New Study of Christian Nationalism in Texas Should be a Warning for the Whole Country

Screenshot of Greg Abbott speaking at Republican Party of Texas Convention 2018/YouTube.

“Our [Founding] Fathers intended that this nation should be a Christian nation, not because all who lived in it were Christians, but because it was founded on and would be governed and guided by Christian principles.” ― David Barton, The Myth of Separation

This quote from Texas-based amateur historian David Barton encapsulates Christian Americanism (aka Christian nationalism), an ideology that seeks, according to scholar Mark Weldon Whitten, “a socially and governmentally preferred and privileged position…of (some fundamentalist/evangelical) Christianity over other religions and nonreligious citizens.” The “Christian principles” Barton and other Christian Americanists have in mind typically involve opposition to church-state separation, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ equality. According to sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Christian Americanist belief was also a strong predictor of support for Donald Trump in 2016.

Barton’s home state (and mine), long a breeding ground for right-wing politics, is also a hotbed of Christian Americanism. Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy recently published my Christian Americanism in Texas Politics since 2008, the first extensive study of the subject. The report profiles the major proponents of Christian Americanism in Texas―politicians and non-governmental activists―and examines the tools they use to promote the ideology.

Though focused on Texas, the report has national implications. Several major proponents of Christian Americanism on the national stage make their home in the Lone Star State. Texas-based networks of politicians, activists, and wealthy donors exert influence far beyond the state’s borders. And Texas serves as a case study of what happens when Christian Americanists take the reins of power.

Nationally prominent Christian Americanists

Christian Americanist activity in Texas occasionally draws national attention. Readers may recall the “Texas Textbook Massacre” of 2009-10, when a Christian Americanist bloc on the state’s education board pushed through curriculum standards that emphasized Christianity over other religions and fostered an uncritically positive version of Christian history.

However, the ideology shapes the state’s political landscape well beyond the education context. Senator Ted Cruz, arguably the most prominent of Texas’ Christian Americanists, has often sounded these themes, especially in his unsuccessful 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. After winning the Iowa primary, for example, Cruz called the win “a victory for ‘Judeo-Christian values.’” In another campaign speech, he declared, “Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” and tied them to conservative evangelical hot-button issues: “[The] values of life and marriage are under assault, religious liberty is under assault, and yet the American people are rising up.” And when he withdrew from the presidential race, he said he was not ending “our fight…to defend the Judeo-Christian values that built America.”

Senator Cruz has also deployed his father, itinerant preacher Rafael Cruz, as a campaign surrogate. Cruz père, who is outspoken in his calls for conservative Christian hegemony, preaches Seven Mountains Dominionism, a religious ideology which overlaps with Christian Americanism and calls for Christians to take “dominion” over society and government. Senator Cruz himself echoes these dominionist sentiments in his epilogue to Rafael’s book, A Time for Action

“If our nation’s leaders are elected by unbelievers, is it any wonder that they do not reflect our values?. . .If the body of Christ arises, if Christians simply show up and vote biblical values, we can restore our nation.”

Senator Cruz also has close links with fellow Texan David Barton, quoted above. Aptly labelled by NPR as “The Most Influential Evangelist You’ve Never Heard Of,” Barton “has developed a one-man heritage industry out of his insistence that the Founding Fathers…created America as a Christian nation,” as historian Paul Harvey writes. Former Kansas governor and current Trump administration official Sam Brownback has said that Barton provided “the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country” in recent years.

Barton’s nonprofit WallBuilders seeks to “educat[e] the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country” and “provid[e] information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values.” The WallBuilders ProFamily Legislative Network assists “conservative God-fearing legislators” across the nation by supplying “expert testimony” and screening and drafting legislation. 

Barton’s radio program/podcast, “WallBuilders Live!,” described as “a daily journey…to capture the ideas of the Founding Fathers of America and then apply them to the major issues of today,” gives Barton a platform for his Christian Americanist message. Carried by nearly 300 radio stations as well as iTunes and TuneIn, the show has featured episodes  such as “Christian Nation: When Did This Become A Controversy in America?” and “Christian Heritage Yet Ungodly Policies.”

In her new book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, author Katherine Stewart calls Barton “the Where’s Waldo of the Christian nationalist movement.” Indeed, he was at the center of the 2009 controversy over the Texas social studies curriculum standards, serving as one of the “expert” reviewers of the standards despite his lack of academic qualifications, and he headed the “Keep the Promise” super PAC backing Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. 

But perhaps his most influential turn was when he served on the “steering team” of Project Blitz, a Christian Americanist campaign that first gained widespread attention thanks to reporting by Frederick Clarkson here on Religion Dispatches

Yet another nationally prominent Texan is Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the 13,000-member First Baptist Dallas church. His Pathway to Victory radio and television ministry is carried by more than 900 U.S. radio stations as well as the Christian television networks Daystar and Trinity Broadcasting Network. 

However, he’s probably better known nationally as a Fox News contributor and an outspoken supporter of, and apologist for, President Trump. During the recent impeachment inquiry, Jeffress claimed that there has never been “a stronger warrior for the Judeo-Christian principles on which this nation was founded” than Trump, and that “the effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply held faith values.” He has also used his Fox News appearances to spread the Christian Americanist gospel. On “Fox & Friends,” he asserted that “by and large our Founders were orthodox Christians who believed that the success of our nation depended upon our fidelity to God and His word.”

In his 2016 book Twilight’s Last Gleaming, he claims that “[T]he First Amendment does not even require that the government treat all faiths equally,” and that government can “show a preference for the Christian faith.” He also suggests that Christian politicians should be favored at the ballot box. While he allows that “Being a Christian does not automatically qualify someone for office,” he contends that a Christian leader “is more likely to enact godly principles than a non-Christian” and that Christian leaders are “more likely to demonstrate the integrity of character that voters generally desire”—an astounding claim, to put it mildly.

The Koch brothers of the Christian Right 

Other Texas-based backers of Christian Americanism tend to fly under the national radar, though their influence on American politics is no less important.

Take for example Dan and Farris Wilks. These “Koch brothers of the Christian Rightmade billions in the fracking business, and put their wealth to work promoting Christian Right causes. While they don’t seek the spotlight, their giving profile and few public statements suggest their goal. Dan advocates “bring[ing] the Bible back into the school,” while brother Farris has publicly endorsed Barton’s claims that the Founders based the Constitution on the Bible.

But the best evidence for the Wilks brothers’ Christian Americanism―and their influence on national religious politics―comes largely from their financial contributions to Christian Americanist groups and politicians.

The Thirteen Foundation, founded by Farris and his wife, gave WallBuilders $3 million in 2015, while Dan Wilks’ Heavenly Father’s Foundation has helped to fund California-based David Lane’s “Pastors and Pews,” a nationwide effort encouraging pastors to preach about politics and connecting them with right-wing and Christian nationalist activists, like Barton and Mike Huckabee. (Lane himself has called church-state separation “a ‘lie’ and a ‘fabricated whopper’ designed to stop ‘Christian America—the moral majority—from imposing moral government on pagan public schools, pagan higher learning and pagan media.’”) 

Furthermore, Wilks money helped fund the Keep the Promise super PAC that supported Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid—to the tune of some $15 million.

Texas as Christian Americanist test case

Most ominously, Texas offers a case study in what happens when Christian Americanists take power. It also offers some surprises.

The report shows just how pervasive Christian Americanism is in Texas politics, and how the ideology forms part of the official platform of the Texas Republican Party, which has controlled all three branches of state government since 2003. Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and numerous Republican legislators show evidence of Christian Americanist belief, as did Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry. Given the core Christian Americanist contention that Christianity should be given privileged status in law and public policy, one would expect to see sympathetic lawmakers introduce a raft of legislation clearly designed to give  preferential treatment to Christianity (especially its fundamentalist/evangelical varieties). 

Yet few such measures have been introduced in Texas in the past decade, much less made it into law. What we see instead are myriad bills that, though not explicitly pro-Christian, advance the Christian Americanist agenda―such as measures requiring biblical instruction in public schools and allowing school prayer, as well as bills shielding those who discriminate against others on religious grounds. However, these measures are couched in terms of religion generally (for instance, “sincerely held religious beliefs”), rather than Christianity explicitly.

Why the apparent disconnect between Christian Americanist rhetoric and actual legislation? As I write in the report:

 “One obvious obstacle to explicitly Christian legislation is the First Amendment’s establishment clause and the numerous court decisions that prohibit privileging one religion or denomination over others. Explicitly pro-Christian measures of the sort suggested by Christian Americanist rhetoric would almost certainly be vulnerable to court challenge, and that prospect might make legislators think twice before introducing such legislation. Yet the likelihood of a court challenge has not stopped Texas lawmakers from enacting controversial legislation, including measures that virtually invite court challenges [like a 2017 bill requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains].”

The report discusses some other possible explanations. One promising hypothesis: there’s a “sneak attack” element at play. Christian Americanists are playing the long game, taking an incremental approach to breaking down church-state separation and privileging conservative Christianity. Even without explicitly pro-Christian elements, legislation promoting school prayer or legally shielding those who discriminate on religious grounds set legal precedents that could pave the way for more explicitly Christian-preferential legislation in the future, while at the same time furthering the broader Christian Americanist agenda―especially weakening church-state separation. Think of it this way: If Google were aggressively lobbying for policies beneficial to “search engines,” no one would doubt that the greatest beneficiary by far would be Google itself.      

A similar gradualist approach is suggested in the Project Blitz legislative playbook for 2018-19: 

“In discussing a model bill that would require ‘In God We Trust’ to be prominently displayed in government buildings, the playbook’s authors note that such a measure ‘can have enormous impact. Even if it does not become law, it can still provide the basis to shore up later support for other governmental entities to support religious displays.’” 

In short, if Texas is any indicator, the rise to power of Christian Americanists may not mean an immediate shift to conservative Christian theocracy. Instead, church-state separation and religious freedom may die a death of a thousand cuts.

As I argue in the report, Christian Americanism “poses a clear challenge to separation of church and state, as well as the rights of minorities (religious and secular), who could become second-class citizens in the nation that Christian Americanists envision.” 

Whitehead and Perry go further, pointing out that the ideology is “a threat to a pluralistic democratic society,” since it “ultimately desires the silencing and exclusion of its opponents in the public sphere.”

As a bastion of Christian Americanism, Texas exerts significant influence on the national political landscape, however shadowy that influence may occasionally be. While it may not be true that, as they say, “as goes Texas, so goes the nation,” those who care deeply about preserving church-state separation, civil liberties, and a pluralistic democracy would do well to keep a close eye on the politics of the Lone Star State.