While the news media, most Democrats, Republican Party bosses and millions of other Americans have been wringing their hands over the calamity of a potential President Trump, an equally disturbing threat to the nation’s future looms in the 2016 elections. In state government races and in the presidential campaign of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the influence of faith-based conservative zealots is beginning to become apparent. Guided by behind-the-scenes money and political power brokers with ideological views far to the right, the traditional Republican leadership is being shoved to the sidelines. The days of a GOP focused on a prosperous business climate and small, non-intrusive government are being replaced. This new brand of conservatism, which has morphed from the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, is focused on the imposition of a certain set of religious and moral values. Call this new era the “Rise of the American Taliban,” a term famously used by fictional network TV anchorman Will McAvoy in a 2012 episode of The Newsroom, created by Aaron Sorkin.
Exhibit one is taking place in North Carolina (Full disclosure – this is my home state). In a special one-day session of the state legislature on March 23, Republicans rammed through a measure called House Bill 2 (HB 2): “An act to provide for single-sex multiple occupancy bathroom and changing facilities in schools and public agencies and to create statewide consistency in regulation of employment and public accommodations.” In a vote held before many legislators had even read the full bill, the state blocked a City of Charlotte ordinance set to take effect on April 1, banning discrimination against individuals who are gay or transgender. Democrats in the General Assembly were so exasperated they walked out before the vote was taken. Within hours, Governor Pat McCrory had signed the bill into law. He called it “common sense” legislation to protect women and children, writing on Twitter that, “I signed bipartisan legislation to stop the breach of basic privacy and etiquette, ensure privacy in bathrooms and locker rooms.” This was despite the fact that no known bathroom-related security or privacy incident was on record in the state.
What has become known as the North Carolina “bathroom bill” is a blatant government action to legislate discrimination against a specific class of Americans. The state law defines classes of people who have legal protection, and that protection applies only to biological sex as designated on a birth certificate. Under state law, a person can be fired for being gay or transgender, and no local government can pass an ordinance to grant that kind of protection.
The outrage over HB 2 has been overwhelming. More than 130 corporations have expressed opposition to the legislation, and a letter signed by 80 CEOs got the attention of the state’s business community:
We are disappointed in your decision to sign this discriminatory legislation into law. The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business. This is not a direction in which states move when they are seeking to provide successful, thriving hubs for business and economic development. We believe that HB 2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country. It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses, and economic activity.
Following the release of that letter, PayPal canceled its plans to locate a new office with 400 new jobs in the state, and at least four major conventions planned for North Carolina were cancelled. Even Bruce Springsteen cancelled his April 10 concert planned for Greensboro, N.C., writing that, “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them.”
Who were the legislators who passed this law, and how did Governor McCrory come to power? North Carolina’s politics is now dominated by ideological zealot Art Pope, a billionaire businessman who funds campaigns for the state’s leading Tea Party lawmakers and was brought into McCrory’s administration to direct the state budget office. Through shrewd campaign contributions and legislative rules to gerrymander districts and suppress voter registration, Pope dominates state politics. He also influences much of the public policy debate in the state through his funding of the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation. And through his family foundation, Pope has directed nearly $1 million to organizations that oppose gay marriage.
Will North Carolina reverse course under intense criticism of HB 2? It’s unlikely, considering the hold that Pope and his fellow Tea Party members have on the state’s Republican Party.
Exhibit two of the Rise of the American Taliban can be found in Mississippi, where on April 5, Governor Phil Bryant signed into law the “religious freedom” bill that allows business owners to refuse service to others based on their religious beliefs. In a Twitter post, Governor Bryant said he signed the bill, “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions … from discriminatory action by state government.” The law is written to protect three specific beliefs or moral convictions:
- Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman
- Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.
- Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.
The businesses protected by the law are those that typically serve the wedding industry, including “photography, disc-jockey services, wedding planning, floral arrangements, dress making, cake or pastry artistry, assembly-hall or other wedding-venue rentals, limousine or other car-service rentals, jewelry sales and services, or similar marriage-related services, accommodations, facilities or goods.”
Governor Bryant’s election in 2012 was touted by the Tea Party as its first gubernatorial win, and he has rewarded the movement at the state house. He backed legislation requiring abortion doctors to be board-certified OB-GYNs with admitting privileges at local hospitals. In 2014 he pushed to have the words “In God We Trust” added to the state seal, and he has been strident in working to keep immigrants out of the state. In 2015, he said he “would do everything humanly possible” to keep any Syrian refugees out of Mississippi, and he supported a law to require any person stopped for a traffic violation or other primary offense to provide proof of citizenship.
It would be easy to dismiss what is taking place in Mississippi and North Carolina as extreme examples that are typical of politics in Southern states. But the presidential campaign of Senator Ted Cruz foreshadows the national growth of the American Taliban. We need to look no further than the Ted Cruz for President website to understand that his defense of “religious liberty” a central theme.
In prominently citing this quote from evangelical Christian activist James Dobson, Cruz reveals his alignment with one of the nation’s most extreme religious zealots. This is a man who called the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting an act of an angry God:
I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think He has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on … Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the November 6th election; I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God. – James Dobson
In line with Dobson’s views, Cruz touts a laundry list of faith-based accomplishments on his campaign website. Here are just a few examples:
- Defended Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties against Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
- Introduced measures in Congress to protect service members’ right to worship.
- Kept the cross standing at the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial.
- Led the way to preserve the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance at the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Successfully defended the constitutionality of the Texas Ten Commandments monument, winning a 5-4 landmark decision before the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Supported students’ right to display banners containing religious content at school sporting events.
Cruz says on his first day as president, he “will instruct the Department of Justice, the IRS, and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today.” He also says that he “will instruct his Attorney General to investigate Planned Parenthood on day one … And rather than enacting policies that tear down these pillars of our society, [he] will work to restore a culture of life, marriage, and family.”
For Cruz and others like him, the term “religious liberty” is a euphemism for fundamentalist Christianity. In their view, America was founded as a Christian nation and is now under threat by Muslims, atheists and liberals of all stripes who promote lifestyles that do not conform with traditional religious values. By making evangelical views a central thrust of political campaigns and advocating a larger influence of faith issues in the business of government, Cruz and his Tea Party partners in state governments are working to negate the philosophy of the separation of church and state that has served our nation well for 240 years. This is a direct and real threat to the foundations of our democracy. In claiming that divine laws supersede laws made by human society, the American Taliban are directing us on a path to a kind of Western Sharia law. We are witnessing the first steps to advance an ideology that seeks to exert government control over sexuality, morals and personal practices, all in the name of God.
The voices of opposition to HB 2 in North Carolina tell us that some Americans are starting to wake up to the threat posed by religious extremists. But Campaign 2016 has a long way to go, and Cruz is beginning to gain traction as Trump’s flaws as a candidate begin to overwhelm his campaign. The months ahead will determine the course for our nation at the state and national levels. The question is, will voters see through the “family values” rhetoric to understand the true dimensions of what is at stake?
“The Newsroom” – Season I, Episode 10: https://www.quora.com/The-Newsroom-TV-series-Is-Aaron-Sorkins-vehement-criticism-of-The-Tea-Party-in-the-season-finale-valid
NC House Bill 2 language: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015E2/Bills/House/PDF/H2v0.pdf
TechCrunch – corporate opposition to HB2: http://techcrunch.com/2016/03/29/facebook-apple-google-other-tech-ceos-demand-north-carolina-repeal-anti-lgbt-law/
Governor McCrory defense of HB2: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/north-carolina-lgbt-discrimination_us_56f2b7dbe4b0c3ef5217676c
Bill Moyer’s documentary, “State of Conflict”: http://billmoyers.com/episode/state-of-conflict-north-carolina/
New Yorker magazine – Art Pope – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/10/state-for-sale
Institute for Southern Studies – Art Pope – http://www.southernstudies.org/2011/11/art-popes-money-key-to-nc-anti-gay-marriage-push.html
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church – Mississippi law: https://erlc.com/article/explainer-understanding-mississippis-freedom-of-conscience-law
Jackson Free Press – Gov. Bryant: http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2015/oct/28/phil-bryant-tea-party-governor/
On the Issues – Gov. Bryant: http://www.ontheissues.org/Phil_Bryant.htm
Wikipedia – James Dobson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Dobson
Wikipedia – Sharia law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia