Church and State Stay Cozy at Texas GOP Convention

Jack Finger
Patrick Michels
San Antonio activist Jack Finger protests the state GOP’s proposed language softening its stance on “ex-gay” reparative therapy.

For newbies like me, the 2016 Texas GOP Convention is a raucous cacophony of sights and sounds. Gaudy banners, inspirational videos, blustering country songs, speeches, slogans, claims, counterclaims and trash-talking. And quotations. Lots of quotations: from Jesus to Washington, Reagan to Trump and a host of competing candidates.

But here’s a quote you won’t find here: religion and government “will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Who wrote that? It wasn’t some contemporary “secularist liberal,” much maligned in Dallas this week. It was written by the architect of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, way back in 1822.

I wonder what Madison would think if he were to magically appear here. For one persistent theme that emerges from this raucous cacophony is that that government and religion should be mixed together, and the more the better.

Governor Greg Abbott brought this theme front and center in his keynote speech Thursday. “God Bless Texas and God bless the Republican Party of Texas,” he declared, to wild applause. He notedit’s been 20 years since a Democrat occupied statewide office — strongly implying that this is how God has blessed Texas. He ended his speech with what he claimed (falsely) is “something you’ll never hear at a Democrat convention — the word of God,” and then quoted from Psalms. “As long as we build our fortress on the rock of God,” the governor concluded, “America will never be shaken.”

At the Freedom, Faith and Family event last night, Rafael Cruz, evangelist father of Texas senator and onetime presidential candidate Ted Cruz, claimed that what made America “the greatest country on the face of the earth” are its biblical values. He strongly implied that the Constitution was divinely inspired.

Cruz claimed that America was founded by “people seeking to worship Almighty God freely” — omitting, of course, the colonists who came here to make a buck or two. He also claimed that the American Revolution began in the churches, that pastors were at the forefront— and that pastors should be at the forefront of politics again, today. To restore America’s position as “shining city on the hill to the glory of God,” Cruz declared, people of faith must lead. He encouraged people of faith, especially pastors, to run for public office — especially for school board, since “God knows we need people of faith on school boards.” And voters, he declared, must exercise their “sacred responsibility” to vote for people who uphold biblical values.

Another very non-Madisonian mixing of religion and politics also figures in one of the most contentious battles of this convention: the fight for state GOP chair, a bitter contest between incumbent Tom Mechler and challenger Jared Woodfill. Each candidate wears his conservative Christian credentials on his sleeve.

Woodfill’s campaign website makes much of his conservative Christian credentials, prominently displays 1 Timothy 6:12 (“Fight the good fight”). His campaign statement complains that “Religious liberties are being assaulted.” There is a “war being waged by the secular left on the biblical foundations of our culture,” he writes. And he accuses an unnamed “some” of “running from our Judeo Christian heritage.”

A pro-Woodfill flyer from Steve Hotze of Conservative Republicans of Texas touts Texas as “the last bastion of Biblical Christianity and conservative state government in the country.” Hotze has “deep admiration for the passion that he [Woodfill] has to advance a Christian Biblical worldview in civil government.”

Tom Mechler
Patrick Michels
Republican Party of Texas Chairman Tom Mechler, who’s running for the spot agains this year.

Not surprisingly, incumbent Mechler’s handout here at RPT 2016 leads off with conservative Christian red meat. The very first item under “Tom Mechler Believes” reads: “We are a Judeo-Christian nation created by God to serve as a positive influence in the world.” The second item: “We must defend the Republican platform, the sanctity of life, and traditional marriage.” And he told delegates on Thursday that he’s “walked with Christ for 40 years.”

That’s just a sampling of the Christ-and-politics mix here at the convention. It’s also visible at the booths for Young Women of America, Concerned Women of America, and WallBuilders. You’re more likely to notice when Christian references and icongraphy are missing.

One of the hallmarks of the Constitution which Madison helped to bring into being is Article VI, which states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

For all the talk about defending the Constitution here, many Texas Republicans clearly believe in a religious test — commitment to “biblical values.”

What would Madison say?

[Follow live updates from the 2016 Republican Party of Texas convention here.]

David R. Brockman, Ph.D., a religious studies scholar and Christian theologian, is an adjunct lecturer in religion at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Dialectical Democracy through Christian Thought: Individualism, Relationalism, and American Politics.

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Published at 10:26 am CST