Cynthia Turner Event Coverage Political

Dan Patrick at Texas Tribune Festival: Reopening the question of church and state in Texas

Written by Cynthia Turner 

The 2015 Texas Tribune Festival, hosted once again on UT’s campus, opened October 16th with Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick as the keynote speaker. Known for his distinctly conservative stances in politics, Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of the Tribune, introduced him as the epitome of the direction Texas politics has taken with the last statewide election. The panel opened up with the question “what have you done for Texans?” for the individual considered to hold the most political power in Texas.

On the outset, Patrick focused on bipartisan legislation that had distinct and tangible benefits for constituents such as increasing medical residencies in Texas and making more money available for teacher scholarships. For every other policy such as tax cuts and fiscal responsibility, Patrick took hard conservative stances. With issues of the economy and money, like most Republicans, he referred to economic principles of free markets, which some of the audience supported and others respectfully disagreed.

[Patrick] repeatedly emphasized, “our nation is a Christian state founded upon Christian principles, and to deny that is to deny history.”

However, Patrick’s stances on social issues seemed to grate the most against portions of the audience. On issues of gay rights and abortion, his view aligned with the views of the majority of Texas Republicans and Tea Partyists. No surprise there. What made the audience most uncomfortable was the lieutenant governor’s appeal to Christianity as rationalization for his stances.

He repeatedly emphasized, “our nation is a Christian state founded upon Christian principles, and to deny that is to deny history.” In anticipation of the argument for separation of church and state, Patrick stated, “I’m a proud Christian, and when I step into office I don’t intend on leaving my beliefs at the door.”

Patrick’s appeal to standing by his Christian ideals is likely representative of how Texas voters stand on such social issues. The Association of Religion Data Archives reports that in 2000, 32 percent of Texans identified as protestant Christian and 21 percent identified as Catholics. Most Texas voters would support Patrick’s decision to stand by his beliefs. In fact for most of American history, the notion of the United States being founded on Christian principles has been widely accepted. The US population has been predominantly protestant Christian, and the idea of religious freedom was accepted to accommodate other denominations of Christianity or Judaism.

…for a politician to legislate according to his or her own religious beliefs may come into conflict with the religious beliefs of others.

In recent years, the demographics across the nation have changed and religious pluralism has intensified. More and more individuals identify with irreligion or non-European religions like Islam. With these differences in the population comes the realization that for a politician to legislate according to his or her own religious beliefs may come into conflict with the religious beliefs of others.

Erik Dempsey, a lecturer in UT’s government department commented, “for a long time, the mention of God in the Constitution has been taken for granted as the Christian God, but in recent years more and more academics are considering it as self-evident rather than a religion-specific God.” He further explained that in response to the changing religious makeup of the United States, more and more individuals require that any policy based on religious principles must also have justification in secular terms.

More and more individuals require that any policy based on religious principles must also have justification in secular terms.

However, as the lieutenant governor made clear, it is difficult to clearly demarcate where to draw the line between religious beliefs and legislation. Most self-identifying Christians argue that they derive ethics from their religion, and to abandon those views for secular beliefs would be to abandon morality as they know it. Others express concern that basing legislation on religious beliefs relies on the confidence in one’s own interpretation of a religious text. Even within Christianity, different groups differ on their stances when it comes to gay rights and abortion.

There is no easy answer to determine at what point a legislator has to leave behind their religious beliefs. Inevitably, an individual’s religious or irreligious beliefs determine his or her convictions on ethics and morality. Changing demographics in religion has reopened the question to where the intersection of faith and politics lie, but until this change translates into Texan voters, legislators like Dan Patrick will continue to refer to conservative Christian values when in office.

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