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"It’s up to humanity to save ourselves"
And reasons for a little hope on July 4th
Welcome to a big Sunday edition of Progress Report.
Celebrating the 4th of July as anything more meaningful than a mid-summer day off from work has always required buying into at least a few of the myths that America tells about itself.
Believing in an idealized past and the ongoing righteousness of some collective national experiment has become increasingly difficult over the past two decades. Today, as democracy crumbles, white nationalism rises, and the Supreme Court continues its war on modern society, it’s damn near impossible to view Independence Day as anything but a farce.
But while the future right now is unequivocally troubling, it’s not yet entirely hopeless. The current power balance in this country is inherently tenuous and predicated on continued acquiescence. For every oligarch, corrupt politician, and Kafkaesque system of oppression, there are thousands of people pushing to make things better.
I’m far too cynical to give some sunny pep talk about our best days being just around the corner, but if you need something to celebrate this July 4th, here are a few recent people-powered developments worth recognizing:
The grassroots rent control movement continues to grow
A free pharmacy for working people is expanding in Kentucky
Minnesota Republicans just accidentally legalized edibles
Reformers just seized control of the West Virginia Democratic Party from Joe Manchin
The fireworks are just beginning. And now on to our main story…
In the majority opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the national right to an abortion, Justice Samuel Alito promised that Americans still had the power to secure reproductive freedom by voting in state and local elections. It was a facetious rationalization, a twisting of the knife cloaked as constitutional interpretation, because Alito and his reactionary colleagues have also spent a full decade dismantling voting rights protections and demolishing our fractured democracy.
After a brutal round of gerrymandering, there are only a few GOP-controlled states where the vast pro-choice majority — and most states have a pro-choice majority — will have a legitimate chance of electing leaders willing to pass new abortion protections. Among this fall’s elections, an open gubernatorial race and ultra-tight legislative margins mean that Arizona represents the best opportunity to flip a state government, restore reproductive rights, and secure fair elections going forward.
After years of organizing, Democrats need to flip just two seats to win control of the state senate. Their best odds are in LD 2, where the party’s candidate, Jeanne Casteen, represents an almost algorithmically designed alternative to the state GOP’s current agenda.
Driven by a horde of “Stop the Steal” lunatics, Arizona Republicans have lurched to the far right, embracing the most paranoid and theocratic extremes of the reactionary fringe. They have launched a full-on assault on public education, given massive tax breaks to the wealthiest few, bumbled through the famously disastrous election “audit,” and revived a complete and total abortion ban that dates back to 1901. In short, it’s been a breathless two-year display of Christian fundamentalism and right-wing antipathy for public education and equity.
In Casteen, a long-time public school teacher and outspoken advocate for secular government, voters have an opportunity to not just cast a vote against the Arizona GOP’s extremism, but voice unequivocal support for a break from the soft commingling of church and state that normalized the path to this new theocracy.
Casteen is a familiar face for voters in this Phoenix-area district. A long-time middle school teacher, Casteen became involved in her local school board in 2012 and served a term as its president. In 2020, she fell just half a point short of winning election as Maricopa County school superintendent, a position that would have put her in charge of a vast majority of the state’s K-12 students.
For the past two years, she’s worked as the executive director of Secular Coalition for Arizona, a non-profit that works to preserve the separation of church and state by promoting evidence-based policies that value facts over any particular faith. Between the rightward turn at the Arizona statehouse and recent decisions by the Supreme Court, it’s been quite busy at the office.
“Suddenly, we're getting more signups every day than we than we've ever really gotten,” Casteen says. “We're getting all kinds of inquiries that we've never gotten before. People are reaching out to me and saying, ‘Holy cow, look, the Supreme Court is a bunch of religious extremists. How could I have not known? What can I do to help?’”
Casteen says that some of Secular AZ’s most enthusiastic supporters are devoutly religious, yet squeamish about the tenets of any particular gospel being imposed on people through state power. The organization teams up quite frequently with representatives from the Arizona Faith Network, a coalition of local religious leaders “dedicated to bringing people together to promote peace and understanding.”
She’s also found an ally in State Sen. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister who supports abortion rights, the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, and the many other issue page policies that we’ve come to expect from Democrats. Stahl Hamilton has published op-eds cautioning Arizonans about the “perils of legislating religious doctrine” and arguing for the preservation of the crumbling wall between church and state.
While counterintuitive-seeming enough to be granted column inches in a mid-sized metro newspaper, Stahl Hamilton’s position is hardly unique. For years, progressive religious leaders have attempted to mount counter-offensives to neutralize the swelling power of the conservative televangelist and mega-church movement, countering the rigidity and intolerance of the Robertson-Falwell types with a more tolerant and inclusive interpretation of scripture.
For decades, Democratic candidates have tried to thread this needle, presenting their political beliefs as informed by their profound faith. When those candidates win, and their electoral successes lead to substantive gains for working people, it’s undoubtedly worth celebrating; lawmakers like Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia are rare and invaluable. But when broadly pursued, the faith-driven strategy is not without its risks, as emphasizing personal piousness as moral Northstar reinforces the notion that religious convictions should be heavily factored into government decisions.
Even without citing scripture or engaging in denominational debate on the Senate floor, implicitly positioning public policy as a choice between biblical interpretations serves to move the goal posts on the national tolerance of theological government. This serves to ease the way for absurd Supreme Court rulings (see the one just handed down in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District) and statewide policies, including Arizona’s massive new expansion of private school vouchers that will send billions in state funding to religious institutions.
Not only do those new precedents and policies defy constitutional protections, they also defy the burgeoning national decline in religious affiliation.
The Arizona GOP’s Holy War on Education
Arizona House Bill 2853, which passed just last week, makes $7000 vouchers available to children all across the state, a policy that is far less equitable than it sounds. The new law will help well-off families afford the most prestigious and expensive private schools while forcing working parents to choose between shabby charter schools, religious private schools, and what are already the most underfunded public schools in the nation.
The disdain that Arizona Republicans feel for working-class families is not subtle or buried in the long-term impacts of the legislation. HB 2853 represents a flagrant fuck you to voters in the state, who overwhelmingly rejected a giant voucher program in 2018, then voted decisively for a wealth tax to fund public schools in 2020. The conservative state Supreme Court tossed out that ballot initiative last year, while Republicans passed a flat tax to essentially undo the modestly progressive system supported by voters.
The new voucher program is even more offensive to teachers like Casteen, who seethes at state lawmakers that allow public school class sizes to swell past 45 students per period while directing hundreds of millions of dollars in public money toward private academies on the reactionary fringe. It is places like Tipping Point Academy, a private Christian school that traffics in alarming propaganda, that alarm and outrage her most.
(You don’t have to be an avowed secularist to be more than a bit nervous about funding an academy that calls its curriculum the “Noah Plan” because it seeks to “build an ark in which American Christian spirit can ride the deluge of rising anti-Christian and anti-republican waters which threaten so often to inundate the nation for good reason.”)
Given all this, it’s hard to believe that Arizona was an epicenter of the 2018 “Red for Ed” teacher strikes, which captured the attention of the nation and won modest pay increases for educators. But the concessions those teachers’ unions won wound up pushing the uprising to the background, and that fall, the GOP kept full control of the government in very tight midterm elections.
The attacks on public education to begin anew the next year, and between the funding woes, the new ban on teaching “Critical Race Theory,” and the conservative bigotry that is threatening to fully overtake the state’s school boards, teaching in Arizona has become untenable for many educators.
Under Casteen’s leadership, Secular AZ has been doing its best to expose the right-wing school board hopefuls and boost the rational aspirants with public candidate forums and questionnaires. They haven’t gone nearly as viral as the utterly batshit gubernatorial forum that made the internet laugh and shudder in equal measure, but they evidence the kind of attention to detail and grassroots warfare that have been the hallmark of conservative ideologues over the past four decades.
“I used to sit on my school board for eight years, and that's where we're really seeing Christian nationalism play out,” Casteen says. “I left the classroom three years ago, but I'd much rather be teaching English to sophomores. They are a whole lot easier to deal with than a bunch of elected officials at the Capitol. And they produce better work, to be quite honest.”
As an atheist-humanist, Casteen doesn’t subscribe to any sort of higher power or god-like entity. She’s focused only on the here and now, ready and desperate to fight to secure abortion rights, save her state from drought and wildfires, and restore education. The urgency comes from within; instead of looking to an ethereal figure for absolution and salvation in another life, Casteen says, “it’s up to humanity to save ourselves.”
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