Fear and Loathing in the AG’s Office

Fear and Loathing in the AG’s Office March 21, 2017

Texas State Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office just sent a letter that demonstrates again how deeply Islamophobia has infected Texas state government. You can find an account and copy here: http://www.wfaa.com/news/local/education/paxtons-office-outlines-concerns-over-prayer-room-in-letter-to-frisco-isd/423487833.

The letter is problematic for any number of reasons. First it opens with a falsehood, “Our initial inquiry left several questions unresolved.” The AG’s office contacted no one in the Frisco ISD. Their “inquiry,” as the letter makes clear, consisted entirely of reading an ambiguous sentence in a student newspaper and that’s all. If they had made an inquiry there would have  been no letter. Nor, I note, was the letter itself an inquiry. It was an accusation.

The state of Texas has 1437 school districts and many times that number of high schools. Does the AG’s office regularly troll their online student publications for hints of violations religious freedom? The AG himself said this was in response to questions from the public but doesn’t say who, or why these busybodies contacted his office and not the school district. Nor does it say why they were referred back to the district if they had concerns. So why has Paxton chosen to make a big deal of Muslims having a place to pray?

Because there is no basis in fact for the AG’s letter, its citation of relevant statues and rulings is equally purposeless. One can only conclude that it was a political move. But to whom could his letter appeal?

It seems to me to appeal to conservative, white, Christians who are finding that even North Dallas and its suburbs cannot shield them from the reality of social change. And with that social change has come a real and dramatic challenge to their faith.

When you believe that your religion was chosen by God to lead the world toward God’s Kingdom it is hard to accept it when you find that your religion must allow room for anyone else’s views and goals. Any diminution of your influence and power in society is contradictory to your self understanding as a person of faith. There might be temporary setbacks at the local level to be sure. But the gradual withdrawal of Christian religious influence from society as a whole (which is palpably obvious even in a religious bubble like North Texas) is simply unacceptable to many Christians. It calls into question everything about who they are and the divine destiny of their community. And it is this sense of disorientation that creates the political environment to which Paxton is responding. Frisco is just the excuse, not the reason for the letter.

A conservative Catholic like Ron Dreyer may sketch out the possibility of Christians simply climbing back into their boats and rowing further from land as the sea of faith recedes. (See Ron Dreyer’s recent book The Benedict Option and his multiple related blogs: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher-tags/benedict-option/) And that may make sense for Catholics and Anabaptists who have seen their share of marginalization. But I doubt that Dreyer’s path can appeal to American Protestants who have fervently believed in their manifest destiny of turning the entire world to Christ and Democracy in order to usher in the return of Christ. For them simply pulling back (or watching society recede from their vision) is a profound admission of defeat.

Because in this form of Christianity the business of social power and influence is always a zero sum game. If others are gaining, whether they be Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, secularists, agnostic’s, New Age religionists then you must be losing. Since you know that you are right, and God is on your side, it can’t possibly be due to your own failure. So if you are losing it can only be because someone has rigged the game; the liberal media, the Muslims, or the education establishment. So call the AG. Or actually you don’t need to, because he’s one of you and feels the same way.

Christians, (and progressives can share the embattled mood of conservatives but assign blame for their defeats differently,) need to develop a theology of God’s providence that isn’t centered entirely on domination and winning. Right now we seem to think (channeling our binge watching of Nike commercials and professional sports) that second place is first loser. In fact that place we fear, the one on the margins of social influence and control? That’s where Christ lives. It would be good to return to his house and leave the empty mansions of our fruitless dreams of power.

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