How Montana Became a Testing Ground for Christian Nationalism

The fifth season of the hit show “Yellowstone” premiered on the Sunday after the midterm elections, with Kevin Costner’s character, the rancher John Dutton, assuming Montana’s governorship. “This was never my plan,” he says, wearing a cowboy hat outside the State Capitol building in Helena. Dutton has reluctantly entered politics in part to stop an influx of rich outsiders he believes are transforming his home. In the last three years, Montana has become the second-fastest-growing state in the nation, largely because of the arrival of wealthy transplants. Unlike Dutton, many influential figures in the state’s real Republican Party have welcomed them, sometimes calling them “political refugees” fleeing blue states. Montana’s actual governor, the Republican Greg Gianforte, is himself a multimillionaire who was raised in Pennsylvania. Since assuming office in 2021, Gianforte has presided over this period of demographic change and economic growth, which has coincided with a hard shift to the right in state politics.

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Montana has a tradition of ticket-splitting and has long been one of the most politically independent states in the union, resisting the kind of single-party rule that has flourished in the neighboring states of Idaho and Wyoming. But in recent years, Republicans have managed to secure an ironclad grasp over state government, and the religious right is ascendant. “We’re a country founded on Christian ideals,” Austin Knudsen, the attorney general, told me. “That’s what’s made us the country that we are.” In 2021, the Montana Legislature passed a bill banning transgender athletes on sports teams at public schools and universities, an increased tax credit benefiting private Christian schools and numerous anti-abortion laws. “They’re trying to convert the state,” said Whitney Williams, who ran for governor as a Democrat in 2020. When the state G.O.P. gathered in Billings last July to formalize its platform, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, told those assembled that Montana was “a symbol for the nation.”

The Montana Republican Party has a few factions, among them free-market advocates and moderates willing to cross party lines. But the dominant voice is that of the far right. At the convention in Billings, that group was well represented. In attendance was the party treasurer, Derek Skees, who has called Montana’s Constitution a “socialist rag”; a state representative named John Fuller, who published an opinion column in The Flathead Beacon earlier that year declaring that democracy had “failed as miserably as socialism”; and a public-service commissioner, Randy Pinocci, who told me that he “hunt[s] RINOs” (Republicans in name only). During the convention, a group of delegates led an ultimately unsuccessful push to declare the 2020 presidential election fraudulent. (In Montana, such efforts occupy a curious logical space: Citizen groups sympathetic to Donald Trump have repeatedly demanded recounts of districts he won handily.)

As waiters served steak in a windowless ballroom, the party chairman, Don Kaltschmidt, a car dealer, stood at a lectern framed by checkered racing flags. “When Republicans come together, we always win,” Kaltschmidt said. “Every time, when we come together, we win. So let’s keep Montana Montana!”

Gianforte, a bald, resolute man of 61, made only a brief appearance in Billings. He is an evangelical Christian and former entrepreneur who sold his cloud-based customer-service company, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle for $1.5 billion in 2012, before entering politics. For more than 25 years, Gianforte has belonged to a church in Bozeman adhering to a literal interpretation of the Bible that rejects evolution and considers homosexuality a sin. He doesn’t often discuss his faith, but his donations reflect a clear set of religious values. Through their foundation, Gianforte and his wife, Susan, have contributed to an organization that funds scholarships at private schools, many of which are Christian; a Montana fossil museum that challenges evolution; and Focus on the Family, a Christian organization that vehemently opposes gay rights. From 2013 to 2019, the Gianforte Family Charitable Trust gave $300,000 to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a global nonprofit dedicated to protecting religious liberty; its lawyers have represented several Christian business owners who refused to serve same-sex couples. (Through a spokesperson, Gianforte declined interview requests.)

Gianforte spent much of his remarks in Billings congratulating the convention delegates on their party’s takeover of Montana politics. “We have reversed a 100-year trend,” he told the crowd, noting that it was the first time since the 1920s that Republicans controlled all state constitutional offices and a majority of the Legislature. And Gianforte said he believed the best days for Montana Republicans were still ahead. “I think we can paint our state an even brighter shade of red,” he said.

The recent midterms may have proved him right. In November, Montana defied the national trend of Republican disappointment. Because of its increased population, the state earned a second congressional seat, which went to Ryan Zinke, who previously served as a U.S. representative before becoming Trump’s secretary of the interior, a post from which he resigned while being investigated for using his office for personal gain. (He has rejected the allegations as “politically motivated.”) Republicans won a supermajority of seats in the State Legislature, which means the party has enough votes to put proposed amendments to the State Constitution on the ballot. Duane Ankney, a 76-year-old outgoing Republican state senator, told me last summer that he worried legislators might advance what he called “hate bills” targeting the individual liberties of Montanans. “I don’t know why it’s become so extreme.” he said. “What the hell happened?”

FOR MUCH OF the 20th century, Montana reliably sent both Democrats and Republicans to Washington. Candidates across the political spectrum respected Montanans’ libertarian streak, which was born out of a deep suspicion of corporate power. Montana politics were defined by the period in the early 20th century when mining barons ruled the state, controlling legislators and the local newspapers. In response to the corruption of these “copper kings,” Montana passed a strict campaign-finance law in 1912; it also nurtured a powerful organized labor movement. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat who served as governor from 2005 to 2013, has said that the state’s motto should be: “None of your damn business.”

In 1972, Montanans approved a new State Constitution, updating the one that was ratified at statehood in 1889. Concerns about industrial pollution were peaking in the 1970s, and the new Constitution guaranteed citizens the right to “a clean and healthful environment,” as well as an individual right to privacy that the state Supreme Court later decided, in a 1999 ruling, protected access to abortion.

Though the new Constitution created mechanisms to dissuade partisanship, including an independent commission tasked with redrawing electoral maps every decade, Montana continued to foster strains of right-wing extremism, providing refuge to white nationalists and militias. Montana has the smallest percentage of Black residents in the country, and the largest minority group in the state, Native Americans, have faced entrenched disenfranchisement since securing the right to vote in 1924. The settlement of a 2012 lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act mandated the establishment of polling places on particular reservations, but it remains common for tribal citizens to have to drive vast distances to vote in statewide and national races.

In recent years, the rise of Montana’s Christian right has been enabled by the weakening of the state Democratic Party. It has become harder for Montana Democrats to separate themselves from the national party and, as a result, ticket-splitting has dropped. As the strength of timber and railroad unions has faded across much of the state, the state Democratic Party has refocused its organizing efforts on expanding cities and the growing Indigenous vote. But Ta’jin Perez, who is Totonac Indigenous and the deputy executive director of the organizing group Western Native Voice, told me that those efforts have been sporadic. “Both parties have a really lackluster track record in sustained connection and relationship-building in Indian Country,” he said.

Changes to campaign-finance laws have also contributed to tipping the balance of power in the state. Following the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, a dark-money group that became known as American Tradition Partnership challenged Montana’s 1912 law that prohibited corporate spending on campaigns. In 2011, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling the following year, and corporate money poured into Montana. State law still restricts direct corporate spending on local elections, but political-action committees and dark-money groups have injected money into divisive contests and, as in much of the country, there’s no limit on candidates’ donations to their own campaigns.

Gianforte first ran for governor in 2016 against the incumbent Democrat, Steve Bullock, spending more than $6 million of his own money on the race. Gianforte, who was taken with Montana’s land and iconography, is a big-game hunter and the author of a 2005 book, “Bootstrapping Your Business,” that features cowboy boots on its cover. But he couldn’t shake the perception of himself as a wealthy outsider. During his 2016 race for governor, Democratic attacks focused on the fact that, seven years earlier, Gianforte filed a complaint to remove an easement accessing a river running through his property — a serious political misstep in a state in which all navigable streams are public and equal access to wilderness is sacrosanct. Gianforte claimed there had been a misunderstanding with his title company and didn’t pursue his complaint, but Bullock won re-election handily.

Gianforte’s was a rare loss for Montana Republicans that cycle, as Trump blasted apart politics in rural America. Not only did Trump win the state by 20 points, but he also seemed to obliterate Montanans’ resistance to single-party rule. Four months after the election, when Zinke was confirmed as interior secretary, Gianforte ran for his newly vacant seat in the House of Representatives. His campaign benefited from millions of dollars spent on attack ads targeting his opponent, and he began to align himself more with Trump. At an event hosted by a Christian political organization, he promised to “drain the swamp.” Less than a month later, on the eve of his election victory, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, who was asking him a question about the congressional Republican health care plan. A Gianforte spokesman claimed that Jacobs had initiated the physical contact by grabbing Gianforte’s wrist, but Fox News journalists who were present refuted that account. Gianforte pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger-management classes. He also donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but not before winning his race by six points. At a 2018 rally, Trump said he thought the attack had helped Gianforte at the polls, adding, “He’s my guy.”

Gianforte kept a relatively low profile in the House, but his local influence continued to grow. Since arriving in Montana, his family foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to Montana State University, and from 2016 to 2020, he and his wife gave more than $50,000 to Republican candidates for state offices, according to campaign-finance records. In 2020, Gianforte ran again for governor, this time against Bullock’s former lieutenant, Mike Cooney. Bullock himself ran for Senate, losing to Steve Daines — a former employee of Gianforte’s at RightNow Technologies — in a race that drew more than $100 million in outside spending. In the Legislature, Republicans gained another 10 seats, and Gianforte, after spending more than $7 million on his own campaign, finally emerged victorious in his quest to be governor.

Gianforte’s first months in office were occupied by Covid-related battles. News agencies circulated a photo of the governor receiving a vaccine, but he resisted closing any public institutions, leaving decisions about whether schools would remain open to individual districts. The state Department of Health and Human Services also issued an emergency order instructing schools to consider parents’ wishes about mask mandates, claiming that “the scientific literature is not conclusive” on their efficacy. In response, the Montana Nurses Association accused the state of pushing “junk science.” Infighting at school-board meetings became commonplace. In Montana, as in much of the country, the arguments centered on masks and the teaching of what critics called “critical race theory.” Knudsen, the attorney general, issued an opinion that described certain antiracist programming as “racial harassment,” and Gianforte would later oppose the addition of the word “equity” to a teachers’ code of ethics.

During the 2021 legislative session, Republicans introduced a conservative wish list of bills. Along with the ban on transgender athletes, which has been blocked by the courts, they passed a bill that abolished an independent judicial-nomination commission, allowing the governor to directly appoint judges to vacant positions. Another bill increased the tax-credit limit for a private scholarship fund for K-12 schools from $150 to $2 million by 2023 — a boon to faith-based institutions. A majority of private schools in the state are Christian, and in 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a restriction on Montana religious schools’ receiving funding from such tax-credit programs. (The Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious-liberty nonprofit that the Gianfortes have supported, filed an amicus brief in support of the victorious plaintiffs.)

There were also bills banning same-day voter registration and paid ballot collection — measures that are considered essential for tribal communities because of the great distances between many reservations and polling places. After Gianforte signed the voting restrictions into law, Keaton Sunchild, a member of the Rocky Boy’s Chippewa-Cree Tribe and at the time the political director for Western Native Voice, called the laws “a coordinated, pretty overt way of trying to tamp down the enthusiasm and power of the Native vote.” Western Native Voice, along with other advocacy groups, filed suit, and a judge has since blocked the laws as unconstitutional.

Judges may have slowed the Legislature’s momentum, but Henry Kriegel, an influential lobbyist with Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers group, told me that 2021 was the group’s most successful session in Montana in a decade, citing several bills that restricted government regulation. Gianforte often frames his agenda in similar terms. “Government doesn’t create opportunity,” he told the delegates in Billings. “Let’s just get out of the way.”

In the months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gianforte signed several laws restricting reproductive rights, including a bill requiring health care providers to offer women the opportunity to view an ultrasound before deciding to terminate a pregnancy. Groups including Planned Parenthood brought suit, and a Montana district court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the laws as unconstitutional. But Knudsen, the attorney general, began a counteroffensive, asking the state Supreme Court to overrule the judge — and to reconsider the 1999 case that linked abortion to the State Constitution’s right to privacy. (The court declined to lift the injunction and has not signaled that it would reconsider its 1999 decision.) “We’ve got a real judge problem in this state,” Knudsen, who frequently complains about “judicial activism,” said at a firearm-advocacy event last May. Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor and attorney general who was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2002 and 2003, has criticized Knudsen’s attacks on the judiciary as dangerous for the rule of law.

Montana’s new right-wing stridency, together with the Covid-era surge in remote work and the popularity of “Yellowstone,” has encouraged the influx of new residents. Data about their political leanings is difficult to come by, but in May, Knudsen pointed to the strong Republican showing in the 2020 elections as evidence that conservatives were seeking shelter in Montana. In 2021, Flathead County, which is deeply conservative, surpassed the majority Democratic Gallatin County, home to the tech hub of Bozeman, in its rate of population growth.

AS THE MONTANA Republican Party has strengthened its hold on power, the coalition’s existing fissures have widened. Over the course of the three-day platform convention in Billings this summer, numerous speakers appeared to be trying to outdo one another in their performative anger, and it was apparent that the enemies were not limited to the left. Even Skees, the provocative party treasurer, seemed to be watching his right flank. At the time of the convention, he was awaiting the results of a recount of a tight primary race for a seat on the public-service commission, which regulates utilities. “Derek Skees was always a hard-right guy,” said one state Republican official, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “But now he’s being called a RINO!”

The Republicans unveiled their official party platform on the last day of the convention. The fieriest debate surrounded the abortion plank, which contained no exceptions for incest or rape. “We support the preservation of innocent human life at every stage of life, in all circumstances, beginning at conception through natural death,” it read. A young proxy delegate suggested removing the phrase “beginning at conception.” She was met with boos; Skees shouted the idea down. (Shortly after the convention, Skees conceded his primary to his even more conservative opponent.)

In conversations during the convention, several Republicans were open about their embrace of Christian nationalist ideology. Steven Galloway, a state representative from Great Falls, told me that he and his wife, who is also a legislator, had taken what are called “biblical citizenship classes,” developed by a former Texas legislator, who argues that the founding fathers drew heavily from the Bible when writing the Constitution and that the strict separation of church and state is a revisionist idea. “If you want to live here,” Karla Johnson, a chapter president of the Montana Federation of Republican Women, said, “be a Christian.” Keith Regier, an influential state senator, said all laws should be based on Judeo-Christian principles. “The Ten Commandments were a good foundation for any country to live by,” he told me. He was upset by what he perceived to be a censorious cultural moment — especially when it came to people speaking out against gay and transgender rights. “There is an open war on Christianity in this country.”

I told him that I’d heard other Montanans voice feelings of persecution because of the imposition of Christian doctrine. Was there a middle ground to be found? “There probably isn’t a middle,” he said. “You can’t have both.”

Gianforte avoids such extreme language, sticking to economic messaging; while he might enable religious policy, a number of Democratic and Republican legislators said that he does not openly push it. But Alan Rassaby, the former general counsel of Gianforte’s company, RightNow Technologies, told me that he thought Gianforte would gladly take down the wall between church and state if he had the opportunity. “He’d see that as part of his reshaped destiny,” Rassaby said. “But at the same time, he’s pragmatic. So what can he get away with? Whatever he can get away with, he’ll get away with in shaping a Christian society. Because he believes that’s a true society.”

Bryan Hughes, the senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, where Gianforte and his wife are members, told me that he and the governor have never discussed policy. Hughes claims the church is apolitical, but in 2021, a weekly men’s group read a polemic against Black Lives Matter, antiracism and the media titled “Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe,” by Voddie Baucham Jr., a Black former pastor. During a sermon on Mother’s Day, less than a week after news leaked that the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, a Grace Bible pastor prayed that “those little babies, the ones that have not been born yet, might be protected by law.”

On the day after the Billings convention in July, couples filed into Grace Bible Church for the morning service, and security officers assumed their places toward the back of the congregation. Gianforte greeted Hughes and a handful of the other parishioners before sitting down next to his wife and near two notable visitors: the Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts and Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who were in Montana for a gathering of the Republican Governors Association. (Huckabee Sanders would be elected governor of Arkansas in November.)

Hughes yielded the stage to a visiting pastor named Brad Bigney, who dedicated much of the sermon to reassuring parishioners that, though they might feel uncertain, they had to believe that God was in control of their destinies. “We seem like a remnant,” Bigney said. “We seem weak. We seem like we don’t have enough resources. We seem — Hello, read your Bible! It always looks that way! I hear people saying now, ‘My America, I don’t even feel comfortable in my America.’ I get it. But this isn’t our final home,” he continued. “He’s testing us, you guys, and I’m sad to say we’ve got some believers that are failing the test. It looks like they never truly trusted in God and that’s being exposed now. They trusted in their country.”

ON ELECTION DAY, Republicans won 86 out of 127 legislative races, achieving their supermajority. Montana Democrats did not field candidates in 35 of those contests, and turnout was low in majority-Indigenous counties. In Cascade County, a onetime Democratic stronghold, Republicans swept all 15 state legislative races, two of which were uncontested. In the weeks after the election, Republicans announced plans to draft nearly 50 constitutional amendments. They seek to limit state Supreme Court justices’ terms and to change the manner in which the court is elected; to create a new method for drawing legislative districts; and to “revise Montana constitutional language regarding clean and healthful environment.” They also said they would introduce bills to prohibit minors from attending drag shows and to “define the right to privacy” — one of numerous efforts to remove protections for abortion.

Despite the poor results, some Democrats saw reasons to celebrate. The liberal city Missoula elected its first transgender and nonbinary legislators. Gianforte’s handpicked state Supreme Court candidate was defeated. “There was no red wave,” the state party’s executive director, Sheila Hogan, told me. “They do have the supermajority, but we really feel we’re able to work with moderates, and I think we’ll be OK.”

I spoke with several veterans of Montana politics who found this optimistic framing baffling. Bill Lombardi, a longtime Democratic operative, said the party was “institutionalizing losing.” Jon Tester, the Democratic U.S. senator, said that candidates need to campaign harder: “It’s a matter of getting out and meeting people where they’re at.”

For some, a larger, existential question loomed: whether Montana itself had undergone a spiritual transformation. Schweitzer, the former governor, was one of those longtime party stalwarts who thought the pendulum would swing back toward moderation. “Montanans are still the same,” he said. “The Montana Democratic Party took the year off.” But Jason Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a moderate Republican state senator, told me he sensed a more fundamental shift. “One of the Montana values is, if you’re neighbor’s not hurting you, you leave them alone,” he said. “Well, what I see is less of that and more of, ‘You’re just going to do it my way.’”

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