When emails first appeared calling for dumping current Speaker Joe Straus in favor of “Christian conservative” leadership, Straus’ more visible opponents initially dismissed accusations of anti-Jewish/pro-Christian bias. “I’ve never heard any one talk about Mr. Straus’ religion,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, the head of Empower Texans and a vocal leader of the anti-Straus crowd. “There is no place in the speakership race for discussions of people’s religion or lack thereof.” Shortly afterwards, Straus’ opponents took a new approach, condemning the emails and distancing themselves from the statements. “There is absolutely no place for religious bigotry in the race for Texas Speaker, and I categorically condemn such action,” said state Rep. Ken Paxton, who’s challenging Straus for the position.
It seemed like things had died down, until I obtained an email exchange Tuesday between two members of the State Republican Executive Committee—Rebecca Williamson and John Cook. After Williamson sent a fact sheet to SREC members defending Straus, Cook responded by dismissing her claims and saying that “We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it.” (You can see both emails here.) Since the SREC governs state Republican Party affairs, this marked the first time an elected party leader had semi-openly called for a “Christian conservative” Speaker.
When I posted the emails, Cook had not responded to phone calls—but today I got to speak with the SREC member at length. As the most visible and powerful of anti-Straus folks using the “Christian conservative” line, Cook’s stance on the race—and his perspective on the need for a Christian speaker—might give the best insight into a vocal sub-set of the anti-Straus forces. And Cook, who stands by his email, doesn’t mince words: he maintains that his demands are in no way bigoted. Here’s a summary of our conversation, and I’ll leave it to readers to judge.
“When I got involved in politics, I told people I wanted to put Christian conservatives in leadership positions,” he told me, explaining that he only supports Christian conservative candidates in Republican primary races.
“I want to make sure that a person I’m supporting is going to have my values. It’s not anything about Jews and whether I think their religion is right or Muslims and whether I think their religion is right. … I got into politics to put Christian conservatives into office. They’re the people that do the best jobs over all.”
Then he asked me if I was a Christian. “I just need to know who I’m talking to so I can understand,” he explained. “The Bible is true to me. God exists, Christ is his son and the holy spirit is in the people who are Christian.” As a general rule, I don’t disclose my religion, but I explained I would do my best to understand his point of view.
His opposition to Straus, he said, was rooted largely in his belief that the current Speaker is both pro-choice and pro-gay rights. “He’s a pro choice person basically,” Cook said. (Earlier in his career, Straus did vote against banning gay couples from serving as foster parents and against a ban on late-term abortions, albeit on two rather technical votes on amendments. However Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life, has been one of his biggest conservative supporters, among others.) Cook called the Republicans who worked with Democrats to elect Straus “turncoat RINOs.” (Republicans in Name Only.)
“My values are Christian conservative values,” said Cook, “and Joe Straus just has not proved that to me. He hasn’t given me the things I need to support him.”
“Ken Paxton is a good solid Christian conservative man,” Cook continued, explaining why he endorsed Paxton. “He will try to bring everybody together in the House. Now he’s not going to give up his character which I think Straus has done.”
Cook said his opposition was not about Straus’ religion, although he prefers Christian candidates.
“They’re some of my best friends,” he said of Jews, naming two friends of his. “I’m not bigoted at all; I’m not racist.”
But during the primary season, Cook said, “I try to select every time a Christian conservative to help.” In a general election, however, he’ll support the Republican even if the candidate is not a Christian—so long as the candidate shares his values. “Christian isn’t even the most important thing when it comes to leadership,” he allowed. “I want somebody in office that has moral values.”
“If that offends you, I’m sorry that offends you,” he said.
When I asked him if he could see why some were concerned about bringing religious identity into a political race, he got frustrated. “I try to look at a candidate, I determine whether that candidate is the right,” he said. Some Republicans want to “Go along with the Republican agenda and just kowtow. I don’t do that. I believe what’s right … I use the Bible as a reference too. I think that morally I’m doing the right thing.”
Then our conversation somehow turned to history. If someone couldn’t see the connection between Christianity and government then “you don’t like our founding fathers,” Cook said. “They were Christians…. Why would I not what to be like our founding fathers?”
Christians, Cook says, “are the only people in the history of the world that take in all forms, that believe everybody is made by God.”
When it comes to non-Christians, Cook said “We have to witness to those people, that’s our calling by the Bible… [but] I’m a christian, I embrace all people and love all people.”
Cook was absolute that his position was not bigoted.
“My favorite person that’s ever been on this earth is a Jew,” he said. “How can they possibly think that if Jesus Christ is a Jew, and he’s my favorite person that’s ever been on this earth?”
Updated 12/6/10 to include more hyperlinks on Straus’ policy positions.