This story was co-published with Vox.
For decades, the Christian-right foot soldiers who form the backbone of the Republican Party have regularly and enthusiastically showed up for legislative battles over religious freedom and reproductive and LGBTQ rights. On Sept. 1, they scored one of their biggest victories yet: the Texas Heartbeat Act, which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and deputizes private citizens to report anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion.
Six days later, religious conservatives celebrated another critical legislative victory, one that signaled a new frontier in their movement. In the east Texas city of Tyler, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, passed in late August after Democrats fled the state in a futile effort to stop it. The new law severely restricts voting access in Texas, with the biggest impact on voters of color; Abbott hailed it as a “good paradigm for other states to follow.” Also in attendance were his lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, and state Sen. Bryan Hughes, key architects of both the voter and abortion bills and heroes to evangelical Christians around the U.S. Patrick is well known to religious-right voters for his opposition to reproductive and LGBTQ rights and promotion of “Christian values.” The mood was jubilant.
The Christian right’s ability to mobilize its own voters has long made it one of the most potent forces in American politics. But this year, evangelical leaders have embraced a new strategy, one with direct roots in the outcome of the 2020 election: Religious activists have taken up the cause of “election integrity,” pushing bills to crack down on voter fraud, even though no evidence of widespread fraud in U.S. elections exists. In the process, they’ve helped restrict ballot access for millions of Americans – the most regressive wave of voting measures since the Jim Crow era – and drawn a direct connection between their new cause and their core religious beliefs.
The goal is to protect the gains made by the Christian right during Donald Trump’s presidency, especially in the federal courts – and to restore the White House and Congress to Republican control. The biggest prize, of course, is the U.S. Supreme Court, where – not coincidentally – all three of Trump’s appointees declined to block the Texas abortion bill from taking effect, signaling their willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade.
White evangelicals were Trump’s most loyal supporters in 2020, giving him 84% of their vote, according to the Pew Research Center. Many saw Trump as anointed by God to save America at a critical juncture in its history, and they viewed his loss in cataclysmic terms. A January survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that religious conservatives were far more inclined than other Republicans to believe Trump’s lies about widespread election fraud, as well as wild conspiracy theories about QAnon, antifa and the “deep state.” The fervent evangelical support for Trump during his presidency has now morphed into support for his “big lie” – and for voter suppression bills that are a direct outgrowth of Trump’s continued insistence that the election was stolen from him.
Across the country, Christian-right groups that saw their influence bloom during Trump’s presidency have taken up the cause not just in statehouses and fundraising appeals, but also in churches and prayer calls with followers. The Christian voter mobilization group My Faith Votes, for example, has launched an initiative called Election Integrity Now, complete with a prayer guide with seven ways to ask God “to protect America’s elections and deliver trustworthy results.”
“The 2020 elections revealed genuine concerns in the election process that could threaten election integrity and the very foundation of our Constitutional Republic. Yet, even more dangerous than election fraud is that many Christians have lost confidence in the election system,” the group’s CEO, Jason Yates, said in announcing the initiative.
It is also becoming increasingly evident to pollsters, demographers and religious-right leaders themselves that the model first pioneered by the Christian Coalition in the Reagan era – ensuring that religious conservatives registered to vote and turned out in overwhelming numbers on Election Day – isn’t working as well as it used to.
White evangelical Protestants now make up 14% of Americans, down from 23% in 2006, “the most precipitous drop in affiliation” for any religious group, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 Religious Landscape Survey. Even though White evangelicals made up 34% of Trump’s voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of election data, their support wasn’t sufficient to propel him to reelection. “Without such broad support for Trump among White evangelicals, (Joe) Biden would have beaten him by more than 20 points,” the Pew analysts wrote earlier this year.
Trump’s defeat proves that even massive conservative Christian turnout is no longer enough to win. The strategy White evangelical supporters have coalesced around to supplement it: election laws built on the lie that the other side’s ability to turn out voters must be “fraudulent.”
The new battlefront opened in Georgia immediately after the 2020 election.
As Trump tried to strong-arm state election officials to throw out the ballots of 11,780 Georgians and declare him the winner of the state’s 16 Electoral College votes, the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia sent a fundraising email to its supporters in December: “Election reform is coming to Georgia, and we are all in!”
Cole Muzio, the group’s executive director, acknowledged that this was new territory for his organization. “As you know, this is not one of our ‘core issues,’ ” he wrote. “However, issues like life, religious freedom, and school choice will never win if the vote is being diluted by radical leftists exploiting the system to cheat.”
Muzio’s organization was affiliated with Focus on the Family, the Christian-right icon known for opposing LGBTQ and reproductive rights. Elsewhere, Muzio acknowledged launching his group in 2017 after “seeing that our state was rapidly moving ‘blue’ and that the Church had been weakened greatly.”
Throughout Georgia’s runoff campaign, which would determine control of the U.S. Senate, the Family Policy Alliance repeatedly attacked Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as hostile to Christians, but particularly Warnock, a minister who leads the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once presided.
“Raphael Warnock holds the title of ‘pastor,’ ” the group wrote in one Facebook post. (The group has recently rebranded itself as the Frontline Policy Council.) “Yet, he OPPOSES what God’s Word clearly says about Life. His radical pro-abortion views are disgusting, wrong, anti-science, and anti-Scripture. Quite simply, he’s Unfit for the Pulpit and Unfit for the Senate.” A voter guide titled “Which Candidate Stands Firm on the Word of God?” accused Warnock of being a Marxist, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel – all lies – and attacked his views supporting abortion and transgender rights. Muzio initially agreed to an interview for this story but ultimately didn’t respond to requests to speak.
When Democrats stunned even themselves by winning both seats in the Jan. 5 runoff, Georgia Republicans sprang into action, introducing a slate of bills that would – among other things – eliminate drop-box sites, impose more restrictive rules for absentee ballots and prohibit judges from extending voting hours at precincts experiencing long waits, all under the guise of stopping fraud. Another objective was to defeat Warnock, who is up for reelection in 2022.
The flurry of legislation overtly became about religion and race, pitting White evangelical Republicans against Black church leaders, whose flocks are predominantly Democratic. One provision would have eliminated Sunday voting, a potentially dire blow to get-out-the-vote efforts of Black churches and their “souls to the polls” events that have been at the core of Black voter mobilization for decades.
A national outcry led legislators to nix that provision. But Republican lawmakers ignored the objections of the state’s Black pastors to the bill’s many other restrictive provisions. Black leaders couldn’t even get a meeting with GOP leaders, said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. “They didn’t pay any of us any mind.”
Less than two months after the bill was introduced, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a 98-page law that criminalizes providing water or food to voters standing in line and empowers state officials to replace local election officials – for example, the Democratic registrar of voters in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta – with appointees from their own party. The impact would be greatest for Black voters. “It is How to Steal an Election 101,” McDonald said.
The ceremonial signing served only to highlight the bill’s racial overtones. It took place behind closed doors, with Kemp flanked by six White male legislators, sitting under a painting of a plantation. When state Rep. Park Cannon, a Black Democrat, knocked on the door to gain entry to the event, she was arrested for obstructing law enforcement and disrupting the General Assembly.
On the Family Policy Alliance website, Muzio denounced “the deranged media” and “Pretend-governor Stacey Abrams” – the Democratic candidate who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018 – for their “outlandish and inflammatory rhetoric.” He called the claim that the bill is racist “wrong, disingenuous, a form of voter suppression, and, in fact, racist on its face.”
His words signaled a subtle reframing, echoing the Christian right’s perspective on almost every other issue in the culture wars: Progressives were the real over-reachers and evangelical Christians the true victims. The Georgia law didn’t suppress the votes of Democrats and people of color, Muzio was saying; it prevented the votes of religious conservatives from being suppressed.
Even as Black church leaders mobilized to contest the Georgia law in court, conservative groups were gearing up to replicate it in other states.
National Christian-right organizations embraced “election integrity” with fervor. In March, Heritage Action for America, a sister organization of the right-wing policy hub The Heritage Foundation, announced it would pour at least $10 million into lobbying and TV and online ads about the urgent need to “protect the rights of every American to a fair election.” In a video obtained by Mother Jones, a Heritage Action official admitted that the organization drafted the legislation in many states, including Georgia, and helped organize support.
At the same time, evangelical leaders opposed measures that would make it easier to vote. Advocates particularly targeted the For the People Act, which would create nationwide automatic voter registration, restore voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, and expand voting by mail and early voting, while also shoring up the security of election infrastructure. The Phyllis Schlafly Eagles – an offshoot of the group once headed by the late conservative icon best known for helping kill the Equal Rights Amendment – claimed (falsely) that the bill “would enshrine Democrat ballot stuffing into federal law forever.” The Family Research Council called it “a federal power grab that cripples states’ ability to run elections and increases the likelihood of voter fraud” (another lie). Other conservative activists contended that the act’s financial disclosure requirements violated First Amendment protections for religious speech.
In early February, the Family Research Council’s president, Tony Perkins, led a discussion at the influential megachurch Cornerstone Chapel in Virginia with Michael Farris, a longtime conservative activist and now president of the Christian-right legal powerhouse Alliance Defending Freedom.
Declaring election integrity “vital for our future,” Farris claimed to have undertaken a “thorough study” of the 2020 election and to have found “constitutional irregularities in many, many states,” particularly in those where the election was close. He claimed the “central problem was the failure to follow the pre-established process in counting the votes” and insisted that if votes had been properly tallied, Trump would have won. Neither Farris nor his organization has ever provided proof of those accusations, and they did not respond to Reveal’s requests for Farris to share them.
The Family Research Council also deployed Kenneth Blackwell, its senior fellow for human rights and constitutional governance, who has long been a central player in the movement to limit access, dating back to his tenure as Ohio secretary of state, when civil rights advocates accused him of suppressing voters of color in the 2004 presidential election and helping Republicans keep the White House. In a March appearance on the video series “Pray Vote Stand,” Blackwell, who is Black, called the For the People Act a “heist” and a “power grab” that would “stifle individual religious liberty and the centrality of God in our lives.” Mostly, Blackwell urged religious voters to stay engaged. “We must claw back the responsibility and the authority of local governments and state legislatures” to control elections or else, he contended, Democrats would create “one-party control much like they have in Cuba, Venezuela and Russia.”
My Faith Votes’ national honorary chairman, talk show host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, took credit for helping get 9 million new Christian voters to the polls in 2020 and promised, “in 2021, we will be doubling down.” Ralph Reed, chairman of the national Faith & Freedom Coalition, beseeched potential donors: “Though news of the radical left’s scheming is hard to read, remember that – thanks to your support and the support of Christian patriots like you – we still have a chance to save America in the 2022 midterm elections, and we will make the most of it.”
Republican lawmakers did their part to stoke the fires. At the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s national Road to Majority conference in June, for example, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham portrayed Democratic victories in 2022 and 2024 as an existential threat that would lead to statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and the end of the Electoral College. “Winning in 2022 is the only option available for conservatism,” he said. “We need you to get people out of your churches into that voting booth.”
There were plenty of true believers. A Washington Post-ABC News poll from June found that while only 30% of all respondents favored passing “new laws making it harder for people to vote fraudulently,” 51% of White evangelicals supported such legislation. While 62% of all Americans expressed support for “new laws making it easier for people to vote,” only 43% of White evangelicals did.
By that time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 17 states already had enacted 28 new laws suppressing voting rights. And then came Texas.
During this year’s Texas legislative session, it wasn’t the anti-abortion Heartbeat Act that was deemed the greater threat by Texas Democrats, but voter integrity legislation. The abortion bill, targeting not just abortion but anyone helping a woman in the state obtain one, made it through the Legislature relatively unscathed and was signed into law May 19. Republicans’ attempt to pass a voter bill – including criminal penalties on election officials who send unsolicited mail-ballot applications and new powers for partisan poll watchers – required two special legislative sessions, after Democrats ran out the clock on the first bill, then fled the state for a month in protest.
At the first special session in July, many of the demonstrators on the statehouse grounds opposed the voting legislation. But Lori Gallagher of Williamson County, Texas, was there to show her support. The group she co-founded, the Texas Constitutionalists, describes itself as “grassroots conservatives with a mission to educate ourselves and our neighbors to be actively involved in Texas State and County government to secure our vote and restore our representational Republic.” But she saw its mission in starkly religious terms.
“I believe that the divine hand of providence was present when our constitutional and founding documents were formed,” she said. “I believe that’s the divine intersection between voting rights. The people’s voice – that comes from God. Your freedom comes from God. Liberty comes from God.”
Inside the hearing room, with just two minutes to speak, Don Garner, executive director of the Texas Faith & Freedom Coalition, focused more on politics, echoing Christian-right talking points that have become increasingly familiar this year. Election integrity is “foundational to the freedoms we enjoy,” he declared. “Nothing suppresses voting more than the erosion of trust or confidence in the election process itself.”
But Garner’s brief remarks had far less impact than his relationships. For 10 years, he served as the state director and national field director of the Capitol Commission, a network of organizations in state capitols that hosts Bible studies and other events with lawmakers. The goal: “making disciples of Jesus Christ in the Capitol communities of the world,” according to its website. His current organization, formed in March 2020, keeps voters informed “about important issues relevant to faith-based communities” and “supports Biblical principles.”
Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes, an author of the voting restriction and anti-abortion bills, is one of about a dozen Texas state legislators who serve on Garner’s advisory council. In an interview, Garner said Hughes is “a close friend and someone that I work very closely with on all kinds of things.” The House sponsor of the voting bill, Rep. Briscoe Cain, is another close ally. As the legislation was moving, Garner said he talked to Cain or his staff “every couple of days, all session long.” Garner said his coalition’s clout comes from its grassroots volunteers who show up when needed, canvassing 310,000 homes in the last election cycle and planning to hit twice as many next year. Lawmakers know “we’re actually getting out there and knocking on doors.”
Conservative Christian voters, Garner said, have always had concerns about election integrity, but especially so after the 2020 election.
“Obviously, there were a lot of concerns afterwards and among people on the right that maybe there had been improprieties, and certainly, people felt like it at least needed to be investigated,” Garner said. “Because of everything that – the way everything fell out, certainly it raised the level of concern.”
Even as Trump and his evangelical allies basked in their legislative victories in Texas, they used those concerns to promote their future political prospects. In a conference call for Intercessors for America the day after the abortion law took effect, Trump wasted no time in lambasting the Biden administration, saying, without specificity or evidence, that “what they’re doing to Christianity, it’s a very sad, sad thing for our country.”
Robert Morris, pastor of the Gateway megachurch in Dallas, closed the call with a plea: “I pray, Lord, that you will do something … for our election system, that we’ll never have another election stolen from us,” he intoned. “So Lord, whatever we need to do to fix the electoral process, I pray for that, I pray for our country, and I pray for President Trump and his family … in Jesus’ mighty name.”
Freelance journalist Alexandra Villarreal contributed to this story. It was edited by Nina Martin and Andrew Donohue of Reveal and Libby Nelson of Vox. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick of Reveal. Sarah Posner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahposner.