As Texas worships remotely, Abbott governs up close

As Easter nears and most of Texas settles into life under the stay-at-home order issued by Governor Greg Abbott on March 31 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the flutter of criticisms over the timing and nature of the order has already receded in all but the most partisan corners. The most trenchant criticisms, which will rise again if the pandemic’s spread in the state isn’t slowed, accused Abbott of moving too slowly to issue statewide stay-at-home orders out of too much deference to conservative church goers and, more darkly, accommodations to the COVID-deniers in his base and in the White House. The softer explanation presented Abbott as defined by his judicial temperament, inclined by experience and nature to move deliberately and carefully.

What’s missing in both overall interpretations — the criticism of Abbott as pandering to his base and the president at the expense of public health, and the adjusted take that this is the judicious Abbott we’ve always known — is that both the substance of the order and the style in which he issued it are consistent with one of the throughlines of his governorship to date: His ambition to strengthen the role of the executive branch in Texas’s political order, while at the same time aligning his reframing of that political order with the dispositions of conservative voters in his party’s base.  Yes, Abbott is both political and deliberate in his approach. But there is a larger orientation to both his politics and the style of his approach, and he is following this orientation in his approach to confronting the most serious conjunction of crises the state has faced in the experience of most living Texans. While his political needs and institutional strategy reflect specific ideological and policy choices, reducing them to pandering or an inapt temperament misses the overall arc of Abbott’s approach – and its implications for the state both in the immediate crisis and in its uncertain aftermath.

The governor's much anticipated but seemingly garbled stay-at-home rollout played to common criticisms of the governor as overly cautious and political. With help from allies and some strategic press contact, the governor quickly clarified the initial ambiguity in communicating his March 31 order, but not before observers accused him first of moving too slowly, then of soft-selling the order in a nod to conservative Christians. As the reality set in that the order, if not the press conference announcing it, clearly established a stay-at-home order that also applied to religious services, prominent subsequent coverage of the Governor’s action by two of the major dailies resurrected his comments from a 2017 interview with Jonathan Tilove in the Austin American Statesman to interpret Abbott’s seeming lack of urgency and deliberate pace as a function of his judicial temperament. “What I found interesting”, Abbott told Tilove way back them, in a quote that reappeared in both Tilove’s and Houston Chronicle reporter Jeremy Wallace’s assessments of Abbott’s COVID-19 performance, “is the similarity between being a judge and being a governor” 

That Abbott's response to the pandemic included some lateral political moves – like clouding an assertion of state authority with nods toward the sanctity of religion, the autonomy of rural Texas, the continued availability of firearms, and a statwide ban on the availability of abortion – should not be surprising. It would be more surprising if he succeeded in arriving at a statewide stay-at-home order without doing so, given the assured political and practical obstacles that would have been thrown his way had he moved more quickly, more aggressively, and with an air of greater urgency. The already-simmering tension between those who chafe at any government regulation of religion in the U.S. and the urgent need to enforce social distancing measures in the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic were already coming to a boil when Texas finally joined the long list of states already living under a statewide stay-at-home order on the eve of the Easter holidays. No doubt there is a lot of noise in the lines in this situation, and the presence of religion makes it even noisier, both for Abbott as he and his team make decisions, as well as for the various political constituencies and media observers trying to interpret those actions in extremely complex times. There is no doubt that Abbott remains mindful of the sensibilities of conservative Christians in his party, and, more to the point in the current situation, the hair-trigger sensitivities of members of the more combative activists among them. The injunction sought by Steve Hotze and clergyman Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez to halt the implementation of Harris County’s stay-at-home order was the most visible flare in resistance to the suggestion that congregating for church on Sunday posed health risks outweighing the inviolable place of religion in society.

While the pandemic’s quick escalation rendered such resistance exceptional within the rapidly solidifying consensus among public health officials, Abbott initially maneuvered gingerly around that resistance. Secularists scoff, but there are legitimate political reasons for Abbott’s deliberately-paced efforts. Evidence from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll shows that a large, though concentrated, share of Texans (more likely to be white, hold evangelical beliefs, identify as conservatives ideologically and as Republicans in their party orientation) are predisposed to believe that Christians are subject to rampant discrimination in the U.S. compared with other social groups. The perception that Texas’ Governor isn’t keeping faith with the faithful could lead to a dangerous source of public resistance to Abbott’s leadership – and a tantalizing source of political opportunism for his rivals. Both could impair efforts to induce compliance with public health measures already difficult to enforce given the uneven spread of the virus and the skepticism-inducing (or at least mixed) signals coming daily from the White House.

Asked in June of 2019 whether or not Texas State government is doing enough to protect the rights of Christians, a majority of fundamentalist Christians (operationalized here as those who say that the Bible is the literal word of God) said the state was doing “too little” (54%) to protect Christians, along with 45% of those who said that religion is “extremely important” to them, 46% of Republicans, and 55% of the strongest Republican identifiers (pluralities in each case).

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Too much46%15%5%
Too little16%28%46%
The right amount17%26%32%
Don’t know/No opinion22%31%17%

Asked in February 2018 how much discrimation different groups in society face, 71% of fundamentalist Christians said that Christians (in general) face either “a lot of discrimination” 36%) or “some discrimination” (35%), as did 66% of those who said that religion is “extremely important” to them, and 72% of Republicans overall, including 38% who said that Christians face “a lot of discrimination” — a plurality.

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A lot of discrimination8%25%38%
Not very much30%19%17%
None at all38%16%8%
Don't know/no opinion5%5%4%

In that same survey, Texas voters were asked to assess how much discrimination a number of groups, in addition to Christians, face in the U.S. today (including Muslims, gays and lesbians, transgender people, men, women, whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians). A plurality of Republicans, 31%, said that Christians face the most discrimination out of any of the groups considered (followed by whites at 17%).

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African Americans35%16%7%
Gays and lesbians9%2%4%
Transgender people16%12%10%

Groups holding these perceptions of discrimination against Christians are strong supporters of Abbott and the GOP. It’s no surprise that the Governor receives high job approval ratings from Texas Republicans (84% approve of the job he’s doing as governor, 59% strongly), but he also receives high job approval ratings from fundamentalist Christians (68%, 45% strongly), and those who see religion as “extremely important” in their daily lives (61%, 42% strongly). Compare this to Texas voters for whom the bible “is a book written by men and is not the word of God”, among whom the plurality, 48%, “disapprove strongly” of the Governor’s job performance, or the 49% who disapprove strongly among those for whom religion is “not at all important.”

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CategoryExtremely importantSomewhat importantNot very importantNot at all important
Approve strongly42%28%16%13%
Approve somewhat19%25%18%7%
Neither approve nor disapprove11%12%12%12%
Disapprove somewhat8%10%16%12%
Disapprove strongly14%16%31%49%
Don't know7%8%6%7%

These groups that perceive a general Christian affliction also happen to be critical to the state GOP’s electoral coalition. In February 2020 UT/TT polling, 37% of Republican identifiers said that the bible is the literal word of God, 57% said that religion was “extremely important” to their daily lives, and 43% said that they attend church at least once a week. Of those Biblical literalists discussed above, 62% identified as Republican, 33% as Democrats, and 5% as independent.

Add to this Donald Trump’s recurring invocation of Easter services as some kind of urgent objective, and no one should be surprised that Governor Abbott would tread so softly around church services, and include them among the “essential services” allowed to continue within the rubric of social distancing in the emergency order.

Yet for all the accusations of pandering to religious conservatives at the expense of public health, Abbott’s order and the subsequent clarification issued the following day by Attorney General Ken Paxton were pretty clear in urging congregations to follow measures similar to those urged on businesses and (gasp) colleges and universities. Notwithstanding the overall Rashomon-like quality of the interpretations of Abbott’s press conference and subsequent re-coding attempts by political friends and foes, the text of the executive order did clarify the status of religious services as essential functions. At first read, the new directions seemed clear, if with a whiff of having it both ways in the fraught context of the Constitutionally protected freedom of religion during a global pandemic. The order included religious gatherings in the increasingly important, if seemingly less-than-literal, category of “essential services.” 

In accordance with guidance from DSHS Commissioner Dr. Hellerstedt, and to achieve the goals established by the President to reduce the spread of COVD-19, every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

“Essential services” shall consist of everything listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0, plus religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship

But the order also made it clear that those activities deemed “essential” (including religious service) should practice social distancing. Given all the hermeneutic hijinks around Abbott’s declaration, more of the original text:

In providing or obtaining essential services, people and businesses should follow the Guidelines from the President and the CDC by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, implementing social distancing, and working from home if
possible. In particular, all services should be provided through remote telework from home unless they are essential services that cannot be provided through remote telework. If religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, they should be conducted consistent with the Guidelines from the President and the CDC by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19

So despite the importance of Abbott’s evangelical constituencies and the hair-trigger sensitivities of some activists among them, the order clearly placed them under regulation in the name of public health.

Shortly thereafter, Abbott and Attorney general Ken Paxton went even further in their subsequent “joint guidance document” to clarify that this was a state-issued stay-at-home order, and, less significantly but inconvenient for secular and (especially) Democratic critics, to assert that there is no violation of First Amendment religious protections in doing so (contra the Hotze et al legal action). This is the final section of the “Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis” by the Attorney General dated April 1:

These restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship. [Boldface in original]

Under the extraordinary circumstances in which we temporarily live, these restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship because the government has a compelling interest for implementing the rules (stopping contagion) and the rules are the least restrictive means of burdening religious practice (they allow houses of worship to stay open for ministry, but suggest ways that help stop the spread of COVID-19)

This language reaffirms ministry, but the effect is a decidedly secular confirmation that the Texas state government is now channeling the dictates of the federal government, and righteously so, with nary a mention of the now-bypassed county order that caused a fuss with far right activists like Dr. Hotze. Abbott thus managed, however foggily in the short run, to affirm religious services as “essential” even as he asserted the governor’s authority to override local policies in doing so.

The list of Abbott’s efforts to accumulate more authority in his office had already grown long prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of these efforts were salient, or at least noticed, to participants and close observers of the process. For example, Abbott allies in the legislature shepherded through laws in 2019 that submitted much state agency rulemaking to review by the governor’s office (presaged by executive action taken in 2018) and to give the governor’s office administrative control over the border security infrastructure fund. Other moves to build executive authority have been somewhat more public and diffuse, as in the running battles with municipal and county governments over issues ranging from sanctuary city policies, to, of course, property taxes. These battles often had multiple causes, and sometimes the main beneficiary in the conflicts with local governments was state government writ large. But the common thread remains Abbott’s demonstrated interest in increasing his access to the levers of governance in a system long thought to curtail the governor’s impact and initiative in the political system. (In this, Abbott has continued engineering an institutional evolution started by Rick Perry during his 14 years in office.)

Abbott’s institutional designs notwithstanding, the argument that the public health situation called for earlier, more aggressive action has merit, but so does recognizing the reality that Abbott, for all his political assets and ambitions, is constrained like any other elected official. Policy and political success depends on tempering his goals and ambitions with what is possible. As always, national politics is one source of these constraints, and a difficult one in the current circumstances. As Texas leaders look toward Washington DC, it’s prudent to remain wary of the President, who is ever willing to drop any state governor in the oil if, even for a few hours, it will deflect blame for Trump’s originally mannered indifference to the outbreak and subsequent inconsistency with the messages of public health officials.

Closer to home, Abbott’s focus on preventing political challenges from his right flank has been on par with his focus on augmenting the power of the executive as trademarks of his tenure as governor. Even as Texas elections become more competitive, remaining the figurehead of the Republican Party of Texas requires maintaining the allegiance of the party’s mobilized ideological warriors, and not letting any rivals challenge that position unduly. In this regard, the entirety of the simultaneous terms of Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has often seemed like a running war of positioning to see who shines brightest in the eyes of conservatives, even as each manages the different politics of their respective offices. Patrick has buttressed his position by cultivating a tight hold over the Texas Senate and a seemingly close relationship with President Trump, itself a gesture expressing his own ambitions to rejuvenate the Lt. Governorship after the Dewhurst years as well as to bolster his own following among Republicans. Patrick has rarely challenged the governor openly; he remains respectful and stalwart when on the same stage, attention grabbing when on the air with Fox or connected with Trump in any public way, ever-present in the wings as the shadow favorite of the perpetually discontented would be-avatars of true conservatism and the Republican grassroots. Yet both Patrick and his fellow travellers remain steadfast, but only supporting players, as long as the grassroots continue to support Abbott, which they do in overwhelming numbers, despite the carping of the would-be opinion leaders and their narrow band of funders.

Loading chart...
PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201570%8%23%
February 201669%8%23%
June 201673%7%21%
October 201675%5%21%
February 201780%5%15%
June 201783%8%10%
October 201779%5%14%
February 201881%5%14%
June 201880%7%14%
October 201889%4%8%
February 201983%6%10%
June 201984%4%12%
October 201979%6%15%
February 202084%8%12%
April 202088%6%7%
June 202083%7%9%
October 202081%13%7%
February 202179%10%11%
March 202179%13%8%
April 202177%13%10%
June 202177%12%11%
August 202173%18%9%
October 202179%15%6%
February 202274%14%12%
April 202280%10%11%
June 202278%11%12%
August 202280%12%8%
October 202286%8%6%
December 202287%6%8%
February 202383%7%10%
April 202379%9%12%
June 202381%10%8%
August 202381%11%8%
October 202379%10%11%
December 202378%10%12%
February 202483%8%10%
April 202485%8%8%

Which brings us back to the notion of how hard and how fast the governor used his formal and informal authority to dictate remote worship and/or social distancing in the pews. Hotze’s legal action in Harris County found a staunch ally of the Lt. Governor, taking a shot, however haphazard and destined to fail (as Ian Milhiser unpacked at Vox), at an urban local government allegedly, as the filing claims, “trampling on individual liberties, shutting down businesses, and closing places of worship.” Abbot’s order rendered In Re Hotze et al practically moot by superseding the local order with an executive order, even as it both defined religious services as essential while subjecting them to the limitations defined in the classification. 

Judgement on whether there is a human cost of Abbott’s delay in bringing the entire state under a uniform order will have to wait for some time — maybe forever, given the probable absence of baseline data on infections and deaths linked to COVID-19. But in the near and medium terms, cutting the legs out from under Hotze’s suit against the Harris county judge enabled Abbott to exert enough top-down authority from his office to implement the stay-at-home order he wanted while managing the internal politics of the GOP coalition. To the extent that this triggered attacks from state Democrats conflating his actions with Patrick’s pronouncements on Fox News, and critical coverage in the national press born more of confusion than actual understanding of what had happened, all the better in these times in which a big component of party identification among Republicans is rooted in a visceral rejection of the other party and national press.

Abbott was criticized in the hours and days immediately following the March 31 announcement with phrases like “leading from behind” and wanting to have it “both ways” in terms of implementing sound public health policy in a pandemic while also attending to politics. But Abbott may well be leading the state GOP because he is having it both ways – maybe even more so since telling everyone, including church goers, to stay home.