Right-wing Christians launch an assault on public school. But parents are finding a secret weapon

Right-wing Christians launch an assault on public school. But parents are finding a secret weapon
Don’t wait to take command of your children’s health. Prioritize preventive exams and vaccinations before the school year begins. Preventive services, routine immunizations, and health screenings are the best ways to make sure your kids are healthy and ready to hit the books. (U.S. Air Force photo by L.A. Shively)

"Masks are not healthy for most people. Just the bacteria that grows in them is causing more issues than any issues masks would prevent," Nicole Konz claimed in a Facebook post last February. On Nov. 2, she was elected to the school board of Academy District 20, near Colorado Springs, a district serving more than 23,000 students. It wasn't an accident. There was a lot of money and power behind her. And Konz wasn't alone.

The district's other new board member was Aaron Salt, already the board chair of a nearby charter academy, who said after his election, "We know that mask usage increases mental health problems and issues. ... That's not something that I'm willing to sacrifice." They were just two of 28 school board candidates elected across Colorado with the backing of a Christian nationalist organization — the Truth and Liberty Coalition (TLC) — whose ambitions are "national, international and eternal," as Frederick Clarkson wrote at Religion Dispatches.

Pandemic restrictions and the moral panic over "critical race theory" are the most recent hot-button recruiting tools integrated into a broader menu of carefully nurtured grievances reflected in TLC's five-issue "Christian Voter Guides," under the headings "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports" [sic], "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns." What's missing is even the pretext of concern for academic content or achievement, budgeting or any other traditional responsibility of a school board.

Clarkson wrote that these school board races in Colorado "were the pilot project in a long-term campaign by the Truth and Liberty Coalition and its de facto training institute, nearby Charis Bible College, in Woodland Park, a suburb of Colorado Springs."

Andrew Wommak, who founded the unaccredited Bible college in 2014, co-founded TLC in 2017 along with Lance Wallnau, preeminent promoter of the "Seven Mountain Mandate," a manifesto for evangelical Christians to conquer and claim dominion over seven key facets of life: education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment and media. So while they claim to speak out as Christians and to express a broadly Christian worldview, they have something radically different in mind from anything America has ever known.

"The 'biblical worldview' is code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society, in tension or at odds with secular institutions," Clarkson told Salon. "It's not the siloed issues. It's the whole enchilada."

Wallnau was also one of Donald Trump's earliest and most prominent evangelical endorsers. His book "God's Chaos Candidate" was published during the 2020 campaign, just a week before the "Access Hollywood" tape became public. One prominent TLC board member is the evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, whose 2012 book "The Jefferson Lies," which claimed to debunk claims by legitimate historians about Thomas Jefferson's secular, pluralistic worldview, among other things, was recalled by its evangelical publisher for its numerous falsehoods. (The book was later republished by Glenn Beck, and sold very well to his far-right followers.)

TLC and its allies' ability to turn out agitated and misinformed voters in low-turnout elections is yet another ominous sign about the electoral landscape Democrats face in the 2022 midterms. In El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, Republican turnout was 47.3%, compared to 37.6% for Democrats and 28.9% for independent voters.

This was not an isolated phenomenon. Clarkson writes that as in "past waves of fresh political action, there are other organizations doing similar things for similar reasons, often in close collaboration. Their impact is undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts in the movement." He specifically cites a group called Church Voter Guides, launched earlier this year by Steve Holt, former pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, that targeted some of the same races. TLC issued a press release in early October promoting the voter guides of both groups, and casting the election as "a referendum on parental rights."

On the national level, Business Insider noted the involvement of the 1776 Project PAC, which won all 11 of its targeted Colorado school board races, and a majority of the 55 races it targeted nationwide — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas — focusing on the bogeyman of critical race theory. Clarkson also noted the existence of similar groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas, primarily reacting to school closures.

Clarkson also mentioned the "School Board Boot Camp" run by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council. "Calling these trainings 'boot camps' and illustrating them with military boots," he said, "is consistent with the theme that they are in a war, and that it is more than metaphorical and is more than a little ominous, post-Jan. 6."

In an earlier "boot camp," held in June, FRC president Tony Perkins warned attendees, "We need to get worked up" about "what is happening across the nation, the indoctrination taking place." He related his first experience of so-called indoctrination: "In elementary school I had encountered one of those newly-minted leftist teachers that was a part of the left's long march through America's institutions, and began teaching the theory of evolution as fact," he recalled. "When I wouldn't yield to it, I found myself punished." He didn't say what the alleged punishment was.

This is how these people think: Teaching science that was revolutionary 160 years ago, but that undergirds all of biology today, is evidence of an organized leftist takeover of America's institutions — all of which need to be "taken back for God" (as in the "Seven Mountains Mandate"). Of course this requires a specific version of God, since many millions of Americans — including many evangelicals — have no trouble reconciling religion and science. For those who refuse to do that, any scientific advance whatever can potentially be construed as sinister heresy, and the more firmly the science is established, the more vast and sinister the Satanic plot must be. That's the basic conspiracy-theory logic that drives Perkins, his organization and a wide range of like-minded allies.

"The FRC boot camps reveal how the school board campaigns fit in the evolving coalition that constitutes the religious and business right in the age of Trump," Clarkson told Salon via email. "The June boot camp has presentations from inside-the-Beltway conservative think tankers as well as ostensibly grassroots parents' groups. While the Colorado campaigns appeared to focus on evangelicals, the June boot camp also features Mary Hasson, a conservative Catholic from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, underscoring the Catholic dimension of the historic and evolving coalition."

A presentation by a Virginia parents' group at a different post-election boot camp "mentioned an alliance with a Patriot group, Bedford County Patriots," he said. "We saw a similar alliance in Colorado as well."

That was a reference to another group, FEC United ("Faith, Education, and Commerce") that drew significant local media attention, particularly from the Colorado Springs Independent, where Heidi Beedle reported that "FEC United has organized protests against masks, vaccines and critical race theory at school board meetings across the Front Range. [Founder Joe] Oltmann has stated on his podcast, Conservative Daily, that teachers are 'recruiting kids to be gay' and that LGBTQ teachers should be 'dragged behind a car until their limbs fall off.'"

Beedle also reported that FEC United's board of directors included John Tiegen, "a Marine veteran and Benghazi survivor who was at a sniper position during a speech given by UCCS professor Stephany Rose Spaulding in June 2020. Tiegen is also the head of FEC United's armed wing, United American Defense Force."

Then there's the dark money. In late October, NBC affiliate KOAA reported the influx of $130,000 in dark money from Colorado Springs Forward to the Springs Opportunity Fund, which spent massively in all three districts targeted by TLC. But final figures from the Colorado secretary of state went much higher. Slate advertising in support of Konz, Salt, and incumbent board member Thomas LaValley eventually totaled $132,411, while spending in all districts exceeded $350,000.

"They had robocalls, Google ads, text messaging ads, YouTube ads, and even Hulu and Discovery+ ads for conservative candidates throughout El Paso County," Rob Rogers, a core organizer with BIG FA$HION, a playfully-named parent's group active in Academy District 20, told Salon.

Even with this unprecedented level of outside influence, the situation on the ground was more fluid than the turnout numbers suggest. "If we would have had another month, I think that we would have seen some different results," said Bernadette Guthrie, another BIG FA$HION parent organizer. "What a passionate group of parents can do in a short amount of time was just awesome," said Lara Matisek, another core organizer.

"We went from going to parent-teacher conferences to jumping into the mix of starting a political expenditure committee and learning a lot like in the process," Rogers added.

TLC targeted 17 school districts across the state, with its success heavily concentrated in the Colorado Springs area (nine seats in three districts) and nearby Woodland Park (four seats in one district), which is home to Wommak's church and college, plus three seats each in the town of Elizabeth and the western Colorado city of Grand Junction.

Elsewhere its results were mixed, but in this case, "success elsewhere cannot be measured entirely by the score," Clarkson noted, pointing specifically to how TLC;s voter guides and candidate framed the races around a set of five culture-war issues and away from "the traditional wonkery of school budgets, curricula, and test scores."

This aligns with a decades-old agenda of attacking public education, according to Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," and "The Good News Club," an examination of the religious right's efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education. It also makes sense of the prominent role played by anti-mask and anti-vaccine hysteria.

The "division and chaos" this kind of political activity "provokes in public schools and at school board meetings is not an unintended consequence," Stewart told Salon. "It is precisely the point, and it is of a piece with the movement's longstanding hostility to public education. The Rev. Jerry Falwell made the agenda clear in 1979 when he wrote, 'I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools. Churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.'" That aptly describes the Truth and Liberty Coalition's agenda today.

But it's only one facet of that agenda. "The religious right's animosity toward public education is just one part of a general assault on the foundations of modern liberal democracy," Stewart said. "Undermining confidence in our public institutions, in science and critical thinking, and in the social compact that public schools represent is a way of delegitimizing the process of rational policymaking. The growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism in education and in society lets powerful religious and economic leaders, along with their political allies, pretend that they represent the will of the people even as they advance their own interests."

That "concerted and organized effort to tear down public education" was a shocking discovery, the Colorado Springs organizer Rob Rogers said. Stewart observed that it may be shocking but is nothing new:

In certain conservative circles, the phrase "government schools" has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous. It is characteristic of a movement with longstanding hostility to public education, a hostility with deep roots. The Reconstructionist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony, whose ideas influenced a number of movement leaders, took an attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, "The Messianic Character of American Education," argued that the "government school" represented "primitivism" and "chaos." Public education, he said, "basically trains women to be men" and "has leveled its guns at God and family."

The Colorado Springs school board races provide a microcosm of how this is playing out today. "The word 'unprecedented' is used a lot. I don't think this is anything compared to what we've seen in the past," organizer Guthrie said. "Instead of hearing about real issues, in terms of testing scores and mental health in schools, violence in schools and teacher shortages, instead of hearing about real issues that plague our district, the local news cycle was masks and critical race theory. There was no real talk of any real issues by the seven self-proclaimed conservative candidates. To try to overcome that and consistently change the conversation and reroute it to the real issues was something we struggled with throughout the entire process."

The church voters guide in Colorado Springs "was heavily, heavily an influencer" in the school board races, Rogers said. Its influence "was really hard for us to overcome," Guthrie agreed. "It was heavily distributed through all the church communities, targeted at an older, conservative, retiree population who don't even have kids in the schools…. It was really difficult for us overcome."

To explain the depth of dishonesty, BIG FA$HION organizers put me in touch with Brian Coram, a Colorado Springs real estate agent and former counselor who ran for school board in the recent election. The guide's five issues were labeled, as mentioned above, as "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports," "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns," with each candidate's position described simply as "agree," "disagree" or "refused." But those simplistic terms had little relationship to the actual questions asked, as Coram explained.

The issue of "Critical Race Theory" was defined in the Church Voter Guide in relation to a declarative statement: "The United States is systemically and fundamentally racist, and students should be educated on white privilege and the unfair benefits that it generates." But that wasn't what Coram, who is Black, was asked in an early phone interview.

"The first question they asked was, 'Is America systematically racist?' he recalled. "My response to that was, 'Yes, absolutely, 100%. And here's why. I work in real estate. There's a thing called redlining. We know what that is. We know how the process works. We also know that even if we're not doing it today America builds on that foundation and therefore, as a system, it started as a racist system. Does that mean that we are still there? No, it doesn't. Do I still think we have issues? Of course. That's not the important part. You asked the question, I answered the question." His answer was summarized in the guide as "Does endorse CRT," although that was never discussed.

Equally problematic was the issue of "Parental rights," which functioned as de facto code for objecting to mask mandates, but not of course for parents' rights to protect their children from COVID. But the specific wording contained other trapdoors.

"I remember one of the questions being, 'Should parents always be informed of any medical decisions that the school makes for the children?'" Coram recalled. "I answered that question with, 'OK, so hold on, I have a background in social work. So you're telling me that if a kid comes into school with a bunch of bruises and whatnot and all that stuff, you're going to call the parent, who could in fact be the abuser, and say, 'Hey, we're going to do this,' and they'll go, 'Oh no, don't do that, I'll come get him,' and then they end up murdering that kid. Because that's what happens. I worked in social work. I've seen that before."

The interviewer objected, saying that wasn't what they were asking. But "any medical decisions" was in the original question, and Coram's response was labeled "refused." Regarding sex education, "What they asked was, 'Should sex education be abstinence-only?'" Coram recalled. "They did not say age-appropriate." The voter guide language added another layer of deception, framing the issue as "Sex education should be age appropriate, emphasizing the abstinence-based model."

In sharp contrast to TLC, BIG FA$HION's voter guides were completely unedited and transparent. (See Coram's here.) "We invited all candidates to participate and we told them their responses would be unedited, unaltered, submitted with screenshots of what was said so they didn't have any worries about us editing things out or putting things in," said Lara Matisek. None of the seven self-described conservative candidates responded. "It was very telling that they did not want to participate," she said. "Hundreds of parents wanted these questions answered that were never answered with the church voter guide."

The voter guides weren't the only resource TLC provided. They also had a whole webpage of links to voter tools, including "Worldview Resources" from My Faith Votes, which includes a series of short videos purporting to explain what the Bible has to say about a series of questions, such as border control and immigration, abortion and gun control.

Given that guns weren't invented until at least a thousand years later, you might conclude that the Bible doesn't have much to say about them, and you'd be correct. The Bible is also silent on abortion, although practiced and skillful cherry-picking is at work. On the subject of immigration, you might expect to find the famous passages from Exodus 22:21: "You shall not oppress a stranger nor torment him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" or Leviticus 19:34: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself" or, for that matter, Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Nope, there's none of that. Instead we get, "Romans chapter 13 verses one through seven says there that the laws that have been given to us as a nation have been given to us by God and that those who are called to enforce those laws are actually ministers of God's righteousness. So we are to obey the laws that exist."

That's pretty much it: Exactly the same logic used to defend slavery — which, to be fair, has considerably more biblical support than do bans on abortion or restrictions on immigration. In short, the worldview here has very little to do with what's in the Bible. It's a charade, at best, or as Clarkson said, it's "code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society in tension or at odds with secular institutions."

If secular liberals and progressives are to successfully fight back, they need to understand what they're up against. But they also need to understand their own strengths, which brings us back to BIG FA$HION and how they got their name.

"The one thing that has kept us going and helped us to sustain momentum is that we find humor in pretty much everything we do," Matisek said. "When all the 'Unmask our kids' stuff was going on, we had partaken in some commentary on social media: 'Yeah, you know, we don't want to mask the kids. We shouldn't even be pantsing them! Unpants Colorado, while we're at it! Who needs pants in school?' So BIG FA$HION kind of got its name from some commentary we were doing."

Their opponents frequently claimed that Big Pharma was behind COVID restrictions and vaccine mandates, Guthrie explained, "So the joke that got legs and ran off was that Big Fashion was trying to keep us all wearing pants."

This spontaneous playfulness in response to right-wing manufactured outrage reminded me of Dannagal Goldthwaite Young's book "Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States" (Salon interviews here and here). As she explains, the left can never realistically hope to match the right's capacity to generate outrage, even in response to blatant efforts to steal elections and overthrow democracy. What can help empower progressives to save themselves is a shared capacity to laugh at the absurd rather than be imprisoned by it — a capacity to mock those who would make a mockery of democracy. We will need as much of that ability to laugh as we can manage.

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