(RNS) — On Wednesday afternoon (May 24), Texas state Rep. James Talarico approached the microphone on the House floor with a stack of papers in hand. It was time for the final vote on a bill that would allow public schools in the state to hire their own unlicensed chaplains. It was largely ceremonial, but Talarico, a vocal critic of the bill, still had a few questions.
Looking down at his notes, he asked Rep. Cole Hefner, the chief champion of the bill in the House, if the head of the National School Chaplains Association had worked on the proposal that has drawn controversy and national attention.
“They provided some input,” Hefner offered.
It was an understated acknowledgment of a coalition that shepherded the chaplains bill through the Texas Legislature. Whereas two other bills introduced this session that involved religion and public schools — one that dealt with school prayer and another requiring classrooms to hang donated Ten Commandments signs — never made it across the finish line, the chaplains bill was carried by an alliance of right-wing activists, Christian groups and conservative lawmakers who have aided each other’s rise while championing forms of Christian nationalism.
Their victory points to the ascendant power of the ideology in red states, where legislators are lining up behind bills involving religion, including opposition to LGBTQ rights, that critics say only reflect a specific Christian vision for society.
The lawmaker most associated with the Texas chaplains bill is Sen. Mayes Middleton, a former Texas House member serving his first term in the state Senate in a district that includes Galveston. As head of the Freedom Caucus during his time in the Texas House, Middleton was a vocal supporter of U.S. lawmakers from Texas who attempted to halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021.
He has also articulated support for Christian nationalist ideas, such as insisting that the separation of church and state is “not a real doctrine” during debate over the chaplains bill. And in a recent interview with The Washington Post, he declared “there is absolutely no separation of God and government, and that’s what these bills are about,” referring to the chaplains bill as well as the Ten Commandments bill, which he also authored.
As head of his own oil company, Middleton has been an influential political donor in Texas, including providing a $5,000 donation to Julie Pickren, who successfully ran for the State Board of Education last year in a district that includes Galveston.
Pickren was a controversial choice: An ardent supporter of Donald Trump, she sparked outcry in March 2021 when it was revealed she was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 to attend the Trump rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Although Pickren, then a local school board member, did not appear to enter the Capitol herself, her presence nearby was criticized by area NAACP representatives, as were her false claims that the Capitol attack was led by “antifa” members instead of Trump supporters.
Pickren lost her local school board seat two months later but remained a rising star in the Texas Republican Party. She appeared on an education-focused panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022 and has also developed connections with the prominent state-level activist group Texas Values, which champions “faith, family and freedom” and played a role in authoring the state’s controversial heartbeat bill. During a September 2021 appearance on the Right Side Broadcasting Network, a host asked Pickren about the Texas heartbeat bill. Instead of responding herself, Pickren simply turned her camera slightly as Jonathan M. Saenz, the head of Texas Values, leaned in to speak next to her.
The following year, the political arm of Saenz’s group, Texas Values Action, formally endorsed Pickren’s campaign for the State Board of Education.
Also among Pickren’s supporters: activist and self-declared prophet Lance Wallnau, who identifies as a Christian nationalist. Wallnau promoted Pickren during CPAC in 2021, seeking her out on the conference floor and recording a video with her while encouraging viewers to support her.