Texas Republicans in the "City of Churches"
Greetings from Jackson, Mississippi. We finally said goodbye to Texas last week. We didn't expect to stay for almost a month and a half, but we found Texas to be far more diverse and interesting than we had expected. From Austin, a progressive college town, to Highland Park, an affluent area in Dallas dominated by Republicans, we never had a problem finding a wide array of people and groups to interview. Over the next few weeks, I plan on sending out interviews with the Cathedral of Hope, a gay and lesbian church in Dallas, Republicans for Environmental Protection, Young Republicans of Dallas, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and others.
After leaving Dallas, we headed East to Nacogdoches, the oldest town in Texas. We chose Nacogdoches, population 30,000, after reading about its annual weekend blueberry festival. The first thing we notice, as we do in most small towns, are the churches on almost every corner. With over 120 churches listed in an online directory, Nacogdoches lives up to its reputation as being the "city of churches." President Bush got 66 percent of the vote in Nacogdoches County.
After Nacogdoches, we went to Linden, a small town in the heart of the Piney Woods Region of Northeast Texas. I interviewed a number of locals there, including a Democratic cowboy who calls Bush a "wannabe" and a Republican who says Bush isn't conservative enough. I then stopped in a grocery store parking lot to do an interview with a Dallas radio station about my trip. As I was answering a question about Democrats and the separation of church and state, a fairly large man walked by and screamed, "There should be no separation of church and state. I'm not a Democrat! I'm a Republican!" He looked as though he wanted to charge me. Shortly thereafter, we left Texas and began our journey to Mississippi.
We spent the next day in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I found one of the only vegan restaurants in the entire state. The restaurant's owner said the vegetarian lifestyle has yet to catch on in Louisiana, which would explain why we were the only customers in the restaurant. A few minutes after we got to talking about politics, I realized I was talking to a pro-war Republican vegan. Yet again, I've learned not to be surprised when my assumptions are incorrect.
We're planning to spend the week in Jackson, Mississippi. I'll bring you stories about the only abortion clinic in the entire state, the power of the anti-choice movement, the state of education and efforts to improve the lives of impoverished women.
Until then, here are a few interviews with people I met at the blueberry festival in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Members of the First Baptist Church handed out bottles of water at the blueberry festival. I grew up in Northern California and am overwhelmed by the heat here. I gladly accepted the water and asked pastor Allen Reed a few questions.
Allen Reed, 61, First Baptist Church pastor
Tell me about this area.
It's a small town of about 30,000 people. It's a friendly town with down-to-earth people.
How long have you lived here?
Has it changed a lot over the years?
Some, but not much. Our Hispanic community has increased a great deal.
Tell me about your booth here.
This is the First Baptist Church. I'm the pastor and we give out free water. It's 90-degree weather and people get thirsty. We have our church's label on the bottle with a verse that says, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink."
How does this town lean politically?
There's a strong Republican influence here. All of East Texas used to be Democratic. It didn't matter who was running for what, you'd vote Democrat. That's changed a great deal.
Why has it changed?
The ethical and moral issues that face our country are more in line with the conservative party.
Are you a Republican?
Yes, I've been a Republican for a long time, but I don't vote for the party, I vote for the person. I cannot accept a lot of the liberal politics.
Those two issues come up more often than not. What'd you think of Governor Perry's decision to pass two bills affecting those issues at a church?
I think it was a good thing. I'm surprised he's not gotten more flak over it simply because it was in the church, but here when we go to vote, 90 percent of our voting places are in churches. That's been that way for decades.
What do you think about the concerns over separation of church and state?
My own personal conviction is it's separation of church and state, but not separation from church and state. Our founding fathers did not intend for us to be atheist in our beliefs. I should not as a minister stand in the church and say, you have to vote for this person or that person. That's not what it's all about, but I do address moral issues. I say, as Christians this is what we believe and you go vote your convictions and your conscience, but I'm not going to say go vote for George Bush or John Kerry.
Back to the gay issue, I'm from San Francisco and one of the safest, nicest neighborhoods is the predominantly gay neighborhood. A lot of my female friends live there and love it.
That's what I understand.
I received an email from a gay man this morning who said the interviews I've done with people opposed to homosexuality made him cry. He said he can't understand why there is so much hate in this country. What would you say to him?
Don't hate the person. Hate the sin. Homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord. It's a sin, but all of us are sinners. I don't hate the homosexual, but I certainly don't agree with the lifestyle. It's unnatural.
Do you have any gay friends?
Two of my family members were gay. One was my brother and the other was my niece. Both of them are deceased now.
Did you maintain a good relationship with them?
Yes, I conducted the funerals for both of them. It's in everybody's family these days. They knew I loved them and that I didn't agree with their lifestyle. Let's agree to disagree.
The Bible also says divorce is a sin.
That's true. I would like to ban divorce now that you brought it up. We have church members that are divorced. I perform wedding ceremonies for divorced people. If it's a woman and the man has committed adultery and she's done everything she can to save the marriage, I see her as a victim. Why should she be punished? If she finds a good Christian man, she should have the right to remarry. I would be more concerned if a believer marries an unbeliever. What would they have in common? I preach from the pulpit about God's ideal, which is a man and a woman for life, but we realize we're not perfect. It's not an unpardonable sin. Neither is homosexuality.
Do you allow gays to worship in your church?
Anybody can attend our church as long as they're there to worship, but if he wants to join, we'll have to talk about repentance. If they choose to continue the lifestyle, then where else can they go to worship? I'd still welcome them.
How do you feel about all of the time and energy spent on passing anti-gay legislation? A lot of people criticized the Texas legislature for spending too much time on gays and not enough time on education.
Our politicians waste a lot of time on issues that don't amount to anything. I'd like to talk to the gambling industry and find out where all the money went that was supposedly set aside for education.
Do you think more time should have been spent on other issues and less time on gay marriage, especially since gay marriage here is already illegal?
It's crucial to stop the gay agenda.
What is the gay agenda?
They're trying to cram it down our throats. In the school system, they're teaching, Sammy has two mammas or George has two daddies. It's being forced on us. They're saying, this is a lifestyle you're going to accept one way or the other. I think our whole society has gone to the minority. We used to say in East Texas, the pig that squeals the loudest gets the most slop.
What would you say to gays who are just trying to live their lives? They don't want to cram their lifestyles down your throat just as they don't want you to cram your lifestyle down their throats.
We're all entitled to our opinions, but their lifestyle is wrong.
I then passed a booth for the Republican Women's Party of Nacogdoches County, complete with a pair of Bush '04 cowboy boots on the table. I sat in the shade with three members of the party:
Carolyn Mathews, Retired Teacher, Member of the Republican Women's Party in Nacogdoches County
Dee Striplang, Member of the Republican Women's Party in Nacogdoches County
Joe English, Chairman of the Nacogdoches County Republican Party
How does this town lean politically?
JE: In the past, it leaned Democrat. Over the last 15 years, it's slowly become Republican and conservative. It's taken a while.
Why the change?
CM: I think the Democratic party moved away from the people. This part of East Texas is very conservative.
JE: This is the bible belt.
CM: People go to church. That's very important. I think the Democratic party moved away from those people. Their values changed and they became liberal. The people here are not liberal.
What does that mean exactly? How do you define the word "liberal?"
CM: I guess they don't value the same things we do. Our society is based on three institutions: the home, the church and the school. We still believe that and make that a part of our lives. Larger areas have gotten away from that.
DS: Our values don't change or waiver. We look at some of the past political leaders and it makes you wonder, are you really proud of who you have in the White House? What is it that you like? Did you like them because they're popular and good lookin'? To me, that's liberal.
It's funny you should say that. I've interviewed a lot of people who say they like Bush because he's a nice guy.
DS: That's what we're talking about. When they go into office, what do they do? What did Clinton ever do? Whatever happened to family values? He made a joke out of us.
Going back to values, I've met a slew of Christian Democrats in this state who value their family, church and home. And those who don't go to church also have strong family values.
JE: But what does the Democrat's platform on church values say? You have to look at their platforms. Their platform says they believe in a woman's right to choose. Republicans say we shouldn't be doing abortions on everybody that wants one. You gotta look at your platforms. I sat on the Republicans platform's committee in East Texas and we spent four or five hours just on the abortion issue. That's a core value. That's the difference between a liberal and a conservative.
Do you have any pro-choice Republicans in your group? I've met pro-choice Republicans and anti-choice Democrats. A lot of prominent Republicans are pro-choice. Condoleeza Rice told the Washington Times that she's mildly pro-choice, so it's not strictly a party line issue.
JE: Right. You have to decide individually what's the most important issue to you. It may not be abortion, it may be the tax issue. Maybe you feel like you're being overtaxed. You have to look at those and then go with the party.
What about prevention? I rarely hear Republicans talk about measures to prevent abortion other than to make it illegal.
DS: It goes back to values. How can you prevent a young lady from going out and having sex? Granted, if she's raped, that's different. How can you prevent a man from starting fatherhood without understanding or caring about his responsibilities. That goes back to home values. What are you teaching your kids? What is being taught at school? Most people don't want sex education in school. Whose responsibility is it?
Some parents aren't capable of providing that information. Some parents don't care. I tutor a young girl. When I pick her up, she's hungry. Her mom never says, where are you going? And when are you bringing her home? She has siblings from different fathers. Chances are, her mother isn't going to teach her about sex.
DS: It's pretty sad.
CM: It's been made too easy for unwed parents to have children and you and I take care of them with all the giveaways.
DS: There are too many social services.
CM: I do not approve of that. There has to be dignity in work. We are not getting that across in education. Every student that graduates should have some type of vocation. I am a career technology retired teacher. Kids should have to have some chosen field where they can earn a living and be a contributing member of society. We're not expecting that from enough people. You contribute to society. You're not just here to take. We're missing that because the family has disintegrated. Out of the home, the church and the school, what's the one institution that all children are exposed to now? The school. The school is given the responsibility to do everything, but they don't have the authority.
This is where sex education comes in. Bush set aside $167 million for abstinence-only programs this year. What happens to those kids who can't talk to their parents about sex? Or kids whose parents don't care enough about them to talk about sex? Are you in favor of sex education or should we be teaching kids to 'just say no' and go on pretending that teen pregnancy isn't a problem?
CM: There has to be education. I just adopted a daughter in October. She's 40. I taught her in high school 25 years ago. She came from a home like you're talking about. Four children. Four different fathers. They're not given an identity of who they are and this is wrong. I'm tired of paying for women's and men's recreational sex and the result is children. They're not being made to assume and accept responsibility for the choices they're making. Those choices are producing members of society who are not able to contribute like they need to because they don't have an identity. I can't imagine not having a mother and a father and knowing who my father was. There are plenty of kids who do not know that. Back in the 80s, we had students who would live with mama until they got mad and didn't like mama's boyfriend. Then they went and lived with daddy and his girlfriend until that didn't work out. Then they end up living with their boyfriend and if they showed up at school at 7:30 in the morning, they were doing us a favor. They shouldn't have to be responsible for themselves at that age.
So you're in favor of sex education in schools?
Why is Bush in favor of abstinence-only and not sex education?
CM: I don't have an answer. My feeling and choice is different from his having been in public schools for over 30 years. I'm a product of my experiences.
DS: It's pitiful that we have to have parties. You have Democrats that have some of the same feelings as Republicans. It's just the way this country was built. There are some things I don't agree with on the Republican platform, but you pick what's most important to you and try to deal with the rest.
JE: A lot of the platform deals with things like how much money we should pour into a school or how much we should pay in taxes. That's the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives say, we should be taxed less and we shouldn't be sponsoring every program out there. Liberals say, y'all are rich. We should be taxing the heck out of rich people so we can pay for these programs.
How do you feel about all the money that's being spent on the war?
DS: I'm tired of it. When are these people going to stand up on their own two feet in their country? Never. Look at other countries that we've helped. They're not helping us. They're not backing us. They're asking us for money. They're not here breaking their backs and paying taxes. We are. I get tired of our money being sent to places that don't appreciate it. The tsunami was ridiculous. They don't deserve our money. They're all pagans. Our president promised them money and I think he's wrong on that.
You think it's wrong to help countries in distress?
DS: Yes. We can only do so much. I'm tired of our tax dollars being given away. We need to fix our own problems. How long can we survive?
How do you feel about spending money on better health benefits for the troops?
CM: There should be more money appropriated for the military. I am extremely patriotic. I was in the Philippines in 1968 during Vietnam. We cannot do enough for military. I have two nephews who are West Point graduates. Congress is not doing enough for the people who are serving. Stop giving away the money and use it for our men and women who are willing to serve and choose to be there.
Two House bills to increase health care benefits for the troops recently died. The majority of Democrats voted for the bills, while the majority of Republicans voted against them. Have you heard about that?
DS: I've heard about healthcare problems, but I haven't heard about how they voted. That blows my mind. There must be something in the package that the Republicans didn't like.
They were separate from the $442 billion military budget.
DS: That's a good question for Texas politicians.
CM: I've been in education for so long and I would like to see the draft come back. It forces people to mature and we don't have that. Young men do not accept responsibility for themselves. They are allowed not to accept responsibility for themselves. We need to get them out of that environment and say, pardon me, we need this young man to grow up and become a contributing member of society. Bring back the draft and bring them out from under mama.
JE: It doesn't necessarily have to be the army. There are some countries that require people to serve as police officers, in the post office or as border patrol.
Do you think Congress would ever go for that? Very few politicians have children overseas.
CM: No, they're afraid of it. The draft would give them a vocation, which we're not doing in public schools. Someone needs to be in charge.
The problem is, politicians rarely talk about these issues. Why do we have such a high poverty rate? Why are so many people unemployed? Did you watch the debates? They rarely touched on those issues.
CM: Yes, there was no substance. None at all. Where are the issues?
DS: You've been here for over 30 minutes and there are so many issues to talk about. These are very important issues, but does anyone care about beginning the conversation? No.
What did you think of Bush's performance?
DS: He could have done better. You know who Karl Rove is don't you?
DS: When I was in Austin, I worked for him at night for his direct mail company. I could see things going on before George ever got into office. Let me tell you, that's who is basically running it now. He's pulling the strings keeping Bush muffled. I'd rather see Bush make some major changes that need to happen. Yeah, it's gonna mess some people up, but you know what? Somebody's got to start it. If not, what are we doing? It's a waste of time.
What would you like Bush to change?
DS: I know we've started a war and I can't say, run off and leave that, but I think we do need to start getting those countries back on their feet. We need to start focusing our resources right here. I know people want homeland security to be the top issue, but if we're doing our daily duty, we're not gonna have a problem. All we're doing is building bigger government trying to put more controls on people. It's all hype. I'm just tired of it. The media blows everything out of proportion.
How do you feel about the war now that we know weapons of mass destruction were never there and Iraq had no connection to 9/11?
DS: I've always felt like those weapons were there. I think they have been moved around. They're smart. They have technology. They're making us look like a bunch of fools. I think they are there. I honestly do not believe that George Bush went over there and started a war without having something. I don't think we're being told and I think that's fine. You cannot know everything and have a secure country.
CM: I think the media says too much about homeland security. They need to be protecting us and the news media needs to stop blabbing it because they need to say something 24 hours a day. That's where a lot of this ridiculous stuff comes from. They have to make up something to be on the air.
Where do you get most of your news?
DS: Evening news.
CM: Unfortunately, I read the Houston Chronicle. I read about people I know, but they have no conservatives on their staff. Everything is liberal, so I read it with a grain of salt.
JE: I watch Fox, but I watch CNN too, so I get both sides. I read the Wall Street Journal and I listen to NPR.
What do you think of NPR?
JE: I think they sway towards the left, but there are things they bring up that I agree with.
JE: Some of their war coverage is good. I like their long pieces.
Are you open to voting for Democrats in the future?
DS: Sure, there are people on the opposite party who have good values. If I like the person, I'll vote for him.
JE: I always vote for the party. I don't vote for the person, I vote for the party.
Do you think Bush is a Republican by definition?
JE: Yeah, he's no Ronald Reagan, but he's a Republican. That's another difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives don't spend money. You shouldn't let it go. A liberal is more liberal with their money.
Bush has spent more than Clinton. We had a surplus under Clinton. Now we're dealing with a huge deficit.
DS: We're at war. How much time and how many tax dollars were spent on Clinton's impeachment? Lots of money.
That was led by the Republicans and was a waste of time.
DS: That's my point. They wasted time.