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.

16 thoughts on “At War With the Right’s Tribal Totems

  1. Why on Earth would Republicans support a document that states “Thou shalt not kill”? All they ever do is hate, slander, destroy, and kill.

  2. "In the early '90s, about 90% of people in the U.S. identified as Christians, the report said. In 2020, Christians accounted for about 64% of the U.S. population, including children. Meanwhile, those who are not affiliated with a religion has grown from 16% in 2007 to 30% in 2020, according to the research."

    To reference the previous post on guns, and uncledad's comment, "Guns are harmless unless used."  Religion (The Ten Commandments) are harmless posted on a classroom wall, That's if the teacher ignores the poster, and don't worry – the kids will ignore it. It's when an evangelical teacher is empowered by the courts and supported by the school board to force religion on the kids with incentives and disincentives based on measured participation that teaching religion in school becomes a threat.

    I'm a big fan of the teachings of Jesus. I'm not such a fan of organized religion in the US. Later in life (not in school) I found out that Jefferson literally cut and paste the teachings of Jesus and excluded everything else. It was eventually published as the "Jefferson Bible" and is avialble still. The point being, I'm not the first to be suspicious of organized religion and the motives of the leaders of US churches.

    So who is waiting in the wings to seize the opportunity to make religious study in grade school required and lifelong participation (with teithing) the norm? I don't think the Texas legislature gives a rat's fuzzy behind except this is a way to own the libs. Others may have devious designs. 

    I'm not sure about the USSC here. They have become a political force rather than a judicial force. The Constitution is clear re a separation between church and state.  This is specifically a federal issue. Being a political body, the court must be concerned with the proposal to expand the size of the court to restore a liberal majority. This will happen when/if/ they overreach. I think they've hit that point with Roe. Making religion in school a local issue will drive up the pressure to add some liberal justices. (Yes, we need  to take the House and have a majority in the Senate who will do it, and they will have to end the filibuster.) 

    A pitcher will test the boundaries of the strike zone in the early innings to determine how the umpire will call the strike zone. That's happening with the gun nuts and the evangelicals now. They don't know either what will pass with this Supreme Court. This pitch will be interesting.

  3. Politics can sometimes trump physics.

    Truman integrating the military after WWII, and Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's "color barrier," were both late 40's "actions" that brought back many opposite "reactions!"

    But hardly any that could be called equal!

    After recent developments, I think we all have some idea of the scale and intensity of the hatred!   The level of the bigotry.

    And it was after these two actions, AND THEN the SC's "Brown" decision, that our "Cold Civil War" started to gain traction

    In my humble opinion, Obama actually becoming POTUS was the final straw that broke the "minds" and caused the heads of KKKonservatives, RepubliKKKLANs, and other bigots, to explode!

    And so, here we sit, over 2 years after the Anti-Obama (and anti-Christ?), tRUMP,  failed to get reelected like Obama.

    It's like a bad "Twilight Zone" episode:

    One that has 2023 America go back to being 1859 America!



    "The horror…

    The horror…"


  4. It's not the guns and it's not even the laws, it's the culture and the poverty:

    …if you’re a big city African-American, the regional picture changes completely. The Deep South and Greater Appalachia become relatively safe — both overall and for gun homicides – even as they are the most deadly for whites. The most dangerous large regions for African-American big city residents are Left Coast, Yankeedom, the Midlands, where the per capita smoothed homicide rates hit a shocking 24.5, 26.6 and 29.5 per 100,000 respectively – figures more than twice Mexico’s national rate.

    New York is plenty safe if you're White. Not so much for Blacks despite the gun laws. In fact if you look at the before and after for the SAFE Act and the CCIA you wont see any significant deviation or acceleration in the reduction of gun violence over the National statistics. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine all have much looser laws than New York (on par with West Virginia and Missouri) and are just as safe if not safer. 

    Gun violence is a major problem in the United States as well as the key driver of the rise in violent crime across the nation.1 Notably, gun violence has a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities and is highly concentrated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods that have historically been underresourced and racially segregated. This is due to  ?a? ?c?o?m?b?i?n?a?t?i?o?n? ?o?f? ?w?e?a?k? ?g?u?n? ?l?a?w?s?; systemic racial inequities, including unequal access to safe housing and adequate educational and employment opportunities; and a history of disinvestment in public infrastructure and services in the communities of color most affected by gun violence.

    • So are you suggesting that if all wealth inequality in the U.S. dropped away, the U.S. would magically have the same gun violence rate as Australia? (Australia is kind of average for affluent democracies that are not the U.S., so I'm using it as an example.) I'm all for attacking income inequality, and I'm sure doing so would have an impact on a lot of things, but the U.S. would still have a gun violence problem. 

      Also, FYI, Appalachia is notoriously white. I live in the Ozarks, which in many ways is an extension of Appalachia, and you can go many days here without seeing a nonwhite person. I'm seeing in various places that the population of southern Appalachia is 7 percent black, and what blacks do live there tend to live in relatively segregated neighborhoods in the cities.

      Violent crime in the U.S. tends to be same-race. Whether you are talking rapes, homicides, assaults, whatever, the overwhelming majority of the time the perpetrator and victim are the same race. So in Appalachia, which has a high concentration of white people, it's the white folks shooting each other. And let me tell you there are white folks in Appalachia and the Ozarks that are poorer than dirt.  The county next door to where I am living now is 94.9 percent white and has a 19.4 percent poverty rate and a median personal income of  $26,024. I don't know what the gun violence rates are for Washington County specifically, but the firearm mortality rate for the state is 23.2. For New York state, it's 5.4. This is according to the CDC. By contrast, the firearm mortality rate of Australia is 0.88. I suspect there are poor folks in Australia also.

      What exactly are you proposing? The red states with higher rates of gun violence also tend to be poorer than blue states. But correlation is not always causation. Paul Krugman has argued for a while that "conservative" economic policies strangle states' economies. In the past couple of decades the wealth gap between red and blue states has gotten bigger because of this.  Also, red states tend to be more rural and have lower education levels. Being poor is stressful, which I'm sure does explain a lot of violent crime statistics, but I would argue that the root cause of all of this is "conservatism," which in the U.S. tends to be more reactionary than conservative. Combine crappy government with unfettered access to firearms and watch the bullets fly. 

      But if all the states had just the firearm regulations that New York has now, I'm betting gun violence in New York would dip even lower. Maybe not as low as Australia, but it would help. Why? Because most of the bleeping guns that kill people in New York are purchased in southern states, not in New York. They are purchased in states where there are no permit or licensing requirements or even a limit on how many guns you can purchase at once. And private sales can circumvent federal background checks. In a lot of the U.S. it's easier to purchase a gun than to adopt a puppy from a shelter. 

      • I think what the commenter really wants is to take guns away from minorities, he just doesn't want to come out and say that. Of course gun violence affects the poor more, so did covid, diabetes, bad drinking water, cancer, pollution etc. It's a foolish argument since poverty is at a all time low here (10.5%) and gun violence is skyrocketing. Guns are the #1 cause of death for children, so  he should put that in his pipe and smoke it.

        • “I think what the commenter really wants is to take guns away from minorities,” I don’t think he’s saying that. He seems to want to sever any connection between gun laws and gun deaths/violence and blame Other Factors on the shocking gun violence in the U.S. But I have a hard time taking a New York state resident making that argument seriously. New York has among the toughest gun laws and lowest gun violence rates in the nation. And nearly all the guns used in crimes/shootings in New York were purchased in the South. All you have to do is drive down to South Carolina and you can fill up the trunk of your car with legally purchased firearms. If all the states had the same gun laws as New York it would go a long way toward reducing gun violence everywhere, IMO.

          • "He seems to want to sever any connection between gun laws and gun deaths/violence."

            There is a definite connection between the black market created by New York's laws and gun deaths. The financial incentive is there. 

      • I don't know what the gun violence rates are for Washington County specifically, but the firearm mortality rate for the state is 23.2. For New York state, it's 5.4.

        And as I noted above, for African Americans in New York state it's a very similar rate, 26.6 per 100,000. Our gun laws haven’t made a dent. And how could they, really? 

        “What exactly are you proposing?”

        I’ve been pretty consistent in proposing to not give up our Rights in light of the events of the last 4 to 6 years. I’m proposing we be more like New Hampshire or Utah instead of going full Australia or staying Missouri. A tailored approach to undue, “systemic racial inequities, including unequal access to safe housing and adequate educational and employment opportunities; and a history of disinvestment in public infrastructure and services in the communities of color,” just like I reference above, will save tens of thousands of lives across this country that would have been lost to gun violence. More so than an unpassable/unenforceable ban on Semi-auto rifles. 


        • I’ve been pretty consistent in proposing to not give up our Rights in light of the events of the last 4 to 6 years. 

          "Our rights" to what? I know of no constitutional scholar who believes the 2nd Amendment was originally written to allow an unfettered individual right to firearms, even the muzzle-loading muskets of the period, never mind today's semiautomatic high-velocity firearms. The Second was tied to militia service and the defense of the nation until relatively recently. And the proliferation of firearms is eroding our freedom, in fact. Again, living in New York you are enjoying the benefits of sensible gun restrictions. You have no idea what you're missing.

          There is a definite connection between the black market created by New York's laws and gun deaths. The financial incentive is there. 

          That's just sick. That's like blaming women for being raped (what was she doing in a bar, after all?). I'm giving you one more chance to say something sensible before you're blacklisted here. You're wasting my time. 

    • It is interesting (though not surprising) to see that someone else here has read the excellent Colin Woodward book "American Nations".  A book which, IMHO explains a lot of reasons why it can be hard for our country to find common ground.

  5. "Texas Republicans are betting the current Supreme Court will come to a different conclusion"

    Oh for the days when the so called "conservatives" would rail against the "activist Judges"! The GQP doesn't really believe in "gun rights" they believe in profits for the small arms industry, they aren't really "Pro Life" they want to control women's bodies and lastly they certainly are not "Christian or pro prayer" they are only interested in votes and control of Children in public schools.  The only thing more phony than today's GOP are the fools what vote them into office!

  6. The cat is out of the bag (not that it didn't get out long ago, but this Texas legislation makes it openly clear): The hard right in this country is working for an unholy alliance between authoritarian rule and theocracy. I haven't researched it, but I don't think that theocracy has much of a positive record in the history of civilization. Warlord culture, brutal crusades, religious wars.

    It's bad enough that people want to claim a "god-given" right to shoot and kill anybody that they think wants to tell them what they can and can't do.  Mix that up with religion and you get Taliban, ISIS, or Iran, but with a different underlying religious belief. To me, it doesn't matter what religious underpinning is claimed, it it still just fanatics trying to shove their preferences down everyone else's throats.  What the hard right in the US seems to want is exactly what Iran has had since the first Ayatolla up to probably 2020: Complete theocratic control of the populace. Which is entirely antithetical to the constitutional system we have, as set up by the "founding fathers" whom the hard right pretends to revere.


    • “I haven’t researched it, but I don’t think that theocracy has much of a positive record in the history of civilization.” I believe you are right.

  7. "They're doing a good job of it"

    See TN legislators arguing about letting the woman representative get off: we'll lose the southeast! We cant lose, scream yell etc.

    They do a good job bc unlike the 'left' they get paid. See Kacsmaryk giving Josh Hawley $, them Hawley gets his nomination on the schedule, then Kacsmaryk lies witholds interviews, article authorship, and where his millions are held in stock and gets the special one judge district and presto Hawleys wife with ADF gets the case infront of judge K and bingo here we are. Now the talking points are drug was not properly researched, FDA didnot do its job, drug causes immune problems in minors, drug dispensed without physicians supervision yada yada lie lie lie.  Yea they always pay themselves and their jobs further the agenda whereas the rest of us are just trying to get by. All so exhausting

  8. I always thought it odd that there wasn’t a commandment against convincing another to turn away from God. 

    By setting a bad example, screwing over the meek and poor, committing other commandment infractions so often that religious fence-sitters proclaim that there couldn't possibly be a loving God if that sinning asshole in question is one of his people.  You know, stuff the religious right does on a daily basis.

    When I try to quantify the damage from this sin, it makes no sense that there’s no ‘bad believer' commandment.  Lets say that if you kill somebody you’ve caused 100 units of damage to that person and his family.  But if you successfully convince another that there’s no God with your own rotten behavior, thus causing him to spend an eternity in hell, you’ve just caused an infinite amount of damage.  Because eternity is infinite.

    Posting these commandments all over the place when so many folks see them as a guide for hypocrisy amongst the conservative believer set, seems an infinitely evil sin to me.


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