The Real Problem With ”Project 2025”

Bettina Krause January/February 2024

The 2025 Presidential Transition Project has caused quite a stir since it was made public last April. This 887-page document stands apart from other position papers routinely churned out by Washington think tanks and advocacy groups. For a start, there’s the sheer size of the coalition that stands behind it: more than 80 conservative organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, which spearheaded the project, along with other conservative Christian heavyweights such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty University, and the Family Research Council. It’s also notable for its financial backing—the project has a reported $22 million at its disposal.

Some on the political left have called Project 2025 an unapologetic blueprint for a conservative coup—an effort to dismantle America’s democratic institutions. On the other hand, the writers of the document describe it simply as “the conservative movement’s unified effort to be ready for the next conservative administration to govern at 12:00 noon, January 20, 2025.”

So which is it? Is Project 2025 a proposal for an unconstitutional conservative takeover? Or is it a legitimate policy advocacy effort (albeit better organized and more generously funded than most)?

Hold that question for a moment while I share with you a brief story about how this journal, Liberty magazine, came to be.

In 1906, when Liberty magazine was first published, every state in the Union, except for California, Idaho, and the then-territory of Arizona, had some form of Sunday “blue law” on the books. These were laws imposing criminal and other penalties for working on Sunday—the sabbath of America’s Protestant majority. Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, and other dissenters were regularly prosecuted, jailed, or fined for “secular labor” on Sunday. There’s a stunning 1895 photo, for instance, taken in Rhea County, Tennessee, of eight “sabbath-breakers” in a chain gang with other convicted criminals.

We rarely tell these stories when we talk about America’s rich religious freedom heritage. We prefer the less-complicated narrative in which our commitment to religious freedom for everyone arcs in perfect symmetry from the 1791 ratification of the First Amendment to today’s religiously diverse society.

Liberty magazine entered the scene in response to an effort to translate that patchwork of state-level Sunday laws into a federal statute. A powerful lobby group, the National Reform Association, was backed by a federation of Protestant denominations, and for a time its success seemed inevitable. Liberty magazine was launched with the goal of defeating the proposed national Sunday law and extending First Amendment religious freedom protection beyond majority religious practices.

In the first issue of the magazine, the editor of Liberty argued that America was not a “Christian nation” in the sense that its laws should enforce specific Christian doctrines. He wrote that America’s constitutional genius lay in recognizing that “no power but that of love can rightfully compel the conscience. When religion becomes an affair of law, it ceases to be a matter of love” and that “no one has a right to bind his own theology upon anyone’s back but his own.”

These are simple propositions with disproportionately weighty implications. Because in a world where America is a Christian nation—where laws can have the goal of advancing religious doctrine—penalizing Sabbath-breaking is not such an outrageous idea.

So, back to today and Project 2025. Other commentators have already pointed to proposals in the document that would undermine both the spirit and letter of America’s constitutional regime, but let me highlight just one. Tucked away on page 589, in the section focused on reforming the Department of Labor, is a breathtaking proposal to use American laws to support religious doctrine.

The section begins: “God ordained the Sabbath [Sunday] as a day of rest, and until very recently the Judeo-Christian tradition sought to honor that mandate by moral and legal regulation of work on that day.” This is followed by a few sentences on why a regular day off is beneficial, and then the proposal that “Congress should encourage communal rest by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require that workers be paid time and a half for hours worked on the Sabbath.”

Here we glimpse a key assumption behind Project 2025: that America is first and foremost for those who embrace, not just Christianity, but the particular type of Christianity that prioritizes Sunday rest. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by this assertion. Some on the religious right have signaled this—or said it outright—for decades.

The great irony, of course, is that embedding doctrinal imperatives in American law isn’t the best way to persuade folk to take up Sunday Sabbathkeeping. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: “I do not think it will do what you think it will do.”

Not only would using the law in this way strike at the heart of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion—it would also send a clear message that anyone outside the dominant Christian tradition belongs to a lesser class of citizens.

Could there be a more effective way to gut American Christianity’s ability to win hearts and minds for God’s (nonearthly) kingdom? In the words of my editorial predecessor from 1906: “Where legal enactment begins, moral suasion ends.”

Don’t Forget Nuance

There’s an important distinction, though, that shouldn’t be missed. Some critics of Project 2025 have implied that advocating strongly for public policies shaped by conservative religious values is, by itself, disqualifying.

It’s not, and it’s a far-fetched claim if you take more than a moment to think about it. Whether we lean right or left, each one of us brings our whole self—our experiences, our background, our faith or nonfaith—into the civic space when we vote, advocate for policies, or run for office. An elected official may have beliefs shaped by the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, or the writings of some secular philosopher. But the true litmus test for their fitness to serve is whether they abide by the restraints and duties imposed on them by the Constitution they’ve pledged to defend. For that we need to judge their actions, not their religious beliefs.

It’s much the same test for policy ideas, too. Policy proposals aren’t illegitimate simply because we catch the whiff of a worldview that challenges our own beliefs or value system. Our political marketplace of ideas needs to be more robust than that.

But we can and should condemn policy proposals that disregard our Constitution’s limits on governance, or which attempt to impose a religious orthodoxy or preference.

And that’s the litmus test that Project 2025 fails, spectacularly.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.