FFRF’s Mark on the Hill: Going on the offensive

Our theme in governmental affairs this year: Going on the offensive.

We’ve already had three major victories. The first was our headline-making report that ties Christian nationalism to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The second was the reduced support of the National Prayer Breakfast in Congress. And the third was the introduction of a bill in Congress that would authorize the construction of a Thomas Paine memorial in Washington, D.C. All three of these victories are important because they push back against Christian nationalism while strengthening the separation of state and church, in addition to standing up for reason and rationality.

Christian nationalism and the Jan. 6 insurrection
FFRF, along with BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom), has published a groundbreaking report on how Christian nationalism was an integral part of last year’s assault on the U.S. Capitol. The report exposes the role Christian nationalism “played in fomenting the insurrection, the buildup and dry runs that occurred immediately following Election Day up until the attack itself.” The report contains a vast amount of “photographs and links to videos of that day showing the prayers, signage and symbols of Christian nationalism.”

In addition to the hard-hitting subject of the report, how it was made is particularly significant. After the Jan. 6 attack, FFRF, led by its Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, made a presentation to the Congressional Freethought Caucus and other members of Congress on the connection between Jan. 6 and Christian nationalism. Some of the other presenters were from BJC. They wanted to expand on some of the themes presented to members of Congress and collaborate with us on producing an in-depth report about the ties between Christian nationalism and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

During the production of the report, our friendship with BJC deepened. BJC is one of FFRF’s staunchest allies in Washington. We share the goal of strengthening the separation between state and church. Some of our greatest partners are from the religious community. Plus, BJC has guts. It leads an initiative called “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” and is helping to make sure that hate has no safe harbor in the Baptist community. On a personal note, I often informally ask staff members at BJC for their thoughts and guidance on how to advance some ideas on Capitol Hill. Their wisdom is always smart, thoughtful and strategic. I am much better at my job because of them.

The National Prayer Breakfast
The National Prayer Breakfast is a large annual event that takes place the first week of February in Washington. The event is extremely dubious in nature and has become a nexus for religious extremism, infiltration by Russian agents, and organized anti-LGBTQ and anti-labor bigotry. The National Prayer Breakfast is an active marketplace of right-wing ideas. Despite all these facts, each year members of Congress host the event, and every president since Dwight David Eisenhower has attended it.

FFRF has been vocally organizing opposition to the shindig for years. We particularly galvanized our resources this year. We sent numerous letters and action alerts, met with several congressional offices, used our media resources and social media channels to highlight our opposition. We connected with several allied groups to coordinate activities. Plus, Jonathan Larsen at The Young Turks and Salon.com was consistently exposing the truth behind the event that helped to spark greater interest on the Hill.

This year, the results have been significant. Several members of Congress did not renew their co-sponsorship from the previous year: Reps. Charlie Crist, Emanuel Cleaver II, Val Demings, Debbie Dingell, Grace Meng, Lisa Blunt Rochester and Juan Vargas, and Sen. Tom Carper. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, notably, did not appear.

I am extremely proud of how we voiced our concerns about elected officials who often agree with us about the separation of state and church but disagree with us about the Prayer Breakfast. FFRF co-founder and Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said this about President Biden’s decision to attend the breakfast:

We are deeply disturbed that President Biden has chosen to address an event that has become a hotspot for Christian nationalists and theocrats, anti-LGBTQ bigotry and influence-peddling. It has been mired in scandal after scandal, including the FBI’s arrest of a Russian agent with ties to Vladimir Putin. Every year, more and more members of Congress walk away from this event. Why Biden still embraces it is mind-boggling.

Annie Laurie’s statement shows that when an elected official, regardless of party, does something that bolsters the separation of state and church, we will praise it. Likewise, we will also decry it when an elected official does something that harms the separation of state and church. Sometimes, I see in Washington organizations get too cozy with elected officials and lose their watchdog role. Clearly, FFRF is not going down that route.

Thomas Paine memorial bill
You may have seen the news about Congressional Freethought Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Jamie Raskin introducing a bill authorizing the Thomas Paine Memorial Association (which FFRF is a key part of) to lead the efforts for a D.C. memorial to honor Thomas Paine.

Paine was a pivotal freethinker who was far ahead of his time. He opposed slavery and favored abolition, called for a progressive income tax to pay for universal education (for both sexes), a welfare system for poor relief, pensions, women’s rights — and more. He was an eloquent advocate for equality and representative government, writing, “The true and only true basis of representative government is equality of rights.”

The bill must pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law by the president before the Thomas Paine Memorial Association can work with the gauntlet of federal commissions to construct and maintain the memorial into perpetuity without taxpayer funding. Politically, this bill is extremely significant for FFRF because it is the first bill where FFRF is one of the lead organizations supporting the bill.

A lot of bills have support from organizations, businesses, associations and individuals to help them advance within Congress and gain support from the public. The lead organization builds a campaign to pass the bill and increases the support for the bill with the American people. It is our responsibility to push up the number of co-sponsors, obtain support from other organizations such as historical societies, build a coalition of like-minded organizations, and use a lot of internal resources to advance the bill. It is a very big assignment — and I know we are up for it.

These three victories were a down payment on the offensive maneuvers we will be doing this year. FFRF will continue to skillfully deploy its advocacy tools (TV shows, social media, action alerts, press connections, etc.) to score victories for you. Look for more ways that we will be working with allies on the Hill. 2022 is going to be a year full of impact, and I cannot thank you enough for being with us. 

All the best,

Mark Dann
Director of Governmental Affairs
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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