Convention speech — Anthea Butler: The assault on democracy in Texas
Dr. Anthea Butler gave this speech at FFRF’s national convention in San Antonio on Oct. 29. (To watch the speech, go to ffrf.us/convention-2022.) She was introduced by FFRF Board Member Sue Kocher.
Sue Kocher: I am so pleased to introduce Dr. Anthea Butler, winner of this year’s Champion of the First Amendment Award. She’s the chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania. A historian of African American and American religion, her research and writing spans African American religion and history, race, politics, evangelicism, gender and sexuality, media, and popular culture. Butler is a sought-after commentator on the BBC, MSNBC, CNN, History Channel and PBS. Her books include White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America. FFRF is especially grateful to her for being a contributor to the landmark report on Christian nationalism at the Jan. 6th insurrection, which was jointly produced and published [in 2022] by FFRF and the Baptist Joint Committee.
Please welcome a true champion of the First Amendment, Dr. Anthea Butler.
By Dr. Anthea Butler
Awards are something, but what’s more important is the work that we do. What’s important to you is that I am a native Texan and what that means is I continually stay embarrassed about this damn state. I mean, how much am I supposed to take? We have a bunch of guys who thought that they should hold up guns and just stand in front of a school for 74 minutes and let a bunch of children die in Uvalde.
We got a governor [Greg Abbott] who thinks he’s the most religious person on Earth, but will not pay attention to the people who need health care or the education system, and he continuously lies about the border, and at one point stopped trucks from coming in because he wanted to check them and that made all the lettuce prices go up.
I need to tell you that the people of Texas are turning ignorant. And they are becoming ignorant because of the ignorant politicians and school board leaders and local leaders in this state who don’t give a damn about anything except themselves and making money.
So, when Elon Musk, up the freeway in Austin, finishes tearing up Twitter and everything else, what are we going to be left with? A bunch of religious yahoos who don’t care about you. This is ground zero for democracy being broken. It is ground zero for the building of theocracy.
Let me say that again to you: Texas is ground zero for the building of theocracy. And, if you don’t understand that, you need to understand the history of what has happened here in Texas. It is the place where the Southern Baptists broke apart, it is the place where you had textbook problems, and it is now the state that has taken away most of the books out of the libraries. Did you know that Texas is the number one state in the country for taking books off library shelves, not just in public libraries, but in educational systems K-12?
I want to talk a little bit about history, but a lot about present day. A lot about a present day in which we’re watching things erode, and a lot of it has to do with religious people who think about this as morality. It is not morality. It is a power grab. I know all of you in this room, you kind heathens, you know. This is the kind of group I like to talk to, because you get the jig, you know what’s up. You know what’s at stake.
If some of these [religious] folks get into office, our lives are going to be even more miserable than they could possibly be right now. I want to let you think about a few things and I want to finish it up by tying this all together with Christian nationalism, which is why I have bags underneath my eyes — because I’ve been talking about it so damn much and now everybody wants to listen and now everybody else who doesn’t want to listen wants to be a Christian nationalist. It’s a sad state of affairs in this country, but don’t think it’s just here.
Let’s start off with some facts. One of the things I think you should realize about Texas banning books is that this has happened a lot. This has happened because state Rep. Matt Krause from Fort Worth, who last October said, “I’m going to send a list of 800-plus books out to all of the school boards in and around Texas and ask how many of these books are on the shelves of your libraries.” These kind of books are The Bluest Eye, books about sexuality, books about LGBTQ things, books about most anything that most conservative Christians would think is inappropriate, including interracial marriage. Now, you might think, oh, God, they can’t possibly be against this, but let me tell you that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will keep his interracial marriage but not keep anybody else’s. He will grandfather himself in.
According to PEN America, which is a free speech organization, 801 books across 22 school districts were banned between July 2021 and June 2022. And 174 of those books were banned twice.
If you manage to get on that book-banning list twice, that’s great. They don’t know my book yet and it’s not in the libraries yet, so I’m hoping to get on that list, just so I can just talk about them a lot.
What this means is that this is a present-day thing. Everybody gets upset. But these panics are manufactured to do two things. One is to get the everyday parent who’s got their kids at the school, picking their kids up every day, to get them incensed about what they think their kids are learning. Then, the second part is to control the school board.
What began in Texas was actually controlling the textbooks. Now, if you know anything about the state of Texas, it is really important for one big thing. We have a state Board of Education, which controls all the books that are read in Texas, all the books that you buy for different school boards and districts.
When I was growing up, I had to read those books, right? What I didn’t know at the time was that, starting in the 1970s, white Christians flooded the state board. They captured it. Remember that word “captured.” Captured is important.
There are all kinds of streams that go into capturing a school board. Sometimes it’s about textbooks, sometimes it’s about what people are learning in the classrooms, other times it’s about science, because sometimes people want to teach creationism. I could give another whole talk on the history about creationism.
Now, this gave a template to the rest of the nation. When these school boards started to be captured in the ’70s and this big Texas Education Board, and the 15-member committee, preset the kinds of things they wanted to see in books. Let me describe to you what that was.
They want the “positive aspects” about America and its heritage. Yeah, you know that’s a lie, right? I’m in The 1619 Project book, people are like, “But it wasn’t like this. Slaves were happy, they became Christians.” I’ve told my students if anybody ever writes in a class that I’m teaching about slavery that Christianity came because it was supposed to free the slaves, I am flunking them for the entire semester. You will not do that kind of crap in my class, because that’s not the kind of history we teach. We teach the truth. And I am invested in the truth about what this country has done.
The other thing the State Board said is it didn’t want any material that undermines authority. No material — this is back in 1979 — no material that undermines authority, no violent context. (Oh my god, this is the state that has the most guns on Earth.) And not to represent any lifestyles that deviated from generally accepted society. I believe that sodomy still was on the books then. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter, because people do what they want to do behind closed doors and they should be able to do what they want to do in front of closed doors, behind them, everywhere. But in the state of Texas, they wanted to tell you what could be in a textbook.
This kind of varnished, whitewashed history, and I do mean the word “whitewashed,” changed textbooks. The people who wrote those textbooks had to write in that manner, so long before anybody started yelling about CRT, we already had textbooks that were tainted.
Fast forward to 2018 when we find out that one of the school boards here has a book that said “Slavery was just like indentured servitude. It was just a thing that people did. And that it didn’t have any harm.” It was labeled immigration. Maybe that’s why they keep hollering about immigrants, right? Because it messes with their learning. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
MLK with the civil rights movement was reduced to an American story of progress. I could go on, but what I mean by that is, yes, civil rights was progress, but they just made it sound like this was another wonderful thing that happened, not the fact that this man was assassinated. Not the fact that he had to fight, they had to march and boycott and everything else. No, no, no, it was a story of progress. The only person they actually were willing to admit was assassinated was Malcolm X, and that was because they thought he was bad.
This is what was in Texas textbooks.
Everything that is happening in the state of Texas today, it has already had the groundwork laid for it. It has already happened. It’s not something that you have to think about as the past. It is the past and the present.
The past and the present are coming together in certain kinds of ways, and I think it’s really important for you to see the connections, to see what it is we’re actually fighting against, and what we’re up against.
This has not been a two-year project. It’s not a project that began with Donald Trump. It is a project that began in the ‘70s, and yes, even before that, because you had people fighting for prayer in schools. And when prayer in schools went away, with Engel and Vitale and all the other court cases that happened, what you had was a mobilization of conservative Christians. And this mobilization of conservative Christians had several prongs to it. It’s even before abortion. One was to tear down education.
Those of you who are old enough will remember that there were such things called segregation academies. These segregation academies were built by predominantly Christian schools in order to take their children out of the way of being integrated after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Textbooks are just a part of this program. “Let’s have our own schools, let’s destroy the public school system.” You begin to have all the testing and everything else that happens, with the kinds of tests and the kinds of questions that are designed to trip up folks. You have the books that you’re banning from people learning real history. You have advocates who take over school boards and capture them. When that doesn’t work, you decide to do school vouchers. See, now, you get to the school vouchers and who gets the school vouchers? Religious education, right?
Everybody else has to get flooded into the public school where you got the bad books. Now, those kids are reading the bad books, too.
To top it off, let me give you the layer on top of this that will make everybody crazy — homeschooling. Oh, if you think you’ve had problems this year, the number one article that I wrote about, that I got the most flak about and all the hatred about, was about homeschooling. What did I have the audacity to say? Homeschooling is racist and that homeschooling started off with R.J. Rushdoony and other very fundamentalist people in the 1950s forward, and the materials that they publish are even worse than the Texas textbooks.
So, what you have is this morass that’s happening in Texas. You’ve got the dissemination of libraries and learning and textbooks. You have the undercutting of public funds for public schools. You have charters schools that have risen and are mostly religious in nature and people think they are better for their kids, so they put them in charter schools or then they put them in Christian academies, and all the materials are designed to tell a lie. So, what you’re faced with is an educational system that, by the time the students get to me in college, it’s a mess. You have people crying because they don’t know anything about slavery. My African American students are always upset because they’re like, “I never learned this.” And I’m like “You didn’t learn it because you probably had really crappy books. Where you from?” Half the time, it’s somewhere in the South. Some of them were in private schools. One summer, I did a short one-week course about African Americans to get people ready for school, and they didn’t know anything about lynching.
I had to stop everything and basically say, “I’m sorry, but this is going to feel like terror to you for the next two hours. I want you to understand what that terror was like for African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. I want you to understand what people in this country have done because they didn’t want to be with us or they did not want us to be integrated into this society. You need to understand the kind of violence that has happened in America.”
What you have in this denigration and destruction of the educational project is a way in which Christians have tried to flood the zone, as we say. That flooding the zone is creating not just the problems that we’ve had with education, but it’s creating problems with something else right now, so let’s talk about weaponization, because that’s where I want to end.
One way things get weaponized is to take a term and use it for something else. In the education battle, the term “critical race theory” has been used as a weapon. [Conservative activist] Christopher Rufo took that term, CRT, and bandied it about everywhere. What you had is denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention saying, “Well, we don’t know if we should be about race. We think that this is a bad thing.” Never mind that this was just right around the time that George Floyd was murdered and that they had promised to do better and think about, yes, Black Lives Matter. That was just a whisper.
You can see how these terms start to be used so that when you get school board meetings, like ones that have happened in North Texas and around the state, you get people having hours and hours of meetings, screaming and yelling.
You have places like Tennessee and others dealing with this. You have “Don’t say gay” in Florida. See, this stuff doesn’t stay in one place. It goes everywhere.
How is this all coming together right now? Here’s the bad part. We have a serious situation in this country. Not only do you have people who don’t have enough of an education, so when they get out of school, the next education they get is from people like David Barton, who write trash histories of America and religion and have people believe this. David Barton has made more money off books than I will ever be able to make in a million years. These books get sold because there’s a romanticized history of America. They even hate Thomas Jefferson, y’all. It’s amazing.
But it’s appalling to me that they have lied about American history. And they do it because of religious means. And they use religion as a way to weaponize and keep you subjugated. This is why, when Dobbs happened, I was not surprised. This has been the other 50-plus-year-long project. Get rid of abortion. So now what you have are places where you can’t get an abortion, you can’t talk about certain kinds of parts about American religious history or history. You can’t be able to see what kind of textbooks are having, you are being ringed in by propaganda. So, now what you face is something very different. You face the specter of nationalism in this country. You face a religious nationalism that is loud and proud and does not care. God, they believe, is on their side. And, as a result of that, all these bad histories and everything else go into what Gen. Michael Flynn said, which is, “This country should be a Christian nation.”
We know that’s not the way that they believed this country, when it was founded, was supposed to be. But you now have millions of people who believe this. And they’re learning it in school. See how I tied this together? What you have is a way in which kids have been told, “Don’t buck up to authority. We don’t want gays and lesbians and we don’t want anybody who’s trans. They are bad people, they’re not in the bible.”
What you have now is a recipe for persecution, nationalism and authoritarianism. We are on the brink in this country. I cannot stress it to you enough. All I have been doing since Jan. 6, 2021, is talking nonstop about Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is going to destroy this country if we do not stand up and stand up in the places we need to about education, about what is going on in our politics, about what is going on at your job.
While I know we are all having fun here in San Antonio, I want to remind you of something: Democracy is not promised. Black people have been fighting for democracy in this country for over 200 years. We know we don’t get it. We know we have to fight for every inch we get. But what I won’t do, and what I hope you won’t do, either, is stand here while a bunch of religious folks tell me how to live my life and how to do things the way that they want, because they want power. This country is not a theocracy, it is a democracy, but it is slowly slipping into theocracy, and if we don’t have your help, it is going to be there.
If I do nothing else for you in this short little time I’ve had with you, I hope I’ve scared the shit out of you! And I mean that sincerely, because as a historian, we are on a precipice, and we’re about to fall over in this country, and these folks are armed and ready to go.
How are we going to respond? How are we going to make change where we are? How are we going to confront these things? I hope you ponder these words and I hope they resonate with you.