By Brian Bolton
Williamson County, Texas, may be the most politically and religiously conservative governmental entity in the United States. Only Republicans are elected to public office and they often tout their alleged Christian credentials.
For example, the incumbent district attorney compared herself to Jesus, explaining that "Christ's example shows us that doing what's right often comes at a price" (she spent a weekend in jail for disobeying a judge's order), while vilifying her opponent in full-page advertisements as an ally of dangerous criminals.
With a population of 50,000 and more than 70 Christian churches, Georgetown (where I live) is the county seat. A historic courthouse dominates the downtown square. Sprawling Williamson County, with a population approaching one half million, is governed by a judge and four commissioners. They are paid about $100,000 a year.
Three very different newspapers are available in Georgetown. The Williamson County Sun is a moderately conservative, semi-weekly newspaper that reports local news. The Georgetown Advocate is published biweekly and promotes an incendiary blend of Tea Party politics and fundamentalist zealotry that features virulent anti-Obama tirades. The Good News Journal is a bimonthly "Judeo-Christian newspaper that delivers a message of hope, inspiration, and patriotism."
The following examples illustrate how fundamentalist extremism can thoroughly infuse, infect and distort community values.
A Williamson County constable resigned from his position in mid-term three years ago. The county commissioners decided that they would handle the replacement process. After inviting applications, they interviewed the top five candidates.
The county judge and three of four commissioners interrogated the nominees, asking a series of questions about religious affiliation and participation and views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Three of the rejected candidates filed a federal lawsuit against the judge and commissioners. Two subsequently settled for monetary damages, and one continued to court. Almost every high school student knows that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. Not only did the county judge and the commissioners demonstrate contempt for a basic constitutional principle, they actually rationalized their behavior by stating that voters in the next election would ask the same questions!
The total cost to the taxpayers was well over half a million dollars for this official governmental bigotry. One remarkable irony is that the recalcitrant commissioners were represented in court by Rudy Giuliani's law firm, since he is an advocate of women's reproductive rights and supports marriage equality!
This scenario would be unbelievable anywhere except in Williamson County, Texas.
Speaking at the ground-breaking for a fundamentalist megachurch in Georgetown, the local state senator said, "Our nation was built on the cornerstones of Christ, the church, the family and the community." The Georgetown mayor proclaimed "Georgetown Vacation Liberty School Week" at a council meeting. The Vacation Liberty School merges traditional summer bible school with Christian nation propaganda: "Our goal is to teach students to understand that no matter what they might have heard, America is a Judeo-Christian based culture."
The editor of the Advocate suggested in a signed editorial that the public schools are not teaching that the U.S. is a Christian nation in order to be "progressive" or politically correct. His opinion supports the distrustful attitude toward public schools expressed in the goal statement of the Vacation Liberty School.
After the Good News Journal published an article titled, "Prayer That Birthed a Nation," which claimed that delegates to the Constitutional Convention began each session with "prayer for God's guidance and wisdom," I wrote to the managing editor and publisher explaining that Benjamin Franklin's motion to begin each session with prayer was not adopted.
No correction or apology to readers was ever issued. Interestingly, the publisher had previously written in a brief editorial statement that, "Truth is hidden in scandals, bad media and lies." Remember, this is a self-described Judeo-Christian newspaper!
I wrote to a reporter asking that the Sun give more attention to the American majority viewpoint than to a small minority of anti-abortion extremists. That informal note was published as a letter to the editor, and then a personal attack on me was published in response.
The author of the letter said that I write articles about atheism and spew an anti-God secular agenda. He wondered why people like me choose to live in Georgetown, where God, family and country still have deep roots.
My reply, which summarized what the bible actually says (and doesn't say) about abortion, was finally published six weeks later after I pressed an argument based on journalistic ethical responsibility.
Within a month of publication of my letter, the editorial assistant who initiated the episode lost his position and one month later the managing editor left the Sun. A cause and effect inference would not be unreasonable because the cautious publisher carefully avoids the abortion controversy.
I also wrote a letter to the editor of the Advocate responding to the false assertion that the bible prohibits abortion. The confused author based her claim entirely on the pronouncement that "God knew us when we were still in our mother's womb." Like several other passages that refer to the womb, this verse does not condemn or prohibit abortion.
My letter, which explained that there is no biblical basis for the assault on women's reproductive rights, was not published. The Advocate does not tolerate any opinions that contradict fundamentalist Christian dogma.
The Georgetown Life Chain conducts an annual street-side demonstration where 100 activists hold signs such as "Abortion kills children" (which is not true) and pray for the end of abortion. Some people driving by honk their support. From this evidence, the local organizer concluded, "Georgetown is pro-life."
An anti-abortion operation called the Heidi Group, with the demonstrably false motto "God Loves the Unborn," alleged that comprehensive sexuality education programs in the schools encourage teen sexual activity, illustrating the confused ideas that permeate the anti-abortion movement.
Finally, six anti-abortion protesters demonstrated outside the local Bank of America branch, with a display saying that the "Bank of Abortion donates to Planned Parenthood." Actually, the bank matches employees' contributions to all approved charitable organizations.
Christian football legend Tim Tebow visited a Georgetown evangelical megachurch for Easter Sunday service. He gave his popular testimony in a 20-minute interview conducted by the pastor.
Reflecting the size of this resurrection celebration, 15,000 attendees were transported to the church by 110 chartered school buses. The big trouble began the following Wednesday when the Sun published a front-page story with numerous photographs under the banner headline, "Tim Tebow Has Risen, Indeed."
The reaction to the headline was immediate and vociferous. Letter writers called it offensive to Christians and disrespectful to their lord and savior Jesus Christ. In a groveling apology, the editor declared that he was "deeply sorry" and assured readers that he was a devout, lifelong Christian. He concluded by calling Jesus "the most important figure in history."
The fundamentalist blitzkrieg not only brought the editor to his knees, he became increasingly defensive and belligerent in responding to reader criticism. Few people in the community were surprised when the editor announced his resignation and moved to Colorado at the end of the year. Ironically, he had received an award from the Texas Press Association for excellence in headline writing a few months earlier!
Despite the radical political and religious views and the occasional unconstitutional activities, Georgetown is generally a good community in which to live. The government operates efficiently and there are few major problems. The residents are friendly and helpful and controversies are always resolved peaceably.
The real problem for nonbelievers in predominantly Christian communities is the relentless effort of the radical fundamentalist minority who want to impose their extreme ideas on everyone else. Mainstream Christians and members of smaller sects are reluctant to engage in combat with the self-righteous zealots out of fear of being labeled un-Christian or worse.
Nonreligious Americans have legitimate reasons to be concerned about fanatical fundamentalist activism. Texas is one of the seven states that still have prohibitions against unbelievers holding public office or serving on juries. Moreover, the neo-fundamentalist agenda would not permit atheists or agnostics to teach school, adopt children or even to vote.
Finally, while the River Rock Bible Church held two Christmas Eve services in the historic courthouse and Bethlehem Village was a prominent feature of the Christmas extravaganza on the square, there was one positive note: The Georgetown Utilities System wished all residents "Happy Holidays."
FFRF Life member Brian Bolton, who lives in Georgetown, Texas, is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and sponsor of FFRF's graduate essay contest. The executive wing of FFRF's office bears his name.