Published December 09, 2010
The race to lead the Texas House of Representatives has taken a religious turn, with some conservatives in the state suggesting that the speaker of the House, who is a Jewish Republican, should be replaced by a "Christian conservative."
Over the past month, in a spate of e-mails and political pitches, conservative opponents of incumbent Speaker Joe Straus have said they want him replaced not because of his Jewish religion, but because of his betrayal of Republican principles.
But several of Straus' critics have noted how important it is that a Christian be named to take his place. These discussions have been made public by a series of media reports, drawing condemnation from some corners and making others in the GOP more than a bit uncomfortable.
In one e-mail conversation between two members of the State Republican Executive Committee, official John Cook stressed the need for a Christian to lead other Christians in the legislature.
"We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it," Cook said in the Nov. 30 e-mail, first published by the Texas Observer.
Cook, confirming the e-mail's authenticity, told FoxNews.com that his conversation was not about Straus' religion and that he didn't even know until recently that Straus was Jewish. But he stood by his belief that Christian conservatives should lead.
"My e-mail said nothing about Jewish people. I just want Christian conservatives in office," he said.
Griping that Straus had aligned himself with Democrats since they helped him get elected to the speaker post nearly two years ago, Cook said Straus has appointed moderate-at-best committee chairs who stonewall conservative legislation. Straus has appointed both Democrats and Republicans to chairmanships since taking office.
By contrast, Cook said, the two Christian conservatives who are challenging Straus -- Rep. Ken Paxton and Rep. Warren Chisum -- have "pro-life values" and "pro-family values." He said those values brought the state to where it is, suggesting God would want the Christian conservative coalition to expand.
"I think God has blessed our state," Cook said. And he rejected the way he's been portrayed, saying he's not anti-Semitic.
"It's not true at all. I have friends who are Jewish," he said. "I have no racial bigotry."
Paxton and Chisum could not be reached for comment, though Paxton is on the record condemning the comments that have been made. Straus did not reply to requests for comment.
Some Tea Party activists in the state suggest the controversy is just a case of Texans, perhaps carelessly, weaving religion and politics as they are wont to do.
Felicia Cravens, founder of the Houston Tea Party Society, said "intellectual laziness" may be to blame for the controversy.
"I think people have been intellectually lazy in using 'Christian' and 'conservative' interchangeably ... and there's a lot of that in Texas," she said.
Cravens last month signed a letter alongside dozens of other conservatives and Tea Party activists calling for a "more conservative speaker," but that letter did not mention religion. She said Wednesday that religion should not be a factor, noting that her organization's board has Muslim and Jewish members.
She said most of Straus' critics are not focused on his faith, and she lamented that a handful of conservatives decided to "dig their heels in" regarding calls for a Christian to assume the post.
Over at the Kaufman County Tea Party, Chairman Ray Myers sent out an e-mail last month saying "we finally found a Christian Conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs."
Asked about the comment, Myers told FoxNews.com he may have used a "loose term" in describing the competition.
"That is a term that we use here in Texas quite a bit," he said. "We're in the Bible Belt. I grew up a Christian."
He said his complaints about Straus have to do with fiscal and social issues, not his religion, and that other Tea Partiers feel the same way.
"No one ever even breathed or ever even thought about that," Myers said. "We are just common folks out here trying to ... affect this speaker's race."
At least one conservative activist has directly referenced Straus' religion. Peter Morrison, who publishes a newsletter, wrote in a recent dispatch that Straus' rabbi sits on the board of San Antonio Planned Parenthood. Morrison wrote that Straus lacks the necessary "moral compass" to hold his office and called his competitors "Christians and true conservatives."
Asked about the column, Morrison said in an e-mail that he was "simply making factual statements" about Chisum and Paxton. "My problem with Speaker Straus is his 100% rating with pro-abortion groups like NARAL and his teaming up with Democrats in the last session to kill conservative legislation," Morrison added.
Chris Elam, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, distanced the party from the entire debate, noting that the state GOP does not involve itself in the internal race for speaker. He said the views expressed by members of its executive committee "do not reflect any views of the state party."
In a reference to Cook, he said the official does not view religion as his top issue but has been "a little too zealous" in trying to explain himself.
Meanwhile, other anonymous comments invoking religion have swirled through cyberspace, keeping the controversy alive. News 8 Austin reported that robocalls have gone out calling for a Christian speaker.
Tammy Blair, co-founder of the Tyler Tea Party, said the comments have been blown out of proportion.
Citing one anonymous e-mail that said "Straus is going down in Jesus' name," she suggested Straus' critics were just getting clumsy and that many didn't even know he was Jewish. She noted that Tea Partiers are staunchly pro-Israel.
"The principles (of this country) are Judeo-Christian," said Blair, who also signed the letter last month. "Somebody shortened it and just said 'Christian values.'"
After the controversy over the e-mails erupted, she said the activists she knows have tried to ignore it.
"The rest of us are going, 'What? He's a Jew? I didn't know that,'" she said. "It became something it wasn't."