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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Culture Wars Live On In Texas

The CW these days is that with Americans having real (i.e., economic) problems to worry about, they’re no longer inclined to engage in “culture wars” over abortion, church-state separation, GLBT issues, etc. Aside from the rather insulting premise that struggles over personal freedom, equality, and for some combatants, the structure of the universe and the definition and meaning of human life are less important to people than real growth percentages, it’s not actually true. Cultural issues are less visible in Washington for the simple reason that Democrats control the congressional agenda (if not always the results), and are generally either uniniterested in or divided over cultural issues. (This doesn’t, of course, keep conservatives from claiming that health care reform legislation is actually designed to promote both abortion and euthanasia).
Outside Washington, however, the culture wars often rage on. For a good example, check out a long, fascinating piece by Russell Shorto that appeared in the the latest New York Times Magazine, on the Texas State School Board’s ongoing struggles over public school curriculum and textbook content.
As you may know, Christian Right leaders in the late 1980s, frustrated by the limited ROI from their involvement in national politics, encouraged their followers to run for local office, particularly school boards, in an effort to promote theocratic thinking from the ground up and from early childhood on. The bitter fruit of this strategy is most on display in Texas, where self-consciously Christian conservatives running as Republicans captured the State Board of Education in the late 1990s.
Shorto explains in detail how the Board’s Christian Right bloc pores over textbook content in periodic reviews, usually offering hundreds of amendments to recommendations made by expert panels (which are themselves being skewed towards theocratic views). He also notes that these activities have an impact far beyond Texas, since the state’s gigantic market heavily influences how textbook companies operate nationally. That the Christian Right bloc is interested in religio-political rather than educational goals is best exemplified by the presence on the Board of Cynthia Dunbar, who commutes once a week from Texas to Lynchburg, Virginia, to teach at the late Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University School of Law. Among other things, Dunbar has publicly denounced the very existence of public schools, and said sending one’s children to them (she didn’t, of course) is like “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” Just the kind of person you want supervising an entire state’s public schools.
Most interestingly, Shorto demonstrates that the ultimate goal of the Christian Right bloc on the Board goes well beyond such headline issues as the teaching of “scientific creationism” or church-state separation hot buttons. They are mainly, as Dunbar puts it, focused on embuing students’ understanding of American history and law with a “biblical worldview.” That means, in practice, emphatically teaching such distinctly non-biblical principles as “American exceptionalism” (which for these folks means America’s divine mission to Christianize the world, by military means if necessary), limited government, and absolute property rights. It’s a very political–one might even say secular–agenda that happens to coincide nicely with the long-range agenda of the secular as well as the religious Right. And it’s an excellent example of how in Conservativeland cultural and economic issues cannot be neatly separated. If God’s a hard money man, an anti-tax activist, and a neocon, then the whole idea of a “Christian Nation” has implications significantly broader than municipal Christmas creches, or even abortion and LGBT equality.
Shorto suggests that the extremism of the Texas State School Board has been controversial even among conservative Republicans, and points to a Republican primary challenge to Board member Don McLeroy (a dentist whose especially heavy hand with science textbooks led to his removal as Board chairman by the state senate) on March 3 as a bellwether:

If Don McLeroy loses, it could signal that the Christian right’s recent power surge has begun to wane. But it probably won’t affect the next generation of schoolbooks. The current board remains in place until next January. By then, decisions on what goes in the Texas curriculum guidelines will be history.

I’d say McLeroy’s defeat, if it happens, is more likely to produce a shift in Christian Right tactics than any real loss of power. But I’ll probably be watching his numbers on March 3 as avidly as I watch the gubernatorial primary battle between Tea Party favorite Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchiston. In good times and bad, the culture wars abide.

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