This CNN story on a couple of west Texas billionaires who have spent tens of millions of dollars to push the state’s government hard right illustrates what happens when plutocracy hooks up with theocracy.
Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks grew up middle class and poor respectively. In middle age both made vast fortunes in the oil industry. Dunn got involved in politics because he was trying to maximize his new wealth, but soon found that God had other plans for him:
Dunn became more involved in Texas politics in 2006, when he opposed a tax measure that included a new tax on business partnerships — including some that fund oil wells, Texas Monthly reported. He started an organization to oppose the measure, Empower Texans, which continued to fund conservative causes even after the tax legislation passed. The group’s PAC shut down in 2020, and the billionaires more recently pivoted to funding Defend Texas Liberty.
Wilks grew up dirt poor in a nowhere town where his father started a fundie church:
Wilks, 70, grew up in a converted goat shed in Cisco, Texas, a town of 3,700 where sleepy streets are dotted with more than a dozen churches. He and his younger brother Dan were the sons of a bricklayer and started their careers as apprentice masons.
After several other business ventures, in 2002 they founded Frac Tech Services, a company that provided trucking services for fracking operators. It was perfect timing: Fracking was about to take off in Texas and elsewhere in the US amid a boom in shale gas.
Less than a decade later, in 2011, the Wilkses sold their majority share of the company for more than $3 billion to a group that included international investors. Since then, they’ve been buying up land in Texas and around the Western US, joining the ranks of America’s largest landowners — and getting involved in politics.
Farris Wilks is the pastor of the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day Church, which operates a sprawling compound outside of Cisco and was founded by his father. In sermons, he has denounced homosexuality and abortion rights in vitriolic terms.
“A male on male or a female on female is against nature,” Wilks declared in a 2013 recording of one sermon posted on his church’s website, which is no longer publicly available. “This lifestyle is the predatorial lifestyle in that they need your children. … They want your children.”
Dunn also preaches at his church, the Midland Bible Church, where he serves as a member of the congregation’s “pulpit team.”
“No matter what rules you grew up with, none of them are enforceable in God’s kingdom,” he declared in one 2018 sermon.
In a 2004 interview with The Times of London, Dunn told a reporter he believed that, as the newspaper put it, “his oil has existed for only 4,000 years, the time decreed by Genesis, not 200 million years as his geologists know.” [I thought the fundie geological timeline was 6,000 years, give or take?]
That religious fervor has influenced Dunn’s and Wilks’ political moves. In a meeting with former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who is Jewish, Dunn declared that only Christians should hold leadership positions in the chamber, Texas Monthly reported. Straus declined an interview request with CNN.
What these guys want to do is to destroy public education and replace with Christian schools:
Former associates of Dunn and Wilks who spoke to CNN said the billionaires are both especially focused on education issues, and their ultimate goal is to replace public education with private, Christian schooling. Wilks is a pastor at the church his father founded, and Dunn preaches at the church his family attends. In their sermons, they paint a picture of a nation under siege from liberal ideas.
“The cornerstones of our government are crumbling and starting to come apart,” Wilks declared in a 2014 sermon at his insular church, the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day. “And it’s because of the lack of morality, the lack of belief in our heavenly Father.”
People who’ve worked with Wilks and Dunn say they share an ultimate goal: replacing much of public education in Texas with private Christian schools. Now, educators and students are feeling the impact of that conservative ideology on the state’s school system.
Dorothy Burton, a former GOP activist and religious scholar, joined Farris Wilks on a 2015 Christian speaking tour organized by his brother-in-law and said she spoke at events he attended. She described the fracking magnate as “very quiet” but approachable: “You would look at him and you would never think that he was a billionaire,” she said.
But Burton said that after a year of hearing Wilks’ ideology on the speaking circuit, she became disillusioned by the single-mindedness of his conservatism.
“The goal is to tear up, tear down public education to nothing and rebuild it,” she said of Wilks. “And rebuild it the way God intended education to be.”
In sermons, Dunn and Wilks have advocated for religious influence in schooling. “When the Bible plainly teaches one thing and our culture teaches another, what do our children need to know what to do?” Wilks asks in one sermon from 2013.
Dunn, Wilks and the groups and politicians they both fund have been raising alarms about liberal ideas in the classroom, targeting teachers and school administrators they see as too progressive. The billionaires have especially focused on critical race theory, in what critics see as an attempt to use it as a scapegoat to break voters’ trust in public schooling.
The story is full of details regarding how Dunn and Wilks have been able to use a tiny portion of their vast wealth to push the Texas GOP, which wasn’t exactly what you would call moderate to begin with, much further to the right.
What both a lot of mainstream liberals and I hate Democratic party leftists are in denial about is that right wing evangelical Christianity is by its nature inimical to anything resembling a free society. What Dunn and Wilks are doing is following their religious beliefs to the inevitable political conclusions that those beliefs require them to reach. If you are a fundamentalist Christian who doesn’t take a quietistic attitude toward politics, then of course you would be in favor of reforming/destroying public education, so that it would be transformed into a network for indoctrinating young people in the word of God, aka the eternal Truth About Everything.
And of course you would be against non-Christians — meaning your definition of Christianity — holding political leadership positions, for exactly the same reason a genuinely committed communist would be against non-communists holding political leadership positions in a properly functioning political regime.
These people are dead serious, they have a lot of money and power, and they mean to change this country into something unrecognizable. They’re largely succeeding in Texas, but they very much believe God has bigger plans for them and people like them, needless to say.