Updated: Apr 15, 2021
In this ongoing series, Montana Press will continue to present a biographical profile of Montana’s new governor, exploring his history and following his leadership of state government. For the first three installments of the series, please see Part 1: Early Years; Part 2: Building Businesses; and Part 3: Funding Petra Academy.
While Christians make up 70% of the US population, and a majority of this country’s governors, senators and congressmen are practicing Christians, Montana’s newly-elected governor is perhaps the first to have come out of the Fundamentalist tradition, with deep convictions about the place Christian values play in every-day life.
Governor Greg Gianforte is unique in one other way: he’s also the first governor in Montana history to have an impressive digital-tech background, one that earned him hundreds of millions of dollars through the sale of two companies he built, Brightwork Development ($10 million) and RightNow Technologies ($1.5 billion), funds that he now uses to donate to charitable organizations, through the Gianforte Family Foundation. As devout a conservative as he is a Christian, he almost certainly is the richest man to occupy the Governor’s Residence in Helena since it was built in 1959.
For nearly two decades now, The Gianforte Family Foundation (GFF) has allowed the new governor an opportunity to donate to a wide variety of non-profit organizations, many of which support his family’s religious beliefs. Many of these non-profits, however, have political agendas that match the Governor’s own political views. Organizations such as Focus on the Family, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council and the Montana Family Foundation, all of whom are recipients of GFF funds, hold similar, if not identical, political opinions to Governor Gianforte’s.
Gianforte’s religious journey has taken him a long way from his childhood in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a congregant at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church. According to interviews with fellow church peers, that church was led by civil-rights advocate Rev. Joseph Jesen Jr. Members who attended church with Gianforte recall attending anti-nuclear rallies, and of hearing stories about Reverend Jesen marching on Washington, protesting the Vietnam War and registering voters in Selma, Alabama. Marwan Kreidie, who grew up with Gianforte in that Philadelphia suburb says he’s “religiously made quite a journey.”
Although Gianforte has not directly spoken about his religious affiliations on the East Coast as compared to those in Montana, his religious identity has certainly shifted. The family moved to Bozeman, after the sale of Brightwork Development Inc. in 1994.
According to tax records, the Gianforte Family Foundation started donating to Grace Bible Church in Bozeman, Montana in 2006; to date, the GFF to date has donated over $4 million to the family’s church. Grace Bible Church has remained the Gianforte family’s congregation for over a decade and Pastor Bryan Hughes of Grace Bible Church even spoke at the governor’s inauguration on Jan. 4, 2021.
Grace Bible Church
The Governor’s church was founded in 1945. According to its website, the church identifies itself as a non-denominational church, also describing itself as a “bible,” “historical,” “instructional” and “evangelistic” church.
“Non-denominational does not mean not fundamentalist or not evangelical because technically, fundamentalism and evangelicalism are not denominations,” says Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They are orientations, they are movements; they are not contained within a denomination.”
Dr. Du Mez has authored two books, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” and “A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism.” She has been featured in The Washington Post, and on NPR and NBC News, exploring how evangelicalism in America is defined by cultural and political movements, not just by theology.
While identifying evangelical churches can get confusing, many non-denominational churches can be marked as evangelical. After looking at the Grace Bible Church constitution, Dr. Du Mez says that she would describe the church as Evangelical with “fundamentalist flavors.”
Fundamentalism follows faith strictly and Scripture literally. According to the Grace Bible Church constitution, “the Bible, in part and in whole, is authoritative for the believer. The authority of the Bible is both inherent in the Bible and rightfully bestowed on it as a believer comes to understand it. (Matthew 28:18-20; Titus 2:15)”
“Unless they have these things hidden away somewhere, most evangelical churches are not going to go into that depth, especially the non-denominational sorts,” Dr. Du Mez explains. “And so in this case, it’s certainly within leadership of the church, theology is very much operative in themes.”
Each by-line of the Grace Bible constitution is backed with a Bible verse to support the text, and the constitution covers the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, Mankind, The Holy Spirit, Creation, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming. The constitution also explains marriage, sexuality and gender. According to the constitution, marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman. Same-sex marriange is a sin, and any attempt to change one’s gender is also labeled as a sin.
The article within the constitution labeled “Governance” explains the duties of elders, deacons, etc. According to the constitution, only men are allowed to hold elder and deacon positions. Women cannot hold leadership positions at Grace Bible Church.
Grace Bible Church “understands the language of 1 Timothy 3 (e.g., “if any man”, “he desires”, “the husband of one wife”, “he must manage his household,”etc.), 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (“they [women] are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves”), 1 Timothy 2 (“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”) to mean that Elders are required to be men and not women. This is consistent with our Lord appointing only male apostles (Matthew 10; Mark 3; Luke 5) as well as the practice of the historic, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Church.”
Dr. Du Mez says it’s normal for women to be excluded from leadership roles in evangelical churches. She says that, for many churches, women are able to teach Sunday school or children’s ministries. However, according to the staff board on the Grace Bible Church website, only male elders hold those roles.
According to the Grace Bible website, Women’s Ministries at the church include cooking meals for those in need, helping with certain services and receptions, and cleaning and helping with seminars and retreats.
When asked if there is push back about church roles for women, Dr. Du Mez says that many women are fine with the role they are given. She explains that many women find pleasure in the community they’re part of.
“Not all women are chasing out these restrictions at all; many are quite comfortable,” Du Mez says. “And then many are defensive against anybody who would criticize them or imply that they are being oppressed or, imply that they are submissive, because they feel comfortable within these restrictions.”
Dr. Du Mez also says women who are uncomfortable with these defined roles probably don’t join a church like Grace Bible, or they choose to leave because it’s easier than fighting against the established roles.
Grace Bible’s constitution also states that members can be removed from the Church due to a member passing away, moving, not attending services or not living in “accord to faith and order of the church.”
Dr. Du Mez says the church’s constitution emphasizing theology is a way to ensure no one can diverge. “So anybody [is] out if they cross any of those lines, and there’s a lot of lines that you could cross,” Du Mez says.
The Culture and Donations
Dr. Du Mez explains that, by and large, many evangelicals don’t use theology as a strong motivator. Instead, evangelicals use evangelical culture as a motivator.
“There’s this kind of cultural identity of what it means to be an avid evangelical,” Du Mez says. “And that’s where I really highlight the importance of an evangelical consumer-culture.”
Participating in the evangelical subculture means immersing in products like evangelical radio shows, books, and ministries. She says that, for many evangelicals, the culture is “more at the heart” of what it means to be evangelical than articulating the theological. Articulating theology would make sense for a pastor or elder to do, but not as much for followers.
Examples of individuals driving the evangelical consumer-culture include the late Jerry Falwell, an American pastor who became wealthy due to his radio and television show and books. Other evangelists did the same, like the late Billy Graham and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; now 84, Dobson has written dozens of books and his radio show still plays all across America.
The Gianforte Family Foundation donated $725,000 between 2007 to 2018 to Focus on the Family and $119,000 to the Family Research Council, which was co-founded by Dobson in 1983. According to the Family Research Council’s website, the latter merged and became a division within Focus on the Family in 1988. As of 2018, the Family Research Council had over $16 million in revenue. As of 2019, Focus on the Family has $99 million in revenue.
The Gianforte Family Foundation has also donated $283,500 to Alliance Defending Freedom, between 2008 to 2018. As of 2019, Alliance Defending Freedom had over $57 million in revenue.
Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council are described as “ministries” or religious organizations; however, their actual activities often cross over the line into politics. Many suggest that these organizations are far more political than religious.
Scott McCoy, Interim Deputy Legal Director at the Southern Poverty and Law Center (SPLC), says the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom are both designated by the SPLC as hate groups. “All of them have made reference [to] ‘changing the culture,’” McCoy says. “Basically, [they work]to change to a strict theocratic, and specifically Christian authoritarian form of government that would mimic the right wing, Christian-right hierarchies from which these policies emanate.”
According to SPLC, Alliance Defending Freedom has supported recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ+ adults nationally and abroad and claims a “homosexual agenda” is ruining Christianity and America. They also lobby for “religious liberty” legislation that allows LGBTQ+ individuals to be denied services by those who claim doing so is against their religion. SPLC says the Family Research Council argues that a “homosexual agenda” is harming the children of our country.
McCoy says whether or not leaders of these groups adhere to Christian beliefs, if they can’t change the minds of people then they move to change policy and legislation.
“Organizations like this are part of a right-wing ecosystem that has been building an anti-democratic infrastructure in the country for decades,” McCoy says.
Political Organizations Acting
as Religious Entities
The Religious Right has pushed conservative values for decades now, since the 1960s and 1970s, when it first encountered the feminist movement, as well as civil and environmental rights. As some progressive movements began to change American culture, many conservatives worked to reverse or stop what they felt were sweeping changes. By inspiring mostly white evangelicals to vote and by latching on to social issues instead of theology, organizations like Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Research Council presented themselves as ministries. Such organizations emerged and thrived.
“And that really allowed this movement to mobilize,” explains Travis McAdam, program director for Combating White Nationalism & Defending Democracy at the Montana Human Rights Network. “Conservative people of faith sometimes would argue over theology; these new groups were able to kind of bridge the gap that existed between conservative Catholics and some Protestant denominations, because they were focusing on social issues.”
The Religious Right gained loyal followers by effective messaging, growing revenue and investing in virtually every aspect of American life, especially in colleges and schools. With civil-rights groups becoming more active, private schools began arguing for “religious choice” rather than opposing desegregation in schools.
By gifting large sums of money to groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Montana Family Foundation and Montana Family Institute, the Gianforte Family Foundation has become a strong supporter of school choice and private schools. For example, the GFF has donated over $13 million to the classical Christian school Petra Academy in Bozeman. Governor Gianforte has also served as board director of Petra and his four children attended the school. The Foundation has also donated over $7 million to ACE Scholarships, which grants scholarships for students to allow them to attend such private schools.
Gianforte and The Montana
According to a 2013 article in the Helena Independent Record, Montana’s new Governor first met Jeff Laszloffy, President of the Montana Family Foundation, while Gianforte led RightNow Technologies. Laszloffy says Gianforte approached him about alternative education opportunities in Montana, since he was struggling to find qualified individuals to work for his cloud-technology business.
The Montana Family Foundation (MFF) is a research and education organization promoting “pro-family values in Montana.” The Christian Coalition of Montana had been formed in 1992, and became the Montana Family Coalition in 2001. Several board members stepped away from the Montana Family Coalition to form Montana Family Foundation in 2004 with Laszloffy, a former representative in the Montana House, becoming the group’s president.
On the MFF website, people are encouraged to become members of the organization to “enhance MFF’s ability to impact public policy and influence the culture in Montana.” MFF is partnered with Focus on the Family, Alliance Defending Freedom and Family Research Council. The Foundation embraces the Family Policy Council for Montana for the Family Research Council. Laszloffy is the local leader doing what such national organizations do at a state level.
Like many religious-right organizations, the Montana Family Foundation has taken stances against same-sex marriage and transgender rights while pushing for religious freedom. As president of the MFF, Jeff Laszloffy supported extreme conspiracy theories, such as the “birther” conspiracy claiming that former president Obama is not a U.S. citizen, a theory now thoroughly debunked.
“The fact that the [Montana] Family Foundation is organized as a political entity makes a lot of sense,” says the Montana Human Rights Network’s Travis McAdam. That’s why the Religious Right was created… to gain and then try to sustain and keep political power.”
The MFF is filed as a 501(c)4, a social welfare organization. A 501(c)4 allows MFF to participate in political activities such as lobbying and endorsing candidates. On their website, they encourage people to donate to MFF. A partnering group is the Montana Family Institute (MFI), which is a 501(c)3, a public charity. A 501(c)3 is limited as far as to what an organization can do, politically. The MFF is not.
The Gianforte Family Foundation donated nearly $2 million to MFF and MFI between 2005 and 2018. GFF started donating to MFI in 2013, before Gianforte’s first run for public office. Susan Gianforte also sat on the board of the MFF, starting as a director in 2005. From there she became treasurer from 2006 to 2007, back to director in 2008 and chairman from 2009 to 2015, according to MFI tax records.
Currently, Anita Milanovich, former Chief Legal Counsel for Montana Family Foundation, serves as the new Governor’s general counsel. Milanovich reiterates the same messages as the Montana Family Foundation.
“Transgender athletes deserve compassion,” she wrote in a USA Today editorial in 2019, “but not the right to transform women’s sports,” adding that “a just, equitable and compassionate solution simply cannot require the redefinition of what it means to be a girl or a woman. Loving each other does not necessitate a spot on the women’s team, or a woman’s trophy.”
Prior to her husband becoming governor, Susan Gianforte had also spoken out against an anti-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ+ members from discrimination in the Bozeman community.
“I think that relationship has ended up working out well for both of them,” the Montana Human Rights Network’s Travis McAdam says. “You have tons and tons of money from that [Gianforte] trust over the years going to the [Montana] Family Foundation.”
McAdam adds that having Gianforte’s wife sitting on the Foundation board has helped as well. “It’s not necessarily that these lawmakers and Governor Gianforte are representing the true wishes of community members around Montana,” McAdam opines. “But what they are representing are those core ideologies of the Religious Right that, again, has secured and continues to maintain a lot of power and influence in the Republican Party, both here in Montana, and of course nationally as well.”
Nationally and locally, the goals of the Religious Right have been executed. For the first time in 16 years, Montana has a Republican governor and a Republican majority in the legislature. Even though he lost the election to President Biden, Donald Trump’s politics have had a deep impact in Montana, even after the long battle culminating with The Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
According to Gallup, 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for Trump in 2020 and “about one-fourth of all voters were White evangelical Christians.” To this day, over 70 percent of Trump voters believe more votes were cast for Trump than Biden. While some supporters have drifted from his side, many continue to stand by Trump.
“Within this ‘us versus them’ worldview, it is assumed that God is on your side, and you are on God’s side,” Dr. Du Mez from Calvin University says. “And so anything you do is really justified because you are on the side of what is right and, and on the other side are people who are out to get you, who are out to get God’s truth, who are out to destroy America.”
The Impact of the Religious
According to Dr. Du Mez, she saw Congressman Gianforte’s 2017 confrontation with a reporter as the behavior of someone with a lot of money and plenty of power displaying the kind of masculinity that is often praised by evangelicals.
Dr. Du Mez continues: “That’s consistent with the ideal of a militant Christian masculinity, that since God has filled men with testosterone, they are aggressive, and they can use that aggression when necessary, and that’s to protect faith, family and nation. And so that’s actually a sign of virtue, that when push comes to shove, you can use your strength to do what needs to be done.”
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, Christians make up 70.6 perecnt of Americans and Evangelical Protestants make up 25.4 percent. In our state, Christians make up 65 percent of Montanans and Evangelical Protestants make up 28 percent.
Pew also tells us that 63 percent of Americans think churches should keep out of political matters; 76 precent of Americans do not want churches vocally favoring one candidate over the other; 38 percent of Americans say churches and religious organizations have too much influence in politics, 28 percent say they don’t have enough influence and 34 perecnt say they have the right amount of influence.
“The reality is that this [evangelical attitude] is not even representative of most Christians,” Travis McAdam says. “I think there are a lot of folks out there at the community level, that are really upset that their values and what they care about doesn’t seem to be accepted and valued, at the legislature, during committee hearings, in those policy arenas, because the [Montana] Family Foundation and those types of groups have sort of staked out that territory as being theirs.”
At Grace Bible Church, a blog was published recently, titled “What to do when an election doesn’t go your way?” A question is posed: “But what if I believe that an election was indeed fraudulent even if the legal system says differently?”
Months earlier, another blog addressed former Governor Bullock’s COVID-19 mask mandate. While the church elders decided to follow the mandate, they also addressed politics.
“Many of us also could find agreement in that by submitting to Governor Bullock’s mandate that attendees of places of worship wear masks, we (GBC) are lending some support to the Governor, his liberal agenda, and the agenda of the increasingly radicalized democratic party.”
Based on the blog and the fact that 81 percent percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, the conversation of election fraud in the same election that fellow church member Gianforte won handily made its way through Grace Bible Church. Then-Congressman Gianforte joined 126 Republican colleagues to challenge the 2020 election results after November 2020, one of his last official acts in Washington, last January 6, in the aftermath of the Insurrection.
“Trump explicitly promised to protect Christianity, to protect evangelicals and their interests,” Dr. Du Mez says. “Conservative evangelicals say that’s exactly what he did, and they’re not wrong.”
Gianforte stands as one of the few prominent Republican figures who is able to help financially fund Religious Right organizations, all the while assisting in Congress and now in Helena, in his role as governor. While the Governor donates to secular organizations as well, he truly has been a beacon of light, politically and personally, for Grace Bible Church for well over a decade.
When asked if it’s possible for evangelicals to separate church and state, Dr. Kristin Du Mez of Calvin University concludes that, while such separation is technically possible, it “goes against their belief system” for those like the Gianfortes.
“He’s in pretty deep,” Du Mez concludes. “He is using his vast resources to promote… his religious values as he understands them.”
Into the Future
Messages from Religious Right organizations still seep into our churches, as they do at Grace Bible Church. With more than a few of these groups being designated as hate groups, the Southern Poverty and Law Center’s Scott McCoy says it’s important not to assume that such organizations are doing good work, based upon the titles of their organizations.
At the same time, McCoy stresses that just because a person is against such platforms of these groups does not make a person anti-religious or unable to hold differing opinions and beliefs. “The difference is whether or not you impose [those beliefs] on other people.”
Comprehending the difference between political organizations and religious entities is as important as understanding the separation of church and state. As the Governor wrote on a recent Twitter entry, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Over 200 people have been contacted in this extended series of articles regarding the past and present events that have shaped the 2020 election of Greg Gianforte as Montana’s governor. The Gianforte Family Foundation and the Montana Family Foundation were contacted for comment, but declined to respond. Also declining to respond were multiple Elders of Grace Bible Church, including Pastor Bryan Hughes. Additionally, Governor Greg Gianforte was reached out for comment but did not respond. The Gianforte Family Foundation was reached out for comment but also declined to respond. Look for the fifth installment in this series in our June 2021 issue.