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Inside Ziklag, the Secret Organization of Wealthy Christians Trying to Sway the Election and Change the Country

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

A network of ultrawealthy Christian donors is spending nearly $12 million to mobilize Republican-leaning voters and purge more than a million people from the rolls in key swing states, aiming to tilt the 2024 election in favor of former President Donald Trump.

These previously unreported plans are the work of a group named Ziklag, a little-known charity whose donors have included some of the wealthiest conservative Christian families in the nation, including the billionaire Uihlein family, who made a fortune in office supplies, the Greens, who run Hobby Lobby, and the Wallers, who own the Jockey apparel corporation. Recipients of Ziklag’s largesse include Alliance Defending Freedom, which is the Christian legal group that led the overturning of Roe v. Wade, plus the national pro-Trump group Turning Point USA and a constellation of right-of-center advocacy groups.

ProPublica and Documented obtained thousands of Ziklag’s members-only email newsletters, internal videos, strategy documents and fundraising pitches, none of which has been previously made public. They reveal the group’s 2024 plans and its long-term goal to underpin every major sphere of influence in American society with Christianity. In the Bible, the city of Ziklag was where David and his soldiers found refuge during their war with King Saul.

“We are in a spiritual battle and locked in a terrible conflict with the powers of darkness,” says a strategy document that lays out Ziklag’s 30-year vision to “redirect the trajectory of American culture toward Christ by bringing back Biblical structure, order and truth to our Nation.”

Ziklag’s 2024 agenda reads like the work of a political organization. It plans to pour money into mobilizing voters in Arizona who are “sympathetic to Republicans” in order to secure “10,640 additional unique votes” — almost the exact margin of President Joe Biden’s win there in 2020. The group also intends to use controversial AI software to enable mass challenges to the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of voters in competitive states.

In a recording of a 2023 internal strategy discussion, a Ziklag official stressed that the objective was the same in other swing states. “The goal is to win,” the official said. “If 75,000 people wins the White House, then how do we get 150,000 people so we make sure we win?”

According to the Ziklag files, the group has divided its 2024 activities into three different operations targeting voters in battleground states: Checkmate, focused on funding so-called election integrity groups; Steeplechase, concentrated on using churches and pastors to get out the vote; and Watchtower, aimed at galvanizing voters around the issues of “parental rights” and opposition to transgender rights and policies supporting health care for trans people.

In a member briefing video, one of Ziklag’s spiritual advisers outlined a plan to “deliver swing states” by using an anti-transgender message to motivate conservative voters who are exhausted with Trump.

But Ziklag is not a political organization: It is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity, the same legal designation as the United Way or Boys and Girls Club. Such organizations do not have to publicly disclose their funders, and donations are tax deductible. In exchange, they are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS.

ProPublica and Documented presented the findings of their investigation to six nonpartisan lawyers and legal experts. All expressed concern that Ziklag was testing or violating the law.

The reporting by ProPublica and Documented “casts serious doubt on this organization’s status as a 501(c)(3) organization,” said Roger Colinvaux, a professor at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law.

“I think it’s across the line without a question,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a University of Notre Dame law professor.

Ziklag officials did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Martin Nussbaum, an attorney who said he was the group’s general counsel, said in a written response that “some of the statements in your email are correct. Others are not,” but he then did not respond to a request to specify what was erroneous. The group is seeking to “align” the culture “with Biblical values and the American constitution, and that they will serve the common good,” he wrote. Using the official tax name for Ziklag, he wrote that “USATransForm does not endorse candidates for public office.” He declined to comment on the group’s members.

There are no bright lines or magic words that the IRS might look for when it investigates a charitable organization for engaging in political intervention, said Mayer. Instead, the agency examines the facts and circumstances of a group’s activities and makes a conclusion about whether the group violated the law.

The biggest risk for charities that intervene in political campaigns, Mayer said, is loss of their tax-exempt status. Donors’ ability to deduct their donations can be a major sell, not to mention it can create “a halo effect” for the group, Mayer added.

“They may be able to get more money this way,” he said, adding, “It boils down to tax evasion at the end of the day.”

“Dominion Over the Seven Mountains”

Ziklag has largely escaped scrutiny until now. The group describes itself as a “private, confidential, invitation-only community of high-net-worth Christian families.”

According to internal documents, it boasts more than 125 members that include business executives, pastors, media leaders and other prominent conservative Christians. Potential new members, one document says, should have a “concern for culture” demonstrated by past donations to faith-based or political causes, as well as a net worth of $25 million or more. None of the donors responded to requests for comment.

Tax records show rapid growth in the group’s finances in recent years. Its annual revenue climbed from $1.3 million in 2018 to $6 million in 2019 and nearly $12 million in 2022, which is the latest filing available.

The group’s spending is not on the scale of major conservative funders such as Miriam Adelson or Barre Seid, the electronics magnate who gave $1.6 billion to a group led by conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. But its funding and strategy represent one of the clearest links yet between the Christian right and the “election integrity” movement fueled by Trump’s baseless claims about voting fraud. Even several million dollars funding mass challenges to voters in swing counties can make an impact, legal and election experts say.

Ziklag was the brainchild of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Ken Eldred. It emerged from a previous organization founded by Eldred called United In Purpose, which aimed to get more Christians active in the civic arena, according to Bill Dallas, the group’s former director. United In Purpose generated attention in June 2016 when it organized a major meeting between then-candidate Trump and hundreds of evangelical leaders.

After Trump was elected in 2016, Eldred had an idea, according to Dallas. “He says, ‘I want all the wealthy Christian people to come together,’” Dallas recalled in an interview. Eldred told Dallas that he wanted to create a donor network like the one created by Charles and David Koch but for Christians. He proposed naming it David’s Mighty Men, Dallas said. Female members balked. Dallas found the passage in Chronicles that references David’s soldiers and read that they met in the city of Ziklag, and so they chose the name Ziklag.

The group’s stature grew after Trump took office. Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a Ziklag event, as did former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz, then-Rep. Mark Meadows and other members of Congress. In its private newsletter, Ziklag claims that a coalition of groups it assembled played “a hugely significant role in the selection, hearings and confirmation process” of Amy Coney Barrett for a Supreme Court seat in late 2020.

Confidential donor networks regularly invest hundreds of millions of dollars into political and charitable groups, from the liberal Democracy Alliance to the Koch-affiliated Stand Together organization on the right. But unlike Ziklag, neither of those organizations is legally set up as a true charity.

Ziklag appears to be the first coordinated effort to get wealthy donors to fund an overtly Christian nationalist agenda, according to historians, legal experts and other people familiar with the group. “It shows that this idea isn’t being dismissed as fringe in the way that it might have been in the past,” said Mary Ziegler, a legal historian and University of California, Davis law professor.

The Christian nationalism movement has a variety of aims and tenets, according to the Public Religion Research Institute: that the U.S. government “should declare America a Christian nation”; that American laws “should be based on Christian values”; that the U.S. will cease to exist as a nation if it “moves away from our Christian foundations”; that being Christian is essential to being American; and that God has “called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.”

One theology promoted by Christian nationalist leaders is the Seven Mountain Mandate. Each mountain represents a major industry or a sphere of public life: arts and media, business, church, education, family, government, and science and technology. Ziklag’s goal, the documents say, is to “take dominion over the Seven Mountains,” funding Christian projects or installing devout Christians in leadership positions to reshape each mountain in a godly way.

To address their concerns about education, Ziklag’s leaders and allies have focused on the public-school system. In a 2021 Ziklag meeting, Ziklag’s education mountain chair, Peter Bohlinger, said that Ziklag’s goal “is to take down the education system as we know it today.” The producers of the film “Sound of Freedom,” featuring Jim Caviezel as an anti-sex-trafficking activist, screened an early cut of the film at a Ziklag conference and asked for funds, according to Dallas.

An excerpt from Ziklag’s “Declaration and 30-Year Vision for the Mountains of Influence.” The document outlines Ziklag’s mission to reshape each major aspect of American society so that it operates according to a biblical worldview. (Obtained by ProPublica and Documented)

The Seven Mountains theology signals a break from Christian fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson. In the 1980s and ’90s, Falwell’s Moral Majority focused on working within the democratic process to mobilize evangelical voters and elect politicians with a Christian worldview.

The Seven Mountains theology embraces a different, less democratic approach to gaining power. “If the Moral Majority is about galvanizing the voters, the Seven Mountains is a revolutionary model: You need to conquer these mountains and let change flow down from the top,” said Matthew Taylor, a senior scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies and an expert on Christian nationalism. “It’s an outlined program for Christian supremacy.”

“The Amorphous, Tumultuous Wild West”

The Christian right has had compelling spokespeople and fierce commitment to its causes, whether they were ending abortion rights, allowing prayer in schools or displaying the Ten Commandments outside of public buildings. What the movement has often lacked, its leaders argue, is sufficient funding.

“If you look at the right, especially the Christian right, there were always complaints about money,” said legal historian Ziegler. “There’s a perceived gap of ‘We aren’t getting the support from big-name, big-dollar donors that we deserve and want and need.’”

That’s where Ziklag comes in.

Speaking late last year to an invitation-only gathering of Ziklaggers, as members are known, Charlie Kirk, who leads the pro-Trump Turning Point USA organization, named left-leaning philanthropists who were, in his view, funding the destruction of the nation: MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; billionaire investor and liberal philanthropist George Soros; and the two founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

“Why are secular people giving more generously than Christians?” Kirk asked, according to a recording of his remarks. “It would be a tragedy,” he added, “if people who hate life, hate our country, hate beauty and hate God wanted it more than us.”

“Ziklag is the place,” Kirk told the donors. “Ziklag is the counter.”

Similarly, Pence, in a 2021 appearance at a private Ziklag event, praised the group for its role in “changing lives, and it’s advanced the cause, it’s advanced the kingdom.”

A driving force behind Ziklag’s efforts is Lance Wallnau, a prominent Christian evangelist and influencer based in Texas who is described by Ziklag as a “Seven Mountains visionary & advisor.” The fiery preacher is one of the most influential figures on the Christian right, experts say, a bridge between Christian nationalism and Trump. He was one of the earliest evangelical leaders to endorse Trump in 2015 and later published a book titled “God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling.” More than 1 million people follow him on Facebook. He doesn’t try to hide his views: “Yes, I am a Christian nationalist,” he said during one of his livestreams in 2021. (Wallnau did not respond to requests for comment.)

Donald Trump shakes hands with Lance Wallnau, a self-described Christian nationalist. (Lancewallnau.com)

Wallnau has remained a Trump ally. He called Trump’s time in office a “spiritual warfare presidency” and popularized the idea that Trump was a “modern-day Cyrus,” referring to the Persian king who defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem. Wallnau has visited with Trump at the White House and Trump Tower; last November, he livestreamed from a black-tie gala at Mar-a-Lago where Trump spoke.

Wallnau did not come up with the notion that Christians should try to take control of key areas of American society. But he improved on the idea by introducing the concept of the seven mountains and urged Christians to set about conquering them. The concept caught on, said Taylor, because it empowered Christians with a sense of purpose in every sphere of life.

As a preacher in the independent charismatic tradition, a fast-growing offshoot of Pentecostalism that is unaffiliated with any major denomination, Wallnau and his acolytes believe that God speaks to and through modern-day apostles and prophets — a version of Christianity that Taylor, in his forthcoming book “The Violent Take It By Force,” describes as “the amorphous, tumultuous Wild West of the modern church.” Wallnau and his ideas lingered at the fringes of American Christianity for years, until the boost from the Trump presidency.

The Ziklag files detail not only what Christians should do to conquer all seven mountains, but also what their goals will be once they’ve taken the summit. For the government mountain, one key document says that “the biblical role of government is to promote good and punish evil” and that “the word of God and prayer play a significant role in policy decisions.”

For the arts and entertainment mountain, goals include that 80% of the movies produced be rated G or PG “with a moral story,” and that many people who work in the industry “operate under a biblical/moral worldview.” The education section says that homeschooling should be a “fundamental right” and the government “must not favor one form of education over another.”

Other internal Ziklag documents voice strong opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender rights. One reads: “transgender acceptance = Final sign before imminent collapse.”

Heading into the 2024 election year, Ziklag executive director Drew Hiss warned members in an internal video that “looming above and beyond those seven mountains is this evil force that’s been manifesting itself.” He described it as “a controlling, evil, diabolical presence, really, with tyranny in mind.” That presence was concentrated in the government mountain, he said. If Ziklaggers wanted to save their country from “the powers of darkness,” they needed to focus their energies on that government mountain or else none of their work in any other area would succeed.

“Operation Checkmate”

In the fall of 2023, Wallnau sat in a gray armchair in his TV studio. A large TV screen behind him flashed a single word: “ZIKLAG.”

“You almost hate to put it out this clearly,” he said as he detailed Ziklag’s electoral strategy, “because if somebody else gets ahold of this, they’ll freak out.”

He was joined on set by Hiss, who had just become the group’s new day-to-day leader. The two men were there to record a special message to Ziklag members that laid out the group’s ambitious plans for the upcoming election year.

The forces arrayed against Christians were many, according to the confidential video. They were locked in a “spiritual battle,” Hiss said, against Democrats who were a “radical left Marxist force.” Biden, Wallnau said, was a senile old man and “an empty suit with an agenda that’s written and managed by somebody else.”

Wallnau speaks with Drew Hiss, Ziklag’s executive director, about the group’s goals for political engagement. (Obtained by ProPublica and Documented)

Watch video ➜

In the files, Ziklag says it plans to give out nearly $12 million to a constellation of groups working on the ground to shift the 2024 electorate in favor of Trump and other Republicans.

A prominent conservative getting money from Ziklag is Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer and Trump ally who joined the January 2021 phone call when then-President Trump asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to flip Georgia in Trump’s favor.

Mitchell now leads a network of “election integrity” coalitions in swing states that have spent the last three years advocating for changes to voting rules and how elections are run. According to one internal newsletter, Ziklag was an early funder of Mitchell’s post-2020 “election integrity” activism, which voting-rights experts have criticized for stoking unfounded fears about voter fraud and seeking to unfairly remove people from voting rolls. In 2022, Ziklag donated $600,000 to the Conservative Partnership Institute, which in turn funds Mitchell’s election-integrity work. Internal Ziklag documents show that it provided funding to enable Mitchell to set up election integrity infrastructure in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Now Mitchell is promoting a tool called EagleAI, which has claimed to use artificial intelligence to automate and speed up the process of challenging ineligible voters. EagleAI is already being used to mount mass challenges to the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of voters in competitive states, and, with Ziklag’s help, the group plans to ramp up those efforts.

According to an internal video, Ziklag plans to invest $800,000 in “EagleAI’s clean the rolls project,” which would be one of the largest known donations to the group.

Conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell, seen speaking at an event with then-President Donald Trump, received funding from Ziklag for her efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ziklag lists two key objectives for Operation Checkmate: “Secure 10,640 additional unique votes in Arizona (mirroring the 2020 margin of 10,447 votes), and remove up to one million ineligible registrations and around 280,000 ineligible voters in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Wisconsin.”

In a recording of an internal Zoom call, Ziklag’s Mark Bourgeois stressed the electoral value of targeting Arizona. “I care about Maricopa County,” Bourgeois said at one point, referring to Arizona’s largest county, which Biden won four years ago. “That’s how we win.”

For Operation Watchtower, Wallnau explained in a members-only video that transgender policy was a “wedge issue” that could be decisive in turning out voters tired of hearing about Trump.

The left had won the battle over the “homosexual issue,” Wallnau said. “But on transgenderism, there’s a problem and they know it.” He continued: “They’re gonna wanna talk about Trump, Trump, Trump. … Meanwhile, if we talk about ‘It’s not about Trump. It’s about parents and their children, and the state is a threat,’” that could be the “target on the forehead of Goliath.”

The Ziklag files describe tactics the group plans to use around parental rights — policies that make it easier for parents to control what’s taught in public schools — to turn out conservative voters. In a fundraising video, the group says it plans to underwrite a “messaging and data lab” focused on parental rights that will supply “winning messaging to all our partner groups to create unified focus among all on the right.” The goal, the video says, is to make parental rights “the difference-maker in the 2024 election.”

According to Wallnau, Ziklag also plans to fund ballot initiatives in seven key states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Ohio — that take aim at the transgender community by seeking to ban “genital mutilation.” The seven states targeted are either presidential battlegrounds or have competitive U.S. Senate races. None of the initiatives is on a state ballot yet.

“People that are lethargic about the election or, worse yet, they’re gonna be all Trump-traumatized with the news cycle — this issue will get people to come out and vote,” Wallnau said. “That ballot initiative can deliver swing states.”

The last prong of Ziklag’s 2024 strategy is Operation Steeplechase, which urges conservative pastors to mobilize their congregants to vote in this year’s election. This project will work in coordination with several prominent conservative groups that support former president Trump’s reelection, such as Turning Point USA’s faith-based group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition run by conservative operative Ralph Reed and the America First Policy Institute, one of several groups closely allied with Trump.

Ziklag’s website outlines its three major operations and which mountains each one targets. (Screenshot by ProPublica)

Ziklag says in a 2023 internal video that it and its allies will “coordinate extensive pastor and church outreach through pastor summits, church-focused messaging and events and the creation of pastor resources.” As preacher and activist John Amanchukwu said at a Ziklag event, “We need a church that’s willing to do anything and everything to get to the point where we reclaim that which was stolen from us.”

Six tax experts reviewed the election-related strategy discussions and tactics reported in this story. All of them said the activities tested or ran afoul of the law governing 501(c)(3) charities. The IRS and the Texas attorney general, which would oversee the Southlake, Texas, charity, did not respond to questions.

While not all of its political efforts appeared to be clear-cut violations, the experts said, others may be: The stated plan to mobilize voters “sympathetic to Republicans,” Ziklag officials openly discussing the goal to win the election, and Wallnau’s call to fund ballot initiatives that would “deliver swing states” while at the same time voicing explicit criticism of Biden all raised red flags, the experts said.

“I am troubled about a tax-exempt charitable organization that’s set up and its main operation seems to be to get people to win office,” said Phil Hackney, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on tax-exempt organizations.

“They’re planning an election effort,” said Marcus Owens, a tax lawyer at Loeb and Loeb and a former director of the IRS’ exempt organizations division. “That’s not a 501(c)(3) activity.”

Do You Have a Tip for ProPublica? Help Us Do Journalism.

Do you have any information about Ziklag or the Christian right’s plans for 2024 that we should know? Andy Kroll can be reached by email at andy.kroll@propublica.org and by Signal or WhatsApp at 202-215-6203.

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acdha
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Secure in the likelihood of a 6-3 SCOTUS decision that the founders clearly intended to favor Christianity as the state religion
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Wall dive.

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R.I.P. Dr. Ruth, sex expert and media superstar

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer has died. As the host of numerous radio shows and television programs focused on giving sex advice—starting with Sexually Speaking on New York radio in 1980, and spreading to empire proportions from there—Westheimer helped lead a revolution in the ways sex was talked about in the media, bringing a…

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