Opinion | The Texas legislature explores new frontiers of Christian nationalism

A young, progressive, Christian, Democratic legislator sounds the alarm and tries to stand in the way.

Paul Waldman
Tue, May 09, 2023

As everyone knows, there is no more effective way to shape the behavior of young people than through state-mandated posters on their classroom walls. At least thats what Republicans in the Texas legislature seem to believe, which is why theyre advancing a bill requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom in the state.

Texas is growing more purple with each passing year, which is exactly why the Republican-dominated legislature is reasserting the rights political and cultural power with ever more radically conservative laws. Part of that effort is a series of bills meant to impose not just religion but Christianity into public schools.

One bill would allow schools to mandate a period of prayer and Bible reading on each school day. Another says school personnel must be allowed to engage in religious speech or prayer while on duty. Yet another would allow schools to replace school counselors with chaplains no training or certification required. The centerpiece is the bill requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments, which has already passed the state Senate.

That bill, Democratic state Rep. James Talarico told me, not only violates our American values, but I think it violates my Christian values.

Talarico brings a unique perspective to this debate. Hes young and progressive, used to be a teacher, and is also a Christian who is enrolled in a Presbyterian seminary in Austin.

Talarico recently went viral for a series of clips in which he questioned Rep. Candy Noble, the bills Republican sponsor in the House. The exchange highlighted how when challenged, conservatives often retreat to preposterous arguments claiming that they have no religious motives when they push Christianity into the classroom.

When Talarico asked Noble how a Hindu or atheist student would feel when seeing Thou shalt have no other gods before me on their classroom wall, she said, I am hoping that when they see that, they will look at it and wonder about our Founding Fathers.

That might make one wonder whether Noble is familiar with the Ten Commandments herself. The first four are about devotion to the god of the Old Testament, instructing readers to reject all other gods, to make no graven images, not to take this gods name in vain, and to keep the sabbath.

Christian nationalism rejects our legal and cultural tradition of religious pluralism. It holds that the United States was a Christian nation from its founding and that Christianity should be the basis of public policy and political power.

Prominent national Republicans are increasingly emphasizing Christian-nationalist themes. Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) declared in a speech last year that without the Bible, there is no America. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis released an ad claiming that he was literally created by the almighty to do His work in politics.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said last year, We were a nation founded upon not the words of our founders but the words of God because He wrote the Constitution. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) calls herself a proud Christian nationalist.

The right is surely growing more focused on creating a kind of Christian cultural hegemony in public institutions in part because Christianity is in a steep decline. Three decades ago, about 90 percent of Americans identified as Christian. Today, the number has fallen to the low 60s and the decline is likely to continue.

Something similar is happening politically in Texas. Republicans have a lock on power, yet the state continues inexorably moving away from them, culturally and demographically.

I think this is the death rattle of a dying worldview, Talarico told me. In some ways, the far right is like a wounded animal here in Texas. They know that Texas is becoming increasingly diverse, Texas is becoming younger, and that new Texas is not going to stand for these extreme policies.

Posting the Ten Commandments in schools is an obvious violation of Supreme Court precedent. But a series of recent decisions culminating last year in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which allowed a public high school football coach to hold prayer sessions on the field after games, has convinced the right that the court will greenlight almost any injection of Christianity into public institutions.

A legal challenge to these Texas measures could become the vehicle for the Supreme Court to once and for all banish the establishment clause to a constitutional netherworld, where the court essentially decrees that it has no force. Its the same place the court deposited the well-regulated militia clause of the Second Amendment.

But Talarico insists that people like him can change minds and fight back. Christians like me have a moral obligation to speak out, he told me. Nothing less than the possible repeal of the idea that America is a religiously pluralistic nation is at stake.