Imagine your next interaction with a bank teller. You’re there to make a deposit, and you brought along your account information and driver’s license to make sure the transaction goes off without a hitch.
But a question from the teller catches you off guard: “Sir, before we complete your transaction, we just need you to fill out this brief questionnaire. Just explain the criteria you use to vote in elections, and we’ll get this all wrapped up.”
You’d be shocked, and rightly so. Will the bank only grant you access to your own account if you plan to vote consistent with the banks’ values?
Debanking in the real world
That may sound far-fetched, but it’s an eerily similar description of how JPMorgan Chase has treated the National Committee for Religious Freedom (NCRF) over the past year. Led by former U.S. Ambassador Sam Brownback, NCRF exists to defend “religious freedom equally for all Americans and all their religious communities.”
Its National Advisory Board includes former members of Congress, as well as former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Alliance Defending Freedom Counselor to the CEO and President Michael Farris, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, along with Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu religious freedom advocates.
Yet, despite the established credibility of NCRF—not to mention its legal status as a 501(c)(4) non-profit, which should have been enough on its own to qualify it to hold a bank account—the nation’s largest bank canceled the nonprofit’s newly created checking account without notice earlier this year.
Why? At first, no one at the bank could say.
After weeks of being stonewalled by various bank employees, NCRF was finally told that Chase “could potentially consider reopening the account” if NCRF took three actions: 1) disclose a list of donors who contributed more than 10 percent of its operating budget; 2) hand over a list of political candidates NCRF intended to support; and 3) divulge the criteria NCRF uses to decide who to support politically.
Of course, NCRF declined the offer. That information has nothing to do with a bank’s responsibilities to its account holders or vice-versa and isn’t required by any relevant banking regulation. Plus, by all indications, Chase isn’t prying into the giving rosters of any other advocacy groups.
It’s hard to conceive of this as anything other than an example of “debanking,” a dangerous cocktail of politically obsessed cancel culture and the financial services industry.
The same goes for adverse actions Fidelity Charitable has taken against Alliance Defending Freedom and our Ministry Friends. The financial giant and donor-advised fund manager distributed $10.3 billion in 2021 but is placing obstacles in the way of their account holders giving to ADF. Other conservative charities have reported similar experiences.
Sadly, Fidelity Charitable appears to be caving to demands from fringe activists that it is interfering with the freedom of donor-advised fund account holders to give to 501(c)(3) groups that appear on activists’ “blacklists.” Because of our work defending religious freedom and free speech, ADF is frequently the target of activist debanking campaigns.
Pushing back against politicized debanking
This pattern of debanking cannot continue unchallenged. Our nation’s founders understood that the primary function of government is to protect God-given, pre-political rights. That means threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness don’t need to come from the government to cause real harm.
Powerful financial institutions like Chase and Fidelity can threaten freedom just as easily as any government actor.
Thankfully, opposition to ideologically charged debanking is picking up steam. Just after NCRF went public about its run-in with Chase, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida sent a letter to CEO Jamie Dimon calling for a detailed explanation of his company’s actions.
More recently, ADF convened a group of investors and financial professionals that collectively manage $20 billion to sign a statement on debanking and free speech, urging Dimon and his fellow banking CEOs to reverse course and commit to respecting free speech and religious freedom.
As Ambassador Brownback and ADF Senior Counsel and Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jeremy Tedesco write at Newsweek, the letter also called upon CEOs to participate in the survey component of ADF’s Viewpoint Diversity Score 2023 Business Index, which scores companies based on 42 questions that measure their respect for speech and religion within their workforce, customer base, and the public square.
Not surprisingly, Chase tallied a mere 15 percent on the inaugural 2022 Business Index, indicating that the bank is performing well under the bar when it comes to honoring the diverse views of those who depend on its services every day.
In addition to Chase’s apparent debanking of NCRF, the bank famously buckled to fringe political interests in 2019 by announcing it would “no longer bank the private prison industry.”
And in 2021, Chase initially denied payment processing services to the mainstream GOP-affiliated group Defense of Liberty before backing down and allowing payments to process. Chase has a track record of attempts at debanking.
A window of opportunity to stop debanking
Unless powerful financial institutions like Chase and Fidelity—along with fellow travelers in debanking like PayPal—correct course on their own, Ambassador Brownback and Tedesco argue, it may fall to lawmakers to deal with the growing threat to individual liberties they pose.
“Large national banks receive wide-reaching government benefits such as greater lending power, FDIC insurance rates, subsidies, bailouts and an anticompetitive chartering system,” Ambassador Brownback and Tedesco point out in their op-ed.
“That banks receive these courtesy of the government and taxpayers obligates them not to discriminate based on viewpoints in their services. And the danger that these benefits might be taken away gives financial institutions good reason to end their risky entanglement with fringe activism and cancel culture.”
At this fractured time in our national history, business leaders have a vital role to play—and that includes (perhaps most prominently) those in C-suite positions at banks and other financial institutions.
It’s time for these leaders to step up, and to use their considerable influence to reject debanking once and for all.
Find out more about what ADF is doing to counter Corporate America’s threats to free speech and religious liberty at www.ViewpointDiversityScore.org.