Nicknames for this summer’s special session have proliferated faster than hashtags and lapel pins. It’s been called “30 days of horror,” the “special discrimination session,” the “Session of Oppression” and a “war on local control.”
But as I’ve watched as a student of religion and politics, another label comes to mind: the Dominionism Special.
Among the special session’s “grab-bag” of conservative red-meat issues are three key items — “school choice,” anti-abortion and bathroom bills — that are longstanding priorities of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, arguably the state’s most powerful dominionist. All three further the agenda of those seeking conservative Christian “dominion” over government. And that should give all Texans reason to be concerned.
As scholar Frederick Clarkson puts it, dominionism is “the theocratic idea that … God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” Dominionists aren’t satisfied with mere Christian participation in the public square; they want to make America a conservative Christian nation in which biblical principles determine law and policy. That sets them apart from others on the religious right who work for conservative social change yet also believe in a pluralistic society.
Beginning as a fringe evangelical sect in the 1970s, dominionism has grown to become a key feature of right-wing politics at the highest levels of Texas government. In large part, that’s due to the influence of Patrick and his longtime backer, Houston doctor and GOP financier Steve Hotze, who calls transgender “a made-up term for those who wish to prevent God’s natural law.”
Though Patrick claimed in a 2014 campaign appearance that he doesn’t want a theocracy, he called America a “Christian nation,” declared that politics is about “building the kingdom” for God and proclaimed that government policy should be “biblically based” — all dominionist tenets. Last year, he was given the “Warrior for Biblical Values” award by Hotze’s powerful and deep-pocketed political action group, Conservative Republicans of Texas (CRT). From 2010 to 2016, CRT donated almost $2 million to Patrick and dozens of far-right legislative candidates.
Hotze recently called for “men of God” to “restore our nation to its Godly, Christian, Biblical heritage,” which includes vigorously opposing abortion and LGBT equality. As Quorum Report’s Scott Braddock notes, Hotze “holds significant sway with a large portion of Republican primary voters in Harris County, home to roughly one-fifth of the state’s electorate.” If Patrick is the Lone Star State’s most powerful dominionist, Hotze is one of the most influential.
The dominionist dimension of the special session is most evident in the debate over the so-called bathroom bill. On this issue, Braddock observes, the lieutenant governor has thrown in his lot with Hotze against the more pragmatic business community, which largely opposes the bill.
Senate Bill 3, which the upper chamber passed days into the special session in July, would block transgender Texans from using restrooms and other facilities that match their gender identity in most government and school district buildings.
Patrick and SB 3 author Senator Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican who also touts a Hotze endorsement, defend it on privacy and safety rather than religious grounds. But is it merely coincidence that it also furthers dominionist opposition to LGBT equality? After all, Patrick and Kolkhorst themselves injected conservative Christian beliefs into the debate.
Earlier this year, they announced a “One Million Voices” campaign, co-led by anti-LGBT pastor Rick Scarborough, to drum up evangelical support for a bathroom bill. Furthermore, the rhetoric about “boys in girls’ restrooms” that Patrick and Kolkhorst repeatedly use echoes the belief that gender is divinely assigned and immutable.
Hotze recently linked Senate passage of SB 3 with President Trump’s transgender military ban — lauding both events as “victories for those of us who are fighting to restore our nation to its Godly heritage.”
Neither Patrick, Hotze nor Kolkhorst responded to requests for comment for this article.
While the education and reproductive choice bills currently are supported by a wider swath of conservatives, they also advance the dominionist cause.
Supporters of the fringe theology attack public education because they believe it fosters a secular worldview. Though some dominionists advocate replacing public education with private religious schools, most work to chip away at it through “school choice” schemes such as vouchers. For years, Patrick has championed “school choice” as a solution to what he claims are “failing public schools,” but his previous efforts to institute vouchers came to naught.
In the special session, he’s working to get the camel’s nose under the tent. Senate Bill 2, which also passed Patrick’s Senate in the opening days of the special session, would give 6,000 special-needs students state-sponsored scholarships to pay tuition for private or religious schools. SB 2 would make it easier for future Legislatures to expand vouchers.
As for abortion, dominionist opposition dates back to Francis Schaeffer’s influential 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto. He urged Christians “to restore biblical principles and erase divisions between religion and civic life,” starting with “a crusade against abortion.”
Patrick has conducted his own intensely religious anti-abortion crusade for years, and under his leadership, the Senate in the special session has continued the anti-abortion work it started in the regular. Bills aimed at abortion providers and abortion access have already passed the body.
Of course, opposition to abortion is widespread among members of the religious right, including those who don’t share dominionism’s theocratic mindset. But dominionists can celebrate the Senate’s continued attacks on reproductive choice as limited victories in the long-term effort to conform law and public policy to what the movement sees as biblical principles.
No wonder Hotze calls the session “the battle royal over the future political direction of Texas.”