To be fighting for parental rights is to be “fighting a constitutional war,” advised the speaker, who appeared to be addressing a recruitment seminar. The assembled attendees had come to Philadelphia, just before the Fourth of July, and were taking in the lessons of Kimberly Hermann, general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, at the second national Moms for Liberty summit. While attention from the outside focused on those presidential candidates presenting themselves for judgment—Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy—it was in the summit’s closed sessions, where press was barred, that the self-styled “joyful warriors” of Moms for Liberty got down to work. There they would prepare to do battle against schools that are “indoctrinating” kids, as this speaker put it, to “destroy” America.
With its purported membership of more than 120,000, Moms for Liberty is still a very new organization. When Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice, and Bridget Ziegler launched the group in 2021, seizing on fights to stop schools from implementing Covid-19 mask and vaccine mandates, they positioned themselves as just ordinary moms, and their group as grassroots and nonpartisan. Of course, all three women have served on school boards, and Ziegler, who left the organization later that year, still does (her husband, Christian, is also the chairman of the Florida Republican Party). She had even worked on the Florida parental rights legislation that led to Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. So when the Republican hopefuls came to Philadelphia to address the joyful warriors, it was a reflection of how much Moms for Liberty has transformed the GOP agenda into its own “parental rights” one—banning books and history curricula, excluding LGBTQ people, denying anti-Black racism, decrying anything and potentially anyone that does not belong in its God-fearing America. Such actions are just common sense, say Moms for Liberty members, and necessary to secure the future of their children.
Drafting more joyful warriors, as the summit was set up to do, involves its own indoctrination, a process that may feel more like being given secret knowledge about how things really work—including such vintage conspiracy-theory stuff as secret Communists recruiting in every schoolhouse. The more contemporary threat, according to Moms for Liberty, is that a “dangerous cult” is seeking to “trans” children. This is part of the ubiquitous anti-trans panic at the summit and on Moms for Liberty social media feeds. If you take up the group’s cause, you will be given a mission. As Tiffany Justice put it after the summit, Moms for Liberty is “redrawing the boundary between school and home.”
But whose home? And redrawn by which means? In her afternoon session at the summit, Hermann armed her audience with a version of the Constitution, one that maximally protects the preferences of—for instance—parents who deny their child is trans and want to force their child’s school to misgender them. There’s not much of a legal argument here, only marching orders: The Constitution is on their side, and what they want as moms represents the real America. Yet when one Texas mom of a queer child reached out to a Moms for Liberty chapter for guidance, members convinced her to deny him access to counseling from an LGBTQ youth support project, claiming the group wanted to make her son trans. When the child later attempted suicide, a Moms for Liberty member then advised the mother to sue the support project. “They were trying to indoctrinate me to be a foot soldier for their cause,” she later said.
Such maternalist recruitment, marketed as extending the domain of motherhood into the public square, has been an underrecognized yet persistent force in American politics for decades—back to the mid-century’s massive resistance to desegregation, and even earlier, in the temperance movement of the nineteenth century. Moms for Liberty operates in an updated version of this well-worn style, in which mothers and children are presented as fundamentally innocent, and mothers who flex political power are just doing what any mother wants: to decide what is best for their children. “Because no one is going to fight for a child like a parent,” Justice told an education reporter at the summit. “Love is an expertise.”
Moms for Liberty members can position themselves as just regular moms somehow outside politics because, as religion scholar Sara Moslener has argued, white womanhood and white Christian nationalism reinforce each other. The mothers’ moral authority is perceived to endow them with perpetual innocence, and the United States is perceived to inherit its moral authority from Christian founders—rendering both the mothers and the nation incapable of committing injustice. The several hundred protesters outside the summit, some of them mothers themselves who held signs about protecting free public libraries and celebrating trans kids, aren’t like these moms at all, co-founder Tiffany Justice told the closing-night gala dinner guests. Inside the convention hotel, “we’re having a great time,” she said, adding abruptly and ominously, “If you don’t stand now, what is the future for your children? It will be bleak, it will be dark, there will be death.”
This is the kind of political work—preparing themselves, much as a militia might, for a coming conflict between good and evil—for which Moms for Liberty was designated this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-government extremist” group. Descovich and Justice accused SPLC of “[n]ame-calling,” while Ziegler called it “a leftist attack.” But there have long been traceable links between Moms for Liberty and two of the groups that played a leading role in the January 6 insurrection. Some Moms for Liberty members maintain relationships with the Proud Boys. Moms for Liberty even invited a member of the Oath Keepers to speak at the Philadelphia summit.
That is the true face of Moms for Liberty. It’s not that white Christian nationalists are somehow using these “regular moms” for their own ends. That would absolve these women, who in fact share those ends. And they are working toward them, methodically and unapologetically, in far more public view.