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In January 2012, as Texas Governor Rick Perry campaigned before the Iowa Caucuses, the former candidate launched television advertisements in which he announced that, as president, “I’ll end Obama’s war on religion.” The spot decried the president’s stand on gays in the military and prayer in school, but the newspaper account of that ad didn’t prompt me to think first about U.S. religion or national politics. Rather, I recalled an undergraduate’s spontaneous response three months earlier to the news of a minor earthquake in San Antonio, about seventy miles south of our campus near the Texas capitol. During the before-class banter, that Texas-born Lutheran’s first question upon hearing the report was, “Is the Alamo all right?” A warm-hearted Protestant with a robust social conscience, she would have been the first on the bus if we’d asked for volunteers to help victims. So she certainly wasn’t being insensitive. Rather, her surprising reaction reveals something important about the collective memory and deepest values of many of the state’s Anglos. Like the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, whose 1892 “bylaws” declared members’ intention “to secure and hallow historic spots,” she was worried about the structural integrity of that monument to Texans’ 1836 armed struggle for freedom at the Alamo—a Catholic church that became a patriotic symbol.

In February of 1836, on the grounds of an old Roman Catholic mission, the commander of the Alamo’s out-numbered defenders had appealed for reinforcements “in the name of Liberty” and had famously sent a cannonball as his response to the Mexican army’s call for surrender. And in March, the leaders of the emerging Republic of Texas had announced that they were crafting their constitution “to secure the blessings of liberty.” The more I thought about both Governor Perry’s remarks and the student’s reaction in the light of those events of 1836, it occurred to me that even though some residents—including some Latinos, African Americans, and Asian immigrants—politely ignore or actively resist this distinctive civil religion, both the appeal to ‘liberty’ and the sense of siege might offer clues to the political culture of contemporary Texas, especially the battles over the role of religion in public life. The sense of embattlement—the feeling that cherished beliefs and values are under attack—is widely shared among both Democrats and Republicans, though the state’s residents passionately disagree about whether we most need freedom from religion or freedom for religion. Texans propose starkly different accounts of the origin of the malevolent force that confronts us.

At the broadest conceptual level, this is a familiar debate about church and state that has come up in recent legislative sessions in Texas and across the country. One of the defining moments in the nation’s struggle to work out the meaning of the First Amendment happened in Texas in 1960. Two months before the presidential election, John F. Kennedy declared his commitment to church-state separation in an address to Protestant ministers in Houston. The state’s Protestants had been among that Catholic candidate’s most ardent critics, and to confront their anxieties JFK endorsed freedom from religion in the public square. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he told the ministers. Earlier in the day, Kennedy had visited the state’s most cherished battle site, which he linked with church-state separation, his own war-time heroism, and the nation’s wars for liberty: “And in fact this is the kind of America for which our forefathers did die when they fled here to escape religious test oaths… and when they fought at the shrine I visited today—the Alamo.”

That Texas “shrine” commemorated the historic commitment to freedom from religion, Kennedy asserted, and some libertarian-leaning Republicans, like congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, have agreed that the First Amendment requires “absolute” separation. Governor Perry disagrees, as did other Republican presidential hopefuls, including both of the Catholic candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. In February, for example, Santorum criticized JFK’s 1960 Houston speech, which he interpreted as implying that “only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case.” “That makes me throw up,” he said on ABC News’ television program This Week, adding, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

In the past year, many Texans from both red and blue voting districts have suffered a bout of queasiness as the state’s politicians have debated which sort of liberty the First Amendment protects and the Alamo commemorates: Is it freedom from religion or freedom for religion? The Republic’s 1836 Declaration of Independence—and, yes, non-Texans need to keep in mind that the state was a nation—included a grievance about the Mexican government’s “support of a national religion,” Catholicism. With few Roman Catholic priests and little Protestant presence, on the eve of independence Texans were a remarkably unchurched bunch. After 1836, Protestant missionaries, relocated settlers and European immigrants transformed the spiritual landscape. By the time legislators approved the state’s 1876 constitution, the situation had changed. The Republic’s 1836 constitution had barred ministers and priests from elected office, and the new state constitution continued to disallow the establishment of any particular faith. However, that legal document opened by “humbly invoking the blessings of Almighty God,” and the current version continues to restrict office holders to those who “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being” (article 1, section 4). In recent years, the advocates of freedom for religion have attracted the most attention, even if Texas has had prominent defenders of church-state separation, including Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who hosted her American Atheists radio program from the capital city.

Yet both sides in this ongoing clash continue to clamor for notice. Consider the recent debates about school prayer and women’s healthcare, which link state and national issues. In January, Gingrich urged voters to read his campaign position paper criticizing “dictatorial religious bigots such as Judge Biery in San Antonio.” That Texas judge had issued an order the previous June granting an agnostic family’s request to prohibit prayer at a local high school graduation ceremony. The school district’s lawyer cited a 2007 state law, the “Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act” or “Schoolchildren Religious Liberties Act” (H.B. No 3678). The bill’s author, a Baptist real estate developer whom the Christian Coalition had named one of the “Top Ten Conservative Legislators,” was worried about “recent examples of unconstitutional censorship of school children in Texas,” including students being reprimanded for “talking about Jesus during Easter” and “bringing Christmas items to a school’s ‘Winter Party.’” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who supported the agnostic family, were more interested in First Amendment’s clause prohibiting establishment. The family lost that legal battle when the Court of Appeals vacated the injunction, but the incident, and a presidential candidate’s interpretation of it, points to an important political and religious divide.

The recent controversy about women’s healthcare reveals the dividing line just as clearly. That controversy has focused on Planned Parenthood’s role in providing contraception and, especially, abortion. A 2011 state law barring Medicaid payments to clinics affiliated with abortion providers took effect in March; in turn, because Texas had broken federal laws by excluding qualified providers from Medicaid, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defunded The Women’s Health Program, which provided care to more than 100,000 low-income women in the state. With the vigorous support of Governor Perry, the state’s attorney general then filed a lawsuit, a cannonball in reply to the federal government’s request that Texas comply. In his statement supporting the state’s actions, Perry suggested that this dispute “is about life and the rule of law, which Texas respects and the Obama administration does not.” As the Governor proposed, at one level the debate is about Roe v. Wade, and the underlying bio-ethical question about the onset of human life, but it is also a contest over the place of religious values in public life. Texas’ governor and attorney general want to safeguard freedom for religion, including citizens’ liberty not to support publicly funded “health care” practices that they say conflict with their deepest moral values.

These two disputes about church-state relations conceal deeper divides about the source of evil, and the divergent appeals to liberty and the shared sense of siege that characterize the political culture of Texas make no sense if we fail to understand these competing worldviews. From my perspective as a scholar of U.S. religion who tries to fairly represent the past and the present, I see few signs of civility and empathy. So let me end by briefly describing the competing accounts of evil that inform the strident accusations that sometimes pass as political discourse in Texas—and beyond its borders.

What many conservative advocates of freedom for religion fail to acknowledge is that their maligned opponents are patriotic Americans who cherish liberty and value the First Amendment. The state’s liberals worry more about religion’s incursions into the public arena; and it is other threats to liberty—for instance, to “a women’s right to choose”—that outrages them. They say: if you are so concerned for “life,” then why don’t more conservatives take poor pregnant women into their home or protect the social programs that nurture their children, and why aren’t you organizing protest vigils outside our prisons as the state kills so many people? Further, these progressives do have a sense of moral evil, despite what conservatives claim, but the religious and secular defenders of freedom from religion posit that evil, which they think of as suffering, is caused by social conditions and institutional structures. It is poverty, bad schools, racism—or corporate greed—that has led to the problems they worry about most. So the sign-carrying protestors who gathered in front of the Texas capitol this March to challenge the state’s affront to the rights of women, especially poor women who will be deprived of pap smears and breast exams as well as contraception and abortion, also felt under siege. And they too came to defend liberty—just a different freedom.

What many of those liberal defenders of freedom from religion fail to fully appreciate is that their opponents are not idiotic, intransient naysayers who welcome poverty, bad schools, racism—and corporate greed—or who cannot read the First Amendment. Conservatives know what it says. They just focus on the other clause. They’re more worried about the state’s obstruction of the liberty to practice religion, even or especially in public spaces. It is precisely in public spaces where they feel most called to live out their faith’s moral values. They ask: If you truly believed that those who have not accepted Jesus’ call to salvation were doomed to eternal punishment, wouldn’t you try to spread the Gospel on the steps of the capitol? If you truly believed that abortions murder humans, would you let Roe v. Wade or the prevailing view dissuade you from fighting in the courts or the voting booth? These conservatives feel under siege too, but they have a very different account of evil’s origin. Conservatives certainly complain about social institutions—and, in this view, the battle of the Alamo might be seen as the second Tea Party. But for many of the state’s evangelical and Catholic conservatives, evil has a real independent force—degree-toting theologians might say “ontological status’’—that liberals just fail to grasp. The world is in the grip of the demonic. Santorum said in 2008 that Satan “has set his sights on the United States of America,” and on the 2012 campaign trail he also explained his differences with President Obama in terms of that cosmic battle between good and evil: “Our president refuses to call evil evil, refuses to even name it, refuses to confront it.” Governor Perry has said similar things, and I hear the same impassioned warnings about evil as a demonic presence in the world in churches across the state. For example, on March 16, I heard a sermon at a rural evangelical church that emphasized this dualistic worldview. The pastor reminded his congregation again and again that “the Enemy” was at work in the world, and that preacher saved his most strongly worded plea for the call to act in local and national politics. He endorsed a congregational member who was running for office and, after decrying Obama’s handling of the Qur’an-burning controversy and apologizing to any Democrats—though the audience’s thunderous clapping suggested few were present—he said flatly “we need a new president.”

Voters will decide whether we need a new president—and which Republican challenger can “end Obama’s war on religion”—while Texans of both parties will continue to “hallow” San Antonio’s “shrine” to liberty. But unless participants can overcome the pervasive blindness to their opponents’ most deeply held values, including the divergent explanations of evil, most Texans will continue to act from that shared sense of siege as they defend competing notions of liberty. And during this election season, more than a few cannonballs will fly.

Thomas A. Tweed is Shive, Lindsay and Gray Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author, most recently, of America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital.