by David F. Prindle
It is no sudden revelation that politicians often speak with forked tongues. But in a democracy, where the people’s vote determines the course of government, citizens have to be able to separate at least some of the truth from the deceitful blather that passes for much of public discourse, or we are headed down the road to injustice and poverty. In my classes at the University of Texas, I try to teach my students how to avoid being fooled by politicians who employ the arts of rhetoric, illogic, propaganda and lies.
We were recently able to put this into action when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made an argument on behalf of what he called the religious “rights” and “liberties” of Texans in the Austin American-Statesman.
I intend to use this article in my American politics courses as a case study of deceptive argument. Let me explain why:
Patrick notes “that nearly half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence held seminary or Bible school degrees.” He apparently expects his readers to conclude from this historical factoid that signers of that glorious document had the same view of public policy as he does.
His implied conclusion is a non sequitur. Education in the 18th century was largely handled by religious institutions, but the fact that those men were educated in such places does not tell us anything about what sort of government they intended to establish. Moreover, the fact that John Hancock, upon signing the Declaration, mentioned that human beings have God-given rights does not mean that he interpreted those rights in 1776 as Patrick interprets them today.
The relevant document is not so much the Declaration as the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted 1791, which blocks Congress from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. This is the right that Patrick claims to be protecting, although he does not mention it until later in his essay.
He doesn’t mention that the Amendment also forbids Congress to create an “establishment of religion,” that is, to support any particular creed with money or laws. (The 14th Amendment of 1868 applied these strictures to the states.)
In other words, it forbids people who believe in one particular faith to use the power of the government to impose their religious views on other people who may not share them. There is no “right” of Christians to force their beliefs on their fellow citizens mentioned in either the Declaration or the First Amendment.
Many citizens would argue that by supporting nativity scenes sponsored by city governments, and by encouraging similar governmental endorsements of Christian slogans and symbols, Patrick is inciting Christians to use the power of government to impose their particular religious views on other people, thus violating the letter and spirit of the First Amendment. The fact that Patrick justifies his subversion of non-Christian citizens’ rights by claiming that his actions are a defense of Christians’ rights is an example of the tactics used by demagogues down through the ages: While you are undermining other peoples’ rights, insist that you are only defending your own.
Patrick mentions the action of Beaumont city leaders in forbidding “police officers from voluntarily participating in Bible studies during their lunch hour” and strongly implies that the city leaders prevented the Bible study because it was a religious activity. He therefore classifies this decision as one of the “efforts to take those (religious) rights from us….”
But in truth, the officers were stopped from conducting Bible study because Beaumont city rules forbid all non-business related activity on city property – no birthday parties, fraternal club meetings, sports lotteries or anything else. The police officers were prevented from holding their Bible studies because that activity constituted non-governmental business, not because it was religious in nature. Patrick thus mischaracterizes the neutral application of a city rule as an attack on religious liberty.
Patrick’s commentary, therefore, is an effort to justify his intention of violating the religious liberty of citizens who do not share his particular creed by, first, misinterpreting the religious rights the First Amendment granted to Americans, and second, misreporting the facts behind one particular city action regarding a police officers’ club.
As lieutenant governor, Patrick holds a powerful position. He presides over the state senate and has many powers to control the agenda. Patrick’s views, therefore, are of direct relevance to Texas public policy.
While I am always grateful when the American-Statesman furnishes me with material for my class discussions, it discourages me as a supporter of democracy in Texas when I see one of the state’s most powerful officials using verbal trickery and the misrepresentation of facts to persuade his fellow Texans that his actions are justified.
David F. Prindle is Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Politics of Evolution (Routledge, 2015). His email address is [email protected]