If you have any number of conservative Christian facebook friends then your newsfeed has probably blown up concerning the subpoenas of the Houston pastors. For the rest of you let me briefly fill you in. Several months ago Houston passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. Among other requirements, this ordinance would require public bathrooms to be open to those who identify with that particular gender. A male who identifies as a woman can use the women bathroom. This started a protest by Houston citizens, led by many area pastors. They gathered a petition to put the ordinance to a city vote. The city attorney threw out the petition stating that many of the signatures are invalid. The city was sued to allow the vote. As part of the lawsuit five Houston pastors were subpoenaed for their sermons and for any correspondence related to this issue. This description is not completely nuanced, and leaves out important details, but it is the best I can in a brief manner.
I have two takes on this situation. One is based on my academic expertise and one is just based on my observation as an educated citizen. First, my observation as a citizen. I am not a lawyer so there are likely legal issues I do not understand, but it is hard for me to see why these sermons and communications are relevant. If the Mayor of Houston was suing a pastor for slander then clearly his or her sermons would be fair game. But in this case it seems that the major question, the research question from my perspective, is whether the signatures are valid. If they are then we should have a vote. If they are not then the Houston city attorney is in the right.
Some individuals may argue that the signatures may be improperly collected since pastors should not get involved in politics from the pulpit. Let me put that issue off to the side for now, because ultimately it is unimportant. Let us assume the worst case scenario in that the pastors told their congregations that it was God’s will for them to sign the petition. So what? If the people signing the petition were registered voters from Houston then it really does not matter why they signed the petition. They signed it of their own free will and Houston should have a referendum on the ordinance.
This leads me to suspect that the subpoenas are not about this particular lawsuit but serve a larger purpose of stigmatizing the pastors. The subpoenas seem unlikely to produce evidence relevant to this case, but may be passed on to IRS agents to challenge the tax status of the churches. We have seen evidence of information sharing from the IRS to progressive activists before and it is not hard to imagine this sharing going in the other direction. It may be the case that these churches should be examined for possible non-profit status issues. But I would feel better having the IRS collecting the needed information and going through the proper channels than the obtaining of the information through the pretense of evidence gathering in a lawsuit.
But once again I am not a lawyer and perhaps a lawyer will respond with an answer that makes sense. I am a sociologist studying anti-Christian attitudes in our society. This brings me to my take that I am qualified to talk about – whether this legal strategy is tied to Christianophobia. There are reasons to believe that this attempt to obtain sermons and other information is part of a larger strategy to stigmatize Christians. Thus, I do not discount the possibility that Christianophobia plays some role in these actions.
However, it is work of another book I wrote a couple of years ago which I think is more relevant. That book is named What Motivates Cultural Progressives. In that book, I documented that cultural progressive activists tend to consider their political opponents to be irrational, religious individuals trying to move our culture backwards. They have little respect for their political opponents. They often express concerns about the ability of religious individuals to have influence on our political system. With this sort of mindset, it is easy to perceive a motivation from Houston officials, if they are cultural progressive activists, to gather sermons and other material in an effort to “expose” the irrationality and intolerance of their political opponents. Whether the documents are relevant to the current court case may be less important to these officials than stopping the efforts of those who would take our culture backwards.
My suggestion is that it is not as much a fear of Christians as it is the fear of the socially conservative culture linked to Christians driving these subpoenas. The lack of respect cultural progressive activists have for their political opponents allow them to rationalize using the legal system to “dig up dirt” on them. In my sample, I found several individuals who did not believe that religious individuals had the right to fully participate in our political progress. A good number of respondents also articulated a belief that religious individuals are brainwashed and cultural conservative political movements have developed due to the manipulation of ignorant Christians by evil leaders. Thus the political claims in this movement are not legitimate claims by people seeking to serve their own social and material interests, but are the result of manipulation whereby they have been persuaded to vote against their own economic and social interest. When we recognize that many cultural progressive activists do not see cultural conservatives as legitimate political players in our governmental system, then the overreaching request make a great deal of sense.
I am glad I waited a day or two before submitting this blog as new information indicates that the Houston mayor is backing away from some of the requests. Since she is a lesbian who is an activist on sexuality issues, it clearly would look political bad to have her requesting sermons from conservative preachers. Indeed this does look like an incredible political faux pas, one that an experience politician would not make unless blinded by previous stereotypes of her political opponents. The type of stereotypes I discovered in my cultural progressive activists research helps explain such a mistake.