Listen for the right alarm

Even in the best of journalism, where the story is at once true and fair, not inflammatory or emotionally manipulative, you still want to catch the attention of the reader/listener/viewer/clicker so that they will read/hear/see your story (and be enriched by the experience).  So don’t think you know all there is to know when the headline on a Pew Research Center poll blares “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should Be a ‘Christian Nation’” because the truth is less alarming than that.

In the past couple of years I’ve written a few times about the concept of Christian nationalism, and not in an approving way.  By definition,

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term “Christian nationalism,” is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity.

Most of the Founding Fathers did profess a belief in a Supreme Being. If they believed that the success of their new creation was inextricably linked to Christianity as it was understood in their day – even IF  that is true – that’s not what it says in the structure for government they wrote.  Historical scholarship has lauded the American experiment that protects the rights of citizens to worship freely while disconnecting the religions from having any governmental authority.  It’s been one step on the still-being-paved path to a free society willing to give everyone a chance to contribute and to reap the rewards of their work.

So the headline roaring that nearly half of us think we should be a “Christian nation” is concerning, but it turns out there’s not so much worry there as one might imagine since the survey also finds that we don’t agree what that phrase even means:

For instance, many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values. Those who say the United States should not be a Christian nation, on the other hand, are much more inclined to define a Christian nation as one where the laws explicitly enshrine religious teachings.

Overall, six-in-ten U.S. adults – including nearly seven-in-ten Christians – say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the U.S. to be a Christian nation. And 45% of U.S. adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country “should be” a Christian nation. A third say the U.S. “is now” a Christian nation.

At the same time, a large majority of the public expresses some reservations about intermingling religion and government. For example, about three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) say that churches and other houses of worship should not endorse candidates for political offices. Two-thirds (67%) say that religious institutions should keep out of political matters rather than expressing their views on day-to-day social or political questions. And the new survey – along with other recent Center research – makes clear that there is far more support for the idea of separation of church and state than opposition to it among Americans overall.

A Washington Post analysis makes clear that this poll hasn’t found a burbling caldron of restive theocrats across the country; in fact, “comfortable majorities want daylight between politics and faith.”

Sixty-seven percent of all adults, for instance, say churches should stay out of politics, while 77% say they should not endorse candidates for elected office.

Among the 45% who want the United States to be a “Christian nation”:

  • 28% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation, while 52% say the government should never declare an official religion
  • 24% say the federal government should promote Christian values, while 52% say it should promote moral values shared by many faiths
  • 39% say the federal government should enforce separation of church and state, while 31% say it should stop enforcing it.

Among all United States adults, 15% want the federal government to declare the country a Christian nation (69% do not), 13% say the federal government should promote Christian values (63% favor values shared by many faiths), 54% say the government should enforce separation of church and state (19% say it should stop).

So, the percentage of Americans who don’t believe in the separation of their Christian church from state authority is small…but the success of Christian evangelicals in winning political office is undeniable: give them credit for playing the game on its own terms and taking control of the levers of power at a rate beyond their real numbers in the population.  Those people are the ones fighting to make secular society look more like their preferred variety of Christianity.  Here in Texas they are hard-charging to use public tax dollars to fund private religious education for their children and leave the rest of “the little skoolchirrun of Texas” to languish in an underfunded and second-rate (at best) public education system.

“Texas, a friend used to say, is hard on women and little things” is how Christopher Hooks started a May article in Texas Monthly that let Texas’ Republican leaders have it (no Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994!) over their treatment of children and the public education system:

It is a grotesque and cruel irony that the Republican primary this year, like several years of political activity before it, was dominated by an all-consuming and comically misdirected argument about the protection of children and by a multifront war against long-neglected public schools. There were essentially no contested policy proposals in the GOP primary that would affect the practical and economic circumstances of all Texans. (There rarely are.) There was, however, ceaseless discussion about the well-being of children, their morals, their internal lives.

The most acute panic was over transgender children. In February, [Attorney General Ken] Paxton’s office issued a formal opinion holding that gender-affirming care, such as the prescription of puberty blockers to trans kids, constituted child abuse. Shortly after, [Governor Greg] Abbott tasked the Department of Family and Protective Services, an overworked and underfunded agency he had overseen for close to eight years, with investigating the families of trans kids for such abuse.

The more widespread crisis concerned books. This panic was conjured up by right-wing parents and elected officials in roughly equal measure. The first target was “divisive” material about race. Then, elected officials began to agitate about “pornography” in schools, a category that included mostly literature featuring queer characters. Lawmakers proposed lists of books to be banned. In November, Abbott ordered the Texas Education Agency to investigate cases of pornography in public schools and prosecute those responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” because, he wrote, it had to be a top priority to “protect” Texas students.
Public school teachers and children’s librarians—members of two professions that offer highly beneficial services to society, for little pay—became villains to activist parents and candidates alike. They were called “groomers” and “pedophiles” on social media. In Granbury, near Fort Worth, two women lodged a criminal complaint in May against the local school’s libraries, prompting a police investigation. At a subsequent school board meeting, one of the women opined that a committee assembled to review troublesome books comprised “too many” librarians instead of “people with good moral standards.”

That’s right: no intersection in this Venn diagram of the universes of “librarians” and “people with good moral standards,” according to this woman.  She’s not alone in that kind of sentiment.  It’s so tiresome.

A year of manufactured outrage about the specter of loose morals in public education had the effect of making all of public education worse—which, for some, seemed to be the goal. Test scores have dropped. Even parents who strongly favor public schooling have begun to search for alternatives. State leaders, including Abbott, who have presided over an education system that spends about 20 percent less than the national average on each student, began to lay the framework for a renewed push to expand school choice and perhaps introduce a voucher system in which taxpayer dollars would be used to fund private schools.

Our right-wing lieutenant governor has been championing vouchers for years, and that came up in a terrific column by Chris Tomlinson in the Houston Chronicle this summer that highlighted the on-going effort by right-wing extremists and their rich Texas patrons to “gut Texas public education.”

Their top priority is helping Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pass a school voucher bill that allows parents to spend state money to send their kids to private, religious schools, effectively defunding public schools. To inspire support for their plan, Patrick and his allies have set public schools up for failure by cutting their budgets.

Texas lawmakers have shrunk state spending per student over the last 15 years. Occasionally, they’ll authorize an increase, only to cut it later. Texas spends $9,900 per student, while the national average is $13,185, the Education Data Initiative reported.

Political vilification, school shooters, and poor compensation have led two-thirds of teachers to consider leaving the profession, the Texas American Federation of Teachers found in polling its members.

Texas already ranks 35th in the nation for pre-K through 12 education, U.S. News and World Report determined. WalletHub ranked the quality of Texas’s education as 33rd in the country. An exodus of experienced teachers will only worsen matters.

Few Texans can afford the $30,000 or more that a top private school charges and most do not want their child enrolled in a fundamentalist indoctrination camp. If we want our children and state to prosper in a competitive global economy, we must defend our public schools from those who would destroy them.

Self-described “conservatives” who demonstrate with their actions (and their money) that they do not believe in the American ideal of a free public education for all, nor do they believe in the separation of church and state or in real freedom of religion.  I can’t say how many of them fall into the 15% of all American adults who want the federal government to declare America a “Christian nation,” but I find it alarming enough to say I will have that in mind on election day.

The most crucial lesson

Seated at my desk at work with CNN playing numbingly in the background, it was just another autumn Tuesday morning in Houston.  Finally, it soaked in that they were saying a commercial jetliner had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York—where we had been on a vacation weekend just 15 months earlier—and my reaction was to think, that’s crazy: those buildings are near the flight paths to the New York City-area airports, sure, but the pilots are too good at what they do to make that kind of mistake on a bright, cloudless morning.  Must have been a small private plane, with an amateur pilot who got confused.

It never occurred to me that someone would fly a plane into the building on purpose, until I saw what was clearly a passenger jet get lined up and plow right into the middle of the other tower.

We were sent home from work soon after that, so I sat in front of my TV for the rest of the day watching the history.  Riveted.  Fascinated.  Helpless.


We love anniversaries that come in numbers ending in zero and five, ascribe to them some extra significance, and today is just that way.  There’s no shortage of think pieces out there taking a stab at explaining what we’ve learned about ourselves in the last 20 years, or what we have failed to learn in that time.  There are the first-person memories of being in New York and seeing it happen…or of being inside the towers as they were struck, and shook, and caught fire, and what it was like to save your own life as you joined thousands of others trying to get outside before it was too late.   And then seeing what was out there.  And ultimately, seeing those buildings collapse on themselves.  NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the commander of the International Space Station on that day, and he took this picture as they flew above Lower Manhattan just about the time the second tower fell.

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Ironically, Culbertson was a Naval Academy classmate, and friend, of Chic Burlingame, who was the captain of the flight that was hijacked that day and crashed into the Pentagon.


America’s war in Afghanistan started as a direct response to the attacks that happened 20 years ago today.  We went after Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, and the whole world was on our side: no one questioned the righteousness of the U.S. decision to retaliate against the people behind these unprovoked attacks.  Hell, the rest of the world helped: it was the only time in its existence that NATO invoked the collective defense clause of the treaty.  It took nearly ten full years before Navy SEALs located the Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan and took him out, and ten more years after that before the last American military forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

We took our revenge, as we should.  But it still doesn’t feel like we made the best use of the 20 years to understand why the terrorists attacked us in the first place, or to learn how to treat the rest of the world in a way that would make the most dangerous people out there hate us less and be less inclined to attack us.  And meanwhile, America has become a more dangerous place.

Instead of a new order, 9/11…gave rise to the angry, aggrieved, self-proclaimed patriot, and heightened surveillance and suspicion in the name of common defense.

(snip)

In shock from the assault, a swath of American society embraced the us vs. them binary outlook articulated by [President George W.] Bush — “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” — and has never let go of it.

You could hear it in the country songs and talk radio, and during presidential campaigns, offering the balm of a bloodlust cry for revenge. “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” Toby Keith promised America’s enemies in one of the most popular of those songs in 2002.

Americans stuck flags in yards and on the back of trucks. Factionalism hardened inside America, in school board fights, on Facebook posts, and in national politics, so that opposing views were treated as propaganda from mortal enemies. The concept of enemy also evolved, from not simply the terrorist but also to the immigrant, or the conflation of the terrorist as immigrant trying to cross the border.

The patriot under threat became a personal and political identity in the United States. Fifteen years later, [Donald] Trump harnessed it to help him win the presidency.

In the week after the attacks, Bush demanded of Americans that they know “Islam is peace” and that the attacks were a perversion of that religion. He told the country that American Muslims are us, not them, even as mosques came under surveillance and Arabs coming to the U.S. to take their kids to Disneyland or go to school risked being detained for questioning.

For Trump, in contrast, everything was always about them, the outsiders.

In the birther lie Trump promoted before his presidency, Barack Obama was an outsider. In Trump’s campaigns and administration, Muslims and immigrants were outsiders. The “China virus” was a foreign interloper, too.

(snip)

The legacies of 9/11 ripple both in obvious and unusual ways.

Most directly, millions of people in the U.S. and Europe go about their public business under the constant gaze of security cameras while other surveillance tools scoop up private communications. The government layered post-9/11 bureaucracies on to law enforcement to support the expansive security apparatus.

Militarization is more evident now, from large cities to small towns that now own military vehicles and weapons that seem well out of proportion to any terrorist threat. Government offices have become fortifications and airports a security maze.

But as profound an event as 9/11 was, its immediate effect on how the world has been ordered was temporary and largely undone by domestic political forces, a global economic downturn and now a lethal pandemic.


Journalist, author and filmmaker Chris Tomlinson is an Army veteran and former AP reporter and editor.  In his column in the Houston Chronicle today he provides a background based on what he’s seen and learned fighting and covering wars from back into the 1980s, including the post-September 11 conflicts in the Middle East and Asia, and offers a thoughtful summary of where we ought to turn our attention to prevent another September 11, and probably improve our lives.

In debating the last 20 years, we can talk about the limits of military power, the futility of nation-building, and the inevitable failure of occupations. We can chatter about politics, diplomacy and negotiation. But the most crucial and ignored lesson is one taught to all the children of Abraham.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Respect is the foundation of peace. We must treat all people with fairness and justice. We must recognize that other nations are not failed attempts to become the United States. Most foreigners do not want to be us; they are proud of the cultures and traditions they spent millennia creating.

We can exchange insights. We should support each other’s progress. We may learn from one another. But we must limit ourselves to setting an example, lending a hand, and sharing knowledge. We must defend ourselves but cannot rely on invading armies, economic sanctions, and cultural imperialism to change the world to look more like us.

Such coercion has triggered a global rise in nationalism and authoritarianism. Tolerance is ebbing. Justifications for injustice are everywhere. Hate is overpowering love in the quest for power. We are not any safer.

Despite the last 20 years, we still value competition over cooperation and war over peace. Some day we may become a nation of philosopher-kings rather than warrior-kings, but for now, we still choose to live by the sword.

A U.S. sailor’s bullet silenced Bin Laden’s voice, but millions more bullets did not bring peace or justice to the world. I no longer report from war zones, instead I write about commerce because the surest path to peace is prosperity for all. Perhaps we can give that a try.