Phonics for Phundamentalists

How can conservative religious people save their children from a monstrously hypertrophied public school system? In the pages of the Christian Post, Paul de Vries offers a few suggestions to restore the educational prerogatives of conservative families and churches. Could they work?

De Vries, an evangelical philosopher and school leader, suggests a religious solution to angst over high-stakes Common-Core tests. In short, de Vries wants to “restore” the “prize-winning, God-ordained architecture of education that made our country great.” Instead of passing off education to the public-school system, de Vries writes, conservatives need to increase the educational role of the family and the church. Not only can this plan help students learn to read and cipher, but it will inject a dose of Christian morality and soul-winning into a woefully secularized system, de Vries believes.

He offers a menu of specific things conservative religious people can do to assert more control over education. For instance, churches can offer Saturday school in phonics instruction to all the kids in their neighborhoods. It would be a win-win. Young people would get better reading skills, which would help them in their education and standardized school tests. Churches would get more people to heaven, by using the Bible as the only textbook, instilling a deeper appreciation for the Christian Gospel in all the kids of the neighborhood.

Could it work? De Vries says that it does already. Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan, one of the foundational churches of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, already runs a program like this.

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Elsewhere, though, religious add-on programs have run into trouble. In Portland, Oregon, for example, parent activists mobilized to spread the word about Christian attempts to spread the Word to children. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) may remember, in that case the Child Evangelism Fellowship promised to educate kids about God and phonics in fun-filled after-school programs. The CEF had the Supreme Court on its side, but non-evangelical parents promised to block access to unwary children.

Professor de Vries hopes that parents will want educational success badly enough that they’ll send their children to Saturday morning church-school. The phonics program, he hopes, will be an attractive lure for children who might otherwise never enter a church.

The Biggest Creationists in the World

Is Christianity the most creationist religion?  Islam?  A new study from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East suggests some surprising conclusions about the relationship between religion and creationism.

The study by Pierre Clément of the Université de Lyon used a questionnaire distributed to teachers throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  Fifteen of the questions had something to do with evolution.

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion...

Creationist hotspot, whatever your religion…

Perhaps not surprising, in countries where teachers tended to be more religious, they also tended to be more creationist.  In Algeria, for example, 91.9% of respondents identified as Muslim.  Only 1.3% called themselves atheists or agnostic.  And over 90% of those Algerian teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the origin of humanity.

Compare that to France, where just over half of teachers identified as atheist/agnostic, 38.1% called themselves Catholic, and 1.5% said they were Muslims.  Only about 2% of French teachers thought that “Only God” was responsible for the creation of humanity.

The authors had wondered if Islam tended to push teachers harder toward creationism than did Christianity.  That is, do Muslims tend to be more creationist than Christians?  Their conclusion: Not in these countries, it seems.  As Clément put it,

There is not a specific effect on the Muslim religion itself on the teachers’ conceptions of evolution, but a more general effect of their degree of belief in God, whatever their religion.

In creationist-heavy countries, that is, Christians and Muslims agree.  On creationism at least.

Hot & Bothered in Binghamton, New York

Clear your calendars! Next Friday Jonathan Zimmerman will be coming to scenic Binghamton to give a talk about his new book.

Zimmerman is a prolific historian and public intellectual. You may have read his blockbuster books such as Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Now you can get your hands on his latest, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education. You may also have seen him in the pages of the New York Times or on The Daily Show.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

Next Friday, May 1st, at 4:15 in the Admissions Center, Binghamton University will host Professor Zimmerman for our 23rd annual Couper Lecture. In the past, this lecture series has brought to our campus such luminaries as Bill Reese, Michael Apple, Maris Vinovskis, and many more.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, sex ed is one of the touchiest topics in America’s continuing culture wars. What should schools tell students about sex? How much is too much?

In his new book, Professor Zimmerman explodes the boundaries of these debates. The culture war over sex ed, Zimmerman argues, is not merely between conservatives and liberals in the USA. Rather, worries about the right relationship between sex and children spread from the US to cover the globe during the twentieth century.

So slip on your smarty-pants and come on over to our scenic campus. All are welcome, but registration is requested.

Bizarre Attacks on Conservatives

Watch out! Conservative ideas might subject you and your family to thuggish home invasions. Even more creepy, conservative ideas might get you erased from your own personal history. As we observe American conservatism from the outside here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve noticed the steady stream of conservative complaints about persecution. Today’s crop of victim alerts, though, rises to a new level of weirdness.

As one sophisticated and good-looking regular reader of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) noted recently, conservatives are not the only ones to emphasize their own status as victims. Patrick asked,

Who doesn’t emphasize their own victimhood these days? Perhaps the question should be why doing so has become an American tradition. One way of looking at it is to point out that we are an optimistic bunch, perpetually hopeful that if we consistently expose unfairness and hypocrisy, we will help solve the problem by raising awareness of it. Why else would the news always be so depressing?

It makes intuitive sense that every side in our tumultuous culture wars would complain loudly about their own suffering. It is the same dynamic as any family squabble. Victims get justice. Aggressors get punished, at least in theory.

Bubbling up from the conservative commentariat this morning we find two new claims to victimhood. In Wisconsin, we hear, conservative activists have been subjected to jackbooted attacks. And one high school has taken steps to erase its memory of one of its conservative graduates.

First, to Wisconsin: David French’s exposé of hardball culture-war politics tells the story of mild-mannered conservative families subjected to brutal attack. In the aftermath of Wisconsin’s Act 10, conservatives have been targeted as part of a concerted campaign to embarrass and humiliate them. In short, according to French, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm pushed a “John Doe” investigation of Wisconsin conservatives.

In this kind of investigation, proceedings are kept secret. Investigators have wide latitude to seize relevant documents. As a result, conservative activists had their homes invaded by terrifying police agents. Doors were pounded on. Floors were stomped on. Children were shaken out of bed. Neighbors gathered and gaped. Conservatives were threatened. Computers and phones were seized. Dogs barked.

As French put it, “For select conservative families across five counties, this was the terrifying moment — the moment they felt at the mercy of a truly malevolent state.”

These raids turned at least one Wisconsin conservative into an outlaw, in her imagination at least. As she explains,

I used to support the police, to believe they were here to protect us. Now, when I see an officer, I’ll cross the street. I’m afraid of them. I know what they’re capable of.


Conservatives targeted for home invasions precisely because of their conservative activism. Police used as intimidation agents, to harass and intimidate political activists. All bluster aside, these are profoundly disturbing charges.

Even more bizarre, though, is the story coming from a Baltimore high school. Ryan T. Anderson, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, was first lauded, then removed, from his high school’s Facebook page.

Anderson had been the subject of a front-page story in the Washington Post. The article called Anderson a “fresh voice” for traditional marriage.

At first, according to a story in the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, Anderson’s high school posted news of this alumni success on its Facebook page. Later, the school took down the post. Why? In the words of school head Matt Micciche,

I can understand why the belief that Mr. Anderson’s views were being endorsed by the school would be deeply troubling to some members of our community. The nature of these views goes beyond the realm of abstract political ideology and calls into question the fitness of same-sex families to raise children and the right of gay and lesbian citizens to marry the person they love. While Mr. Anderson undoubtedly has the right to express such views, by posting this article we created legitimate confusion as to whether or not they were being validated by the school.

Maybe it is less scary to be removed from Facebook than to have one’s house broken into by aggressive police, but the implications of this Baltimore story are, IMHO, more sinister.

We're proud of our alumni!  Oh,

We’re proud of our alumni! Oh, wait…no.

By removing notice of the significant conservative accomplishments of Anderson, his alma mater, in effect, suggested that conservatism is somehow shady, illegitimate, disreputable . . . even shameful.

I don’t say this as an endorsement of Anderson’s ideas. Nor do I claim to understand the intricacies of Wisconsin’s culture-war politics. For those of us trying to understand conservatism and the culture wars, though, both these stories raise important questions:

  • Is it legitimate to oppose same-sex marriage?
  • Do conservatives have a claim to victimhood?
  • Do these strange stories offer proof that conservative thinkers and activists have been uniquely and unfairly persecuted?

From the Archives: To Educate a Fundamentalist

What do fundamentalists learn in school? As I continue my research into evangelical higher education this week at the Moody Bible Institute archives, I’ve found a couple of clues about what went on in fundamentalist classrooms.

It is always one of the trickiest things for historians to pry behind the classroom door. We can study the institutional goings-on at schools. We can look at the paper trail of rules, curriculum changes, textbook decisions, and the like. But it is extremely difficult to discover what real students really did.

Thanks to the voluminous collections at MBI, I’ve found some hints of what fundamentalist learning looked like. One scrapbook collection from the early 1940s includes assignments and study guides. For example, this student turned in eighteen assignments from a book on missions. (The first fourteen were on time, the last four late. What happened during those last weeks?) The assignment was clear: Students were to read the book The Progress of World-Wide Missions, by Robert H. Glover. They were to write answers to a series of questions posed by the instructor.IMG_1938[1]

For this student, at least, the process was one of regurgitating facts and opinions from the book. She did not offer any of her own thoughts on the subject, nor did that seem to be encouraged.

This student also left behind her set of study guides about Biblical dispensations. The theology taught at MBI hinged on dispensational premillennialism. Bible history (and future) was divided into a series of periods, or dispensations. In each dispensation, God ruled according to dispensationally appropriate guidelines. In order to make sense of the Bible, according to this system, it was necessary to understand the various dispensations at work.IMG_1954[1]

It seems fair to assume that these study guides were meant to provide students with help memorizing the details of each dispensation. When students had memorized these facts forward and backward, they could presumably read the Bible correctly. This system was the key to “rightly dividing the Word of Truth.” Without it, students and their future missionary targets could end up with woefully misleading interpretations of Scripture.

From the Archives: Good GPA, Good SATs, “Well-Rounded,” and…

How did fundamentalist colleges select their students? Despite my hilarious title this morning, until World War II admissions were not usually based on standardized test scores or high-school grades and activities. During my research this week at the Moody Bible Institute, I found one example of admission standards from 1930 that tells us a lot.

Sometime between World War I & World War II, American colleges and universities developed standard admissions procedures. Until then, students could take an examination to prove they were prepared. Some colleges worked out deals with local high schools to admit all their graduates. Plus, colleges often admitted many students who were not adequately prepared, then sent them to the school’s preparatory department.

In the 1920s, as Roger Geiger argues in his new book, colleges such as Yale and Princeton devised standardized tests. Not to offer an equal playing field, but to test for those qualities polished by the kinds of prep schools fancy families preferred. In fact, one intended consequence of these tests was to give schools some justification for turning down new numbers of qualified Jewish applicants.

Fundamentalist colleges and Bible institutes had different standards. At many fundamentalist colleges, students from any religious background were welcome, as long as they observed the lifestyle rules and attended mandatory religious services.

At Moody Bible Institute, on the other hand, incoming students had to prove they were on board with the school’s fundamentalist theology. Until the 1940s, new students did not have to prove they had completed high school. But they had to offer solid proof that they were invested in the school’s soul-winning ambition.

Each applicant in the 1920s and 1930s had to offer three references. Those folks were asked to fill out a four-page reference form. Some of the questions were fairly ho-hum: How long have you known the applicant? Is the applicant strong intellectually? But others were unique to this kind of conservative evangelical institution: “Has he to your knowledge ever backslidden? If so, when, and what were the circumstances?” “Has he a genuine love for souls?” “Is he discreet in his conduct toward women?” “Has he any doctrinal, or other peculiarities that would unfit him for Christian work?”

One referee offered a telling answer to this last question on an application from 1930. Is the applicant theologically peculiar? “No, he is a fundamentalist.”



In 1930, to this referring pastor at least, being a “fundamentalist” meant eschewing any of the heterodox theological options available. Fundamentalists in this era worried not only about secularism and atheism, but also about close theological cousins that might lure away earnest believers. As I argued in my first book, in the 1920s fundamentalism struggled to define itself against such conservative near neighbors as Seventh-day Adventism, Christian Science, or Pentecostalism.

The theological reefs and snares included some terms that have been lost to time. In the 1920s, fundamentalists worried about “Bullingerism” and “Russellism” among their ranks. The danger was not only that such students would not embrace the school’s mission. The stark danger was that such attractive theological ideas could spread like wildfire among the student body.

Schools such as MBI worked hard to be sure each incoming student was free from such spiritual contagion, just as they tried to be sure incoming students were free from tuberculosis and smallpox.

The Other School Reformers

Binghamtonians!  Are you busy next Tuesday nite?  You are now!

The place to be...

The place to be…

Come on down to RiverRead Books at 6:30 for a talk about my new book, The Other School Reformers. I’ll be sharing some of the questions that I’ve been wrestling with for the past decade or so, including the following things that keep me up at night:

  • What has it meant to be “conservative” about education?
  • Are our schools “conservative?” “Progressive?”
  • Why do conservatives love high-stakes testing?  Creationism? “Patriotic” education?
  • Should public schools teach “traditional” values?  Which ones?
  • And more!

Academic Freedom vs. Creation College

nnu crusaders

President Alexander’s Last Crusade?

What is a college president to do? At conservative religious colleges, leaders are in a real pickle. Hosting faculty with unpopular beliefs could lead to a loss of tuition dollars. Getting rid of them could lead to charges of dictatorial ambition. At Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, President David Alexander fired Thomas Jay Oord. Now Alexander has to deal with the consequences.

First, some background. According to Christianity Today, Alexander’s administration claims that the firing was due to financial straits. Professor Oord taught theology for a decade at the college and had earned a reputation for teaching evolution and “open theology.”

The faculty senate at NNU has protested the administration’s move. The school’s financial future is rosy, according to the faculty. Oord’s firing, they say, is more about reputation than budget.

As at many other conservative religious colleges, that reputation can be difficult to protect. As we’ve discussed in these pages, college leaders face intense pressure to remain orthodox. Parents and alumni control the pursestrings. Such folks can be ferocious defenders of traditional values.

School leaders are forced not only to keep teaching orthodox, but to avoid any appearance of liberalism. If a professor like Oord becomes well known for favoring theistic evolution, it can tarnish the creationist reputation of a college. Parents will send their creationist children elsewhere. Alumni will keep their money.

From the Archives: What’s a Popular Fundamentalist to Do?

It’s not easy being the king. During my digging yesterday in the Moody Bible Institute archives, I came across a plaintive letter that typified the social difficulties some fundamentalists have experienced in higher education.

Help...I'm popular!

Help…I’m popular!

Here’s the background: An alumnus wrote to President James M. Gray in 1930, asking for advice. This former MBI student had moved on to George Washington University after his preparatory time at the Institute. MBI, the student reported, had prepared him for life in the secular academy. As he told President Gray,

During my first year here at the school I encountered much by way of modernism, so called, especially in such departments as history and natural science. While none of the teaching has perturbed me, yet the atmosphere is not nearly so buoyant as that at Moody.

So far, so good. One of the primary goals of Bible institutes has been to prepare students to enter secular higher education. Once inoculated against secularism and liberalism by one or two years of Bible study, the thinking went, students could go to regular colleges and learn to be productive Christian members of society.

Even when that plan worked, as with our 1930 letter-writer, it was not always easy. This MBI alumnus could handle the religious and intellectual challenges of life at a secular school. But it was harder to figure out the social ones. He did not know what to do about good friends who were not fundamentalists. As he asked President Gray,

What shall I do about amusements? I am somewhat popular with no small number here at the university and because of my having received, last year, an athletic scholarship I was invited to many fraternity functions. My friends at the school are they who dance, play bridge and while these amusements are out of the question for me, what about the identifying of myself with perfectly good fellows in fraternity? Will I be a better influence to remain out of them or, in entering them, abstain from the amusements and thereby make my Christian testimony conspicuous by the abstinence?

MBI Kind of Town…

What did you do after high school? Did you go to a “college?” Or was it a “university,” “institute,” a “normal school,” or maybe a “professional school?” For generations of ambitious Protestant missionaries, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago has been the best-known institution of evangelical higher ed. So much so that MBI has clung to the “BI” name much longer than many other evangelical colleges.

DOWNtown funk...

DOWNtown funk…

I just rolled into Chi-town on the last of my research trips this year. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m working on a book about the history of evangelical higher ed. This year, I’ve traveled to Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, Biola University, Gordon College, and Liberty University.

MBI is last, but certainly not least. I’ve logged my share of time in these archives over the years, especially while working on my PhD dissertation and first book. MBI is not the oldest Bible Institute, but it has remained far and away the most influential.

For those outside of the orbit of evangelical culture, the primary goal of Bible institutes has been to provide quick and affordable education for missionaries. In order to serve effectively on the mission field, many evangelicals have believed, missionaries need a thorough knowledge of the Bible. In order to bring people to true salvation, missionaries need a proper knowledge, too.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Bible institutes popped up in American cities nationwide. Many of them attracted students without a lot of academic preparation. These students, after all, were not heading into the traditional professions, but rather heading out to spread the Gospel in every land. They did not need to know Latin and trigonometry, but rather only the Bible and maybe some basic medicine and language skills.

Over the decades, many of these Bible institutes turned into colleges or universities of one kind or another. This was part of the triple revolution in higher education that Roger Geiger describes in his new book, The History of American Higher Education. By 1940, Professor Geiger argues, the wild diversity of early institutions of higher education had become standardized, a recognizable modern system of American higher education.

In this system, no one went to college without first completing a high-school education. They looked forward to an education that would prepare them for specific professions. Colleges themselves closed their preparatory departments or split them off into stand-along high schools. Universities had shaken out into a relatively stable hierarchy of prestige and social influence. At the top were wealthy old schools such as Harvard and the University of Michigan. At these universities, undergraduate education rollicked along in a cloud of sports, fraternities, and social climbing, while the schools themselves fought viciously to increase their research footprint.

As this modern system regularized itself in the years after World War I, several types of institutions phased out. These evolutionary also-rans included many institutes of technology, proprietary medical or legal schools, “female institutes,” normal schools, and—though Professor Geiger doesn’t mention them—most of the Bible institutes.

These old-fashioned types of higher education did not disappear. Rather, most of them changed to offer the new standard bachelor’s degrees. Many of them built new dormitories and fielded sports teams. And most of them took their place in the competitive hierarchy that arched from Harvard down to Podunk State College & Grill.

A very few exceptions stood out from this winnowing process, at least symbolically. Some of the old-fashioned institutions of higher education had been so successful in the 1800s that they felt no need to change their names, even as they usually adopted some of the features of modern higher education. Most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never changed its name to call itself a “college” or a “university.” MIT began as one of a scramble of “institutes of technology” in the years surrounding the Civil War. Unlike today’s MIT, the early institutes did not focus on recognizably pure modern research. Instead, they mostly provided students with a more practical mechanical education meant for workers in industrial workshops.

As more and more students wanted to spend their tuition dollars at a “college” or “university” that took its place in the ever-more-rigid hierarchy after World War I, most of these “institutes of technology” turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.”

Following a somewhat similar pattern, since 1940 most of the crop of Bible institutes that sprang up around the turn of the twentieth century turned themselves into “colleges” or “universities.” Biola University, for example, began its life as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—BIOLA, get it? Gordon College, too, had its roots as the Boston Missionary Training School. As early Gordon President Nathan Wood remembered, the first name change—to Gordon College of Theology and Missions—resulted from student pressure.   Three class presidents, Wood recalled, requested

a change of name to one which would express the collegiate and theological work of the school. . . . It meant much to them as future Alumni.

To put it in terms Wood never used, the Gordon students recognized early the congealing patterns of modern American higher education. A “training school” did not convey the same prestige and professional opportunities as did a “college.”

For some stand-out schools, however, these rules did not apply. Moody Bible Institute was so well known among evangelicals its name sufficed to keep students coming. There was no need for it to change its name to acknowledge the changing environment of American higher education. Like MIT, MBI had created such a unique niche in higher education that it kept its old fashioned name and much of its old-fashioned structure. Also like MIT, MBI took on many of the features of modern higher education. Unlike in its early days, MBI now offers college degrees, not just Bible training.

Doubtless, I’ll find some evidence here in the archives about efforts over the years to change MBI’s name. Unlike smaller schools, however, MBI had the size needed to stand out as an island in the new seas of modern higher education.


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