Does It Matter Where Your Kid Goes to College?

Relax.

That’s one message we might take away from Kevin Carey’s recent piece in the New York Times. He argues that the vast gulf between the “best” universities and the rest is nothing but an illusion. That certainly fits with my experience in the past twenty years as a graduate student and professor. But is it also true about the gulf between mainstream colleges and dissenting religious ones?

Carey insists, in a nutshell, that students will do just as well whether they go to Harvard or Podunk U. Or, to be more precise, Carey argues that the differences between elite schools and the rest are more about marketing than about actual educational impact.

...it doesn't!

…it doesn’t!

To back up his claims, Carey relies on the 2005 edition of a study by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini. There are some differences between schools, of course. As Carey puts it,

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in work on my new book about conservative evangelical Protestant higher education. These schools exist because most people think it matters a great deal where kids go to college. Not only in terms of making connections and building a career, but in terms of learning good values and building a life as a certain sort of Christian.

As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. explained in 1928, he founded his college in order to help parents relax. “The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution,” Jones promised,

can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children. Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

These days, too, conservative religious leaders spend a good deal of time and effort helping parents find the right schools for their kids. As I argued a while back, creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis offers lists of “safe” schools, schools that reliably teach young-earth creationism and ONLY young-earth creationism.

Can college make a difference?

Can college make a difference?

Kevin Carey’s recent look at the research prompts some important questions.

  • If the academic and professional difference between mainstream schools is not as great as we all think, is the difference between mainstream schools and religious schools also not as great as we think?
  • Might it be possible for conservative parents to relax about where their kids go to school, and instead focus on helping their kids make the most out of whatever school they DO attend?
  • Do religious students fare well at secular/pluralist schools?

Faculty Fudge Factors at Creationist Colleges

Ding! There it is again—the sound of another evangelical professor being ousted for harboring evolution-friendly ideas.  Some of us outsiders might think that evangelical colleges would slowly become more relaxed about evolution as time went on.  As this case shows, we’d be wrong.  The history of the past century has demonstrated that many evangelical colleges have grown MORE uptight, not less, about proving their creationist credentials.

In this case, the school is Bethel College in Indiana and the professor is Jim Stump. As Karl Giberson described recently, the flap at this Bethel [n.b., there are about one bajillion Bethel Colleges out there and it’s easy for outsiders to mix them up] echoes the trends of the past hundred years: Time and again, creationist colleges have sought to tighten both the image and reality of unshakeable creationist orthodoxy among their faculty.

Stump removal...

Stump removal…

As I’m uncovering as I work on my new book, this pattern has been the dominant theme at conservative evangelical colleges since the 1920s.

Beginning in the 1920s and repeated every generation, schools have tightened the requirements on their faculty. In every generation, some professors have sought to follow a middle path—exploring the science of evolution while remaining firmly committed to their religion. In every generation, nervous college administrators have sought to prove to the creationist community that their school will not tolerate any such thing.

In the 1920s, most schools agreed on ironclad faculty creeds. The hope was that these creeds would prevent faculty from becoming too friendly to evolutionary thinking. At flagship Wheaton College in Illinois, for instance, the trustees in 1926 adopted a creed that all faculty, staff, and administration had to sign annually. They included the following statement:

 

4. We believe that man was created in the image of God; that he sinned, and thereby incurred, not only physical death, but also that spiritual death which is separation from God; and that all human beings are born with a sinful nature, and in the case of those who reach moral responsibility become sinners in thought, word and deed.

At the time, this statement was thought to define the proper “fundamentalist” attitude toward creation. In 1960, however, a conference about evolution and creationism on Wheaton’s campus attracted ferocious criticism from the more stalwart creationists among the fundamentalist/evangelical community. Too many of the assembled theologians and scientists, critics thought, embraced the principle of evolution.

Among Wheaton’s faculty, zoologist Russell Mixter came in for the fiercest criticism. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Mixter was accused of teaching and preaching evolution in his classes. In order to calm the storm, Wheaton’s administration altered its faculty creed. At the end of 1961, the school agreed to add the following item:

By Article IV of its ‘standards of faith,’ Wheaton College is committed to the Biblical teaching that man was created by a direct act of God and not from previously existing forms of life; and that all men are descended from the historical Adam and Eve, first parents of the entire human race.

The pattern continues today. At schools such as Bryan College and Northwest Nazarene University, creeds are tightened and faculty are ousted in order to preserve an impeccable reputation for creationism. Time and again, the sticking point has been the historicity of Adam & Eve. It is not enough, evangelical communities insist, for faculty vaguely to endorse the idea of a God-directed creation. Especially when it comes to the origins of humanity, some evangelicals require a belief in a real, literal origin in two real, literal people.

According to Karl Giberson, the folks at Bethel College in Indiana have taken this tradition one step further. Under pressure from the sponsoring denomination, the Missionary Church, Bethel now requires faculty to advocate its firm position on the historicity of Adam & Eve. In the past, at Bethel as at other evangelical colleges, faculty members could sign their annual statements of faith even if they thought that such statements did not require them to disavow mainstream evolutionary science. This policy hopes to push faculty members into a tighter relationship with the denomination’s official position on evolution.

Furthermore, from now on Bethel faculty are not allowed to take leadership positions in organizations that disagree on this point. As BioLogos leader Deborah Haarsma argued, Bethel’s new policy puts evangelical scholars like Jim Stump in a very difficult position. Stump has served as the content manager for BioLogos, an organization that embraces “evolutionary creationism.” The new Bethel policy, in effect, forced Stump to choose between the two organizations.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, I am a fan of the BioLogos approach. I’m no evangelical, but I think the way forward in our continuing evolution/creation battles is for both sides to agree to the science of evolution and the freedom of religious belief. As I argue in my upcoming book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (due to hit shelves in February 2016), secular folks like me need to recognize the right of religious dissenters to disbelieve the claims of evolution, even as religious folks need to recognize the duty of public schools to teach evolution as the best available science.

But as I argue in my other upcoming book, schools like Bethel are also in a difficult position. In order to maintain intellectual credibility, they must embrace changing norms of academic excellence. But in order to maintain religious credibility, they must conspicuously root out any whiff of compromise. Not on every issue, but on issues such as evolution and same-sex marriage that seem to make up the foundations of their faiths.

As a result, over the course of the past ninety years, many evangelical colleges–including the relatively “liberal” ones–have made their policies more rigid when it comes to faculty beliefs about human origins.  The recent news from Mishawaka is only the latest attempt by an evangelical college to remove faculty fudge factors.

Pro-Life: From Liberal Catholics to Conservative Protestants

Who are the folks who stand outside of family-planning clinics these days, warning young women that some planning services are nothing but the cruelest form of murder? As historian Daniel Williams argues in a recent article in the journal Religions, the “pro-life” movement shifted from its early roots as a socially liberal Catholic cause to a politically conservative Protestant one.

Is this kind of thing inherently "conservative?"

Is this kind of thing inherently “conservative?”

For those of us interested in the historical development of America’s culture wars, Williams’s article is a must-read. As he explains, in 1972 the first generation of pro-lifers pulled from the civil-rights and anti-war wing of liberalism. At the time, Williams argues, “it seemed unthinkable that anyone would equate the pro-life cause with political conservatism.”

What happened?

As anyone with a pulse is well aware, these days the pro-life movement is firmly in the hands of culturally and politically conservative evangelicals.

Williams argues that pro-life Catholicism had its roots in the 1930s. Back then, Catholic intellectuals and activists often tied their theological arguments against abortion to the dominant New Deal liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After Vatican II’s liberalizing reforms in the early 1960s, liberal Catholics forged even tighter bonds between liberal Catholicism and secular Great-Society anti-poverty programs. As Williams recounts, anti-racist liberals tied new abortion laws to genocide against African Americans.

Around the time of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, liberals began shifting their thinking. Instead of an issue of the rights of an oppressed and voiceless minority, abortion became a question of women’s rights.

On the conservative side, anti-abortion activism lost its connection to anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. It lost its overwhelming connection to liberal Catholicism. Instead, it became wrapped in the Protestant-dominated language of “family values,” Williams writes.

For many of us who follow culture-war politics, it can come as a shock to read Williams’s re-creation of recent evangelical history. Even up to and during the early 1970s, many conservative evangelical organizations and intellectuals did not take a recognizably pro-life position.

Everyone interested in the full story should check out Williams’s article as well as his other work. It serves as a reminder that the seemingly hard-and-fast positions of our culture-war trenches have actually shifted dramatically over the years.

And for many of us, it prompts important questions:

  • Does pro-life seem inherently “conservative?”
    • Why?
  • Do some SAGLRROILYBYGTH who consider themselves “liberal” also consider themselves “pro-life?”
    • Why?
  • If you are “pro-life” and conservative, do you think the two go together?
  • Would it be possible these days to be a real pro-life liberal?
  • Is there something different about Catholic pro-lifers vs. Protestant ones?

Let’s Fight about Evolution and Climate Change

Put your money where your mouth is. That’s the message Trey Kay explores in his new Us & Them podcast. What happens when creationists and scientists put up a challenge to their foes? Trey talks with a creationist and a mainstream scientist, both of whom have put up big money to lure their enemies into a losing debate.

The two sides are represented by creationist Karl Priest and physicist Christopher Keating. Priest has offered a $10,000 Life Science Prize. Anyone who can debate Joseph Mastropaolo and can convince a judge of the evidence for evolution will win the money. Keating has put up $30,000 to anyone who can come up with scientific evidence against human-caused climate change.

For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it doesn’t get much better than this. Trey talks with both men alone, then puts them together for a culture-war conversation. What makes creationists so confident? Mainstream scientists?

As Trey concludes, both men offer their prizes in an attempt to get attention for their side. Neither really hopes to convince the other.

That’s been the case for evolution/creation debates for a long time now. Some of us remember the recent head-to-head debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. As we discussed at the time, this sort of debate tends to preach to the choir on each side. For mainstream scientists, Bill Nye’s arguments sounded iron-clad. For creationists, Ken Ham made his case.

As historian Ron Numbers has documented, these evolution-creation debates have a long and checkered history. Time and again, high-profile public figures have challenged their foes to debate the issue. Does anyone really hope to solve the issue this way?

As Trey Kay explores in this podcast, it is easy enough to talk politely to one another. But once creationists and evolutionists try to debate, we quickly end up just spinning our wheels.

Teaching Kids about Rape

How can we lessen the horrible frequency of sexual assault in colleges? The New York Times wants us to start in middle school. Their proposal suffers from a terrible case of Manhattan-itis.

NYT editors pointed to studies from Illinois and New York that seem to bolster their case. When kids learn to communicate their feelings, when they learn explicitly about safe places and violence, the amount of “sexual harassment” and “inappropriate touching” drops.

Manhattan, Kansas

Manhattan, Kansas

It makes sense to me personally. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen the positive results when young people learn to speak openly and frankly about all aspects of sex.

But as a historian, this proposal seems to willfully ignore reality. The NYT editors note that “some parents may object to their children learning about sexuality in middle school and even before.” Yet they seem not to worry about such predictable objections. If such programs succeed in the Netherlands, the editors assert, they can work here.

As I argued in my recent book, folks like these NYT editors (and me) have always woefully misunderstood the true political and cultural equations of schooling in the US of A. Things that may seem possible in a clinical trial are just not possible on a wider scale.

Consider just a few examples from recent history. In March, for instance, Kansas considered a law that would open teachers to prosecution for teaching children about sex—even from an approved sex-ed curriculum. That’s right: Teachers who taught explicit sexual terms could be prosecuted as sexual predators if they taught their classes as those classes were designed to be taught.

This is not just another case of something being the matter with Kansas. Last summer, parents in the San Francisco Bay Area protested about a sex-ed textbook that taught their middle-schoolers about sex. The problem was not that the textbook was not accurate. The problem was not that the material might not help students get a fuller and better understanding of sexuality.

The problem, rather, was more fundamental. Parents in these United States do not want their children to learn about sex in an explicit way. They do not want their children to know about rape, sexual assault, and other things.

And this is the problem with the New York Times editorial. The central question is not whether or not such programs are effective. The central question is not whether or not such programs work in the Netherlands. Rather, the most important question—and one that the New York Times sidesteps—is how to implement such programs in the face of the predictable and powerful opposition they are sure to elicit.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

We have a difficult time understanding a seeming paradox: Americans want their schools to do more than teach kids things that are true. In many subjects, Americans insist that their schools help keep children ignorant. Or perhaps a better term is innocent. Sex, evolution, lynching . . . there are a host of truths that public schools are meant to un-teach. Not only can schools not do a good job teaching these things frankly and fairly, but in practice—considering the political realities—many schools are expected to do a good job of keeping children ignorant of such things.

Rule of thumb: schools won’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in a formal toast at a church wedding. Is it possible to use such a platform to speak frankly about sexual assault? Yes, and in some schools (and some weddings) it is done. But by and large such tactics are not considered acceptable by Americans. Teaching a child to say “vagina” and “penis” is difficult enough. Any hope to convince parents of the need to teach kids to say “rape” and “sexual assault” must be far more fraught with difficulty than the New York Times admits.

Progress and Punishment

What should teachers do when students misbehave? This might seem like a simple nuts-and-bolts question, but for generations it has triggered culture-war debates. Conservatives often insist that children need traditional punishments; progressives warn that those punishments only make behavior worse and that harsh discipline tends to land heaviest on minority kids.

Are we ready yet?

Are we ready yet?

In the recent issue of Mother Jones, Katherine Reynolds Lewis reviews the disciplinary work of psychologist Ross Greene. Like other progressives over the course of the last century, Lewis argues that traditional forms of school discipline are utterly wrong-headed.

As Lewis reports,

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

Teachers using Greene’s approach build positive relationships with misbehaving kids. Instead of offering a set of rewards and punishments, teachers try to let students explain and vent their negative feelings.

According to Lewis, the system works. Reluctant teachers (and prison guards) have been brought around by the dramatic positive results.

Hooey.

Hooey.

Historically, not everyone has been so smitten with these sorts of interventions. As I argue in my recent book, conservative school activists in the 20th century insisted that Greene-style reforms were hopeless. Not only did they fail, conservatives thought, such progressive claptrap fundamentally misunderstood the nature of humanity and education.

As Max Rafferty put it in 1968, children need to be understood on their own terms:

a child is not a little man. He is a being in transition and a lot closer to the raw simplicities of the primeval jungle than any of us will ever be again or than we like to think we ever were. Childhood may be mystic, as Victor Herbert said, but it’s often very far from merry.

For one thing, the child lives in a world where both time and space are vastly different from ours. A year to a child may easily be a week to us. A bungalow to us six-footers is a skyscraper to him, a wooded grove the limitless forests of Xanadu.

He is notably impatient where we have learned patience. He is openly and candidly selfish where we have been pressured by the needs of society to conceal our own self-interest. He is direct where we are devious, simple where we prefer to be complicated.

In response to earlier generations of Greene-style disciplinarians, Rafferty responded,

There speaks the progressive educationist. Adjust to your environment at any cost. Don’t try to change things. After all, nothing is really ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

Bunk.

What’s wrong with teaching the kid that fighting in school is wrong?

Why not outlaw profanity and bring back the good old soap-in-the-mouth bit for youngsters who can’t keep a clean tongue in their heads? The school exists to make Johnny a better boy.

In an earlier work, Rafferty blasted the progressive assumptions of Greene-style approach to discipline.

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler. . . . Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been. Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

School, you see, was not considered ‘fun’ in those days. It was a mighty serious business and was conducted that way. At any rate, once the two premises are accepted that (1) boys won’t behave in schools unless compelled to do so and (2) boys must be made to behave so that they can learn things that are essential for them to know, then the whole paraphernalia of corporal punishment falls into proper perspective. . . . Things have changed of late in the field of discipline, and more than somewhat. They started to change at home first, back in the twenties and thirties. The prime mover in their change was the new psychology, which was widely publicized and which caused parents seriously to doubt their proper role vis-à-vis their children for the first time in the recorded history of the human race. . . . The result was the emergence of the least-repressed and worst-behaved generation of youngsters the world had ever seen. The psychologists had been right in one respect. Junior certainly had no repressions. He could have used a few.

In Lewis’s telling, Rafferty’s brand of traditionalism flies out the window when teachers and parents see the positive results of progressive discipline. I’m not so sure. After all, as Rafferty’s work from the 1960s shows, Greene’s brand of progressive reform has been around since the 1920s. It didn’t convince conservative skeptics then and I don’t think it will now.

The questions go deeper than just classroom efficiency. Some traditionalists, IMHO, will continue to believe that old-fashioned forms of discipline—yes, including corporal punishment—are not just more effective, but more closely connected to the true nature of childhood.

Can We Vote on Evolution?

Is there a democratic way to decide difficult technical questions? Last week, voters in Greece soundly defeated a complicated economic proposal. For those of us interested in educational culture wars, it raises an interesting question: Could we vote on evolution?

It's all Greek to me.  Except for the parts in English...

It’s all Greek to me. Except for the parts in English…

In Greece, voters faced a dauntingly worded ballot. In English, it read as follows:

Should the deal draft that was put forward by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the Eurogroup of June 25, 2015, and consists of two parts, that together form a unified proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the Completion of the Current Programme and Beyond’ and the second ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.’

Hrm? What would an “oxi” vote mean in this case? “Nai?”

Of course, the SAGLRROILYBYGTH will say that voters could simply look up the two documents and decide intelligently if they deserve support. But to think that most voters would do that seems woefully naïve, or perhaps refreshingly optimistic. In the United States, after all, poll data suggest that large numbers of Americans think that humans and dinosaurs lived side-by-side, and, as Rick Shenkman has pointed out, most of us don’t know basic facts about our government and society.

Many Greek voters, similarly, seemed to have only a tentative grasp on the question at hand. Instead of voting on the specifics of either of the reform plans, Greeks likely voted based on their impressions about the two sides of the issue. Voting “yes” was generally perceived to be a vote in favor of the euro, and against the leftist policies of the ruling Syriza party. A “no” vote, in contrast, was often seen as a vote against economic austerity and in favor of Syriza.  Even more confusing, some voters seemed to think that a “yes” vote meant taking pride in Greece’s place as a European nation, while others thought a “no” vote was the way to express Greek national pride.

Even after the vote, the results are confusing. Will the government now negotiate for an economic bailout? Will the government accept austerity measures after all as a condition?

One thing seems clear: many Greek voters used the referendum as a way to express something about who they were, whom they believed, rather than as a way to make a specific policy choice.

When it comes to evolution and creationism, we see similarly confusing commitments. Support for creationism remains high, not because people have not heard of evolutionary science, but because people want to show their support for traditional religion.

As Dan Kahan of Yale Law School puts it so well,* our positions on evolution/creation tell us about who we are, not about what we know. People who say they “believe in” evolution do not actually know any more about it than people who say they do not.

With all this in mind, could we imagine a scenario in which America voted on evolution? What would such a referendum look like?

These are preposterous questions in many ways, but bear with me for a minute. We’ve seen time and time again that large percentages of Americans believe that humanity has been created fairly recently. We’ve also seen that large percentages of Americans favor teaching evolution and creationism/intelligent design side-by-side in public schools. What if we tried to agree upon our school curriculum in a democratic way, by holding a national referendum on the issue?

It seems to me the wording of such a ballot might be crucial. If we asked voters, for instance, to vote on whether they thought evolution was true, we’d likely have a huge negative result. Americans just don’t want to agree to that, for a host of religious and cultural reasons.

But what if we asked voters if they wanted public schools to teach the best available science? And what if we asked voters if they believed most scientists thought evolution was the best scientific explanation of the development of life?

As I argue in an upcoming book, the wording could make a big difference. What do we really want our public schools to teach about evolution? Do we need children to believe that evolution is true? Or, rather, do we want to insist that children have a deep understanding of the science of evolution?

We can do more than guess. In 2012, the National Science Board experimented with two similar questions about evolution. When they asked respondents if “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” just under half (48%) said “true.” But when they changed the wording, that percentage leaped. When they asked people if “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” a whopping 72% of respondents agreed.

What if we were to vote on evolution? To my mind, if we did something like that, the ballot should have two simple questions:

1.) Do you want public schools to teach the best available science? And

2.) Do you think that scientists say humans evolved from other species?

With questions like that, we would get a whopping public voice of support for teaching evolution in public-school science classes.

*Exciting update! Professor Kahan has firmed up the date for his visit to our scenic campus. He’ll be giving his talk to our Evolution Studies Program on Monday, February 22, 2016. Good seats still available!

Does Your School Smell of BO?

Conservative intellectuals these days are talking a lot about the “Benedict Option.” The idea is to create intentional communities that preserve traditional values as mainstream culture hurtles ever-faster toward anti-Christian values. In the wake of Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, will such ideas catch on?

Short answer: No. If history is any guide, conservative evangelicals, at least, will continue to feel quite at home in their local mainstream communities. A quick burst of community-founding might happen, but it will likely ebb once conservatives realize how un-alienated they are from the mainstream.

Blogger Rod Dreher seems to have sparked the recent discussion of a “Benedict Option.” Dreher profiled intentional lay communities in Clear Creek, Oklahoma and Eagle River, Alaska. He asked if more conservative Christians would follow suit:

Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

As Dreher has developed the idea, it has naturally come to focus on educational goals. Even in staunchly Christian communities, Dreher has argued, the public schools lack any sense of guiding values. Kids in fifth grade share porn; they have no beef with same-sex marriage. Even in such apparent Christian havens as small-town Louisiana, Dreher believes, kids and their parents have embraced a bland, therapeutic religiosity. The Benedict Option, Dreher thinks, offers conservatives their only hope. As he put it,

There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.

Dreher has taken some heat from fellow conservatives for culture-war pessimism. Not every conservative wants to turn inward. But as Dreher recently noted, many prominent evangelical thinkers such as Russell Moore seem to be adopting a BO approach to mainstream culture.

Similarly, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University has recently endorsed a BO attitude. Earlier this week, Kidd wrote,

for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

As Dreher and other BO-friendly conservatives repeat, BO does not mean Amish. It does not mean turning away entirely from mainstream culture. In some BO communities, for instance, families make their money from internet telecommuting. They insist on remaining engaged in mainstream politics and local affairs, even as they insist on retaining more control over their children’s upbringing.

Will the Benedict Option attract more and more support from conservative Christians? If history is any guide, the likely answer is no. As Dreher, Kidd, and Moore all realize, the tension among conservative Christians between engagement and withdrawal is as old as Christianity itself. In recent American history, as I’ve argued in academic articles about Christian schools and school prayer, evangelical Protestants have tended to wax and wane in their enthusiasm for BO approaches to schooling.

In 1963, SCOTUS decided that the Lord’s Prayer could not be recited in public schools, nor could the Bible be read devotionally. This decision caused some conservative evangelicals to conclude that they had been kicked out of public school and American society.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.” No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried. Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America. In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed. The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These attitudes helped fuel a burst of new Christian schools in the 1970s. But as Christian-school leaders are painfully aware, many of those new schools couldn’t survive. Why? At least in part, because not enough conservatives feel alienated from their local mainstream communities. Why should they?

As I argue in my new book, public schools are far more conservative places than most pundits acknowledge. There is a lot of talk among both progressives and conservatives about the progressive takeover of public education, but for most Americans, their local schools remain fairly conservative places.

At the very top, leaders such as Arne Duncan embrace free-market approaches to education reform. In places such as Texas, creationist homeschoolers—folks who might fairly call themselves BO activists—have risen to the top of the state public educational hierarchy.

Why would conservatives think that they no longer had any pull in public schools? As Dreher is fully aware, many conservatives do not object to mainstream culture; they feel no yearning to give their children a radically different upbringing. If that’s the case, talk of BO in schools will not be a more than a minority sentiment.

Just as relatively few progressives abandon public schools for purer options, so too only a handful of conservatives will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education.

Is THIS the Future for Christian Colleges?

Now what do we do? That is the question plaguing conservative college administrators nationwide. Since the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages, many evangelical schools have wondered if they will have to change the way they do things. In Michigan, Hope College has announced its accommodation with the ruling. Will other Christian colleges do the same thing?

The gateway to the future?

The gateway to the future?

As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have long bedeviled evangelical colleges. For non-evangelicals, it might come as a surprise to hear that the issue is contentious. After all, at most evangelical schools, the official doctrine clearly and resolutely condemns homosexual activity.

Yet at all sorts of schools, the campus community is much more welcoming. At Gordon College recently, the president’s reminder that the school officially bans “homosexual practice” brought furious protests from students and faculty. Even at the far more conservative Liberty University, faculty members do not always take the harsh tone we progressives might expect.

As our Supreme Court decided the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals fretted that their decision would trash traditional rules on their campuses.

At Hope College in Michigan—a school in the Reformed Church tradition—the leadership and campus has experienced similar turbulence on the issues of homosexuality. In 2010, for example, the administration provoked protests when it banned the film Milk. More recently, the campus has welcomed homosexual student organizations, though the administration has continued to endorse the Reformed position on homosexuality.

In its most recent announcement, the school’s leaders have declared their intention to abide by the SCOTUS decision. From now on, same-sex married partners of college employees will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual partners. The administration again affirmed its respect for the Reformed Church’s official doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. That does not mean, however, that the school will contravene the law.

Is this the path other schools will follow? Unlike pluralist colleges, evangelical schools face intense pressure to stay true to traditional beliefs and norms. As Professor Michael Hamilton wrote in his study of Wheaton College,

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

Hope College may find itself the front line for this debate within the Reformed Church in America. The church as a whole has gone back and forth for decades about the proper Christian reaction to homosexuality. Is it better to embrace the sinner? Or to drive out the sin? Conservatives within the RCA will doubtless take this announcement as proof that Hope has gone soft. Progressives will celebrate it as a small step towards equity.

Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.

Postcards from Christian America

Is America a “Christian” nation? What do we even mean by that question? Historically, as I argued in my recent book, even secular conservatives have tended to assume that the United States needs Christianity. Is that still the case? Will it be the case for the foreseeable future? A couple of new polls offer contradictory impressions.

LifeWay, an evangelical research organization, asked 1,000 Americans if they thought God and America had a “special relationship.” Most did. Fifty-three percent overall agreed. In different categories, the percentages went up. Just over two-thirds of self-described evangelical Protestants thought America and God had a special bond. African Americans believed it (62%) more commonly than white Americans (51%). Tellingly, among the highest percentages of agreement were from white evangelicals over 45, seven of ten of whom agreed (71%).

Special friends?

Special friends?

Perhaps this demography helps explain a seeming paradox. Another Fourth of July-timed research report from the Public Religion Research Institute asserted that the numbers of Americans who think the USA is a “Christian nation” is declining, fastest among the young. Only about a third of respondents agreed that the USA is now and has always been a Christian nation. Older people tend to believe it more often.

What does it mean to think of the country as a “Christian” nation? These polls are tricky, since different respondents can think different things, even if they check the same boxes. For some respondents, the idea of a Christian nation likely evokes a tight bond between public spaces and evangelical religion. In a properly Christian nation, some think, public schools and meetings ought to be guided by Christian prayers and ideas.

Other people might simply mean that the USA has a majority of Christians. If we understand “Christian nation” in this sense, it means public spaces can still be secularized, even if a majority of citizens share a Christian faith.

As I’ve argued in the past, it is a mistake to try to pinpoint one point in time when America turned into a secular society. It is a mistake to try to understand the history of evangelicals in America as having changed at a specific point in time from an unchallenged majority to a beleaguered minority. We hear these sorts of claims all the time, of course, especially when the Supreme Court issues a seemingly anti-Christian decision.

Booming with boomers...

Booming with boomers…

From an historical perspective, evangelical Protestants have always held enormous influence over the entirety of American society. Over the long haul, certainly, evangelicalism’s influence in public life has waned.

Does that mean America is moving away from its history as a “Christian” nation?

Or does it only mean that the United States is now and has always been a pluralistic society, with evangelicals battling for control with all kinds of other religious and non-religious groups?

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