Commanding the Room

The Spread of Christian Nationalism in Louisiana Politics

But it is dominion that we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest… we must never settle for anything less.”George Grant, The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Blueprints for Political Action

In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Landry stood on stage next to a painting of the Ten Commandments and proclaimed to the crowd that they were winning. The victory was declared in front of an audience of Christians at a gala hosted by Louisiana Family Forum, which was recently designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to conclude a speech about God and country and putting prayer back in schools. He threw in veiled hints about pushing back against LGBTQ protections in the workplace for good measure.

His talking points fall in line with an ideology known as Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is a political belief that God ordained America as a sacred beacon of Christianity in a world darkened by secularism. Christian nationalists believe that America was always meant to be a Christian nation, and that Christians should be at the helm to set policy or have a place of privilege within society. Some even reject democracy because they view it as the tyranny of the majority. As U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) once stated, “We don’t live in a democracy, because democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner.”

Their rhetoric is hyper-focused on the country’s drift away from religion, which in their minds is a tragedy that must be course-corrected at all costs. This is a battlefield mentality where anyone who disagrees is either deeply misguided or an enemy to be defeated. Their methods include using the machinery of politics and a large infusion of money from billionaires most people have never heard of, but the movement’s subtext is clear: God will be at the center of American life, whether the rest of us want that or not.

Today, now-Governor Landry is bringing this worldview into Louisiana’s executive branch. At his inauguration—a ceremony which opened with a prayer by anti-queer hate group leader (and former Louisiana state representative) Tony Perkins—Landry said schools should emphasize “wholesome principles” and not “indoctrination.” As if in response, there were 100 education bills filed before the legislative season started, some anti-queer with barely veiled religious subtext.

This is part of a larger pattern. From 2021 to 2023, GOP-led legislatures introduced hundreds of what PEN America called “educational intimidation bills,” which limit what subject matters teachers can talk about and have led to book bans across the country. This is in conjunction with dozens of bills introduced as of last year extending the long-arm of a conservative Christian worldview into the heart of the education system, including bills replacing counselors with chaplains, and a bill requiring “In God We Trust” displays be placed in classrooms.

The moral panic that set the pretext for these bills was once just about “parental rights.” However, this moral panic is being fueled by right-wing organizations, not parents. The parental rights movement and the subsequent move to force God into schools is being increasingly pushed by extremist groups, some of which successfully coordinated the overturning of Roe v. Wadeextremist groups like Alliance Defending Freedom; Heritage Foundation; and Family Research Council, led by Tony Perkins. These are only some of a seemingly endless roster of vaguely named organizations that use words like “freedom” or “foundation” or “family” to mask their authoritarian leanings, and they are members of a billion-dollar shadow network. Their actions are coordinated through a central hub called the Council for National Policy (CNP), whose tendrils reach everywhere, from statehouses to governors’ mansions to DC. For years now, they have also been trying to get into our kids’ schools.

According to a leaked document, the CNP has a clear preference for the complete dismantling of public schools, in favor of “free-market” private schools, church schools, and home schools that will be free to implement the religious ideals of America as a Christian nation, through their interpretation of what Christianity means.

One of their preferred policies in the document, as they recommended to then-President Trump, was to put the Ten Commandments in all K-12 schools. As of June 20, Louisiana has just become the first state in the country to do so.

Over the past two years, the Louisiana legislature has passed a host of bills shrinking the distance from the schoolhouse to the pulpit. One bill allows chaplains in schools in place of counselors. Another authorizes teaching the Bible’s (often overstated) impact on America’s founding and contemporary laws, as well as the proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation like the “deadnaming” bill passed during the 2024 Louisiana legislative session.

The Ten Commandments bill (HB71) requires both a display of the Commandments in classrooms and an accompanying statement explaining the “historical significance” of the Commandments in American history. Bill sponsor Rep. Dodie Horton (R) stated that the Ten Commandments were the basis for Louisiana’s laws. Horton said to detractors, “I’m not concerned with an atheist. I’m not concerned with a Muslim… I’m concerned with our children looking and seeing what God’s law is.”

Over a hundred pastors and church-goers had written a letter opposing the bill, with one of the signatories calling it an attempt at indoctrination. The bill also dictates what text goes on the display. Different cultures translate the Commandments differently. The petition states that Louisiana “has no business choosing an official version of the Ten Commandments, especially one that strips the text of its theological context.”

Landry isn’t worried about lawsuits, stating several days before signing the bill, “I can’t wait to be sued.” He didn’t have to wait long. Several civil liberties groups, which includes Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), are filing a lawsuit.

I spoke with Andrew Seidel, spokesperson for AU, about the source of the Ten Commandments bill, since it’s become more common for outside groups to write legislation for lawmakers. He said it’s hard to know the source of this specific bill, but he knew the source of the language they will use on the display: “They got it from Hollywood.”

The version of the Ten Commandments that will be displayed is based on a movie promotion scheme for the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. Director Cecil B. DeMille encouraged the Fraternal Order of Eagles to have stone tablets of the Commandments installed in public places. The religious group hoped it would stop “delinquency;” DeMille, ever the consummate showman, wanted to promote a film.

However, a side effect of Christian nationalism is a willingness to disregard accuracy—and even observable reality—if it doesn’t fit your worldview. “Kids in classrooms is where [adults] act out conflicts between adults… [The Ten Commandments bill] is really about who has power,” said James Talarico, a former teacher, a progressive Christian, and Texas lawmaker. Talarico has gone viral for his passionate speeches against Christian nationalism in Texas, which has been the movement’s epicenter.

At the committee hearing on the Ten Commandments, some Louisiana legislators showed concern over the potential unconstitutionality of the bill. But Horton, and an attorney from Mississippi who works for the anti-queer hate group Pacific Justice Institute, assured them everything would be fine. According to Horton, “The landscape has changed.”

Horton is referring to a recent ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which involved a coach who was fired for praying with his players. The Supreme Court ruled in the coach’s favor, but the ruling was based on misrepresented facts and, as one appeals court judge stated, false narratives.

According to leaked footage, a former leader of the Council for National Policy stated how members “poured millions of dollars” into stacking the Supreme Court and vetting federal judges, an operation first set in motion 40 years ago. The CNP affiliate most responsible for the Supreme Court’s shift is the Federalist Society, under the direction of CNP board member Leonard Leo. One religious leader joked that the Supreme Court should be called the “Leo Court,” as Leo vetted and selected the three justices Trump chose in his term, and five of the six conservative justices were or are members of the Federalist Society. Leo has been described as a matchmaker between billionaires and judges. When the Washington DC Attorney General tried to investigate Leo’s activity, he was legally and politically attacked by Republican attorneys general and Republican politicians in the U.S. House. Religiously biased justices and judges are now chipping away at the wall between church and state in schools and society at-large, creating a system where the referee and players are on the same team.

To understand the inner-workings of the secretive world of radical right-wing politics, I reached out to journalist Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. The conspiracy came to her attention when she heard a religious radio station spouting political talking points. A radio preacher warned listeners about the dangers of gay marriage. A caller asked if her marriage of 40 years would be impacted by it, to which the host said, “That’s right… so you better get out and vote.” When Nelson and an assistant dug further, she realized it wasn’t a fringe local station, but one that was a part of a national network of religious stations with ties to the CNP.

“Public schools are where many Americans learn to coexist with people from different backgrounds, whether it’s religious, racial, or national origin… [some religious and private schools] use their insulation to promote intolerance of other populations,” Nelson stated. These groups also view public education as an incubator for secularism.

The Supreme Court has acted as a wall between the public sector and religion, and was a thorn in the side of conservative Christians. It’s not shocking, then, that it’s a court ruling that led to the religious right’s movement getting supercharged. No, not the 1962 ruling removing prayer from school, and not Roe v. Wade, as popular myth claims. It was integration.

After Nixon threatened to remove tax-exempt statuses for religious institutions that wouldn’t integrate, leaders of the religious right viewed this as an attack on religious liberty. However, Paul Weyrich, a GOP-operative and religious extremist, told them to lean into anti-abortion rhetoric in order to ignite voters. The evangelical leaders started giving anti-abortion sermons six years after Roe v. Wade and, over time, the movement grew. Eventually, a central body was formed in order to help the countrywide machine work in sync: the Council for National Policy.

The collective was founded in 1981, a marriage between right-wing fundamentalists and oil barons from Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma. Founding members included people like televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, but the primary architect was Paul Weyrich. Weyrich co-founded Heritage Foundation, CNP, and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which all have considerable influence in contemporary right-wing politics. Weyrich helped the preachers he galvanized paint the GOP as the party of God, and after a while, CNP had moderates purged from both the GOP and within the religious world, pushing the party, and the church, further to the right. From there, their goal was to weaken public institutions that challenged their world views. This included public schools.

“I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” a former CNP strategist once said, the thinking being that those who control education control the future of a nation. However, some members thought public school was irredeemable. Robert Thoburn wrote in his 1986 book The Children Trap: The Biblical Blueprint for Education, “Abolish the public schools, and Christians will take over the country and the world that much faster,” and urged parents to break the system from within by joining the school board, while hiding their true intentions, appearing to be harmless while they “gum up the system with a smile on your face.”

The CNP doesn’t do direct action. They host invite-only meetings three times a year, where leaders of various fronts of the right-wing movement—from Christian college presidents to leaders of media outlets—coordinate strategies to implement on a national scale. Media isn’t allowed, and members are not allowed to talk to the media about the CNP’s meetings. CNP’s membership is secret, but leaks have shown a co-mingling of extremists and mainstream conservatives. According to a leaked 2020 members’ list, Ginni Thomas, activist and wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was a CNP board member.

Right-wing Louisianans play a prominent role as well. The year before CNP members spearheaded efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, they had a meetup in New Orleans where then-Attorney General Landry and LA Rep. Steve Scalise were the featured speakers. House Speaker Mike Johnson, whose CNP membership was secret for a time, fawned over the attendees and credited a CNP co-founder for being the reason he was in Congress. Tony Perkins was the president of the CNP for several years.

The sessions within the meetings take the tone of soldiers readying for war. In 2017, a former intelligence officer gave a speech on how right-wing activists could infiltrate progressive groups. In one session, a member urged the audience to stop mail-in ballots from being sent out. A former IRS lawyer watched leaked footage of a meeting in awe, saying, “I’ve never seen anything like it… It’s almost like a movie.”

In a meeting called “Virginia 2021: Lessons Learned,” attendees examined how the Virginia GOP used the parental rights movement to win the governorship. Around that same time, there was a blitz of dark money into the parental rights movement. The network threw resources and training behind “grassroots” groups like Moms for Liberty, who created a moral panic locally over what content is taught in schools and what books are available to children in public libraries. GOP candidates then ran campaigns, and lawmakers passed laws, based on that moral panic. This strategy was replicated in Louisiana.

As a result of this well-funded psychological operation, some parents believed the liberal indoctrination claims, and trust in public schools fell. The GOP-run states used this distrust as pretext to push the network’s preferred educational policies: “school choice” policies, religious displays, and right-wing instruction in the classroom, all in response to a perceived view that public schools have gone “woke.” This wave of educational reform by the GOP reverberated across the nation, and into Louisiana.

The embrace of extremists and extremism by Louisiana Republicans isn’t new, but it still didn’t make it any less controversial when BESE Superintendent Cade Brumley endorsed the use of PragerU in classrooms. Dennis Prager, who has ties to the CNP, created PragerU as a free alternative to the “dominant leftwing ideology now in education. Prager, raised Jewish, advocates for Christianity because he believes that its death is the “death of the west.” He is open about his videos being meant to indoctrinate.

“The videos listed as part of the partnership aren’t peer-reviewed or historically researched,” said Lauren Jewett, an educator and member of the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee (78A). The “university” is also not accredited.

Another teacher, Jacob Newsom added, “It’s literal ignorance,” and said that he will not be using their resources.

In one animated video, Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and former slave, describes slavery as a necessary evil. There are videos filled with climate denial, a video with anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, and an anti-Muslim video titled “Born to Hate Jews.” PragerU’s videos are meant to appeal to kids as young as kindergarten age, and is largely funded by a far-right, climate change denying billionaire preacher Farris Wilks and his brother, Dan.

Between the bills restricting what is discussed in class and the endorsement of PragerU, Jewett feels that “[the state] is trying to pigeonhole educators into presenting a singular (and in this case false and misleading) storyline… when our history is much more varied and complex.”

Jewett believes the parent-versus-teacher narrative created by the culture war is very damaging to what’s supposed to be a symbiotic relationship, and is leading to teachers quitting the profession. “Schools are already dealing with shortages in Louisiana and pay for teachers and school staff is already lagging. I think bills like ‘Don’t Say Gay’ make our school systems even more vulnerable,” Jewett argues. They also open the state up to lawsuits. The state of Florida was sued over their version of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and recently settled the case; Louisiana’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill is similar to Florida’s. Plus, for Jewett, the volatile political environment will make it hard to build meaningful relationships with students and their families. “What message are we sending to a kid when we [silence] a conversation as soon as they bring up what they did with their dads over the weekend or on a school break?

Newsom seconded this concern when he talked to the legislature. “How am I going to reach this child? How am I going to effectively teach this child?” He told me he will not comply with the educational intimidation bills. In regards to the Ten Commandments, he told CNN that if compelled to comply, it would be “malicious compliance.”

Jewett added that hyper-focusing on moral panics has distracted from “mounting serious issues.” While BESE Superintendent Brumley wants teachers to monitor which bathrooms their students use, there’s very little monitoring of special needs education. Oversight for all nearly 190 school districts and charter schools in Louisiana is overseen by six employees—a damning report on Louisiana’s poor special education oversight was released in May.

Curriculum is only one aspect of concern, though. The overall goal for some of the dark money interests was to use the chaos caused by the parental rights movement to push people out of public schools altogether, via “school choice.” As a former Heritage fellow told a crowd of conservatives, “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public-school distrust.”

Some public school defenders believe “school choice” proponents are attempting to make it easier to inject religious world views into classrooms; some believe it will siphon funds from public schools, with Jacob Newsom, and others, putting it bluntly: “It is just a way to end the public school program.”

After the passing of SB313, Louisiana will create an educational savings account (ESA) program. ESAs have been instituted in 13 other states and provide a stipend for education related items, including school tuition. School choice bills—like ESAs and vouchers—supposedly allow underprivileged students stuck at failing public schools to use public funds to move to a private school. But according to one study by the Brookings Institution, that’s not always what happens. In Arizona, which instituted an ESA, it wasn’t kids at failing public schools who used most of the funding; it was kids who already attended private institutions. This caused the budget to balloon to billions. Arizona has one of the lowest private school enrollment rates. Louisiana currently has the third-highest private enrollment in the country. If trends in other ESA states hold firm, the estimated $500 million cost could skyrocket, depleting public school funding.

To promote the ESA, Landry hosted a town hall with Americans for Prosperity, a dark-money group founded by infamous right-wing mega-donor billionaires David and Charles Koch, who have made the dismantling of public education one of their preferred policy goals. In addition, the ESA bill is similar to the bill ALEC has available on their website. These are relationships that all citizens of Louisiana should be wary of, and public educators have every right to be concerned for the future of public education.

Jacob Newsom has been able to find the support he needs from his union, though this too found itself in jeopardy earlier this year, thanks to bills sponsored by two Louisiana lawmakers who received backing from anti-union dark money groups including Americans for Prosperity. Educational unions are some of the most powerful unions in the nation, and usually support Democrats. A bill killing public unions would kneecap two of the strongest opponents to the GOP’s education policies.

The groups under the CNP umbrella play different roles, acting as a dark mirror to mainstream society. Mainstream society has nonpartisan legal groups like the ACLU; Christian nationalists created the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Federalist Society. Mainstream society has the American Medical Association; the Christian nationalists have “medical” groups like American College of Pediatricians, who use pseudoscience to justify anti-queer policies and anti-abortion policies, and use “research” papers as propaganda. And, with their religious worldview running adjacent to climate denial and unfettered capitalism, the movement will consistently have billions in dark money filling their coffers.

Despite the well-funded spread of extremism, some people have had success in fighting back. James Talarico and his allies defeated four Christian nationalist-backed bills in 2023 in Texas: a Ten Commandments bill, a book banning bill, a chaplains bill, and a school choice bill. They did so by using social media to spark outrage over the Ten Commandments bill; building a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans to kill the school voucher bill; initiating lawsuits to block the book ban bill; and forming a coalition of counselors, chaplains, and citizens who lobbied their school boards to block chaplains from entering public schools. Talarico added, “If we can do it in Texas, you can do it anywhere.”

But Talarico fears what Christian nationalism would do to the church: “If we don’t remove this cancer from our religion, they may kill Christianity [in America]… unattended consequences of [these education bills] is that [it will make a generation] correlate Christianity with imposing their views on others.”

Shadow-network expert Anne Nelson says people need to inform themselves on the machinations of the network and how they help shape the GOP’s policies, including spreading the word about Project 2025, a 900-page playbook for an initiative led by Heritage. The book lays out the network’s proposed policy plans for the next right-wing president, which extends beyond the dismantling of public education and into our personal lives.

I asked Nelson if she had optimism that Christian nationalism can be defeated. “It depends,” she said. “I see plenty of evidence that our country is at a major inflection point… we can either extend our national experiment with democracy… Or we can allow the radical right to turn the clock back, and keep their promises to restrict voting rights for minorities, reproductive [rights]… LGBTQ [rights], education and public health programs to serve our children… Our democracy is flawed, but I’ve lived under dictatorships, and I assure you democracy is better.”

Louisiana’s citizens can look to Talarico and Nelson’s respective home states as what we may have in store for our educational system. Nelson wrote in her book that Oklahoma is the network’s “incubator” and “breeding ground” for the movement’s social and political vision. Oklahoma gave the OK for the building of the nation’s first publicly funded Catholic school; Texas introduced a law requiring children be taught that life starts at conception, an oft-refuted claim. Now that Louisiana is controlled by the GOP, it is in all Louisiana’s citizens’ interest to keep an eye on those states.

In regards to the Ten Commandment bill in Louisiana, Andrew Seidel of AU seemed confident that Louisiana will lose the trial due to previous Supreme Court rulings, and believes the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District precedent won’t provide as much protection as the state thinks.

Talarico believes Christian nationalism will be defeated, because they don’t have public consensus. That’s the reason they have to rely on backdoor politics, billionaire donors, and propaganda. According to Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council, their policy opinions are not popular even among Christians. That’s because Christian nationalism is not Christianity. It’s a political doctrine based on fantasy, a narrative that blurs the line between exaggeration and fiction and delusion, until the dividing edges are near indistinguishable. It’s a movement based on a lie that the founders were godsent heroes, when they were just grifters who didn’t want to have to see Blacks in their churches or schools, and rode their supporters’ anger off to power and riches. But the threat they pose to women, queer people, children, the climate, voting rights, immigrants, and democracy itself is very, very real, and it’s about time that more people wake up.

illustrations by Anneliese DePano

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