- Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement by Daniel Bennett
Scholars and even mainstream legal conservatives have a history of dismissing the conservative Christian arm of the legal right as peripheral, marginal, out of the mainstream, and sometimes, as my own research on the Federalist Society showed, as downright kooky. Perhaps that is why some variant of the claim that "the Christian [conservative] legal movement is worthy of scholars' focus and attention" appears multiple times throughout Daniel Bennett's Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement. With the rise of President Trump, this movement has been unexpectedly catapulted from the political periphery into the center of power. Bennett's repeated insistence throughout Defending Faith that the movement is important speaks to the fact that, sadly, as with Trump, no one took these folks seriously until very recently.
Defending Faith focuses on ten different conservative Christian legal organizations, or CCLOs. Bennett defines a CCLO as "a multi-issue organization dedicated to the interests of Christian conservatives primarily through legal advocacy, including litigation and public education" (18). This list includes some well-funded and familiar heavy-hitters such as Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice, and Liberty Counsel as well as some smaller organizations I learned about for the first time, such as the Pacific Justice Institute, First Liberty Institute, and the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund (20).
By compiling and examining a data set of over 6,000 press releases from these organizations over time, Bennett is able to identify the three core issues that each of these organizations promotes as being at the heart of conservative Christian legal advocacy—religious liberty, traditional marriage, and antiabortion activism—as well as issues that are part of what he calls each organization's "niche advocacy." My personal favorite here was his description of some of the smaller CCLOs' "War on Christmas"–focused advocacy (43–44).
Bennett's argument in Defending Faith is a modest one—that these ten CCLOs, "despite sharing much of the same broader agenda, differ in the pursuit of this agenda both substantively and strategically" (3). He certainly carries his burden of proof in showing this throughout the book. But as others have pointed out in their critiques of Defending Faith, Bennett's choice of press releases as his primary data source is questionable. Press releases reveal something about an organization's framing and its desire to attract membership and funding sources, but they tell us relatively little about what lies at the heart of their core missions and what lies at the heart of Bennett's own definition of a CCLO: "legal advocacy and litigation" (18).
As I read through Defending Faith, I was itching to see analyses of these CCLOs' litigating behavior. What cases have they sponsored? What is their rate of success on various issues? Has their litigating agenda changed over time? On which issues have they participated as amici curiae or collaborated with other CCLOs on cases or on brief? Does this match with their press releases or are they marketing themselves one way to attract funders and engaging different issues in their litigation?
This is all to say, there remains much empirical [End Page 44] ground to be tread by future scholars. Defending Faith has opened the door to these CCLOs. It is my greatest hope that this careful, well-timed, and well-written book inspires other scholars to pay attention to this movement and to take it seriously.