin commissioning humanist chaplains,” recommended one respondent. This was echoed by another individual who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had “nobody to talk to” other than religious chaplains. “Consider something else besides preachers!” they urged the department.

Yet another FFRF member who is a veteran exhorted more bluntly: “Do away with the chaplains.” A nonreligious vet asked rhetorically, “If we are going to spend the kind of money required on salaries for military chaplains who are officers, why not just spend it on better, formally trained counselors?” He suggested that lay members for various faiths within the military community could attend to most religious functions during off-duty hours.

Many urged that atheism be destigmatized in the military. “Commanders should establish command policy letters that not only prohibit discrimination against other protected categories, but also expressly prohibit harassment or criticism of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers,” they opined.

Other suggestions included ensuring that officers avoid religious speech when addressing subordinates, promoting “the importance of science as a resource to understand our challenges,” “supporting inclusion and diversity whenever you can,” and “elevating minorities, as they have a significant contribution to make to our society and tend to be marginalized, which reduces their impact.”

FFRF has erected two monuments to atheists in the military, one in front of its national office in Madison, Wis., and the original at Lake Hypatia, Ala., both of which read:

In memory of ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and the countless FREETHINKERS who have served this country with honor and distinction. Presented by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation with hope that in the future humankind may learn to avoid all war.”

Katherine Stewart: Religious authoritarianism is here to stay, unfortunately

President Trump, surrounded by evangelical leaders, holds up an executive order that he signed during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3, 2018.
(Photo from WhiteHouse.org)
Steve Benson cartoon (Judicial doomsday)
Katherine Stewart

This column first ran on Nov. 16 in The New York Times and is reprinted with permission.

By Katherine Stewart

Will President-elect Joe Biden’s victory force America’s Christian Nationalists to rethink the unholy alliance that powered Donald Trump’s four-year tour as one of the nation’s most dangerous presidents? Don’t count on it.

The 2020 election is proof that religious authoritarianism is here to stay, and the early signs now indicate that the movement seems determined to reinterpret defeat at the top of the ticket as evidence of persecution and of its own righteousness. With or without Trump, they will remain committed to the illiberal politics that the president has so ably embodied.

As it did in 2016, the early analysis of the 2020 election results often circled around the racial, urban-rural, and income and education divides. But the religion divide tells an equally compelling story. According to preliminary exit polls from Edison Research (the data is necessarily rough at this stage), 28 percent of voters identified as either white evangelical or white born-again Christian, and of these, 76 percent voted for Trump. If the numbers hold, these results indicate a continuation of support for Trump from this group.

The core of Trump’s voting bloc, to be clear, does not come from white evangelicals as such, but from an overlapping group of not necessarily evangelical, and not necessarily white, people who identify at least loosely with Christian Nationalism: the idea that the United States is and ought to be a Christian nation governed under a reactionary understanding of Christian values. Unfortunately, data on that cohort is harder to find except in deeply researched work by sociologists like Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

Most pollsters shoehorn complex religious identities into necessarily broad labels, so they fail to separate out the different strands of Trump’s support. There are indications that the president in fact expanded his appeal among nonwhite evangelical and born-again Christians of color, particularly among Latinos. Biden, on the other hand, who made faith outreach a key feature of his campaign, appears to have done well among moderate and progressive voters of all faiths.

Conservative voters of faith “came in massive numbers, seven and a half million more above the 2016 baseline, which was itself a record,” Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a longtime Religious Right activist, said at a postelection press briefing. “We believe they’re the reason why Republicans are going to hold the Senate.”

Toeing the Trump line

In their responses to the election outcome, some prominent Religious Right leaders have enabled or remained true to the false Trumpian line of election fraud. Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential candidate, said, “Smash the delusion, Father, of Joe Biden is our president. He is not.” In Crisis Magazine, a conservative Catholic publication, Richard C. Antall likened media reporting on the Biden-Kamala Harris ticket’s victory to a “coup d’état.” Mat Staver, chairman and founder of Liberty Counsel, added, “What we are witnessing only happens in communist or repressive regimes. We must not allow this fraud to happen in America.”

Even as prominent Republican figures like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney slowly tried to nudge Trump toward the exit, leaders of the Religious Right continued to man the barricades. The conservative speaker and Falkirk Center fellow David Harris Jr. put it this way:

“If you’re a believer, and you believe God appointed Donald J. Trump to run this country, to lead this country, and you believe as I do that he will be re-elected the president of the United States, then friends, you’ve got to guard your heart, you’ve got to guard your peace. Right now we are at war.”

Others stopped short of endorsing Trump’s wilder allegations of election fraud, but backed his right to challenge the results. Reed told the Religion News Service, “This election will be over when those recounts are complete and those legal challenges are resolved.”

The Rev. Franklin Graham tweeted that the courts will “determine who wins the presidency.” The conservative pastor Robert Jeffress, who gave a sermon before Trump’s inaugural ceremony in 2017, noted that a Biden win was “the most likely outcome.”

After processing their disappointment, Christian Nationalists may come around to the reality of Biden’s victory. There is no indication, however, that this will temper their apocalyptic vision, according to which one side of the American political divide represents unmitigated evil. During a Nov. 11 virtual prayer gathering organized by the Family Research Council, one of the key speakers cast the election as the consequence of “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion.” Jim Garlow, an evangelical pastor whose Well Versed Ministry has as its stated goal, “Bringing biblical principles of governance to governmental leaders,” asserted that Biden and Harris are at the helm of an “ideology” that is “anti-Christ, anti-biblical to its core.”

A political movement

The comments pouring in from these and other figures may be forgotten when Biden takes office. But they are worth paying attention to now for what they say about the character of the movement. While many outsiders continue to think of Christian Nationalism as a social movement that arises from the ground up, it is in fact a political movement that operates mostly from the top down. The rank-and-file of the movement is diverse and comes to its churches with an infinite variety of motivations and concerns, but the leaders are far more unified.

They collaborate in a densely interconnected network of think tanks, policy groups, activist organizations, legal advocacy groups and conservative pastoral networks. What holds them together is not any centralized command structure, but a radical political ideology that is profoundly hostile to democracy and pluralism, and a certain political style that seeks to provoke moral panic, rewards the paranoid and views every partisan conflict as a conflagration, the end of the world. Partisan politics is the lifeblood of their movement.

If one considers the movement from the perspective of its leaders, it is easier to see why it is unlikely to change in the new political circumstances we find ourselves in. The power of the leadership is the function of at least three underlying structural realities in America’s political and economic life and those realities are not going to change anytime soon.

The first is the growing economic inequality that has produced spectacular fortunes for the few, while too many ordinary families struggle to get by. Leaders of the movement get much of the support for their well-funded operations from a cadre of super-wealthy individuals and extended families who are as committed to free-market fundamentalism as they are to reactionary religion. The donors in turn need the so-called values voters in order to lock down their economic agenda of low taxation for the wealthy and minimal regulation. These donors include, among many others, the Prince-DeVos family, the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, and members of the Green family, whose Hobby Lobby fortune helped build the Museum of the Bible. The movement gets another big chunk of its funding from the large mass of people who are often in the middle rungs of the economic spectrum and whose arduously cultivated resentments toward those below them have been turned into a fundraising bonanza.

The second structural reality to consider is that Christian Nationalism is a creation of a uniquely isolated messaging sphere. Many members of the rank and file get their main political information not just from messaging platforms that keep their audiences in a world that is divorced from reality, but also from dedicated religious networks and reactionary faith leaders.

The fact that Trump was able to hold on to a high percentage of the vote in the face of such overwhelming evidence of malfeasance is proof enough that the religious-nationalist end of the right-wing information bubble has gotten more, not less, resistant over time.

The third critical factor is a political system that gives disproportionate power to an immensely organized, engaged and loyal minority. One of the most reliable strategies for producing that unshakable cohort has been to get them to agree that abortion is the easy answer to every difficult political policy question. Recently, Religious Right leaders have shifted their focus more to a specious understanding of what they call “religious freedom” or “religious liberty,” but the underlying strategy is the same: make individuals see their partisan vote as the primary way to protect their cultural and religious identity.

Republicans have long known that the judiciary is one of the most effective instruments of minority rule. Trump’s success in packing the federal judiciary — as of this writing, 220 federal judges, including three Supreme Court justices — will be one of his most devastating legacies. The prospect of further entrenching minority rule in the coming years will keep the alliance between Republicans and the Religious Right alive.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Christian Nationalist response to the 2020 election is that we’ve seen this movie before. The “stolen election” meme won’t bring Trump back into the Oval Office. But then, the birther narrative never took President Obama out of office, either. The point of conspiratorial narratives and apocalyptic rhetoric is to lay the groundwork for a politics of total obstruction, in preparation for the return of a “legitimate” ruler. The best guess is that religious authoritarianism of the next four years will look a lot like it did in the last four years. We ignore the political implications for our democracy at our peril.

Katherine Stewart is the author of the recently published book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

$280M spent by U.S. Christian Right groups

A massive protest was held Oct. 30 in Warsaw, Poland, against the country’s anti-abortion law. Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow runs a group that submitted arguments in favor of the abortion restrictions.
(Shutterstock photo by Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski)

This article first appeared on opendemocracy.net on Oct. 27 and is reprinted with permission.

By Claire Provost and Nandini Archer

U.S. Christian Right groups, many with close links to the Trump administration, have spent at least $280 million in “dark money,” fueling campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTQ people across five continents, openDemocracy revealed.

Organizations led by some of President Trump’s most vocal allies and supporters have spent increasing amounts of money globally to influence foreign laws, policies and public opinion in order “to stir a backlash” against sexual and reproductive rights.

On Oct. 27, openDemocracy released the first dataset detailing the global scale of this spending. Human rights advocates and transparency campaigners from around the world have called it “alarming” and a “wake-up call” for democracies.

None of the Christian Right groups we studied reveals who its donors are or discloses details of how exactly it spends its money overseas.

“This is a form of interference in our political and judicial system which is as harmful to human rights as Russian meddling in democratic elections,” said Neil Datta, head of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (EPF).

Irene Donadio at the International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network (IPPF EN) said there has been a clear increase in campaigns against reproductive and sexual rights across the region, and described the scale of the funding revealed by openDemocracy as “staggering.”

“It is outrageous that groups that are playing with women’s lives and safety are allowed to operate in the darkness,” Donadio said. “They should be forced to comply with the basic principles of transparency and accountability.”

Trump-linked dark money

Each of the U.S. groups openDemocracy examined is registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit and as such is barred from participating in partisan political activity.

However, several of them, including the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) — which is run by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow — have vocally supported Trump’s administration and his Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett.

Last year, openDemocracy uncovered how a dozen U.S. Christian Right fundamentalist groups, many with links to the Trump administration and to Steve Bannon, had poured at least $50 million of dark money into Europe over a decade.

The latest dataset from openDemocracy is the most comprehensive yet, following examination of thousands of pages of financial records since 2007 from 28 U.S. groups. According to this data, these organizations spent more money in Europe (almost $90 million) than anywhere else outside the U.S., followed by Africa and Asia.

This European spending has been led mainly by two groups that focus their fights on the courts. One of these is the ACLJ organization headed by Sekulow, who, along with Rudy Giuliani, has coordinated the legal challenges brought by Trump over the results of the U.S. election.

Another half-dozen ACLJ lawyers were also part of Trump’s defense team in impeachment proceedings earlier this year.

The ACLJ’s European branch (the ECLJ) has intervened in two cases to defend Italy’s position against gay marriage. It has also intervened in at least seven cases involving Poland, including at the European Court of Human Rights, to defend that country’s conservative policies including against divorce and abortion.

In October, Poland’s constitutional court voted to restrict access to abortion in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Sekulow’s group submitted arguments in favor of the new restrictions.

A second U.S. conservative legal group involved in such cases is Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Based in a small town in Arizona, it is also closely linked to the Trump administration through former staffers and frequent meetings.

ADF went to the U.S. Supreme Court last year to defend nonprofit donor secrecy. The case is still ongoing. Its few known funders include the family foundations of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which are also major Republican party donors.

Financial secrecy

The full extent of U.S. Religious Right funding for global activities is hidden, given that many Christian conservative groups are registered as church organizations that do not have to disclose any of this information.

For some groups in openDemocracy’s data — notably the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association — U.S. financial filings are only available for a small number of years. This group re-registered as an association of churches in 2015.

Sekulow has come under scrutiny over his financial practices since the 1980s, when he was a tax lawyer specialized in creating tax shelters for Atlanta’s elite.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that Sekulow’s groups, including the ACLJ, had paid more than $65 million in charitable funds to Sekulow, his family members and corporations they own, fueling a well-documented opulent lifestyle including expensive cars and high-end real estate.

In 2018 alone, the ACLJ spent $6 million on legal services provided by the CLA Group, a for-profit law firm in which Sekulow holds a 50 percent stake. This is the same firm that is understood to be contracted by Trump. It only has a mailbox address, however, and Sekulow is believed to do his work for Trump from the ACLJ’s offices.

American Institute of Philanthropy president Daniel Borochoff has said: “Regulators should investigate whether or not charitable resources, such as office, labor, equipment, etc., are being wrongly utilized to benefit Sekulow’s for-profit law firm.”

The U.S. website Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits, has attached an orange “moderate concern” label to its entry for the ACLJ because of “atypical financial reporting issues.” These include millions of dollars that the ACLJ has paid over the years to Sekulow’s for-profit legal firm.

Global outcry

Several of these U.S. Christian Right groups have also been linked to COVID-19 misinformation. The anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI), for example, is led by an ultraconservative activist who claims COVID-19 was man-made in a Chinese lab, and who also sits on an anti-China lobby group with Steve Bannon.

Another group, Family Watch International (FWI), has been training African politicians, religious and civil society leaders for years to oppose comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and LGBT rights across the African continent.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, from Uganda, told openDemocracy that “CSE is an integral part of the right to education and to health. It is not optional. It is not negotiable.”

South African gender rights group The Other Foundation also said that it has witnessed how U.S. Religious Right funding has been used to “stir a backlash to the pursuits for freedom, dignity and equality of LGBTIQ people.”

It said, “the government has a duty to frown upon and act against any agenda that undermines its country’s constitution,” which in South Africa forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Alejandra Cárdenas, director of global legal strategies at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said openDemocracy’s findings “prove a manipulation we’ve been seeing for years by the U.S. Christian Right in Latin America and Africa, meant to break the social fabric and human rights protections that popular movements fought for.”

The EPF’s Neil Datta said: “As Europeans, we cannot sit back and watch what’s happening in the United States with distance, thinking that the erosion of democratic norms and human rights cannot happen here. The same U.S. Christian groups pushing for this in the United States are now spending millions in Europe trying to achieve the same over here.”

Croatian MP Bojan Glavasevic, a member of EPF’s executive committee, said openDemocracy’s revelations show “that action needs to be taken by member states to ensure full protection of EU citizens against predatory organizations. This isn’t a question of ideology. This is a question of security, the health of our citizens and transparency.”

“It’s time for the world to wake up. Do not stumble into our mistakes and do not think it could not happen where you live,” said Quinn McKew, director of Article 19 (an NGO focused on freedom of expression and information), about the rising influence of dark money in U.S. politics. She attributed this to “a long- standing process to erode accountability and transparency.”

“It was inevitable that these individuals, powering these organizations, would seek to internationalize their influence,” she added. Action is now needed to increase “financial transparency, shining light on these groups’ sources of funding.”

“It is the duty of governments to ensure that women’s rights are not eroded through misinformation and ideologically motivated campaigns,” said Melissa Upreti, member of the U.N. working group on tackling discrimination against women. “There are real-life and often dangerous consequences for women as a result.”

Neither the ACLJ, PRI or FWI responded to requests for comment.

ADF did not answer openDemocracy’s questions about its spending, but said that it is “among the largest and most effective legal advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the religious freedom and free speech rights of all Americans.”

Meet a member: Every day brings a new puzzle for Katya Maes

Name: Katya Maes.

Where and when I was born: Moscow, Russia, in 1969.

Family: Married with three kids and a dog.

Education: B.A. in history from University of California-Berkeley.

Occupation: Enigmatologist/cruciverbalist or, in other words, I put together crossword puzzles.

How I got where am today: Mostly by flying by the seat of my pants. Maybe that wasn’t always the best way, but it sure made the journey fun!

Where I’m headed: Into the complete unknown. I like to wake up not knowing what the day will bring. Schedules, though necessary for managing life in 2020, depress me.

Person in history I admire and why: I definitely don’t have any heroes. Heroes are supposed to be perfect, and I don’t think there are any perfect people out there. But I do admire people who are able to look at the world from different perspectives. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky come to mind.

A quotation I like: “Sometimes you have to forgo what’s popular for what’s important.” Mo’Nique said this in her 2010 Oscar acceptance speech for her role in “Precious.”

Things I like: Family traditions, our cabin, traveling, reading. I love old books.

Things I smite: When people rely on prayers rather than science, and when Christians claim that they, somehow, have a monopoly on morals.

My doubts about religion started: Never had any doubts! I was born an atheist.

Before I die: I would like to see what my kids end up doing with their lives. I know it will be something super interesting and satisfying.

Ways I promote freethought: By being vocal about my views, by volunteering for FFRF. Oh, and I do own a number of T-shirts with applicable messages!

Katya Maes

FFRF welcomes new Lifetime members

FFRF thanks and welcomes our new Beyond After-Life member, two After-Life members and 12 new Lifetime members.

Steve Overman is our newest Beyond After-Life member, which is a membership category of $10,000.

Tom Westlake Buschman and Jay Jones are the two most recent After-Life members, which is a membership category of $5,000.

The newest $1,000 Lifetime members are: Leonard Bernstein, Ryan Detzel, Paul Efron, Claudia English, Russell Frum, Diane Jarman, Kathleen D. Lebeck, William Nagel, Peggy Plumb, Peter Sobel, Gloria Wilson and Sheila Wolfe.         

States represented are: Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin.     

In the News (December 2020)

Church defiance to restrictions is growing

The number of people who want their church congregation to defy potential state orders to close due to the coronavirus has grown since March, according to surveys done by Paul A. Djupe of Denison University and Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University.

In March, 56 percent of those surveyed did not want their congregation to defy such an order, but that shrunk to 39 percent by October. Support for the government asking congregations to stop meeting in person slipped from 66 percent in March to 56 percent in October.

The data was clear across political party lines as the defiance is growing in all categories of political leanings. Even strong Democrats are urging a more defiant stance, though the growth among Republicans is much greater.

Poland delays abortion ban as protests continue

Poland’s right-wing government has delayed implementation of a controversial court ruling that would outlaw almost all abortion after it prompted massive protests in more than 500 cities around the country.

The decision by the country’s constitutional tribunal promised to further tighten Poland’s abortion laws, which were already some of the strictest in Europe. Abortion is allowed in Poland only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. The Oct. 22 court decision eliminated the last of these three conditions from the list.

The overwhelming majority of legal abortions — 1,074 of 1,100 performed last year — resulted from fetal abnormalities.

Trump sparks a rise of Patriot churches

Patriot churches are part of “an evolving network of nondenominational start-up congregations that say they want to take the country back for God,” according to an article in the Washington Post on Oct. 26.

Patriot churches belong to what religion experts describe as a loosely organized Christian Nationalist movement that has flourished under President Trump.

Sociologist Samuel Perry, co-author of the new book Taking America Back for God, says “no other factor better predicts a vote for Trump than adherence to a Christian Nationalist ideology,” the Post reports.

In just four years, Trump has helped reshape the landscape of American Christianity by elevating Christians once considered fringe, which has, as the Post reports, “made for some strange bedfellows, but the common thread among them is a sense of being under siege and a belief that America has been and should remain a Christian nation.”

Beheaded French teacher to be awarded honor

France will posthumously honor Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded on Oct. 16, with the Legion d’Honneur, the nation’s highest honor.

Paty, 47, was killed and beheaded in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine as he walked home from school.

His brutal murder took place after he was targeted by an attacker who prosecutors say sought to punish him for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, considered blasphemous by the teachings of Islam, to pupils during a civics class teaching freedom of expression.

Americans supportive of LGBTQ rights

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the vast majority of Americans (70 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Majorities of Democrats (80 percent) and independents (76 percent), as well as half of Republicans (50 percent), support same-sex marriage.

White evangelical Protestants stand out as the only major religious group in which a majority opposes allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (only 34 percent favor). Majorities in every other major religious group support marriage equality, including 90 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Americans overwhelmingly favor (83 percent) laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.

John Paul II blamed for McCarrick elevation

Pope John Paul II disregarded warnings in elevating Theodore E. McCarrick to the position of cardinal, a Vatican inquiry found.

The Vatican report found that John Paul II had rejected explicit warnings about sexual abuse by McCarrick, now a disgraced former cardinal, “choosing to believe the American prelate’s denials and misleading accounts by bishops as he elevated him to the highest ranks of the church hierarchy,” the New York Times reports.

As Washington’s archbishop, McCarrick was one of the most powerful leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. But he became the highest-ranking American official to be removed for sexual abuse when the pope kicked him out of the priesthood in 2019.

Survey: Prejudice higher for religion in the UK

Religious prejudice is the “final frontier” for diversity, a place where individuals are willing to express negative attitudes, according to “How We Get Along,” a diversity study in England and Wales in 2020.

The report says, “We are a society largely comfortable with the idea of a close relative marrying someone from a different ethnic or national background. We are, however, less comfortable with a close relative marrying someone from a different religious background.

“This particularly applies to marrying a Muslim, the group most often targeted by negative attitudes from other faith groups, but also the group most likely to have negative attitudes towards other faith groups.”

Around three-quarters of those surveyed are comfortable with a close relative marrying an Asian or Black person (70 percent and 74 percent), but less than half (44 percent) are comfortable with the idea of a close relative marrying a Muslim.

W.Va. can’t use consumer law to sue church

The West Virginia Supreme Court said the state’s attorney general cannot use a consumer protection law to sue a Roman Catholic diocese over sexual abuse allegations.

The court, on Nov. 23, issued its opinion in response to a lawsuit the state filed last year accusing the Wheeling-Charleston diocese of failing to publicly disclose the employment of sexual abusers in its schools and camps.

The absence of such disclosure amounted to a violation of a consumer protection law, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey argued.

The narrow legal question concerned whether using the 2015 Consumer Credit and Protection Act to sue the diocese violates the separation of church and state. A lower court judge had stayed his order to dismiss Morrisey’s lawsuit pending the Supreme Court’s review.

In its majority opinion, the high court said the law does not apply to services provided by a religious institution.

Among the lawsuit’s allegations was that the diocese failed to conduct more than 20 background checks at a Catholic elementary school in Charleston in 2007 and 2008.

It also accused the diocese of covering up a 2006 report on sexual abuse allegations involving a teacher in Kanawha County.

Buffalo diocese sued over sex abuse  cover-up

The state of New York on Nov. 23 sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and two former church leaders, alleging they “covered up allegations of sexual misconduct and misused charitable assets by supporting predatory priests who were allowed to retire or go on leave,” according to the Associated Press.

New York’s Attorney General Letitia James filed the suit against the diocese, former Bishop Richard Malone and former Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz.

It comes after a two-year investigation that found church leaders sheltered accused priests by letting them step away from ministry rather than follow mandated procedures that would subject them to possible removal from the priesthood.

Appeals court: Texas can kick PP out of Medicaid

A federal appeals court is allowing Texas to kick Planned Parenthood out of its Medicaid program.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 23 sided with state officials who removed Planned Parenthood from the program for low-income people, according to a report in the Texas Tribune. The state cited a highly edited video created by anti-abortion advocates in 2015 that purported to show PP officials selling fetal tissue.

A lower court had blocked the state from removing Planned Parenthood in 2017. But the 5th Circuit judges ruled that legal precedent disqualifies Medicaid beneficiaries from taking issue with how states determine which providers are qualified to be in the program.

Election news (December 2020)

Five states elect first Muslim lawmakers

Five states (Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Oklahoma and Wisconsin) elected their first Muslim lawmakers to their state legislatures. All five candidates ran as Democrats.

More than 100 Muslim candidates ran for elected office this year, including U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. The Democratic representatives, who are the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, were re-elected to their second terms.

The firsts for those five states are:

• Iman Jodeh to Colorado House of Representatives.

• Madinah Wilson-Anton to the Delaware House of Representatives.

• Christopher Benjamin to Florida’s House of Representatives.

• Mauree Turner to Oklahoma’s Legislature.

• Samba Baldeh to Wisconsin state Assembly.

Other Muslims elected include:

• Zohran Kwame Mamdani to the New York state Assembly.

• Charles Fall, who since 2019 served as the only Muslim member of the New York state Assembly, was re-elected.

• Abraham Aiyash to Michigan’s House of Representatives.

• Omar Fateh to Minnesota state Senate. 

Sex ed referendum passes in Washington

Washington school districts will be required to teach sexual health education to most students under a referendum approved Nov. 3.

Nearly 60 percent favored Referendum 90, a measure that marks the first time nationwide that a sex education mandate has appeared on a statewide ballot.

By approving the measure, voters signaled that a 2020 law should go into effect making lessons mandatory starting in kindergarten, though families could choose to opt out.

Mississippi approves new ‘IGWT’ flag design

Mississippi on Nov. 3 voted in a new design for its state flag, which now includes the phrase “In God We Trust” below a magnolia blossom.

Mississippi’s flag previously was the last one in the country to feature an image of the Confederate battle flag. The new design was selected by a state commission in September. The state Legislature will now have to enact into law the new design as Mississippi’s official state flag during its next regular session in 2021.

Nevada recognizes gay marriage in constitution

Nevada voters overturned a 2002 ban on same-sex marriage, making the state the first to recognize gay couples’ right to marry in its constitution.

Question 2 on Nevada ballots asked voters whether they support an amendment recognizing marriage “as between couples regardless of gender,” with 62 percent voting in favor of the question. It also included the caveat that religious organizations and clergypersons would have the right to refuse to solemnize a marriage.

Louisiana amends state constitution on abortion

Louisiana voters decided to amend the state’s constitution by adding language that states the document offers no protections for a right to abortion or the funding of abortion.

The question before voters on Nov. 3 was whether to explicitly state that “a right to abortion and the funding of abortion shall not be found in the Louisiana Constitution.”

The vote will have no immediate effect, although if the Supreme Court were to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights, the amendment would ensure against any court ruling that language in the Louisiana Constitution grants abortion rights.

Pew: 28% of registered voters are secular

The share of voters who identify as religiously unaffiliated has nearly doubled since 2008, from 15 percent to 28 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Christians account for the majority of registered voters in the United States (64 percent), but that is down from 79 percent in 2008.

Around eight-in-ten Republican registered voters (79 percent) are Christians, compared with about half (52 percent) of Democratic voters.

Democratic voters are much more likely than GOP voters to identify as religiously unaffiliated (38 percent vs. 15 percent).

Chris Line: Taking a day off at FFRF to work at the polls

Chris Line

By Chris Line

My alarm clock was set to go off at 5 a.m., but I woke up at 4:30. I ate a big breakfast, put on my mask, and headed out into the darkness. My polling place was only a couple blocks away, but during my short walk I couldn’t help but think about the importance of what I was about to do.

I have to admit that, embarrassingly, in 2008, the first year I was eligible to vote in the presidential election, I neglected my civic duty and I didn’t vote. I was in my first year of college and like most 18-year-olds, I didn’t understand the importance of elections and participating in our democracy. Since then, I have never missed an opportunity to be part of this important democratic process, one which many people have fought very hard to secure.

This year, due to FFRF’s generosity, I was able to go one step further and not only cast my vote, but to serve as a poll worker. Because FFRF generously offered a paid day off to those who worked the polls, it was an opportunity for me to earn some extra income while helping to ensure that our democracy runs smoothly. [FFRF’s bookkeeper Eleanor McEntee also spent the day as a poll worker.]

As a constitutional attorney, I felt well qualified to help ensure that every eligible voter was able to cast a ballot. I spent my entire 8-hour shift working at the polling table for same-day registrants. My job was to help everyone who registered at the polls verify their identify and cast a ballot. Unfortunately, because of the draconian voter ID laws in Wisconsin, I had to turn away some otherwise eligible voters. Luckily, those situations were rare and I was able to ensure the majority of voters who registered at my polling station were able to vote. The ward I worked at generated the most voters of any ward in Madison.

As we all know, the election took place during a pandemic, and I knew that it wouldn’t be without risk. But I am young and healthy and if not me, then who? Almost 60 percent of poll workers are over the age of 60. And although COVID-19 can affect people of any age, older people are particularly vulnerable, with about 80 percent of COVID-19-related deaths in the United States occurring in adults 65 and older. It was important for those like myself to step up and provide some relief. I felt safe during my shift, but afterwards I received an email informing me I may have been exposed to the virus. I took a COVID test a few days later and I tested negative.

As much as I love my job defending the separation of church and state and advocating on behalf of freethinkers, I am glad that I chose to take a break for a day in order to support our democracy by working at the polls, and I am grateful to FFRF for providing me with that opportunity.