Home Christian News How an Upstart Conservative Group Is Taking Christian Nationalist Politics Local

How an Upstart Conservative Group Is Taking Christian Nationalist Politics Local

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CDF Co-Founder Steve Maxwell delivers a speech to CDF supporters during a broadcasted meeting. Video screengrab from CDF video

ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) — Last summer, when Miami-Dade County’s school board reversed itself, voting to reject two sex education textbooks for use in its middle and high schools, The New York Times reported that the school board had folded to “pressure from parents empowered by a new state education law” — specifically Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education Act, more familiarly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Yet, according to accounts of the July public comment session where the vote was taken, all but two of the 38 who came to the microphones voiced their support for the sex ed curriculum. The pressure to ban the textbooks, local activists say, came instead from conservative groups, particularly Citizens Defending Freedom, which gave interviews to local media and pressured board members to ban references to abortion or gender identity “ideology” in schools.

“I think it was like two or three people from Moms for Liberty, and then one or two people from CDF,” recalled Maxx Fenning, executive director for Prism, a South Florida organization which advocates for LGBTQ inclusion that championed the two textbooks in Miami-Dade.

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While CDF is hardly a household name, its activists have become regular voices before school boards and in other public meetings across Texas, Georgia and especially Florida since the group was founded roughly two years ago.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn speaks at an event for County Citizens Defending Freedom in Dade County, Fla. Video screen grab of CDF Facebook video

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn speaks at an event for County Citizens Defending Freedom in Dade County, Fla. Video screen grab of CDF Facebook video

Rooted in religion and endorsed by figures such as former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, CDF members have been acting as foot soldiers in a broader culture war, fighting small, local battles to slow COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, back abortion bans and remove books they find objectionable from schools — including targeting books (or events) that promote LGBTQ equality or detail the experiences of LGBTQ people.

Fenning described the CDF as a segment of an emerging conservative activist coalition that includes the Florida-based Christian Family Coalition and the increasingly national Moms for Liberty.

“We see them as Moms for Liberty in suits,” Fenning said of CDF.

The inspiration for CDF, according to insiders, came in 2021, when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke with a group of faith and business leaders meeting at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach resort. Steve Maxwell, CEO of Highland Packaging Solutions, which makes plastic clamshells and other containers for produce, later told the newspaper Florida Today that he was impressed with Paul’s frank assessment of Washington as rife with corruption. Shortly afterward, Maxwell founded CDF with John Durham, a fellow entrepreneur Maxwell attended church with during a stint in Texas.

The model for CDF’s activism is an old one, utilized by religious right groups going back to the late 1980s. Organizing nationally but working on the county level — CDF was originally named County Citizens Defending Freedom — Christian conservatives take over school boards and other local political entities, where their influence is at the classroom level and in local voting precincts and scrutiny from the political opposition and the press is low.

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“The fight to save America begins at the LOCAL level,” reads an early CDF brochure for funders that details plans to expand into 100 counties nationwide. In a recent promotional video, Maxwell said CDF would focus on the counties he called the nation’s “most corrupt.”

Beginning in Polk County, in central Florida where Maxwell is based, CDF has rapidly created about 20 visibly active county-level chapters, each representing itself as a local group, which send representatives to agitate for causes at public meetings like the one in Miami-Dade. Last month, CDF leaders in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, addressed a school board meeting about plans to declare June Pride Month.