The Christian Right Mastermind Behind Citizens United Says It’s Good for Democracy

The famous case that unleashed corporate money on politics was actually part of a 40-year project by the religious right to overturn restrictions on campaign finance.

Evan Vucci/AP

When you think of the Christian Right and politics, probably you think of abortion, homosexuality, and religious exemptions. You probably don’t think of campaign finance.

James Bopp does.

Although you’ve probably never heard his name before, Bopp was one of the leading minds behind Citizens United and other efforts to deregulate political spending. He’s also been the lawyer for leading Christian Right organizations including the National Right to Life Committee, National Organization for Marriage, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family.

That is not a coincidence. In fact, these organizations, ostensibly devoted to social issues, have been the lead plaintiffs in over 70 lawsuits challenging campaign finance laws, as first disclosed in a report last year by the liberal group Common Cause.

Though he didn’t argue the Citizens United case at the Supreme Court—he was deemed too ideologically divisive—Bopp masterminded the conservative group’s overall strategy, and gloated to the New York Times that “we had a ten year plan to take all this down… we have been awfully successful and we are not done yet.”

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, however, Bopp told a different story.

“I really didn’t set out to be involved in campaign finance,” Bopp said. “It was just a fortuitous chain of events… The Right-to-Life movement felt it was under serious threat of attacks from the Federal Election Commission.” Bopp was hired by Indiana Right-to-Life in 1976 and then the National Right to Life Committee, beginning in 1978.

After the 1980 election, Bopp explained, the NRLC, which distributed thousands of ‘voter guides’ “was either credited or blamed for having a major impact in the election, including the defeat of twelve incumbent Democratic pro-choice senators replaced by twelve Republican pro-life senators.”

That attracted the attention of the FEC.

“The FEC decided that if voter guides were going to influence elections, it was time to outlaw them and so they proceeded to adopt a series of regulations that led to my very first campaign finance case.”

In fact, the FEC argued that the voter guides constituted political campaigning by a nonprofit, which it clearly was. But Bopp was successful in persuading courts that because they weren’t directly campaigning for a single candidate, the nonprofit itself, not just its political action committees (PACs), should be allowed to distribute the guides—even though contributions to it are tax deductible and not meant to be for political campaigns.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because there’s a direct line from that case to Citizens United, which overturned bans on electioneering by corporations. In fact, Bopp, and the Christian Right, were involved at many steps along the way.

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“In 2007,” Bopp told The Daily Beast, “I won a case for Wisconsin Right to Life in the U.S. Supreme Court, and that summer, Citizens United called me, saying ‘we want to do a movie on Hillary Clinton, but we want to make sure we can run it.’ That ended up in a lawsuit because we felt that the FEC would view it to be a violation of the law, and they did.”

I asked Bopp what he would say to the many moderate Americans who feel that Citizens United has harmed our democracy by enabling huge corporations and organizations—often funded by a handful of super-rich donors—to spend unlimited amounts of money. Surprisingly, his response was that the case actually was good for democracy.

Citizens United was about whether or not people of average means can come together in an organization, and by pooling their resources thereby be effective in doing things that rich people can do already,” he said. “Individuals have always been able to spend their own money to advocate the election of candidates. The problem with being a person of average means is you don’t have the money…. So your only outlet is to pool your resources, which means you join a group…. then you can do what a rich person can do, which is advocate for the election of a candidate.”

But aren’t most of those “groups” actually large corporations, or organizations funded by a few wealthy donors?

“A corporation is just a form—a legal form of how to associate together, just like a union,” Bopp said. “You know, I helped incorporate the Wabash Valley Girls’ Volleyball Association. It’s a corporation…. just a form for people to associate. Yeah, there are big ones but there are lots of small ones. And there’s nothing inherent in a corporation being big or small.”

The numbers tell a different story. In 1980, the top 0.01 percent of the population contributed 15 percent of total political contributions. But between 2010 and 2014, just 195 donors—the top .0013 percent of the population—funded 60 percent of super PACs, which, as (supposedly) independent corporations are exempt from both donation limits and spending limits, thanks to the progeny of Citizens United.

Corporate spending on politics is also, obviously, mostly done by huge businesses, not volleyball leagues. It’s mostly undisclosed—in 2012, almost $320 million was spent without any disclosure of donors. And it’s tilted rightward, with conservative outside spending outpacing liberal outside spending by a rate of over 2-to-1.

But it’s the intersection with the Christian Right that is perhaps the most puzzling. Why, and how, are conservative religious groups fighting to destroy election laws? Didn’t Jesus say that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”?

Bopp says it was a matter of necessity.

“The Right To Life movement felt it was under serious threat by attacks from the FEC,” he said. “They decided to be pro-active, not wait until the eve of an election to get whacked by some law, but to be pro-active and try to monitor and influence campaign finance legislation, and bring suit if it looks like it would jeopardize their activities.”

Common Cause found that between 1993 and 1998, Bopp brought lawsuits in 26 states on behalf of the NRLC and its affiliates alone. Bopp is still general counsel at NRLC, and he’s been special counsel to the RNC, special counsel to Focus on the Family, attorney for NOM, and lead counsel for the Christian Coalition. Other clients have included the Susan B. Anthony List, Christian Broadcasting Network, Traditional Values Coalition, Home School Legal Defense Association, Concerned Women of America, National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, Club for Growth, the Libertarian Party, Republican National Committee, and the state Republican parties of Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont.

Bopp also has an unusual relationship with a nonprofit called the James Madison Center for Free Speech. Set up in 1996 with Mitch McConnell—himself a prodigious fundraiser and super PAC founder—the Center has no staff, no phone line, and no office. It shares an address with Bopp’s (for-profit) law firm, and its tiny board is made up of Bopp’s colleagues at the RNC and NRLC—together with Betsy DeVos, whose family foundation is perhaps the leading funder of hard-right Christian extremism in America.

Moreover, nearly all of the Center’s revenue has gone directly to Bopp’s firm, in the form of fees. The Common Cause report suggested that the Center is merely a conduit; it takes tax-deductible donations and pays them out to Bopp. And the liberal Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint about the James Madison Center in 2013, which is still being investigated.

Bopp denies any wrongdoing.

“The purpose of the Center is to fund litigation. It’s just like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, whose purpose is to fund litigation. It [The NAACP LDF] is obviously hugely bigger and has multiple lawyers that it is funding. The Madison Center is small, and frankly they hired one of the most successful campaign finance lawyers in the country at very reasonable prices. They’re fulfilling their purpose.”

As for the fact that the Center is basically located within Bopp’s for-profit law firm, he said “I provide all of the organizational and administrative and bookkeeping services to the Madison Center for free, pro bono… I guess no good deed goes unpunished.”

Of course, some would say that close relationship between a non-profit and a for-profit is precisely the point. But Bopp told me that while the IRS investigation is still pending, he has been cleared by the Indiana Secretary of State and the Indiana Supreme Court. Moreover, he said, the Center also funds legal actions where Bopp is only one among many attorneys.

“As to the IRS, he said, “I’ve heard nothing. Maybe they put this in the CREW round file.” I.e., the garbage.

Whatever the nature of the nonprofit center, it’s the Christian Right’s outsized prominence in campaign finance litigation that is probably most surprising. Most Christians have likely never heard of Jim Bopp, and probably wouldn’t think of opposing campaign finance regulation as a Christian religious issue. And yet these organizations have led the fight for more than 30 years.

Is enabling corporations and anonymous wealthy individuals to influence What Jesus Would Do? Who knows. Then again, if memory serves, Christ decided to the moneylenders out of the Temple—not help them elect the High Priest.