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Calls for Spiritual Warfare Against ‘Demonic, Satanic Forces’ on the Left at Texas GOP Convention

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By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune, May 28, 2024

SAN ANTONIO — From his booth in the exhibit hall of the Texas GOP’s 2024 convention, Steve Hotze saw an army of God assembled before him.

For four decades, Hotze, an indicted election fraud conspiracy theorist, has helmed hardline anti-abortion movements and virulently homophobic campaigns against LGBTQ+ rights, comparing gay people to Nazis and helping popularize the “groomer” slur that paints them as pedophiles. Once on the fringes, Hotze said Saturday that he was pleased by the party’s growing embrace of his calls for spiritual warfare with “demonic, Satanic forces” on the left.

“People that aren’t in Christ have wicked, evil hearts,” he said. “We are in a battle, and you have to take a side.”

Those beliefs were common at the party’s three-day biennial convention last week, at which delegates adopted a series of new policies that would give the party unprecedented control over the electoral process and further infuse Christianity into public life.

Delegates approved rules that ban Republican candidates — as well as judges — who are censured by the party from appearing on primary ballots for two years, a move that would give a small group of Republicans the ability to block people from running for office, should it survive expected legal challenges. The party’s proposed platform also included planks that would effectively lock Democrats out of statewide office by requiring candidates to win a majority of Texas’ 254 counties, many of which are dark-red but sparsely populated, and called for laws requiring the Bible to be taught in public schools.

Those moves, delegates and leaders agreed, were necessary amid what they say is an existential fight with a host of perceived enemies, be it liberals trying to indoctrinate their children through “gender ideology” and Critical Race Theory, or globalists waging a war on Christianity through migration.

Those fears were stoked by elected officials in almost every speech given over the week. “They want to take God out of the country, and they want the government to be God,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday morning.

“Our battle is not against flesh and blood,” Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, said Friday. “It is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

”Look at what the Democrats have done,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Saturday. “If you were actively trying to destroy America, what would you do differently?”

Controlling elections

The Texas GOP’s conventions have traditionally amplified the party’s most hardline activists and views. In 2022, for instance, delegates approved a platform that included calls for a referendum on Texas secession; resistance to the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory that claims global elites are using environmental and social policies to enslave the world’s population; proclamations that homosexuality is an “abnormal lifestyle choice”; and a declaration that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

The 2024 convention went a step further.

It was the first Texas GOP convention set against the backdrop of a civil war that was sparked by the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton and inflamed by scandals over white supremacists and antisemites working for the party’s top funders, West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. This year’s convention was also sparsely attended compared to past years, which some longtime party members said helped the Dunn and Wilks faction further consolidate their power and elect their candidate, Abraham George, for party chair.

“What we’re seeing right now is a shift toward more populism,” said Summer Wise, a former member of the party’s executive committee who has attended most conventions since 2008, including last week’s. “And the [party’s] infrastructure, leadership, decision-making process, power and influence are being controlled by a small group of people.”

That shift was most evident, she said, in a series of changes to the party’s rules that further empower its leaders to punish dissent. The party approved changes that would dramatically increase the consequences of censures — which were used most recently to punish House Speaker Dade Phelan for his role in impeaching Paxton, and against U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales for voting for gun safety legislation.

Under the changes, any person who is censured by the party would be banned for two years from appearing on GOP primary ballots — including judges, who are elected in partisan races but expected to be politically neutral once on the bench. The party also voted to unilaterally close its primaries, bypassing the Legislature, in a move intended to keep Democrats from voting in Republican primaries.

“It’s pretty hypocritical,” Wise said of the changes, which legal experts and some party members expect will face legal challenges. “Republicans have always opposed activist judges, and this seems to be obligating judges to observe and prioritize party over law — which is straight-up judicial activism.”

The convention came amid a broader embrace of Christian nationalism on the right, which falsely claims that the United States’ founding was God-ordained and that its institutions and laws should reflect their conservative, Christian views. Experts have found strong correlations between Christian nationalist beliefs and opposition to migration, religious pluralism and the democratic process.

Wise said she has seen parts of the party similarly shift toward dogmatic political and religious views that have been used “to justify or rationalize corrupting the institution and stripping away its integrity, traditions, fundamental and established principles” — as if “‘God wants it, so we can rewrite the rules.’”

“Being Republican and being Christian have become the same thing,” she said. “If you’re accused of being a (Republican in Name Only), you’re essentially not as Christian as someone else. … God help you if you’re Jewish.”

The “rabbit hole”

Bob Harvey is a proud member of the “Grumpy Old Men’s Club,” a group in Montgomery County that he said pushes back against Fox News and other outlets that he claims have been infiltrated by RINOs.

“People trust Fox News, and they need to get outside of that and find alternative news and like-minded people,” Harvey, 71, said on Friday, as he waited in a long line to meet Kyle Rittenhouse, who has ramped up his engagement in Texas politics since he was acquitted of homicide after fatally shooting two Black Lives Matter protesters.

Rather, Harvey’s group recommends places such as the Gateway Pundit, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News or the Epoch Times, a far-right website that also had a booth at this year’s convention and is directly linked to the Falun Gong, a hardline anti-communist group.

Such outlets, Harvey said, are crucial to getting people “further down the rabbit hole,” after which they can begin to connect the dots between the deep-state that has spent years attacking former President Donald Trump, and the agenda of the left to indoctrinate kids through the Boy Scouts of America, public schools and the Democratic Party.

Harvey’s views were widely-held by his fellow delegates, many of whom were certain that broader transgender acceptance, Critical Race Theory or “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives were parts of a sinister plot to destroy the country and take over its churches.

The culprits behind the ploy differed — Democrats, socialists or “globalists,” to name a few. But their nefarious end goals loomed over the convention. Fearing a transgender takeover of the Republican Party of Texas, delegates pushed to explicitly stipulate that the party’s chair and vice chair must be “biological” men or women.

At events to recruit pastors and congregations to ramp up their political activism, elected leaders argued that churches were the only thing standing between evil and children. And the party’s proposed platform included planks that claim gender-transition care is child abuse, or urge new legislation in Texas that’s “even more comprehensive” than Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.

“Our next generation is being co-opted and indoctrinated where they should have been educated,” Rep. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, said at a Friday luncheon for pastors and churches. “We are in a spiritual battle. This isn’t a political one.”

For at least a half-century, conservative Christian movements have been fueled by notions of a shadowy and coordinated conspiracy to destroy America, said Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University who focuses on movements to put the Bible in public schools.

“It’s like the boogeyman that won’t go away, that gets summoned whenever a justification is needed for these types of agendas,” he said. “They say that somebody is threatening quintessential American freedoms, and that these threats are posed by some sort of global conspiracy — rather than just recognizing that we’re a pluralistic democracy.”

In the 1950s, such claims were the driving force behind the emergence of groups such as the John Birch Society, a hardline anti-communist group whose early members included the fathers of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump. After decades of dwindling influence, the society has seen a revival since Trump’s 2016 election. And in the exhibit hall last week, so-called Birchers passed out literature and pamphlets that detailed the New World Order’s secret plans for “world domination.”

Steve Oglesby, field director for the Birch Society’s North Texas chapter, said interest and membership in the group has been on the rise in recent years — particularly, as COVID-19 lockdowns and international climate change initiatives have spurred right-wing fears of an international cabal working against the United States.

“COVID really helped,” he said, adding that the pandemic proved the existence of a global elite that has merely shifted its tactics since the 1950s. “It’s not just communism — it’s the people pulling the strings.”

Throughout the week, prominent Republicans invoked similar claims of a coordinated conspiracy against the United States. On Friday, Patrick argued that a decadeslong decline in American religion was part of a broader, “Marxist socialist left” agenda to “create chaos,” including through migration — despite studies showing that migrants are overwhelmingly Christian. Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed those claims in his own speech minutes later, saying migration was part of a plan to “steal another election.”

“The Biden Administration wants the illegals here to vote,” he said.

As Paxton continued, Ella Maulding and Konner Earnest held hands and nodded their approval from the convention hall’s front row. Last year, the two were spotted outside of a Tarrant County office building where Nick Fuentes, a prominent white nationalist and Adolf Hitler fan, was hosted for nearly seven hours by Jonathan Stickland, then the leader of Dunn and Wilks’ most powerful political action committee. They eventually lost their jobs after The Texas Tribune reported on their ties to Fuentes or white nationalist groups.

Maulding has been particularly vocal about her support for Great Replacement Theory, a conspiracy theory that claims there is an intentional, often Jewish-driven, effort to replace white people through migration, LGBTQ+ acceptance or interracial marriage. Once a fringe, white nationalist worldview, experts say that Great Replacement Theory has been increasingly mainstreamed as Republican leaders, including some who spoke last week, continue to claim that migration is part of a coordinated effort to aid Democrats. The theory has also been cited by numerous mass shooters, including the gunman who murdered 22 Hispanic people at an El Paso WalMart in 2019.

Five hours after Paxton and Patrick spoke, Maulding took to social media, posting a cartoon of a rabbi with the following text: “I make porn using your children and then make money distributing it under the banner of women’s rights while flooding your nation with demented lunatics who then rape your children.”

David Barton

Kason Huddleston has spent the last few years helping elect Christians and push back against what he believes is indoctrination of children in Rowlett, near Dallas. Far too often, he said, churches and pastors have become complacent, or have been scared away from political engagement by federal rules that prohibit churches from overt political activity.

Through trainings from groups like Christians Engaged, which advocates for church political activity and had a booth at this year’s convention, he said he has been able show more local Christians that they can be “a part of the solution” to intractable societal ills such as fatherlessness, crime or teen drug use. And while he thinks that some of his peers’ existential rhetoric can be overwrought, he agreed that there is an ongoing effort to “tear down the family unit” and shroud America’s true, Christian roots.

“If you look at our government and our laws, all of it goes back to a Judeo-Christian basis,” he said. “Most people don’t know our true history because it’s slowly just been removed.”

He then asked: “Have you ever read David Barton?”

Since the late 1980s, Barton has barnstormed the state and country claiming that church-state separation is a “myth” meant to shroud America’s true founding as a Christian nation. Barton, a self-styled “amateur historian” who served as Texas GOP vice chair from 1997 to 2006, has been thoroughly debunked by an array of historians and scholars — many of them also conservative Christians.

Despite that, Barton’s views have become widespread among Republicans, including Patrick, Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine and U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson. And his influence over the party was clear at last week’s convention, where his group, WallBuilders, maintained a booth and delegates frequently cited him.

This year’s platform, the votes for which are expected to be released later this week, included planks that urged lawmakers and the State Board of Education to “require instruction on the Bible, servant leadership and Christian self-governance,” and supports the use of religious chaplains in schools — which was made legal under a law passed by the state Legislature last year.

Warren Throckmorton, a former Grove City College professor and prominent conservative, Christian critic of Barton, told the Tribune that the platform emblematized Barton’s growing influence, and his movement’s conflicting calls to preserve “religious liberty” while attempting to elevate their faith over others. The platform, he noted, simultaneously demands that students’ religious rights be protected, and for schools to be forced to teach the Bible.

“What about the other students who aren’t Christians and who don’t believe in the Bible?” he said. “This is not religious liberty — it’s Christian dominance.

As Zach Maxwell watched his fellow Republicans debate and vote last week, he said he was struck by the frequency and intensity with which Christianity was invoked. Maxwell previously served as chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Lang, then the leader of the ultraconservative Texas House Freedom Caucus, and he later worked for Empower Texans, a political group that was funded primarily by Dunn and Wilks.

He eventually became disillusioned with the party’s right wing, which he said has increasingly been driven by purity tests and opposition to religious or political diversity. This year’s convention, he said, was the culmination of those trends.

“God was not only used as a tool at this convention, but if you didn’t mention God in some way, fake or genuine, I did feel it was seen as distasteful,” he said. “There is a growing group of people who want to turn this nation into a straight-up theocracy. I believe they are doing it on the backs of people who are easily manipulated.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.

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