Governor Ron DeSantis recently spoke to supporters as he stood behind a campaign banner with the words “Freedom Lives Here” written across an image of the state of Florida. Governor DeSantis has hinted that should he run for President, his goal is to make America look like Florida
where right-wing politicians are attempting to undo decades of social justice progress. In many ways, DeSantis and Florida Republicans are simply following the playbook of the House Freedom Caucus, an 8-year-old alliance of GOP conservatives determined to pull Republicans in the U.S Congress and state legislatures to the far right. But do not be fooled; they are masquerading like wolves in sheep clothing, claiming to be for freedom when they are really
about restricting the rights of Americans across this country.
Wave of Bills Showcases a Conservative Agenda
Republican-governed states across the nation are passing a myriad of bills targeting transgender young people, LGBTQ+ individuals, drag queens, women, and school age children. In many cases, they are citing religious reasons for doing so. Oklahoma state Senator David Bullard cited a biblical passage in introducing what he called the Millstone Act—a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide gender transition procedures to anyone under the age of 26. Bullard said the act’s name alludes to a passage in the Book of Matthew suggesting that anyone causing a child to sin should be drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around their neck. Faith leaders who support transgender rights bristle at the use of religious rhetoric to marginalize trans people. “It’s horrifying to me that Christianity and the Bible are being used by the religious right to bludgeon people through these many bills,” commented Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary.[i]
Parents Rights Elevate the Individual at the Expense of the Greater Community
Recently House Republicans passed a Parents Bill of Rights. The phrase “parent’s rights” has become the term of choice for theconservative effort to ban books, censor school curricula, and suppress politically undesirable knowledge from the classroom. Florida is one of 18 states to have passed legislation restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in schools. Florida has likewise empowered parents to remove any books, films or classroom material that might make their children uncomfortable. To date over 2500 books have been removed and banned in school libraries and classrooms nationwide. The reality of the Parent’s Rights movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curricula to the rest of the community. Columnist Jamelle Bouiewrites: "It’s a Trojan horse for a relentless effort to dismantle a pillar of American society…It’s not about
parents at all; it’s about whether this country will continue to strive for a more equitable and democratic system of education or let a reactionary minority drag us as far from that goal as possible.”[ii]
Republicans Embrace a Post-Liberal Order
There is no secret that the base of the Republican party has adopted the view of former President Trumpand blames the Democrats and progressive faith leaders for the seeming demise of Christian values that they believe once made America great. Those embracing a post-liberal order have turned to so-called culture wars banning or restricting abortion, drag shows, care for trans children, and even diversity training in colleges and business. They want a strong government to enforce their religious values on American society, and reject those of both parties who support democratic norms—norms they see as destructive. Christopher Rufo was appointed by Governor DeSantis to the Board of New College as part of a mission to turn a progressive school into a right-wing bastion. Rufo stated their chilling intention: “We’re going to see conservative state legislators reconquer public institutions all over the United States.” [iii]
The Move toward Authoritarianism Undermines the Central Tenets of Democracy
A hero of the Republican right, Hungarian’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban argues that the principle of equality in liberal democracy undermines countries by attacking the national culture. Instead, he calls for an end to multiculturalism—including immigration—and any lifestyle that is not based on the "Christian family model.” Today’s Republican leaders seem to agree. They believe that the central tenets of democracy—free speech, religious liberty, academic freedom, equality before the law, and the ability of corporations to make decisions based on markets rather than religious values—have destroyed national virtue. Such a loss must be combated by a strong government that enforces religious values. Historian Heather Cox Richardson concludes: “If democracy is a threat to their version of the nation, it follows that any institution that supports democracy should be destroyed.”[iv] It is no surprise that a recent poll indicates that a majority of Republicans endorse the idea of an authoritarian leader “who is willing to break some rules to set things right.”
True Freedom is in Danger and Must be Protected
Freedom is not an ideology, it is relational. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor martyred in WW II, wrote “my neighbor is intrinsic to any proper notion of freedom.” In other words, true freedom is freedom for all not just the rights or privileges of an individual or certain group. In the tradition of the Christian gospels, even rights come with certain responsibilities which include care for the neighbor, especially the ones on the margin. Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, suggests that every public policy decision should be equally fair to people of every faith and no faith, and “depends in no small measure on how you make yourself useful to those who have the least power and the least means.”[v] Whenever we take away anyone’s rights or access of care for another, we are putting limits on freedom. It is paramount that we reclaim and vote for those who believe in the dream of a nation—as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—committed to liberty and justice for ALL people.