At War With the Right’s Tribal Totems

This week the Texas Senate passed a bill mandating that the Ten Commandments be posted prominently in all public school classrooms. The bill has yet to be voted on in the House, but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t pass. This is Texas. A similar Kentucky statute mandating that the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court 43 years ago. But Texas Republicans are betting the current Supreme Court will come to a different conclusion, and they may be right. I wrote about this at Patheos recently. 

Texas is also playing with a bill that would allow schools to set aside time for prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The old Supreme Court would have nixed that one, too, especially if only the Bible is allowed. Back in 1956, a 16-year-old boy in a public high school near Philadelphia protested his school’s daily Bible readings by thumbing through a borrowed Quran instead of the Bible. He got hauled into the Principal’s office for that. This episode eventually made its way to the SCOTUS as Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). The justices ruled 8-1 (Justice Potter Stewart dissenting) that the Bible readings and prayers in a public school were unconstitutional. I wrote about this case at Patheos awhile back.

The current SCOTUS might very well allow Bible readings back in school. If they did, nearly every public school in the Bible Belt would in effect become a parochial evangelical Christian school. And a lot of other public schools around the country would follow. There would be quasi-religious wars over control of the local schools so that the “right” school board could mandate that the “right” religion is taught in school. Give the Bible thumpers an inch, and they’ll take the whole country. If they were told that in order to allow Bible readings they’d also have to allow Quran readings or Lotus Sutra readings or Bhagavad Gita readings, they might see things differently, but I doubt the current Court would do that.

It’s been more than 60 years since the first big school prayer decision,  Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), and we’re still dealing with the backlash. The irony is that the two guys most responsible for the separation of church and state, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, were trying to protect religion from itself, not stifle it.

I checked to see if the Texas legislature has made any progress on school safety since the Uvalde massacre of May 2022. This week the Texas Senate also passed a bill that would require schools to have active-shooter protocols in place before the next shooter shows up. However, the Texas legislature refuses to address guns. This also happened this week:

Parents whose children were killed in the Robb Elementary School massacre made sobbing pleads for stricter gun laws before legislators early Wednesday on languishing proposals that appeared headed to stall in the face of a Republican majority.

The emotional late-night hearing — which started Tuesday morning and stretched past midnight — underlined both the sustained anger by some Uvalde families nearly a year after the shooting and the continued GOP opposition in Texas to passing any new restrictions.

The meeting of a state House committee was significant because it marked the first time Texas lawmakers have given any proposed gun restrictions a hearing since the May 2022 shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers. Much of the debate centered on a proposal that would raise the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21 years old, which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has opposed.

The debate ended without a vote and with no plan to hold a vote. Because the Republican legislators who so want to post Ten Commandments in public schools would rather sell their own mothers than even think about restrictions on guns.

It’s not just Texas, of course. After the recent Nashville school shooting the Tennessee state legislature in Nashville made it a priority to pass a law protecting gun and ammunition dealers, manufacturers, and sellers against lawsuits. Protecting schoolchildren, not so much.

At the New York Times, David French writes that Gun Idolatry Is Destroying the Case for Guns. Allowing the likes of Daniel Perry and Kyle Rittenhouse to get away with murder destroys the case for private gun ownership, he says. The recent shootings of innocent people by trigger-happy gun owners destroys the case for private gun ownership. Here in Missouri the legislature has worked overtime writing laws that protect “self-defense” shooters from responsibility for bad decisions. Self-defense is fine, but what if the “threat” is imaginary? And innocent people are shot? There’s little effort to hold people with guns responsible for making reckless decisions about when and whom to shoot. French writes,

Gun rights carry with them grave responsibilities. They do not liberate you to intimidate. They must not empower your hate. They are certainly not objects of love or reverence. Every hair-trigger use, every angry or fearful or foolish decision, likely spills innocent blood.

Moreover, every one of these acts increases public revulsion of gun ownership generally. The cry for legal and moral reform will sweep the land. America will change and gun rights will diminish. And the gun owners and advocates who fail to grasp the moral weight of their responsibility will be to blame.

I’ve been saying for years that if the gun-rights people continue to block all gun restrictions, no matter how minor, sooner or later there will be sufficient public sentiment to amend or rescind the 2nd Amendment. We aren’t there yet, but we’re beginning to head in that direction. French is right that the Right needs to learn to compromise if it wants to protect guns rights.

See also Gun Violence Is Actually Worse in Red States. It’s Not Even Close, by Colin Woodward at Politico. This is more stuff I’ve been documenting here for a long time. Gun violence is far and away worse in the rural South than in the urban northeast. Show me a place that refuses to allow any gun restrictions, and I’ll show you a place with higher rates of gun violence, including gun homicides, and higher rates of crime in general. The data have been clear on this for some time. Of course there are more shootings in big cities with millions of residents. but rates of violent crime are higher elsewhere. And the gap is getting bigger. It’s no coincidence the Deep South has the highest rate of gun homicides of major regions of the country, as Woodward documents.

And let’s not forget the backlash the Right is facing over abortion. And they didn’t see it coming. A lot of them still aren’t ready to admit the Dobbs decision is a disaster for them.

I haven’t found recent polls about prayers and Bible readings in classrooms, but on guns and abortion the Right is a distinct minority. There is huge opposition to Dobbs. There is huge support for restrictions on firearms, such as background checks and registering. It’s not close at all. That the minority is able to impose its will on the majority speaks to how much democracy has been corrupted.

Regarding gun and other “idolatries” — the Bible, school prayer, and other Christian symbols do stand alongside guns and opposition to abortion as absolute positions that have become the tribal totems of the Right. And white supremacy may be the Granddaddy Totem that ties them all together. They cannot back down or compromise in any way without facing an existential crisis. This is who they are. And this really does come closer to the behavior of a cult than normal political advocacy. I wrote back in 2013

What happened, as I see it, is that by 1973 the Right knew it had lost on desegregation and school prayer, but the double whammy of the ERA and Roe gave the same old crew new purpose. And yes, Roe drew in some evangelicals who may have been less active before, but abortion was just a culmination of old grievances — many challenges to white supremacy; the sexual revolution and the Pill; the 1960s counterculture; the “Is God Dead?” cover of Time magazine (1966); the school prayer issue; women’s liberation.

It was basically the same crew fighting all those fights — some additions and subtractions along the way, of course, but the organization supporting each backlash grew from the previous one. You can draw a straight line tracking right-wing backlashes from Brown to Roe to today.

And you can trace a straight line from the antebellum defense of slavery through Plessy v. Ferguson to the backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and then all the rest of it. And none of this is really about saving babies or “protecting” women or teaching children to love Jesus or even defending themselves from criminals. It’s about a fanatical minority maintaining power over the rest of us. And they’re doing a good job of it.