Who’s Really Politicizing School Shootings?

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin shouts "I can't believe you're a sick son of a bitch who would come to a deal like this to make a political issue," at Beto O'Rourke (light blue shirt, lower right) as he confronts Texas Republican officials, including Governor Greg Abbott (dark shirt, sitting, center) and Sen. Ted Cruz (dark suit, standing, over Abbott's right shoulder) over their failure to take any meaningful steps to prevent what he called a "totally predictable" tragedy. Image: C-SPAN

You know it’s coming. Every time a mass shooting captures the American public’s consciousness, leading to demands for sensible gun control, one or more Republicans will attempt to “shut that whole thing down” with demands that we stop “politicizing tragedy.” On May 24, the day two adults and 19 children, most 9-10 years old, were gunned down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, it was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a slimy theocrat and “gun rights” golden boy who’s apparently going ahead with speaking at the NRA convention in Houston tomorrow.

It’s a grim fact of American life that mass shootings are so common that our responses are practically scripted. And things look even grimmer when you consider, as political commentator John Stoehr argues convincingly, that the GOP’s persistent blocking of efforts to address America’s gun violence problem should be understood in the context of right-wing political violence. In Stoehr’s words:

Mass death works in the rightwingers’ favor whether it comes from bullets or a virus. When an electorate is scared enough, it will stop turning to democracy to solve problems. It will turn to the party that promises to restore “law and order,” that is, rule by white power.

Seen in this light, right-wing calls to stop “politicizing” mass shootings start to look about as apolitical as the “Jesus 2020” campaign—that is, not apolitical at all. And there’s plenty of evidence to back up Stoehr’s point.

Republicans—and right-wing Christians in particular—have been exploiting mass shootings to pursue their goals since at least the Columbine school shooting in 1999, in the aftermath of which they created a whole “martyrdom” craze around victim Cassie Bernall, playing up their persecution complex as they exhorted evangelical kids in youth groups across the country to be willing to die for their faith. One of the perpetrators of that shooting wore a shirt with the phrase “natural selection” on it that day, a fact that evangelicals jumped on in order to assert that the teaching of evolution creates “killer kids,” an absurd trope they’ve played up ever since.

Right-wing Christians also love to claim that school shootings are the result of “taking God out of our public schools,” an argument that was used as a “justification” for Florida’s law requiring public schools to display the national motto “In God We Trust,” which was passed shortly after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Not coincidentally, this Christian nationalist state law comes right out of the Project Blitz playbook.)

One of the main issues we fixated on in my evangelical childhood, right up there with abortion and gay people existing, was prayer in school, and how “awful” it was that “activist judges” had “banned prayer” in public schools. (We generally didn’t mention that, in fact, it was only school-endorsed prayer that was banned; it was easier to rile people up by asserting that prayer was banned, full stop). 

In Christian school, I was taught that the American government needed to follow “God’s will” in these matters in order for our country to be blessed, and that there was really no such thing as a “neutral” public school—take God out, and you’re in fact “indoctrinating” children in “secular humanism” by default. These anti-pluralist beliefs fuel right-wing attacks on public education, whether in the form of book banning and the “CRT” panic, or via vouchers that deprive public schools of funding that can then be funneled into Christian schools and homeschooling, where the real indoctrination takes place.

In the time of Covid, right-wing Christian actors associated with the Council for National Policy and the John Birch Society haven’t been above exploiting the pandemic to advocate that parents remove their children from public schools and choose Christian school or homeschooling instead, as I documented for Political Research Associates in 2020. A press release for an initiative called Public School Exit literally read, in part, “With coronavirus shutting government schools, millions of parents have a historic opportunity to try homeschooling and non-government alternatives.”

Meanwhile, yesterday, just one day after the shooting in Uvalde, The Federalist’s Jordan Boyd, an alum of the evangelical Baylor University, published an article titled “Tragedies Like The Texas Shooting Make A Somber Case For Homeschooling.” She argues that “to protect the most precious, innocent lives among us, parents must educate their kids at home,” adding that “families can’t trust government schools… to bring their children or teachers home safely at the end of the day.” (Note that the phrase “government schools” is a tell, as it’s commonly used by Christian Reconstructionists and their fellow travelers to emphasize their belief that a neutral, pluralist education is impossible.)

Boyd’s piece goes on to invoke the “good guys with guns” trope, blames Democrats for not wanting teachers to be armed, and makes a number of other clearly bad-faith arguments we need not belabor here. At this point, it should be painfully clear who’s actually guilty of politicizing American school shootings to advance their deplorable agenda.