Episode 2: The Seven Mountains
Conservatives are gaining power in Grapevine, fueled by a once-fringe movement that calls on evangelicals to control the seven key “mountains” of American society — including education. A cellphone company with a Christian nationalist agenda heeds that call and sets its sights on winning school board seats in Grapevine, following an example set a year earlier in the neighboring city of Southlake.
CORRECTION (Oct. 4, 2023, 08:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this episode misstated the amount of money Patriot Mobile Action spent in school board elections in North Texas in spring 2022. It was nearly $500,000, not $600,000.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (MUSIC PLAYING) In another Special Report, NBC News presents the Supreme Court Prayer Decision, the High Court’s rulings on the mandatory use of the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools of Pennsylvania --
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: In 1962 and ‘63, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a pair of landmark rulings that some Americans celebrated as a fulfillment of the Founding Fathers’ original vision for this country, erecting what Thomas Jefferson called a “wall of separation” between church and state.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Today, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it violates the Constitution to require reading the Bible or reciting prayers as a religious exercise in public schools. In Baltimore, each school day had begun with the reading of Bible verses and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Others saw the rulings in a darker light. They believed ending the centriole tradition of public school prayer was an attack on America’s Christian roots.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: Today’s decision, instead of serving to protect and to preserve religious freedom, has rendered a decision which is offensive to everyone who wishes to keep this a religious nation where men, women, and children may worship --
ANTONIA HYLTON: To some conservative Christians, this decision, not slavery, was America’s original sin. They believed the court’s school prayer ban helped fuel what they viewed as America’s moral decline in the years that followed. A period that coincided with the legalization of abortion, racial integration, and the women’s empowerment movement. Out of these grievances, America’s modern religious right was born.
JERRY FALWELL: Number one, we love Jesus. And number two, we love America. Let’s join hands to turn this country around --
ANTONIA HYLTON: Evangelical pastors like Jerry Falwell made it their mission to, as they put it, put God back in schools as the first step toward restoring America.
JERRY FALWELL: Do you remember the real America, when riots were unthinkable, when the flag was a sacred symbol, when you were not afraid to go out at night? Our little children cannot pray in their classrooms in this country. Until that is a reality, we haven’t come back.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: In the early 1980s, with Falwell’s backing, President Ronald Reagan rallied Congress to approve a constitutional amendment to restore classroom prayers, warning that the nation would be set adrift without God’s guiding influence.
RONALD REAGAN: But now, we are told our children have no right to pray in school. Nonsense. The pendulum has swung too far toward intolerance against genuine religious freedom.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Reagan never mustered the votes. And in the years that followed, civil liberties activists continued chipping away at religious traditions inside schools, filing lawsuits that helped extend their prohibition to sporting events, graduations, and other school functions. They also challenged the notion that schoolwide prayers were allowed if organized and led by students.
ANTONIA HYLTON: One such case from the fall of 1992 brought national media attention to the fast-growing town of Southlake, Texas, Grapevine’s neighbor to the west. That October, a lanky teenager named Bill Pritchard got up and walked out of the Carroll High School gymnasium to protest the district’s tradition of hosting student-led prayers at the start of football pep rallies. Students harassed and shoved Pritchard as he pressed through the crowd. Someone chucked a bag of candy, he said, hitting him in the back. Another yelled, “You satanic worshiper.” Here’s the 17-year-old Pritchard back then talking to NBC News.
BILL PRITCHARD: And the pressure felt by everybody in that sort of a setting is tremendous, especially if the prayer is one that doesn’t pertain to your beliefs. You know, you feel like you’re almost obliged anyway.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: After his protest, Pritchard and the ACLU sued the district. The case stirred a hornet’s nest of resentment in Southlake. After a judge issued a temporary restraining order halting the pep rally prayers, dozens of students organized counter protests, praying aloud outside the high school.
STUDENT VOICE: I feel like my rights have been abandoned and forgotten.
STUDENT VOICE: I think that we need prayer just to keep us together.
STUDENT VOICE: We have students killing each other in school carrying guns. Before they took prayer out of school, we never had that.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The controversy turned Pritchard into a target, but the teen refused to back down.
BILL PRITCHARD: I have a lot of strong principles that I believe in, and I don’t believe that there’s any price too high for these principles.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In the end, the school board settled the case by agreeing to adopt policies to ensure that no student would feel pressured to participate in religious activities at school. The fight in Southlake was part of a wave of similar court battles in the ‘90s that, at the time, seemed to settle for good the role of religion in America’s schools. Students were free to worship or pray as they saw fit. They just couldn’t be compelled or pressured to do so, even by their classmates. But 30 years later, amid the nationwide backlash over so-called critical race theory, and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ identities in public schools, America is beginning to re-litigate many of those old battles. And once again, this stretch of North Texas finds itself at the center of the conflict. From the NBC News team that brought you Southlake, I’m Antonia Hylton.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: I’m Mike Hixenbaugh.
ANTONIA HYLTON: And this is Grapevine.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Episode 2. The Seven Mountains.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: In the spring of 2022, Grapevine High School English teacher Em Ramser was beginning to see her dream job at the ASPIRE Academy in a different light. It had been one year since one of her academically gifted students, Ren, tried to run away from home. It was also one year into the nationwide backlash against school anti-racism programs, and Ramser and other teachers in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District were really starting to feel the heat as parents bombarded them with complaints about critical race theory and what they called anti-white indoctrination. Some parents complained specifically about Ramser’s English course syllabus, which included a unit focused on the Civil Rights Movement. Her 11th grade students were to read historical texts written by Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, among others, and use analytical skills learned in class to write essays, answering key questions, such as, “What constitutes racism?” and “How does one combat it?”
ANTONIA HYLTON: Ramser’s syllabus also listed a video lecture about systemic racism. Here’s a clip.
CAMARA JONES: It doesn’t just so happen that people of color in this -- in this country are overrepresented in poverty, while white people in this country are overrepresented in wealth. That’s not just a happenstance.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Conservative parents pointed to the unit as evidence that Grapevine teachers were instructing kids to hate white people and to hate America. And those complaints led to a crackdown.
EM RAMSER: I had to go back through every single thing I had read with the class to see if anything was potentially inappropriate, and then every single thing in the next couple of units that were coming up.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Moving forward, Ramser and two other educators told us, Grapevine administrators advised teachers to avoid any reading assignments that might trigger a conservative parent or violate Texas’s new anti CRT law. A unit Ramser had planned about the role of hip-hop in education was scrapped. She was told to cut any texts dealing with climate change. Any articles mentioning Donald Trump, especially those applying a critical view, needed to go.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Across the country, educators were starting to second guess every lesson plan, afraid of ending up in a parent’s complaint to the school board.
EM RAMSER: It started getting into this sense of, like, you never know when you’re going to put the wrong foot in the wrong place kind of a situation.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Ramser worried that the new restrictions and this growing culture of fear among educators would end up making her class less challenging and less engaging.
EM RAMSER: If we frankly acknowledge that more difficult to comprehend texts deal with difficult topics, and we eliminate every single thing that is a difficult topic, then we’re stuck with texts that are typically below grade level. And then also, they are teenagers, and they want to read interesting things. And if you only ever give them things that don’t resemble the world that they live in that are happy-go-lucky, they’re not going to want to read it.
ANTONIA HYLTON: At least, Ramser told herself, she could still be a positive role model. That year, she’d been the faculty monitor for Grapevine’s LGBTQ student club, the Gay-Straight Alliance or GSA. She was proud that her classroom was seen as a safe space for queer kids, including Ren, now a sophomore and still living with her mother Sharla in Grapevine. Although Ren wasn’t enrolled in Ramser’s class that year, or involved in any after school clubs, she would sometimes pop by her classroom during a free period just to hang around. But then, that spring, another Grapevine teacher was abruptly fired. On social media, parents spread rumors of an inappropriate relationship with a student, which we have not been able to verify. One parent claimed that the dismissed educator had been in charge of the GSA. In the confusion, some people came to believe Ramser was the fired teacher, and they began to attack.
EM RAMSER: They started posting my face in these, um, Facebook statuses and, like, calling me a groomer and just horrific things.
ANTONIA HYLTON: She flagged their comments to administrators.
EM RAMSER: And I’m like, “I need you -- like, something, please do something, please do something.” And they just said they couldn’t, because that would be stifling these people -- you know, the community’s free speech. And they just said, “Just stop looking at Facebook.”
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Eventually, word got around that Ramser had not, in fact, been accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student, and the controversy died out. Although she was now starting to wonder whether this was the right district for her, she convinced herself she still had a purpose in Grapevine. A lot of kids admired her. It didn’t matter, she thought, that some of their parents didn’t.
ANTONIA HYLTON: But parents, not students, were the ones who had the power to decide the district’s future. And parents upset about teachers like Em Ramser were about to find a surprising new ally.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Back in the winter of 2016, less than a week after Donald Trump gave that speech making big promises to evangelicals --
DONALD TRUMP: And by the way, Christianity will have power because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need --
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: -- a small Texas wireless provider made a change that would put it on a collision course with the Grapevine-Colleyville School District. For the most part, the Southlake based company, Eos Mobile, was like any other discount cell phone provider. The company rented space at a wholesale rate on the cellular networks owned by major carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T, then resold it to customers. But Eos had also been doing something different. To set itself apart from competitors like Boost Mobile or Cricket Wireless, it had been trying to win customers nationwide by promoting itself as a cell phone provider for conservatives. Now, in 2016, the company was relaunching under a new name to more fully embrace that identity: Patriot Mobile. They announced the change in a slick marketing video.
PATRIOT MOBILE VIDEO: Remember when America stood for things like honor, freedom, personal responsibility, and faith? Today, those American values are deliberately drowned out by liberal corporate agendas. Behind the curtains of campaigns is an incredible exchange of money from --
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The rebranded Patriot Mobile promised to donate a portion of users’ monthly bills to GOP politicians and causes, expanding gun rights, stopping abortion, supporting the military.
PATRIOT MOBILE VIDEO: Patriot Mobile. Same quality, better prices, supporting a better cause.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In the years that followed, Patriot Mobile’s branding continued to evolve. After Trump’s election, the company began emulating the brash style of politics he popularized. One of Patriot Mobile’s most famous advertisements included the slogan, “Making Wireless Great Again,” alongside an image of Trump’s face photoshopped onto a tanned, muscled, Rambo body holding a machine gun. The irreverent approach helped turn the company into a darling among some big names on their far right like Donald Trump Jr.
DONALD TRUMP JR.: You can give your money to AT&T, the parent company of CNN, or you can support someone like a Patriot Mobile and give back to causes that they believe in as a sponsor here. We can do all those things. That’s not cancel culture, folks. That’s using your damn brain.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: To understand how a discount cell phone company would come to disrupt the lives of teachers like Em Ramser and students like Ren, we have to take a step back and tell you about a fringe strand of Christian theology that’s been quietly spreading in America in recent years, taking hold in places like Grapevine, and inspiring a new style of political activism.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Some people call it the Seven Mountains Mandate. Others call it Christian dominionism. And in the years after Patriot Mobile’s name change, the company was beginning to align itself with the theology’s biggest proponents. Followers believe God has chosen Christians to dominate the seven key “mountains,” or spheres, of public life. Family, religion, media, entertainment, business, government, and education. Religious scholars trace the movement to the mid-1970s, when three evangelical pastors said God appeared to each of them in dreams with an identical message about influencing society for Jesus via the Seven Mountains. The idea existed mainly on the margins of the religious right until the early 2000s when the North Texas evangelist Lance Wallnau was introduced to it and saw potential to mobilize Christians.
LANCE WALLNAU: God’s way of doing business won’t put you in debt as a nation. God’s way of doing education won’t teach the kid to become an unbeliever in order to have an intellect.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Wallnau is a self-described prophet, which means he believes God speaks through him. His national ministry is based in Tarrant County, a few miles away from Grapevine. And for the past 20 years, he has been promoting the Seven Mountains Mandate at national Christian seminars as a, quote, “template for warfare” for the new century. Here’s how he described it during a recorded sermon at a church in California a decade ago.
LANCE WALLNAU: What if those seven spheres are really seven mountains, seven mind control areas, that the enemy uses to control culture? What if it’s seven mission fields? What if media is a mission field? What if education is a mission field?
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The blending of Christianity and politics is not exactly a new phenomenon, as many churchgoing Americans can probably attest. The small, nearly all-white Baptist church my family attended in Ohio when I was young took a firm stance against abortion. And every election season, the pastor and church elders encouraged folks to vote accordingly.
ANTONIA HYLTON: My father grew up attending a Black church in Detroit where his dad, a friend and former classmate of MLK, mobilized voters to support civil rights and fair employment.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: What Wallnau has been pitching is different. The Seven Mountains proponents believe the 10 Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American life, and that God wants hardline Christians to be in control of everything, from corporate America, to Washington, D.C., to local classrooms. For many, the stakes are extremely high. Some followers believe that fulfilling the Seven Mountains Mandate, asserting Christian dominance across society, is the only way to bring about the return of Jesus.
LANCE WALLNAU: We that have tasted the power of the age to come reach into the future and bring it into the present to make a manifestation of God in the earth.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Although some evangelicals reject the Seven Mountains Mandate, the concept caught on in many pentecostal and non-denominational churches. According to religious scholars, the loose network of congregations that have come to embrace dominion theology now represent the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the country. But Seven Mountains followers never had a singular political leader to rally around. That was, until Donald Trump. The man Wallnau said had been ordained by God to lead America’s spiritual awakening.
JOHN FEA: This is John Fea.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: John Fea is a professor of American history at Messiah University, a private Christian college in Pennsylvania. And he’s an evangelical Christian himself. I called him up to ask why a cell phone company would embrace the Seven Mountains Mandate.
JOHN FEA: This movement was unleashed by a Trump presidency. It’s been there, but it never got to -- it’s never gotten the traction that you’re seeing right now.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Fea has spent years studying America’s Christian right.
JOHN FEA: This was a kind of sleeping giant, these churches and these institutions that this Christian Seven Mountain dominionist movement were largely fringe and they were largely off of the political radar screen until Trump realized there were millions of people who identified with this. And I think Trump appealed to some of those and actually brought some of them into his circle. It fits very well with the “Make America Great Again” mantra, right? “Make America Great Again” to them means make America Christian again. Restore America to its Christian roots.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Trump’s 2020 election loss didn’t slow the spread of this worldview. If anything, his refusal to accept defeat galvanized believers. And these ideas weren’t just gaining momentum among far-right influencers and politicians. A recent poll found that more than half of all Republican voters, tens of millions of Americans, agree broadly with the ideas of Christian nationalism, the belief that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, and that the country’s laws should therefore be rooted in biblical values.
LAUREN BOEBERT: And I don’t care what it looks like right now, the United States of America and the people here will glorify God. We will exalt Jesus as Lord.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In 2021, Lauren Boebert, the Republican congresswoman from Colorado, spoke at the Truth and Liberty Conference in her home state. The group behind the gathering was on a mission to reform the nation via the Seven Mountains of influence.
LAUREN BOEBERT: We ask you to influence these places, influence our school boards now.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Boebert wasn’t the only politician praying for God’s influence to take root inside schools. That year, as opposition to critical race theory was gaining ground as a political attack from the right, John Fea says he began to observe a shift in the Christian Dominionism movement with a new hyper focus on local school boards.
JOHN FEA: So, they see critical race theory, they see diversity within the curriculum, as a threat to the kind of white Christian America that they believe needs to be celebrated and extoled. It’s the ideal battleground if you’re looking to fight this battle. If you can get -- if you can teach the right kind of history and social studies and civics lessons and so forth about what America is, you can win the next generation and save Americans for Christ.
ANTONIA HYLTON: By the fall of 2021, as Em Ramser was beginning her second school year in Grapevine, Patriot Mobile had joined this fight, promoting the Seven Mountains Mandate to its employees and customers. The company offered a weekly Bible study in its corporate office led by a Seven Mountains proponent, Pastor Rafael Cruz. Cruz is an immigrant from Cuba and the father of the firebrand GOP senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.
RAFAEL CRUZ: Good afternoon. It is so great to be with you today. It is a beautiful day here in Texas.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Patriot Mobile had by then moved its corporate headquarters a town over to Grapevine. The company recorded videos of the elder Cruz preaching from a high-backed leather chair at a conference table in front of a large Patriot Mobile logo and livestreamed the sessions for its customers.
RAFAEL CRUZ: We celebrated 246 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence --
ANTONIA HYLTON: In one Patriot Mobile Bible study, Cruz dismissed the concept of separation of church and state as a myth, arguing that Thomas Jefferson meant that idea as a, quote, “one way wall,” intended only to keep the government from interfering with the church. Cruz then called on people who are rooted in the righteousness of the word of God to run for public office.
RAFAEL CRUZ: If those people are not running for office, if they are not even voting, then what’s left? The wicked electing the wicked.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In another Patriot Mobile Bible study session from early 2022, Cruz urged the Grapevine company and its employees to look to an example set a year earlier in the town next door.
RAFAEL CRUZ: I am so thankful also for what happened in Southlake right here in the area of Dallas Fort Worth, where Christians got involved and transformed a school board from having seven evil liberal people promoting all this garbage --
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: That was the story Antonia and I told you about two years ago in Southlake. Conservatives there banded together to kill a diversity plan at the Carroll Independent School District. They put together a political action committee called Southlake Families, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, took control of the local school board, and helped inspire a national movement. What didn’t get as much attention at the time? Many local churches, including Gateway the megachurch once attended by Ren and her mother, Sharla, had encouraged their congregations to support the Southlake Families ticket.
RAFAEL CRUZ: Some committed Christian people said, “Enough is enough,” and they mobilized the churches, and they picked up four seats of -- with strong committed Christians, and they’ve taken over that school board to make sure that righteousness prevails in what’s taught to our children.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In a separate sermon that same spring, the Seven Mountains promoter Lance Wallnau, now an official endorser of Patriot Mobile, claimed Christian leaders played a secret, behind the scenes role in organizing followers to vote in Southlake and recommended fellow believers copy the strategy in their towns.
LANCE WALLNAU: Education, we got to get on the school boards. We did it in Southlake, Texas right now, 1,000 people went in and flooded, took over the school boards, took over the -- the, uh, city council, took over the mayor’s office. Boom. You know who it was? Christians did it. The media doesn’t know it because we never said it was a church initiative. We called it a community initiative.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Back inside Patriot Mobile’s conference room, Rafael Cruz quoted a line often misattributed to the founding father Samuel Adams.
RAFAEL CRUZ: It does not take a majority to prevail, but only an irate, tireless minority keen on setting brush fires of liberty in the hearts and minds of men. It is up to you.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: “An irate tireless minority keen on setting brush fires of liberty in the hearts and minds of men.”
ANTONIA HYLTON: With that, Pastor Cruz looked around the room and issued a challenge. Some more school board elections were coming up, including right there in the city of Grapevine. It was time, Cruz said, for men and women of God to go light some more fires.
ANTONIA HYLTON: In the spring of 2022, as Em Ramser and other Grapevine teachers fielded the first wave of parent complaints about critical race theory, the people of Grapevine were gearing up for a political fight. Seven elected trustees sit on the Grapevine-Colleyville school board. It’s their job to manage the school system’s $200 million budget, to set district priorities, and to hire senior administrators to run day-to-day operations. Every year, just like in other nearby districts, two or three seats come up for election. And as the May 2022 board elections neared in Grapevine and in surrounding communities, Patriot Mobile saw an opportunity to deliver on its promise to support conservative causes. Heeding Rafael Cruz’s call to arms, the company filed documents to establish a political action committee called Patriot Mobile Action, and brought on long time political activist Leigh Wambsganss to lead it. Here she is introducing herself at a women’s leadership conference hosted by Turning Point USA.
LEIGH WAMBSGANSS: My name is Leigh Wambsganss, and my pronouns are Bible believer, Jesus lover, gun carrier, and mama bear. (CROWD CHEERING)
ANTONIA HYLTON: Wambsganss had earned national acclaim among conservatives one year earlier for her work as one of the co-founders of Southlake Families PAC. At the helm of Patriot Mobile Action, she zeroed in on winning more school board seats in North Texas by backing candidates who pledged to support conservative Christian causes. In total, Patriot Mobile would spend nearly half a million dollars on 11 candidates in four school districts that spring, according to campaign finance reports. That’s 10 times what’s normally spent in these elections. Wambsganss used the money to hire a pair of heavy hitter GOP consulting firms that have worked on campaigns for Ted Cruz and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, bringing sophisticated national-level political strategies to local school board races. The PAC sent tens of thousands of political mailers to homes across North Texas. One sent to Grapevine and Colleyville residents endorsed two school board candidates under the slogan “Saving America starts with saving our public schools.” In a livestream from the Patriot Mobile headquarters ahead of the election, Rafael Cruz said everything was on the line.
RAFAEL CRUZ: And the stark reality is this: if we lose America, our children and our grandchildren will not have a future. The future of our children and our children’s children is at stake.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Patriot Mobile’s investment paid off. It dominated the spring 2022 school board elections, going a perfect 11-0. In Grapevine-Colleyville, Patriot Mobile’s favored candidates won by just a couple percentage points, but that was enough to give staunch conservatives a 4-to-3 majority on the school board. One year after her election triumph in Southlake, Leigh Wambsgnass could claim another victory. A few months later, I found her in Dallas running the Patriot Mobile booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, the twice-annual gathering of the American right.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Lee? Hey. Mike Hixenbaugh.
LEIGH WAMBSGANSS: Oh, hi. Nice to meet you.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Nice to meet you in person.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: I’d come to ask Wambsganss about her work at Patriot Mobile. She’d just wrapped up recording a promotional video with Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist who’d risen to prominence in 2016 after spreading the false claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor. But when I asked Wambsganss if she would be willing to sit down with me, she said she had concerns about my credibility.
LEIGH WAMBSGANSS: Um, let me think about it because, uh, the coverage has not been fair.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: I’ve been reaching out. I want to hear your perspective and that’s -- the only way I can include it is if you share it with me --
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: I made my case and left my cell phone number.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: -- That’s my pitch. Enjoy your weekend. Take care.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: In a social media post days later, Wambsganss told followers that I’d “harassed” her at CPAC, writing, quote, “I don’t interview with reporters I don’t trust.” She never did get back in touch, and nobody at Patriot Mobile has responded to our repeated interview requests. The same kind of thing happened a couple years ago when Antonia and I first started reporting on the school board culture wars in Southlake. Wambsganss and other conservative leaders in town declined to talk with us, arguing that they couldn’t trust a pair of reporters from a mainstream news outlet. Some of them put out the word to supporters that they also should avoid speaking to us. That’s made it difficult to get conservatives who are aligned with Patriot Mobile to go on the record for this series. But we’ve tried to document their perspectives in other ways, which is why I’d come to CPAC. After leaving the Patriot Mobile booth, I took a stroll through the convention hall, where there were tables selling merch saying “Trump won” and “Let’s go Brandon,” the now ubiquitous right-wing catch phrase, a coded way of saying “F Joe Biden.” And from the main CPAC stage that weekend, Republican politicians like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared to be workshopping a new rallying cry.
MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: We are a country where our children are being brainwashed, that they can change their gender when absolutely they cannot.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Hardly a speech went by without a joke about the modern convention of listing gender pronouns in bios and e-mail signatures. The junior senator from Texas, and the son of Rafael Cruz, drew one of the biggest ovations of the entire weekend when he declared --
TED CRUZ: My name is Ted Cruz, and my pronouns are kiss my ass. (CROWD CHEERING)
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: But the clearest sign of the GOP’s fledgling interest in children’s genders came during CPAC’s main event, when Donald Trump tied the growing acceptance of transgender people to the lack of religion in schools.
DONALD TRUMP: The current system is sick. It’s sick. School prayer is banned, but drag shows are allowed to permeate the whole place, it’s okay. You can’t teach the Bible, but you can teach children that America is evil and that men are able to get pregnant. (CROWD BOOING)
ANTONIA HYLTON: In a crowded hallway outside the main CPAC convention hall, several far-right media outlets had set up mobile studios and were recording their TV and radio programs live from CPAC. At one of those booths, the folks at Patriot Mobile were about to offer up their solution to the issues Trump was condemning.
STEVE BANNON: The school boards are the key that picks the lock. Talk to us about what you did in Tarrant County about these school boards.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon was hosting a live taping of his TV show, The War Room. He invited Leigh Wambsganss to join him.
STEVE BANNON: You won 11- 0, you turned over four school boards. Are you seeing change already?
LEIGH WAMBSGANSS: Oh, tremendous. In all four of those school boards, we did not have a conservative majority. Those 11 seats in four ISDs means that now North Texas has over a hundred thousand students who, before May, had leftist leadership. Now they have conservative leadership.
STEVE BANNON: Amen.
ANTONIA HYLTON: It wasn’t true that those four school boards used to have “leftist” leadership. Some of the trustees Patriot Mobile ousted were themselves Christian Republicans. They just didn’t share the company’s embrace of far-right politics or support its plans to impose biblical morality on public education. But now, those board members were gone. And as students and teachers returned to school that fall across North Texas, some, including Em Ramser, were about to learn firsthand what evangelical activists, and groups like Patriot Mobile Action, had planned for their school systems.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Just before the start of the 2022 school year, one of Grapevine-Colleyville’s new Patriot Mobile-endorsed board members, Tammy Nakamura, appeared at an event hosted by the Republican National Committee. She told the audience she and her colleagues had identified the sources of liberal influences in their school system, and they were getting ready to clean house.
TAMMY NAKAMURA: It’s not in all of their classrooms. It’s not everywhere. Actually, it’s not in most of them, but we have a list of those whose it’s in, and they have to be stopped now.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Someone recorded her comments and posted them on the Internet. The quality isn’t great, but Nakamura’s message comes through clearly. She says she’s got a list of teachers who’ve been indoctrinating students.
TAMMY NAKAMURA: But we cannot have teachers such as these in our schools because they are just poison. And they’re taking our schools down.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: “Teachers such as these.” “They are just poison.” Nakamura didn’t respond to our interview requests. The clip of her comments was making waves that summer among Grapevine-Colleyville 1,000 member teaching staff, including Em Ramser.
EM RAMSER: And everybody immediately went, “Am I on that list?” And a lot of people assumed it would be me as well because of the curriculum stuff. And that I’ve been so targeted by the community. That’s when, like, it started getting exhausting. Like, and it is exhausting. You never know what you’re going to say or do that’s going to get, you know, the eye of the school board on you.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: After Patriot Mobile’s victory and Nakamura’s comment, Ramser and other Grapevine teachers were afraid of what awaited them when they returned to school in August 2022.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Only a few days after classes resumed, their fears were validated when the new school board majority unveiled a plan to eradicate what they’d called “leftist ideology” from Grapevine-Colville. The sweeping 36-page policy touched on virtually every aspect of the nationwide battles over race, history, and LGBTQ inclusion. The proposal banned lessons on systemic racism, while restricting transgender students from using restrooms matching their gender identity.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The policy also prohibited any reading materials or lessons mentioning the possibility that someone’s gender could be different than their biological sex. And it gave teachers new authority to ignore the wishes of transgender students to be called by pronouns and names differing from those assigned at birth. It’s what LGBTQ rights advocates call misgendering and dead naming.
ANTONIA HYLTON: The plan’s release rocked Grapevine and angered parents who said they opposed religious values being forced on students. While the policy didn’t add religious practices like prayers or Bible readings to the school day, it did seek to reshape the curriculum to be more in line with a conservative Christian worldview. And just three days after the proposal’s release, on August 22nd, 2022, the board was set to vote on it. This was the meeting we told you about last episode, when Ren’s mom Sharla came forward to tell her story and declared that she’d lost her child. Nearly 200 people signed up to speak to either praise the board for taking action to protect children, or to tell them that they were, in fact, hurting them.
SPEAKER: This policy is going to kill kids. Know that, know that.
SPEAKER: Our kids have to be taught our foundation of God-given inalienable rights, religious freedoms --
SPEAKER: You guys are responsible for our kids’ future and you’re robbing them of that.
SPEAKER: Let’s put God back in the schools if we can.
ANTONIA HYLTON: As the adults bickered inside, about two dozen Grapevine-Colleyville students marched outside the admin building, waving signs that read “Our existence is not a controversy” and “Love all kids.” Teddy, a non-binary senior at Grapevine High School organized the demonstration after reading the proposal.
TEDDY: It basically takes the guise of protecting children and it uses that guise to impose several transphobic and racist policies. I was like, “I’m mad. I don’t want this to happen.” So, I organized a protest. We held signs, and we marched, and we stood outside the school board building.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Teddy’s friend Marceline, also a non-binary senior, was there too.
MARCELINE: You never think of, like, board meetings as, like, the number one thing you’ve got to attend.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Both students go by they/them pronouns, which teachers would be free to ignore under the new policy, even if parents signed a form giving their blessing.
MARCELINE: And now that it’s, like, this obviously feels more important than, like, the presidency to me.
TEDDY: Because it’s directly affecting us.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The students weren’t the only ones demonstrating. The True Texas Project, labeled an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, had put out a call to action. They asked their supporters across North Texas to pack the meeting and turn it into a party, celebrating the policy, which they hoped would be copied at districts across the state.
TEDDY: So, they were in the stadium parking lot, and they were loud, and they were really obnoxious.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The group set up tents hours beforehand and tailgated at the parking lot along with an anti-trans activist group called Protect Texas Kids, whose leader had been suspended from Twitter that year after writing, quote, “Let’s start rounding up people who participate in pride events.”
MARCELINE: You could smell smoke from, like, a barbecue going on. You could hear country music. You could hear, like, they had air horns.
TEDDY: It was -- it was a party.
MARCELINE: Yeah. They had air horns and everything.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Back inside, one of the speakers from that camp, a dad in a red polo shirt and American flag trucker cap, strode to the lectern.
SCOTT WESTERN: Hi, I’m a resident of GCISD, two kids in district.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Unlike many of the earlier speakers, he didn’t shy away from identifying who exactly he believed posed a danger to students.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Quick heads up: the comments you’re about to hear are inflammatory.
SCOTT WESTERN: Do it. Embrace simple truths. There’s only two genders. And boys should go to boys’ rooms. Girls should go to girls’ restrooms. And guess what? Teachers shouldn’t be forced to use your freaking made-up fantasy pronouns. Fight like hell, hold the line against the LGBT mafia and their dang pedo fans. Keep winning. You know what? Keep the winning. They can keep the monkey pox. How’s that working? In fact, keep winning so much, we’ll keep coming. Woo! Get some! Thank you.
BOARD CLERK: Thank you. Our hundred 120th speaker is --
ANTONIA HYLTON: That dad’s delivery may have sounded extreme, but the content of his remarks had become fairly common at school board meetings that summer as parents and activists nationwide increasingly maligned LGBTQ educators as pedophiles or groomers.
TEDDY: To see people who were celebrating the fact that our rights were being taken away. It was scary.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: Even though Teddy and Marcine were outside, they knew the exact moment when the board voted to approve the policy.
BOARD PRESIDENT: All in favor? All opposed? Policies pass 4-3.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: The conservative groups tailgating outside had been livestreaming the meeting.
TEDDY: Like when the -- when the bill was passed, you could hear a cheer.
MARCELINE: I’m going to be honest, I cried.
TEDDY: Yeah. I just -- I broke down.
MARCELINE: I cried.
TEDDY: Because before that moment, there was hope, right? There was a hope that the agenda would not be more important than our rights. But then, as soon as it passed, as soon as I heard, I -- I just broke down. I was like, “I’m going to have to live with this for the next year.”
ANTONIA HYLTON: While Teddy and the other students wiped their tears and contemplated what this would mean for their final year of high school, the board meeting continued inside. Tammy Nakamura, the Patriot Mobile-backed board member who talked about getting rid of poison teachers, gave a short speech explaining her yes vote.
TAMMY NAKAMURA: With the passage of these policies, we have neutralized our classrooms. They will no longer be used as weapons against free market capitalism, against national pride and unity, against traditional American values, and against the biological and social identity of our children. Again, I thank those who have supported me here tonight and those at home.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Lots of people -- in Grapevine, all over Texas, and across the country -- were paying attention that night. This North Texas school board had gone further than almost any other in carrying out the emerging Republican vision for America’s public schools. This vote would end up galvanizing a new opposition movement in Grapevine that vowed to defeat Patriot Mobile in the next election, setting the stakes for a showdown the following spring to determine the school district’s long-term future.
In the meantime, Ren’s mother Sharla was among those praising the school board’s new policy on gender fluidity, which she hoped would keep other people’s kids from being led astray. But she wasn’t done sounding an alarm about what she says happened to her own child.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: A few days after this school board meeting, Sharla would find a bigger audience for her accusations. And this time, she would call out by name the high school English teacher she believed had, quote, “infected” her child with a dangerous ideology.
EM RAMSER: I broke down crying in the hallway, and I think it was -- it was tears not out of sadness, not out of being mad, just terrified.
SHARLA: This doctrine does nothing but bring chaos and confusion to our children. I watched it happen to my son.
RICH: And it’s turned -- it’s turned the truth upside down. The -- what she -- the story she told is absolutely the truth upside down.
ANTONIA HYLTON: That’s next on Grapevine. From NBC News Studios, this is the second of six episodes of Grapevine, a series about faith, power, and what it means to protect children in an American suburb. Grapevine was written, reported, and hosted by me Antonia Hylton.
MIKE HIXENBAUGH: And by me, Mike Hixenbaugh. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley. Our senior editor is Julie Shapiro, with story editing by Michelle Garcia. We had production support from Emily Berk and Eva Ruth Moravec. Fact checking by Janina Huang. Sound design by Rick Kwan. Original music by Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Bryson Barnes is our technical director. Alexa Danner is our executive producer. Marisa Reilly is the director of production and Liz Cole runs NBC News Studios.
ANTONIA HYLTON: Special thanks to David Brockman for helping us understand the role of Christian nationalism in Texas politics.