Not long after Louisiana state Rep. Valarie Hodges joined the legislature in 2012, she began tweeting from a new account, presumably in an effort to distinguish between statements issued in her official capacity and those made on her personal Twitter account, @ValarieHHodges, which she’d set up in March of 2009.
There was just one problem.
Her name was misspelled. She’s Valarie, two a’s and one e. The account used the more common spelling of Valerie, with one a and two e’s. In fact, according to the website Playlist.fm, she’s the sixth most famous “Valarie” on the planet.
More than likely, her new “official” account had been created by a well-intentioned staffer, who, like practically everyone else, including then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, assumed she spelled her name the way most people spell it.
Almost as soon as the new account appeared online, it vanished completely. Over time, it would become clear that the idea of Hodges being diligent and professional with her use of social media was, let’s just say, optimistically naive.
Aside from the spelling of her name, there are two things about Valarie Hodges that help to explain her approach to politics: First, she is a religious extremist.
Among other things, in 2019, she opposed a new law that established 16 as the minimum age in which a person can get married, requiring 16 and 17-year-olds to obtain both judicial and parental permission before getting married and prohibiting marriages between those ages 16 and 17 to anyone more than three years older.
“It is the parent’s decision when a child is mature enough to take a husband or wife,” Hodges argued on her website.
The second thing to know is that Hodges lives in Watson, Louisiana, an unincorporated part of Livingston Parish located about six miles north of Denham Springs and 19 miles northeast of Baton Rouge. According to the most recent population estimate from the American Community Survey, Watson is home to approximately 1,252 people, 100% of whom are White, an astonishing statistic for any community in a state in which 32.22% of the population is Black.
Her timelines on Facebook and Twitter, which she stopped using after the platform banned former president Donald Trump in the immediate aftermath of the deadly insurrection he incited at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, are—pardon the pun—a hodgepodge of fake news stories and bizarre conspiracy theories.
Hodges has a particular affinity for The Epoch Times, a far-right outlet affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement and one known for its aggressive promotion of a constellation of conspiracies popularized by followers of QAnon.
Until recently, Hodges had been primarily known for retracting support for former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program—which had been touted as the most expansive of its kind in the nation—after discovering that it could potentially provide taxpayer support for “Muslim schools.” She had “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian,'” the Livingston Parish News reported at the time.
“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” Hodges said. “Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion.”
Of course, not only were the nation’s founders not exclusively Christian, our history is replete with statements from America’s most prominent early leaders—people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—expressly rejecting any notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
“We need to insure [sic] that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently,” Hodges claimed, falsely, while attempting to explain her reversal on school vouchers. “I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
Two weeks ago, Hodges again attracted national attention, this time for claiming that her physician told her that a pulmonologist she knows was instructing people not to get vaccinated for covid-19 because they could become “very very sick and possibly die from it.”
But while Hodges’ dubious assertions about medical science are reckless, dangerous, and certainly worthy of public opprobrium, she’s spent the bulk of the current legislative session ignoring covid-19 and championing a pair of education curricula bills. Both proposals, HB 352 and HB 416, require greater scrutiny, not only because of who appears to be behind their drafting but also because of the way in which both are designed to circumvent the standard process for implementing changes to public school curricula.
At first glance, neither of the two bills seem to be cause for much controversy: HB 416 is ostensibly about improving educational instruction on the Holocaust and World War II, and HB 352 presents itself as a way of ensuring public school students are taught about the nation’s founding documents, namely the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.
In making the case for the latter, Hodges has emphasized this aspect most frequently, citing a handful of highly questionable and unidentified “surveys,” including one she claims that found only one out 1,000 Americans can correctly name one of the first 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, as evidence of the legislation’s necessity.
However, on her Facebook account, Hodges has offered a different justification. “STOP the cancel culture from changing America’s founding history!” she implores her followers. “STAND your ground, or lose it! Please share!”
That’s because, in addition to mentioning the nation’s “founding documents,” Hodges’ bill also includes references to the nation’s “founding principles,” which, according to her, include “American exceptionalism” and “traditional standards of moral values.”
Her bill about Holocaust and WWII education may seem far less objectionable, until one considers the fact that it appears to have been drafted on behalf of Christians United for Israel, an organization founded by right-wing extremist and Christian televangelist John Hagee.
“In CUFI’s philosophy, war and violence are celebrated as harbingers of the end times. That’s extremely frightening to me. It should be extremely frightening to all of us. This kind of religious extremism empowered by those with the ability to make U.S. foreign policy is alarming,” Rabbi Alissa Wise, the co-executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told the San Antonio Current in 2019. “[Hagee’s] philosophy isn’t about love for the Jewish people but a theology that requires Jewish settlement on that land for the end times to come. Both Jews and Muslims are reduced to end-time pawns in CUFI’s philosophy.”
Given Hodges’ publicly-professed antipathy toward Muslims and the Islamic faith, it’s more than appropriate to call into question her role in sponsoring and promoting legislation drafted on behalf of a televangelist’s political organization. Moreover, considering her strident opposition to amendments offered by her Black colleagues, amendments that sought to ensure the inclusion of Black history as a part of the curricula, it’s difficult not to be left with the impression that her intention has nothing to do with improving education and is instead purely an exercise in political power-grabbing.
When the bills were first introduced to members of the House Education Committee, Hodges used the occasion to share an outlandish story about the 22 years (on her website, she claims it was 18 years) she spent living as a Christian missionary in Mexico.
“We lived in the harshest of conditions,” she begins while describing her experience as an evangelical missionary inside of a country in which Christians comprise 90.7% of the population. “We lived in mud huts. I bathed my children in rivers.”
The pulp fiction thriller she told—one in which she is the continual victim of a parade of horribles and, at the same time, the selfless Christian servant willing to humble herself by learning fragments of Spanish—was both delusional and deeply offensive. But it requires a special kind of hubris to move to a country with a history of conquest and conquistadors with the intention of converting the natives to the religion of White American exceptionalism.
Notably, as she would later reveal, she actually lived in Guadalajara, Mexico’s third-largest metropolis and one of the ten biggest cities in Latin America.
This is Guadalajara:
Hodges used the story of her time as a missionary in Mexico in a clumsy attempt at neutralizing criticisms from her Black colleagues (she too knows what it’s like to be “marginalized,” she said, because people called her a “gringo“) and as a way of introducing the concept of American exceptionalism.
Joshua Benton, the founder of the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a self-described “proud Cajun,” uncovered an old blog post by Hodges in which she cites three “fake” quotes, one misattributed quote, and another out-of-context quote in an attempt to prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation:
Hodges’ warped understanding of American history is hardly unusual among those in the fringes of the religious right. It lends a phony provenance to a political movement, one that cloaks itself in the language of faith and hopes to exploit the instrumentalities of the state in order to accumulate power and gain control.
For Christian dominionists like Hodges, the ability to determine public education curricula has always remained a top priority.
A 2005 editorial in the Journal of Church and State by Derek H. Davis and Matthew McMearty, “America’s ‘Forsaken Roots’: The Use and Abuse of Founders’ Quotations,” sheds significant light on the real source of Hodges’ phony quotes, and it’s a name that will likely be familiar to anyone in Texas who has worked in public education policymaking or those in Louisiana who have followed the current legislative session.
When Hodges told members of the House Education Committee her outlandish story about life in Guadalajara, Mexico, she was flanked by David and Tim Barton, the father/son duo behind WallBuilders, which describes itself as “an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.”
David is the one with the silver hair.
For more than 15 years, the Bartons—primarily Barton the elder— have peddled a distorted and demonstrably fraudulent version of American history to education officials in Texas, as Dr. Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology first detailed in 2006. In their retelling, America is a nation exclusively comprised of heroes—no villains allowed— and a land ordained by a very peculiar and very Protestant iteration of a Judeo-Christian God.
On Monday, when Hodges’ HB 416, the bill pertaining to Holocaust and WWII education, came up for debate on the floor of the state House, a remarkable moment occurred when one of her Black colleagues, state Rep. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat from New Orleans, rose to question her repeated objections to amendments from Black lawmakers who sought to include language about the contributions of African Americans.
I asked Duplessis to elaborate on his objections to Hodges’ bill. “BESE [the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] already has a process in place that assesses social studies curriculum every seven years and then makes recommendations on what should be taught,” he told me. “This is a comprehensive process that involves experts as well as public input. I support teaching about the Holocaust and all matters important to U.S. and world history, but I don’t think the legislature should be cherry-picking certain subjects and then mandating they be taught without having at least gone through a process involving all stakeholders.”
It’s undeniably true that Hodges seeks to circumvent the ordinary process and usurp the powers provided to BESE under the state Constitution, which seems especially ironic considering the legislation’s purported respect for civics education. (On multiple occasions, Hodges and at least one of her Republican colleagues, state Rep. Beryl Amedee, falsely claimed that BESE derived its authority from the legislature, when it actually was established constitutionally).
But unfortunately, there’s very little reason to believe Hodges and her Republican enablers care much at all for a transparent “process involving all stakeholders.”
After state Rep. Ted James, a Democrat from Baton Rouge and the Chair of the Black Caucus, introduced an amendment about Black history to Hodges’ HB 416, Republican lawmakers asked whether he would kindly consider introducing the amendment to Hodges’ other bill, HB 352. He smartly refused, noting that Hodges had done very little to demonstrate her receptiveness toward any amendments to either bill.
Three days later, when HB 352 came up for a floor vote, Republican state Rep. Lance Harris moved quickly to prevent the introduction of any amendments.
James’ amendment failed, and both HB 352 and HB 416 passed easily (though neither garnered the votes necessary to withstand a veto).
I wondered what state Rep. James made of the repeated disrespect demonstrated toward Black lawmakers and the flippant disregard exhibited toward Black history.
“I didn’t expect much from a group that has no idea about the Middle Passage,” he said.