Over the weekend, a five-year-old interview from Word&Way’s archives suddenly showed up in dozens of newspapers across the country. The Associated Press quoted it in a piece then reprinted by the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, and many others. It offered a reminder that sometimes local religious and political conflicts can provoke conversations worthy of national consideration.
But first, let’s rewind the clock a bit like TV shows sometimes do when they start an episode with a wild scene, put on the screen something like “24 hours earlier,” and then restart the story.
Last week, a conflict among Republicans in Missouri took a crazy turn. Several conservative state senators managed to scuttle Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s nominee to lead the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services. There was a filibuster, false rhetoric about how masks don’t work but horse drugs do in the fight against COVID, and an energetic anti-vax protest in the Capitol. Some of the protesters even shouted the Lord’s Prayer to interrupt the nomination hearing, before coming back to the statehouse this week for a prayer rally to support gerrymandering.
As we reported last week, Parson tried to save his nominee with a last-minute statement aimed at “refuting the misinformation surrounding Department of Health and Senior Services Director Don Kauerauf's confirmation hearing.” Parson defended his nominee by noting that Kauerauf “is an experienced public health professional with a disciplined moral compass that is guided by our Missouri principles: Christian values, family values, and love for this nation.”
While clearly aimed to assuage the concerns of his conservative detractors, the remarks conflated the focus of Missouri’s state government with the values of a particular faith tradition. He then added fuel to the sectarian fire in a second statement the following day after Kauerauf’s nomination imploded.
“[Donald Kauerauf] is a public health expert that is on record opposing masking requirements and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He is outspokenly pro-life and morally opposed to abortion,” the governor insisted. “Missourians know that I share these beliefs and would not have nominated someone who does not share the same Christian values.”
Those comments suggest the governor had applied confessional filters to his search for the government job. For him, leading the state’s health agency appeared to require being a Christian, presumably one of a conservative, anti-abortion stripe. What started out as intraparty dispute over a single appointee quickly morphed into a cultural flashpoint that drew far wider attention. Like from the Associated Press and news outlets across the country — but we’re not that far through the story yet so hold on (but at least we don’t have any commercials since we’re more like Netflix as a subscriber-supported publication).
The ensuing conflict over Parson’s comments deserves more scrutiny since it can help us think about issues of church and state regardless which state you live in. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we rewatch the plot twists as a state governor suggested there should be an unconstitutional religious test for office. Then before the credits roll, we reach the climax of our story with a lesson about faith and government service.
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