The Gospel Grift: Always Be Closing, by Robert Conner

A major challenge in this time of declining Christian belief is finding a
hot button issue that keeps gullible followers enraged and engaged and dropping their Social Security dollars here and there into collection plates. For decades, one reliable sales pitch for evangelicals and Catholics was the specter of the homosexual menace, but as recently noted, “When the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right of same-sex marriage nearly eight years ago, social conservatives were
set adrift. The ruling stripped them of an issue they had used to galvanize rank-and-file supporters and big donors. And it left them searching for a cause that — like opposing gay marriage — would rally the base and raise the movement’s profile on the national stage. “We knew we needed to find an issue that the candidates were comfortable talking about,” said Terry Schilling, the president of American Principles Project, a social conservative advocacy group. “And we threw everything at the wall.” I’m sure Schilling really meant to say, “We threw everything at the wall after much prayer and deliberation.”



In any case, Schilling’s prayers were answered: the transexual panic “had driven in thousands of new donors to the American Principles Project, most of them making small contributions.”[1]


No question about it: money in politics gets things done. While initiatives to expand healthcare and childcare falter, and measures to prevent gun violence are shot dead at the local, state and federal levels—despite wide public support—the movement to advance Christian theocracy has achieved some stunning victories. A case in point is the rise of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADL), launched in early 1994 by a coterie of evangelical leaders that included millionaire preachers D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, Don Wildmon and Bill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ. The ADL, designated an “anti-LGBTQ hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, enjoys 501(c) tax exemption; it’s treated like a church, or in evangelical speak, a “legal ministry” whose basic purpose is to obliterate the separation of church and state. In 2011, tax filings pegged the ADL’s worth at $35 million which rose to $48 million by fiscal year 2015. By 2021, the ADL reported $104.5 million according to filings with the IRS.[2]


The Real Christian™ fixation on things sexual — divorce, pornography, abortion, and all things LGBTQ — is a boondoggle for lawyers, lobbyists, and “expert” witnesses. Case in point, Dr. Daniel Weiss, an endocrinologist, “said in a deposition that Do No Harm paid him about $8,000, at $325 an hour, for submitting written testimony in states like Indiana, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming in support of bans on gender-affirming care for minors…The Indiana Attorney General’s office paid Weisss $49,691 for four weeks of consulting, according to records obtained by HuffPost.” Before its fascination with anti-trans legislation, Do No Harm “initially concentrated on fighting diversity efforts in medicine, bringing lawsuits against a health journal for offering an unpaid mentorship to people of color and challenging California’s implicit bias training for physicians.”[3]


The new anti-trans gold rush has drawn prospectors from the far corners of Baptistland. “The president of Trinity International University this week sent out a fundraising letter complaining about cultural acceptance of transgender people and linking acceptance to the recent mass shooting that left six people dead in Nashville, Tenn.” In response to Nicholas Perrin’s fanciful claim, David Cramer, a Trinity alumnus and seminary professor, said, 


“This letter is flippant, calloused and dangerous. It reads like a fundraising letter for a right-wing political action group instead of a place of theological education.”[4]


Noting that outfits such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council and the American Principles Project “are behind a multi-million-dollar effort targeting LGBTQ rights,” a recent report details their strategy: 


“The groups have provided templates and support for similarly worded [“parents’ rights”] bills that seek to ban minors from attending drag shows, prevent trans youth from receiving gender-affirming care, and restrict their participation in high school sports.” 


The push to interpret human sexuality theologically has paid off: “Many Republicans have embraced that agenda, touting a ‘protect the children’ platform for 2024 that targets school policies on gender identity and how racial issues are taught.”[5] “Several states have introduced [Alliance Defending Freedom] model legislation requiring schools to get parental consent for any lessons about gender identity; a lawyer affiliated with A.D.F. helped draft a Florida measure that L.G.B.T. advocates call the ‘Don’s Say Gay’ law…In an internal briefing, the head of its legislative effort said that A.D.F. had ‘authored’ at least a hundred and thirty bills in thirty-four states last year; more than thirty were passed into law.”[6]As of this writing, 85 anti-trans bills have passed out of 583 proposed in 49 states. Clearly business is booming.


With espousing segregation now off limits as a campaign and fundraising tactic and 70% of the public — including 55% of Republicans — in favor of civil rights for LGBTQ Americans, religious fundamentalists appeared to score a long-awaited victory when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but 85% of the American public supports abortion, in at least some circumstances which puts the theocrats in the awkward position of the dog that caught the car. 


So far the Dobbs decision has the makings of a pyrrhic victory; the prayer warriors need to pivot, but do they have anywhere left to go? Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, summed up the problem this way: 


“As someone who writes social science, I can’t tell you how many sentences I’ve begun with the words, ‘with the lone exception of white evangelical Protestants.’ Whether it is on immigration, LGBTQ issues, abortion — white evangelical Christians are increasingly outliers to the middle of the country, not just to the left…They have shrunk by nearly a third just over the last decade. Today, they are 14.5 percent of the population. And as they have shrunk, they have been hemorrhaging young people…It’s that dynamic that is driving the fundraising. There’s a kind of last-stand desperation, an apocalyptic feeling that if we don’t do something now, we will lose the country. And if we don’t do something to win it back, there will never be another opportunity.”[7]


Evangelicals — particularly those of pale complexion — understandably fear Elvis has left the building. Tidings from Western Europe and large parts of North America would tend to confirm their fears.[8] True to form, their response has been apocalyptic: burn it to the ground. Society will be reordered to reflect their “christendomic” view that the right wing of the fundamentalist church is the state and to achieve this end various “legal ministries” are quietly positioning lawyers. “Our research indicates that many of these individuals have clerked for multiple state judges, federal judges, state attorneys general, and are in the midst of working their way upwards in the echelons of government. While there does appear to be a fair gender balance amongst known Blackstone alumni, of the ones we were able to identify, they were overwhelmingly white and, of course, exclusively Christian.”[9] Current polling shows that 31% of white evangelical Protestants believe “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.”[10]


But even those who expect the unexpected didn’t see Mike Johnson coming. The new Speaker of the House — elected unanimously by his Republican colleagues — has an interesting history to say the least. “Few would especially remember the role he played within the larger story of Southern Baptist higher education in recent years.” Louisiana Christian University planned to open a law school “named after Judge Paul Pressler, one of the principal architects of the ‘conservative resurgence’ in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Johnson “was named dean of the forthcoming Pressler School of Law…clearly instituted to be a training ground of Christian lawyers who would unite constitutional originalism with social conservatism and the defense of religious privilege.” 


The Pressler School of Law never opened. The Southern Association of Colleges warned the school “for significant non-compliance with multiple standards of accreditation” and in 2012 “denied an ascent from Level III to Level V accreditation that would allow the proposed law school to confer degrees.”[11] Needless to say, Johnson’s appointment at the misbegotten not-a-law-school is unmentioned on his résumé.


Nevertheless, the newly elected speaker has quite the CV: “He defended Donald Trump at both of his impeachment hearings, helped plot the Jan. 6 attempted coup, and holds hardline positions on everything from abortion to LGBTQ rights. He worked for the [Alliance Defending Freedom] from 2002 until 2010, penning op-eds against marriage equality and endorsing briefs filed by the ADF meant to criminalize sexual activity between consenting adults.”[12]                                                                                                                                                                                                        No evangelical prayer warrior’s bona fides would be complete without a defense of “young Earth creationism” and Johnson can check that box as well. Johnson represented creationist Ken Ham, helping his Ark Encounter, which claims people and dinosaurs lived at the same time, “secure millions in state tourism subsidies.” Regarding Ham’s Ark exhibit, Johnson proclaimed it “is one way to bring people to this recognition…that what we read in the Bible are actual historical events” and praised the Creation Museum for “doing maybe the best work right now in our generation of pointing people to the truth.”[13]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “Hours before the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, Johnson posted on X, “We MUST fight for election integrity, the Constitution, and the preservation of our republic! It will be my honor to help lead that fight in the Congress today.” Later that day, Johnson was among the 147 Republicans that voted to overturn the election…Over a year after January 6, 2021, Johnson ‘continued to argue that he and his colleagues had been right to object to the election results’ on his religious podcast Truth Be Told. When asked in a press conference on Tuesday about his involvement in attempting to overturn the 2020 election, Johnson did not answer. The Republicans surrounding him ‘drown[ed] out [the reporter’s] question with laughter and booing.’”[14]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Whatever the eventual fate of American democracy, we can take at least some consolation, knowing as we must, that the stage is now set for more rounds of  Christian “fundraising,” and that the careers of preachers and pols, as well as other shysters and shills are, at least for the moment, secure.

Robert Conner is the author of The Death of Christian BeliefThe Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last DaysApparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost StoryThe Secret Gospel of Mark; and Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics


[1] Adam Nagourney & Jeremcy W. Peters, “How a Campaign Against Transgender Rights Mobilized Conservatives,” The New York Times, April 16, 2023.

[2] Adam Gabbatt, “Revealed: Christian legal non-profit funds US anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion organizations,” The Guardian, June 30, 2023.

[3] Molly Redden, “This Billionaire Hedge Funder Is Quietly Financing Anti-Trans Advocacy Across the U.S.,”, October 26, 2023.

[4] Mark Wingfield, “Evangelical university president seeks to raise money by casting blame on transgender people,”, April 18, 2023.

[5] Russell Contreras, “The forces behind anti-trans bills across the U.S,”, October 23, 2023.

[6] David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Next Targets for the Group That Overturned Roe,”, October 2, 2023.

[7] Stuart Richardson, “Groups opposed to gay rights rake in millions as states debate anti-LGBTQ bills,, March 23, 2022.

[8] Robert Conner, The Death of Christian Belief, 2023.

[9] Sofia Resnick & Sharona Coutts, “Not the Illuminati: How Fundamentalist Christians Are Infiltrating State and Federal Government,”, May 13, 2014.

[10] Fiona André, “Poll: More religious Americans support the use of political violence,”, October 25, 2023.

[11] Christopher Schelin, “New speaker of the House once led never-opened Paul Pressler School of Law,, October 25, 2023.

[12] Spencer MacNaughton, “Inside the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Anti-LGBTQ Org Where Mike Johnson Spent Almost a Decade,”, October 29, 2023.

[13] Liz Skalka & Paul Blumenthat, “New House Speaker Thinks Creationist Museum Is ‘Pointing People To The Truth,”, October 26, 2023.

[14] Judd Legum, Tesnim Zekeria & Rebecca Crosby, “What everyone should know about the new House Speaker, Mike Johnson,”, October 26, 2023.