Page 32


to do is organize,” says Richards. “It was important not just to be an Austin-based organization.” Over its three-year life span, T.F.N. has become a major advocate for public education in Texas. During the 1997 legislative session, T.F.N. was one of nearly thirty groups that formed the Coalition For Public Schools, which fought proposed voucher taller than the Texas Freedom Network” during the voucher battle, recalls John O’Sullivan, chairman of the coalition and secretarytreasurer of the Texas State Teachers Association. T.F.N. was particularly effective, says O’Sullivan, in getting its members from around the state to call legislators and voice their objections to the voucher proposals. “The strength of the Texas Freedom Network is the existence of a grassroots network of people who are voters in the districts, who these elected officials have to listen to.” That grassroots strategy perhaps comes naturally to a former organizer, but it also seems to suit Richards’ attention-deflecting personality. Tall, striking, and persuasive, she could grab a fair-sized share of the limelight if she wanted it; one senses she does not, at least not right now. Richards, forty-one, is the eldest child of former governor Ann Richards and civil rights lawyer David Richards, and it’s the not-too-private hope of certain Democrats that she might run for political office some day. Earlier this year she was courted to replace Bill White as chair of the Texas Democratic Party, but she declined to run. Shortly afterward the family decided to move to Washington, where they will stay for at least two years. T ” he most common misconception people have about the reli gious right is that it’s a religious movement. It’s not, it’s a political. movement that’s using religion to make its agenda more powerful,” says Richards. Religious right groups, ‘she says, stir up hatred and fear to advance their political agendas. While much of the T.F.N.’s work has been focused specifically on education training activists to get involved in local school board races, or inviting well-spoken voucher opponents like Houston Representative Scott Hochberg to travel to rural areas and talk to people about how vouchers would hurt the public schools Richards also helped establish a corollary organization of members of the clergy, the Texas Faith Network, to challenge the religious right’s appropriation of the morality mantle. “The reason I joined is that for years, fifteen or twenty years, the Southern Baptist Convention has been assaulted from the right,” says Reverend Charles Johnson of Lubbock’s 1,300-member First Baptist Church. “It’s essentially the same program that they’ve used politically…. When I heard about the Texas Freedom Network, I thought, this is it, for people of faith to offer, particularly to the press, an alternative voice.” In a speech to the Democratic Party convention this summer, says Johnson, “I told them, let us not relinquish to the moral majority the wonderful language of faith. Let’s not be shy about using words like God, faith, morality. I think what liberals have done, for reasons related to the First Amendment, is to throw that discourse out of the public square.” Though Johnson’s argument is one that many people in politics would shy away from, Richards isn’t one of them. Given the history of church involvement in the labor, suffrage, and civil rights movements, she says, “We should not be alarmed that people of AUGUST 28, 1998 faith get involved in the political process. And we shouldn’t allow Christianity to be identified with the right wing. The Bible says a lot more about helping the poor than anything the right wing is talking about…. One thing I’ve learned is that progressive movements in this country, to be heard, need to talk about faith, to talk to people where they are.” The Freedom Network has itself had to fend off the liberal atheist tag. “I got accused by [S.B.O.E. member] Bob Offut of being anti-Christian,” says Richards. “I am a Christian.” Although T.F.N. presents itself as a nonpartisan voice of the mainstream, opponents have painted it otherwise. Last June, when the T.F.N. applied for booth space at the Republican convention, the space was denied. G.O.P. Chair Susan Weddington announced that “the Texas Freedom Network is a front group of the Democratic Party.” Executive director Wayne Hamilton accused the group of spreading “hate speech” because of sentences in its application like, “Political extremists are waging a secret war to force their narrow ideology on the rest of us.” Considering that the state Republican party apparatus has been captured by the religious right, the rejection is hardly surprising. According to Richards, disgruntled moderate Republican precinct chairs have started contacting T.F.N. But the partisan tag pops up elsewhere; in its coverage of the Disney divestment vote, the Houston Chronicle referred to the T.F.N. as a “liberal special-interest group.” In the years since Richards founded T.F.N., the religious right’s power base has shifted: religious conservatives have had less success in winning over local school boards. “It’s been fascinating to watch the last three years,” says Richards. “The blush is off their stealth campaign. And you find when people know who’s running, even in very conservative districts, the right wing is not successful, much as they’ve tried. Most people want the same things. They move to that school district because of the schools, and they don’t want people with a political agenda running the school system.” Within the Republican party apparatus and the State Board of Education, however, the radical right hold shows no sign of loos ening. This fall, five S.B.O.E. seats are up for reelection, and reli gious conservatives could win a majority, giving them greater con trol over textbooks and school fund investments. On the other hand, if the balance tips any further, the Legislature could disband the board entirely, as it threatened to do last session. “In twenty years of public service I’ve never seen this type of political aberra tion in education,” says board chairman Christie. “I think it’s an aberration that won’t be long term…. If the board becomes any more extreme… the Legislature will wipe them out.” But over the short term, the T.F.N. won’t lack for projects. Samantha Smoot, who has worked for Texas Abortion Rights Action League and Emily’s List \(a national group that raises camthis month. “The Texas Freedom Network will remain strong,” says Reverend Johnson. “I think it’s our day. Texans are getting tired of the shrill, extreme voices of the radical right.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9 “THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT IS THAT IT’S A RELIGIOUS MOVE-MENT. IT’S NOT, IT’S A POLITICAL MOVEMENT THAT’S USING RELIGION TO MAKE ITS AGENDA MORE POWERFUL” .4TVrte