If you want to feel what the Culture Wars have become in 2014, cast your eyes to Houston. Texas's largest city, the largest city to ever elect an openly gay mayor, is right now the center of a showdown with religious leaders and Republican politicians on one side and the city's progressive establishment on the other. The key figure, of course, is Senator Ted Cruz, who has demonstrated a mastery of these crises. It's the sort of fight that religious conservatives have been waiting for.
Maybe it needs some explaining.
How did it start?
On May 28, popular Mayor Annise Parker signed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, effectively banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and a host of other standards. Five weeks later, opponents of the ordinance delivered 50,000 signatures – they needed less than half of that – in favor of a ballot measure that could strike it down. According to the reporting of Mike Morris and others, the opposition included pastors (white and black), and among their stated fears was "the perceived threat of male sexual predators dressed in drag entering women's restrooms."
The city fought back. First, it claimed that the signature-gatherers had fallen short; next, in September, it attempted to build the case by giving subpoenas to organizers, asking for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession."
What happened next?
Is it a cliche to say "all hell broke lose" when you're talking about pastors? I suppose it's a cliche all the time. Regardless: The story spread like crabgrass across the Internet, especially on right-wing sites like WorldNetDaily. The case for the subpoenas was flimsy, argued libertarians like Eugene Volokh, even if there were really no First Amendment issue with asking for sermons. Mayor Parker said, at a press conference, that the subpoenas were filed by pro bono lawyers working for the city, and that she did not agree with a focus on sermons. "The goal is to find out if there were specific instructions given on how the petitions should be accurately filled out," she said. "It's not about, 'What did you preach on last Sunday?'"
Did religious conservatives and Republicans buy that?
Did they never. The subpoenas were received as the latest overzealous effort to prosecute Christians. "The jaw-dropping move — one in a long line of Houston’s 'gotcha' government — is only fanning the flames of outrage over the city’s totalitarian tactics," wrote the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for (and expected to win the office of) governor, fired off a letter to the city, asking why it opposed "true diversity of belief."
Then came Cruz. On October 16, he led a press conference of pastors that basically told the city: Come at us.
"When you subpoena one pastor,” Cruz said, “you subpoena every pastor... you do not need to seek the permission of a king, or queen, or president, or mayor, to preach the word of God."
Cruz said that Parker wanted to "use the power of government to determine whether the sermons you preach on Sunday are acceptable in City Hall," and warned of a future in which pastors would be "hauled off" if they did not preside over gay marriages.
This was hyperbole. HOPE explicitly exempts religious institutions; remember, the churches at war with the measure warned not that it would force them to let gays defile their altars, but that it would abet a drag queen crime wave.
Fine, but how did this blow up so quickly?
The truly stupid nature of the subpoenas had something to do with it, but conservatives have been girding for a good religious liberty battle. Since 2008, a growing number of churches have celebrated "pulpit freedom days" in the weeks before elections. It's been a sort of I-am-Spartacus project, a massive dare to the IRS – come on, sue a church for allowing a political sermon on Sunday.
The effort was chugging along, but the 2013 IRS scandal really fueled it. In May 2013, the conservative Thomas More Society made public a letter to the Coalition for Life of Iowa that had been sent years earlier. The IRS wanted to know how the coalition could justify tax exemption. So it asked this: "Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational as defined under 501(c)(3)."
Cruz, whose father is a pastor, made this letter infamous. He'll mention it in nearly every speech to social conservatives: Obama's IRS was asking Americans to "tell us the content of your prayers."
What happens next? Lots more brawling. Parker is a central-casting enemy for religious conservatives, and they've only just started. Over the weekend, Mike Huckabee asked "every pastor in America" to send sermons to the mayor, and every viewer of his show to send her a Bible. In Texas, where early voting has just begun, the Houston-vs.-pastors story is a real and out-of-nowhere motivator for conservative voters. And it could go national.