When hundreds of pastors and their spouses descended on Austin on April 3-4 for a Texas Renewal Project event, it was clear that the effort to drag houses of worship into partisan politics was kicking into high gear for the 2014 elections. But we were stunned by the sheer audacity of speakers who told the gathered pastors one mistruth after another — all designed to rile up pastors and encourage them to turn their congregations into political machines.
Some of the most outrageous comments came from David Barton, the religious right’s favorite phony historian and founder of WallBuilders, the Texas-based organization that argues separation of church and state is a myth. Laurence White, a Houston pastor who headed up the Texas Renewal Project’s predecessor organization, the Texas Restoration Project, introduced Barton:
“He knows more about the Founding Fathers than George Washington does. He is the most articulated, informed, knowledgeable defender of America’s Christian heritage and the values and the truths and the convictions that shaped and brought this country into being. I’m proud to call him my friend and the greatest historian of the Founding Fathers I’ve ever known.”
“Greatest historian”? Oh please. Scholars and other writers have picked Barton’s shabby, politicized “work” to pieces. Moreover, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson ceased publication of Barton’s book about Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies, in 2012 after scholars pointed out that it contained numerous errors and distortions. (And, of course, there is the ongoing embarrassment over Barton speaking at events sponsored by white supremacist groups in the early 1990s.)
But Barton, who served from 1997 to 2006 as vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is nothing if not shameless. He spoke to the pastors several times during the two-day Austin event. During his first spell at the podium, Barton immediately launched into an attack on San Antonio’s newly revised Nondiscrimination Ordinance (NDO), which now bars discrimination against LGBT people and military veterans in employment, housing and public accommodations. (The city already barred discrimination based on other characteristics, including race, gender and religion.)
Not content with simply disagreeing with efforts to treat LGBT people equally under the law, Barton proceeded to break (repeatedly) one of the Ten Commandments — the one that forbids lying — in front of all those pastors. Speaking just after former Republican Congressman JC Watts of Oklahoma, Barton absurdly claimed that Watts — who opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples — would be barred from serving on the San Antonio City Council because of the new nondiscrimination ordinance (text below from the video at the top of this post; emphasis added):
“The problem is, under the Nondiscrimation Ordinance that they just passed in San Antonio, if you did what JC did tonight and if you stand up for traditional marriage – marriage is a man and a woman – you are dismissed from office in San Antonio under the new city law. So JC, even though he’s elected by an overwhelming majority in San Antonio, he’s out the door. ‘You can’t do that. The people elected him.’ Yeah, but the new law in San Antonio says if you criticize homosexuality or homosexual marriage, you are dismissed from office.”
The crowd let out an audible gasp — as it should have because what Barton said isn’t true. Nothing in the ordinance bars someone who opposes marriage equality for lesbian and gay people from serving on the San Antonio City Council. But Barton doubled down, suggesting what would happen if he ran for office in San Antonio:
“I decide I’m going to run for City Council in San Antonio but they have found that what I’m saying tonight is criticizing homosexuality, I am barred from running for office in San Antonio.”
Not a word of that was true. But Barton continued on, distorting what the ordinance in San Antonio really does — and, of course, riling up the bamboozled pastors at the same time.
And so it went throughout the talks by Barton and other right-wing evangelicals. Speaker after speaker painted a picture of America hurdling down the path to destruction, spiritually and otherwise. The Texas Observer accurately described the overwhelming anxiety that seemed to pervade the ballroom:
“The message on offer is grim and fearful. This is a room full of people that are falling out of love with their country. It used to be a place that held promise for them and their cohort. But it’s changed, dramatically and for the worse, and the pastors don’t know if they can get it back in time.”
Among the biggest complaints were, as one country preacher said to the audience, the “HO-MO-sexual movement” and the “abortion people.”
The government is telling Americans “you’ve got to kill children,” declared Mat Staver, dean of law at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He was complaining about the federal requirement that employer-provided health insurance plans include coverage for birth control. (Staver also founded the right-wing litigation group Liberty Counsel.)
Staver went on to compare — bizarrely — the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case. In that latter case the Court ruled that African-Americans — free or enslaved — had no legal standing in federal courts because they weren’t U.S. citizens. Same thing, right?
Other speakers also played on the pastors’ fear and anxiety over a shifting legal and cultural landscape in America. Jason Taylor, pastor of the Barnone Cowboy Church in East Texas, put the issue in dire terms. “You take a stand!” he thundered:
“And don’t you waver and don’t you move, and you die standing your ground! That’s what this state, by golly, was founded on. That’s what’s in my blood right there. I ain’t moving! I will not be moved. I will die standing the ground for my children and my children’s children. I’m not moving.”
And, of course, speakers encouraged pastors to return home and politicize their congregations. Staver even argued that federal regulations against tax-exempt churches engaging in lobbying and partisan elections are toothless and easy to get around: “You could literally turn your church into a lobbying machine,” Staver declared.
Dragging churches into partisan politics was, of course, the primary reason for the Austin event. TFN exposed the Texas Restoration Project as a front group supporting Gov. Perry’s 2006 re-election campaign. Organizers under that banner hosted six “Pastors’ Policy Briefings” in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio the year before. Speaker after speaker praised Perry, who had a featured speaking slot at all of the events. In fact, TFN later discovered that major Perry campaign donors funneled money through a private Houston foundation (now defunct) to cover the $1.2 million it cost to hold those events.
The Texas Restoration Project served as a model for state Renewal Projects in a number of presidential election battleground states in 2008 and 2012. The main organizer, David Lane, has used those events to build a massive pastor contact list. And each event featured favored Republican candidates as well as speakers urging pastors to politicize their churches.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor this year, was scheduled to speak at this year’s Austin event, but he ended up sending his wife instead. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz made remarks by video and introduced his father, Rafael Castro, who spoke on the second day. Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and a number of right-wing pastors also spoke. Over the next few days we’ll report more about what they told the pastors and their spouses.