Yes, George W. Bush Changed Texas. But Not the Way You Think.

3 ways Christian nationalism redefined American politics after 9/11

Since getting online today, you’ve probably seen posts remembering the events of  Sept. 11, 2001. There’s not enough space in this article to contain everything that’s been said about what happened that day.

Conspiracies and controversy aside, there’s another layer of 9/11 that deserves its own spotlight: Christian nationalism, a once fringe political view that merges ultra-conservative Christian beliefs with conservative politics that has been embraced by more than half of Republicans, according to Brookings Institution since that tragic day 22 years ago.

Christian nationalists are a diverse group with varying degrees of influence in American politics. They often advocate for policies that align with their interpretation of conservative Christianity, including on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedom, and education.

While they are a minority, they can have a big impact on elections by mobilizing their base of supporters. They often form a significant part of the conservative or Republican voting bloc, which can influence the party’s platform and candidate selection.

Regret for the War on Terror Is Not the Same as Remorse

The day after the US government began routinely bombing faraway places, the lead editorial in The New York Times expressed some gratification. Nearly four weeks had passed since 9/11, the newspaper noted, and America had finally stepped up its “counterattack against terrorism” by launching airstrikes on Al Qaeda training camps and Taliban military targets in Afghanistan. “It was a moment we have expected ever since September 11,” the editorial said. “The American people, despite their grief and anger, have been patient as they waited for action. Now that it has begun, they will support whatever efforts it takes to carry out this mission properly.”

As the United States continued to drop bombs in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s daily briefings catapulted him into a stratosphere of national adulation. As The Washington Post’s media reporter put it: “Everyone is genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse…America’s new rock star.” That winter, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, Tim Russert, told Rumsfeld: “Sixty-nine years old and you’re America’s stud.”

The televised briefings that brought such adoration included claims of deep-seated decency in what was by then already known as the Global War on Terror. “The targeting capabilities, and the care that goes into targeting, to see that the precise targets are struck, and that other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see,” Rumsfeld asserted. And he added, “The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of.”

Whatever their degree of precision, American weapons were, in fact, killing a lot of Afghan civilians. The Project on Defense Alternatives concluded that American air strikes had killed more than 1,000 civilians during the last three months of 2001. By mid-spring 2002, the Guardian reported, “as many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention.”

Eight weeks after the intensive bombing had begun, however, Rumsfeld dismissed any concerns about casualties: “We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of al Qaeda and the Taliban.” In the aftermath of 9/11, the process was fueling a kind of perpetual emotion machine without an off switch.

Editors’ note: As part of Texas Monthly’s fiftieth anniversary year, we’re offering, each month, a fresh perspective on an important episode from the past half century.

There’s a good case to be made that Texas’s 1994 gubernatorial election is the most consequential event in the state’s modern history. On November 8, George W. Bush defeated Democrat Ann Richards by 7.6 points, launching a genial one-and-a-half-term governorship that set the table for a much less genial presidency. Texas is one of those places that has an unsettling ability to tilt the world on its axis. In 1994 the state gave the globe a little kick; the resulting wobbles jostled pretty much every continent—and then set off earthquakes back at home. 

This was not clear at the time, of course; Richards’s loss looked less like a reversal of fortune than a confirmation that the state was already trending Republican. It was her 1990 campaign, which elevated Richards to the Governor’s Mansion, that was the anomaly. At the time Texas was turning right, and Richards hailed from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, which had traditionally taken a back seat to its conservative faction. The stage was set for a Republican rout. 

But the GOP nominated a terrible candidate, Clayton Williams, who joked about rape and famously refused to shake Richards’s hand after their debate. Swing voters revolted against him, and Texas elected, for the first time in many decades, an avowedly progressive governor. 

The celebrations didn’t last long. Richards made some serious missteps during her tenure in office, and she didn’t have much room for error. The Texas Democratic Party was already in tatters, and the 1994 election cycle was one of the national party’s worst ever. Bill Clinton’s unpopularity and a newfound Republican ardor were about to wipe out generations of Democratic lawmakers across the South. 

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