Point Austin: God Knows

Mitt Romney, Christine Comer, and the political uses of religion

Point Austin
Today's homily might as well begin with a borrowing from the Rev. Mitt Romney, who recently visited Texas to explain to us the relationship between religious belief and political freedom. "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom," Romney pronounced. "Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together or perish alone."

Behind the flowery metaphor, the plain sense of that passage is that we are all free to believe in God – but not otherwise. It's of a piece with the rest of Romney's rather desperate attempt to defend himself as a Christian Mormon, at least sufficiently to get the fundamentalist bullies who now form the voting base of the GOP off his case. (Mormons are an optimistic lot.) Rather than affirm the constitutional separation of church and state, Romney denounced what he called the "religion of secularism." If there were such a thing, he would be required to honor it, as he purported to do of Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, Islam, etc., etc., ad nauseam. But in a country that once took pride in keeping God and governance in distinct spheres, it is now reflexively applauded to poke "secularism" in the eye at every opportunity.

Presidential candidate Romney assured his devout listeners they need not worry: Unlike those horrible secular humanists, the Rev. Romney isn't about to kick "nativity scenes and menorahs" out of the public square. And here you thought the nationwide plague of reverends, rabbis, bishops, buncombes, Bible-beaters, and their tax-exempt hustles and con-games was about to go unceremoniously out of business any minute, thanks to those insidious "secular humanists" at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Silly you.

The Party Line

Pardon my testiness. I've already had my annual fill of Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and (for God's sake) Christmas Shrek. And a few days before Romney made his pilgrimage to College Station, Texas state politics provided (as it inevitably does) an object lesson in just how well religion and freedom coexist, especially in these parts. Christine Comer, director of curriculum for science at the Texas Education Agency, was forced from her position last month because she had the temerity to do her job. Comer had forwarded an e-mail announcing an Austin lecture by Barbara Forrest, co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design and an authority on the national "intelligent design" campaign to undermine the teaching of science in the name of repackaged creationism. Bush loyalist and agency hack Lizzette Reynolds read the name "Forrest" and saw red, demanding Comer's termination. The TEA bureaucrats leapt to obey.

The intelligent design camp is particularly hysterical about Forrest, because she was an expert witness in the 2005 Penn­sylvania court case (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) against I.D., which thoroughly demonstrated that I.D. is an anti-science scam intended to evade the legal precedents against teaching explicit "creationism" in public schools. Faced with yet another high-profile defeat and exposure, the creationists have been shifting their ground to "teaching the controversy" and "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory. Look for it, coming soon, at a science curriculum review near you, scheduled for the State Board of Ed-ucation in January 2008. Facing that prospect, TEA staff was put on notice in September that if creationism is the SBOE "party line," they all will be expected to follow it. It's hardly surprising that the science curriculum director soon found herself on the wrong side of company policy.

In the wake of Comer's forced resignation (which actually occurred several weeks before Nov. 29, when the States­man's Laura Heinauer broke the story), the agency drafted a transparently scurrilous memo attempting to portray Comer (after nine years of service) as "insubordinate." Spokes­woman Debbie Ratcliffe (who should know better) said that Comer had failed to remain "neutral" on issues before the SBOE. That is, by forwarding a science lecture announcement, the science curriculum director had failed to remain sufficiently "neutral" on whether science or its opposite should be taught in the science courses of Texas public schools. TEA Commissioner Robert Scott hinted darkly of other sins supposedly committed by Comer, which he regretfully just can't discuss. It's too much to expect Scott – whose qualification for his Rick Perry appointment is that, like his boss, he despises the public schools – to have the simple decency to let the woman go in peace.

Pray for Freedom

There is plenty of corollary foolishness. New SBOE Chair Don McLeroy, a Bryan dentist and an amiable boob in the pure-dee Texas tradition, is an avowed creationist who has adopted the new intelligent-design lingo and says all he wants for the schools is to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theory – the latest cant, echoed by his creationist brethren on the board. He also insisted last week that TEA employees "can say what they want. They have freedom of speech." McLeroy apparently hasn't communicated that elementary constitutional principle to staffers at the agency, who explicitly cower in fear that anything they say that violates the science/anti-science "neutrality" doctrine will result in their sharing the fate of Christine Comer. They may be timorous, but they're not stupid.

There you have it: the current state of intellectual and political freedom in Texas, where a small group of fundamentalist fanatics drives public education policy, and an utterly cynical governor – who this week endorsed the brazenly unfundamentalist Rudy Giuliani for president because he's "electable" – panders to the worst sort of religious fanaticism as a working principle of governance. Yet the Rev. Romney solemnly declares, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom."

I'm perfectly aware that religious faith can form the ground of community engagement and social activism. But in this time and in this place, religious sentiment is most often used as an ideological bludgeon to enforce conformity and obedience to authority. So it is that Mitt the Mormon journeys to Texas and pleads, "I'm just like everybody else," and Christine Comer and her colleagues receive a rather different sacred message: "Do as your told, if you know what's good for you."

If this is religion, I'll choose freedom from it, every single time.

See the TEA's justification for terminating Christine Comer, and Comer's resignation letter .

Send your prayers, curses, and news tips to mking@austinchronicle.com.

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public religion and public education, Mitt Romney, Christine Comer, Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott, Barbara Forrest, State Board of Education, Don McLeroy

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