Symposium | What is Red-State Liberalism?

Yes, We Speak ‘Faith’ Here

By Lydia Bean

In 2014, I helped found a congregation-based organizing effort called Faith in Texas, which develops leaders in churches, mosques, and synagogues for social justice. I’m often asked by blue-state liberals how I persist in such a conservative environment. The answer is that I love living in Texas. I don’t want Texas to become like corporate-Democratic controlled California. I want Texas to be a better version of itself. I groan when people talk about “turning Texas blue.” What does it even mean to turn a state “blue” anymore? National liberals seemingly don’t even know how to win and govern purple and blue states, so what do they have to offer Texas?

That said, I feel at home in Texas because there’s a radical disconnect between the Texans I share my life with and the Texans you see on the news. We’re a majority people-of-color state. When I take my dogs to the park, the people we greet there are an even mix of black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Anglo. Every month, I go out for Cantonese cuisine with my Chinese-American in-laws in Houston. My mother and two brothers teach in Texas public schools, where a majority of their students are Hispanic. My husband and I attend a nondenominational church in Dallas, full of artists, critical thinkers, and interracial couples like us. In everyday life, I experience Texas as a vibrant, urban, multi-cultural society, with affordable real estate and thriving churches. As a white Anglo, I rarely have the illusion of belonging to an unmarked majority—and that feels normal.

But unfortunately, that upbeat reality is why Texas politicians are waging war on the majority of our population. Our population is young and multi-cultural, with a Hispanic plurality, yet our electorate is older, whiter, and afraid of our generation. The Texas legislature is held captive to an unrepresentative minority of activists who vote in Republican primaries, with everybody else practically disenfranchised. Texas politics was hyper-racialized long before Jeff Sessions became the attorney general. Attacks on black and Hispanic voting rights are shameless, draped in only a tiny fig leaf of colorblind rhetoric. Republicans have become the default party for all right-thinking, white, native-born Texans. I once asked a newly converted Democrat about why he identified with Republicans as a young man, and he quipped, “It just seemed like the white thing to do.”

This isn’t a culture war; it’s a shooting war that targets civilians. When President Donald Trump eliminated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), it was like he was carpet-bombing Texas. More than 271,000 young Texans are “Dreamers,” immigrants brought as children by their parents who needed help adjusting their legal status to pursue their education and join the workforce. For weeks after Trump repealed DACA, the staff and leaders of Faith in Texas were all organizing through trauma. We cycled between grief, anger, and numbness. Our work was punctuated with tears from teenagers and young adults who felt rejected by their own country and their home state. This blow was compounded by the passage of Texas Senate Bill 4, a law that forced police departments to allow their officers to ask about immigration status at routine traffic stops.

The purpose of this “shock and awe” campaign is to keep Hispanic families traumatized, fearful, and disempowered. In Egypt, Pharaoh ordered the killing of all the Hebrew boys because he feared the demographic power of the Hebrew people. In modern Texas, our Pharaoh is just a bit more subtle. He doesn’t order the midwives to kill baby boys. He just changes the rules to make it harder for Hispanic babies to obtain birth certificates, to keep babies from growing up into voters.

Speaking of the Bible, that’s another fact about organizing in Texas. We’re the Buckle of the Bible Belt. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s famous words about the South: Texas is hardly Christ-centered, but it is most certainly Christ-haunted. Faith isn’t just important to many conservative Republicans; it’s also an inherent part of public life for many progressives and moderates. For example, my husband and I recently went out to lunch after church with an ACLU organizer and a mutual friend who worked in immigration legal services. Our conversation was about how to renew the public witness of our faith in the age of Trump. When our pizza arrived, we realized that we had no space on the table for our Bibles that we’d carried with us from worship. So we stacked up our Bibles into a precarious tower. I pointed and laughed: “You know you’re in Texas when you have to pause your political conversation to find a place to put your Bibles!”

That’s another fact that liberals struggle to accept: There is no “post-Christian” path to power in Texas. But there is a rising Texas majority if your movement is willing to engage the two largest faith traditions in Texas: Catholics and evangelicals. That’s true even if your primary tactic is turning out new, young voters of color. It’s basic arithmetic. Most people of color in Texas are Catholics, evangelicals, or black Protestants who share theology with evangelicals. And it turns out that white moderates and independents are also quite religious by national standards. Demonizing and dismissing religious people is a losing strategy in Texas—and most of the country, in case you hadn’t checked the scoreboard recently. Our goal is not to have less religion in Texas public life, it’s to have better religion in public life—a more vibrant, humane conversation that represents the diversity of our people.

All this talk about faith can make secular liberals feel uncomfortable, especially when it’s coming from evangelicals and Catholics. But I can’t imagine doing this traumatic work apart from my Christian faith tradition. What kind of moral language can Texans use to bridge our divides, if not the language of faith? This is what true reflective politics look like, when you sincerely seek to govern one of the most religious states in the country. National liberals parachute into Texas when there’s an exciting election, and then forget that we exist when they don’t see instant results. But God is at work in Texas year-round—and God’s dream for Texas goes far beyond the next election cycle.

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Lydia Bean is the author of The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada. She serves as the executive director of Faith in Texas and as a senior consultant to the PICO National Network.

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