Path to Power: Who Funds the Religious Right?

Focus on the family headquarters in colorado springs

Focus on the family headquarters in colorado springs

Forget the fact that the new U.S. president has been married three times and allegedly cheated on each of his wives, or that he made part of his fortune on gambling casinos. The Christian Right has forged an unlikely alliance with Donald Trump. Many evangelical leaders endorsed his candidacy and evangelical voters helped secure his victory. As a result, these are heady days for the Christian Right, which has laid claim to a new level of influence since the election. 

With a range of Christian groups gearing up to push hard on multiple fronts under Trump—like finally knocking off Roe v. Wade—this is a good moment take a look at the funders backing this movement. Who's putting up the money to wage a new kind of holy war in Washington and state capitols? 

Lots of funders are religious, or support religious causes. Here, we’re looking at the funders who steadily fund policy and advocacy organizations on the Christian Right. This list isn't exhaustive by any means, but it represents some of the most prominent and biggest giving players in this space.  

The National Christian Foundation

The National Christian Foundation operates one of the largest donor-advised funds in the nation, with grantmaking fast approaching $1 billion a year. It’s also unabashedly evangelical, with messages on its website attesting that the Bible contains “the inerrant Word of God.” 

Grants from NCF stream out to a wide array of community charities, nonprofits, and churches, and most of this giving has nothing to do with hot-button social issues. But NCF is also a powerhouse player in the culture war. Almost every major group in the right-wing Christian universe has received funds from NCF. 

A big advantage of NCF, like other donor-advised funds, is that it can channel money anonymously. So if you’re wealthy, Christian, and interested in funding controversial groups that might give your family name or business negative exposure—say, efforts to roll back LGBT rights—NCF is a good way to go. NCF also offers the usual advantages of a DAF, handling all the details of grantmaking so donors can avoid the hassle of creating their own foundations. 

Major beneficiaries of NCF include Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, as well as groups like the American Family Association, the Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Discovery Institute. NCF heavily backs right-wing legal groups like the Jerry Falwell-affiliated Liberty Counsel, the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), and the Pacific Justice Institute, to name a few. Organizations like these have been instrumental in promoting “religious liberty” as a means to permit discrimination against LGBT customers or clients.

Every year, NCF donors join leading figures from the religious right at The Gathering. Since 1985, the conference has been a focal point for far-right Christian giving. Representatives of the DeVos, Green, Maclellan, Friess and Bolthouse philanthropic families are regular attendees, giving us some insight into the big names in this orbit. 

RelatedBig Money, Quiet Power: A Look at the National Christian Foundation

The DeVoses

As the Trump administration gears up, the DeVos name is back in the news. If she is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos will no doubt bring her passion for school choice to the role, a troubling thought to those on the other side of that heated debate. But as journalist Katherine Stewart recently pointed out in the New York Times, DeVos also "stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right." Her father, Edgar Prince, contributed to the creation of the Family Research Council, and Prince family money still goes to groups on the Christian Right. Meanwhile, her father-in-law, Amway founder Richard DeVos Sr., was an early funder of such groups in the 1970s. 

DeVos giving is socially conservative first, with economic libertarianism as an important side note. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation has given to family values groups like Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Heritage Foundation is another arch-conservative beneficiary. Meanwhile, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation also has a hand in the game with gifts to Focus on the Family and to faith-based education on the local level. 

Based in Michigan, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation is named after Betsy DeVos’s billionaire parents (a separate fortune from that of her billionaire father-in-law). Betsy’s brother Erik Prince is a former Navy SEAL, a Trump backer, and the founder of Blackwater USA. He’s also vice president of his family’s foundation, which consistently funds the religious right through groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. 

Related:

David Green

The billionaire founder of Hobby Lobby came to political prominence in 2014 after winning a Supreme Court suit releasing him from the obligation to provide his employees with contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. This victory for the “religious liberty” argument galvanized the religious right. Interestingly, Green expressed deep concerns about Republican candidate Donald Trump in early 2016, endorsing Marco Rubio. Later, he changed his tune and endorsed the nominee.

Green, whose net worth exceeds $6 billion, views all of his vast wealth as the literal property of God. He’s another one of those quiet, steady, wholly dedicated funders on the religious right whose sense of mission exceeds the bounds of this life. Unlike some other names on this list, he hasn’t been a front-row funder of right-wing policy activism. Green’s approach is to build the base, donating princely sums each year to ministries and Christian educational organizations across the U.S. His lifetime giving may exceed $500 million so far.

Green is also one of the ultra-rich philanthropists who joined the Giving Pledge, which means a windfall is in the wings for some lucky Christian organizations. Green family philanthropy also extends to large-scale construction: Green’s son and current Hobby Lobby president Steve Green is building a Museum of the Bible set to open fall of 2017 in Washington D.C. 

The Thirteen Foundation

And now for a few names you probably haven’t heard of. First among them: the Thirteen Foundation, a philanthropic vehicle founded by fracking billionaire Farris Wilks. Farris and his brother Dan joined many of their fellow Texans in the hydraulic fracturing gold rush of the early 2000s, coming out with over a billion each from the sale of their firm. In addition to acquiring sizable land holdings across the American West, the Wilks brothers have dedicated their fortune to a higher calling: the cause of God. Through the organizations they fund, the Wilkses have affiliations with another pair of billionaire brothers, the Kochs.

In addition to being a wealthy landowner, Farris Wilks is pastor of the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day Church, a fundamentalist Christian congregation near Cisco, Texas. A backer of Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential race, Wilks and his wife Joann have pumped over $100 million into the Thirteen Foundation. 

Under the radar, Thirteen has been a key funder of groups like Media Revolution Ministries and American Majority (a Tea Party grassroots organization). Focus on the Family, Liberty Counsel, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation have received hefty checks. Thirteen is also involved in the right’s push for an increased presence in state government. Grantees include the State Policy Network and the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, both active in pushing right-wing policy initiatives on the local level.

The Maclellan Family Foundations

Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Maclellan family grew to prominence as founders of the Provident Life Insurance Company. Since Robert J. Maclellan entered the world of philanthropy in 1945, the family has backed Christian causes through several vehicles including the Maclellan Foundation, the Robert L. and Kathrina H. Maclellan Foundation, and the Christian Education Charitable Trust.

On their website, the Maclellan family foundations affirm their commitment to “serve those advancing Christ’s Kingdom around the globe.” And with total philanthropic assets approaching $400 million, they can do that. The bulk of the family’s philanthropy is conducted through the Maclellan Foundation, which gives away close to $30 million a year. 

Christian ministries in Tennessee receive regular support, and money also goes out to fund international missionary work. But an even greater part of Maclellan giving filters through the National Christian Foundation’s private donor-advised fund, where it may benefit local American churches, the religious right, or both. We just don't know. 

The Bolthouse Foundation

Another lesser-known stalwart of the religious right, the Bolthouse Foundation no longer has any affiliation with Bolthouse Farms, of which its founders sold their share in 2005. The foundation is staunchly Christian, with a firm statement of Biblical literalist faith on its sparse website. Its resources don’t match up to those of some other entries here, but giving is substantial: around $100 million since 2006. 

Close to $75 million of that total has been channeled through the National Christian Foundation, making it difficult to tell exactly where it went. But we can be certain that Bolthouse’s contributions to the DAF advanced the religious right. Independent of NCF, the found ation has supported a plethora of activist Christian organizations including the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family. It’s also given plenty to Christian education organizations, youth fellowships, and individual churches. 

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

The Bradley Foundation is a key donor across the conservative spectrum, and its funding has been instrumental in conservatives’ decades-long fight to roll back the welfare state. Unlike NCF and its network, Bradley’s grants center on promoting capitalism and limiting government. But the foundation merits inclusion on this list because it has also been a steady donor, under the radar, to many of the biggest names on the religious right.

Bradley has backed institutions like the Family Research Council, the National Organization for Marriage, the American Principles Project, and Focus on the Family, all crusaders for “traditional values” in marriage and civic life. Bradley also supports the Discovery Institute, a key booster of creationism as an alternative to evolutionary science. Other grantees include the Heritage Foundation, a conservative stalwart, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, that has also represented clients with non-Christian religious beliefs.

Sean Fieler

Fieler made his fortune in hedge funds and, as we've reported, has lately emerged as a leading conservative Catholic philanthropist. But while Fieler doesn't quite fit on this list in some ways, his giving very much tracks with other philanthropy we see on the Christian right. Through his Chiaroscuro Foundation, Fieler has given to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, whose mission is to "defend religious freedom by providing protective legal services at the trial level to persons whose religious liberty and free-speech rights have been attacked."

Fieler also advances conservative moral values regarding sexuality, aiming to reconnect "sex and procreation," and is a pro-life funder. Recent support has also gone to the National Abstinence Education Foundation and Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund. Susan B. Anthony List, by the way, is a "political action committee helping pro-life women gain election to Congress." Sums have also gone to Love & Fidelity Network, which "builds the next generation of leaders for marriage, family, and sexual integrity." As well, Fieler has funded work against the Common Core State Standards, which are deeply unpopular on the religious right. 

RelatedSean Fieler's Philanthropy: The Hedge Funder Who Promotes Conservative Values