Happy Thanksgiving: Our Culture-War Holiday

Ah, Thanksgiving…when families gather to eat birds, watch football, and shout at each other. The Thanksgiving tradition of fighting over issues such as gay rights, abortion, taxes, and school prayer has been hallowed by generations of angry get-togethers. After all, when you put a bunch of people around a table, related only by genetics, and feed them too much tryptophan and wine, culture-war fireworks are bound to happen. Today we’ll share some of the punditry about Thanksgiving culture-war battles we’ve gathered from minutes of browsing the interwebs.

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

I Disagree with You, but I Respect your Commitment to your Position!

1.) Progressives Use Thanksgiving to Convert Conservatives:

At National Review Online, Katherine Timpf cocks a snook at “ridiculous” progressive suggestions for fixing conservative family members. Progressives, Timpf warns, are out to get conservatives this year. Some progressives threaten to turn the Macy’s parade into a feminist diatribe. Others will blather on about the fact that many Americans don’t celebrate Christmas. Some might seize upon the progressive missionary opportunities of the occasion, buttonholing conservative relatives on the issue of climate change, then following up with an email from the Union of Concerned Scientists. If conservative evangelical or “Tea-Party” relatives try to belittle gay marriage or Obamacare, some progressives advise their minions to take conservatives down with prepared statements from the government or the book of Leviticus. And, of course, just to make sure everyone suffers from indigestion, there is at least one progressive pundit out there advising folks to use Thanksgiving to laud the Common Core.

2.) How to Win a Thanksgiving Argument with Conservative Relatives:

At Policy.mic, Gregory Krieg offers a progressive how-to guide for culture-war arguments. Your conservative “bloviating cousin,” Krieg warns, will certainly bring up some culture-war issues. Krieg offers ways to put conservatives in their places on issues such as the Ferguson riots, Obamacare, Obama’s immigration plans, Bill Cosby’s alleged serial rapes, legalizing marijuana, and more. In each case, we’re told, there are factual, reasonable rebuttals to the sorts of “unreasonable, knee-jerk opinions” conservative relatives will be spouting.

3.) How to Publicly Shame your Conservative Uncle:

From an Iowan progressive, we see a few tips on ways to beat your conservative uncle in holiday arguments. It’s important, progressive Iowan Trish Nelson warns, not to “appear too thoughtful—conservatives may confuse this for weakness.” After pounding your conservative relative with piles of facts to explode his ill-considered myths, Nelson promises,

your conservative Uncle will be roasting in his own myths and half truths, so forgive him if he’s a bit thrown off. Take your time and be patient, let him fully cook, and patiently explain the error of his ways.

4.) Again with the “Crazy Right-Wing” Uncle!

I don’t know why uncles are the repository for conservatism this year, but from the LA Times Joel Silberman offers progressive advice on handling a conservative uncle. Don’t fall for the temptation to be polite, Silberman suggests. It is a “patriotic” act to pick fights with your conservative relatives at Thanksgiving. Why? Because these days we don’t often get a chance to engage with people from the ‘other side’ of culture war issues. [Editor’s Note: Unless, of course, we read and comment in the pages of ILYBYGTH!] To be fair, Silberman is not advising the sort of knock-down, drag-out, drumstick-wielding family kerfuffle that I remember so fondly from my childhood. Instead, he suggests that everyone guide their discussion with “respect and know when to stop, and remember that relationships are more important than righteousness.”

Good advice, and a good place to stop. But just like every Thanksgiving fighter ever, I can’t resist getting in one last word. Instead of preparing arguments to win Thanksgiving showdowns, what if we progressives all spent time learning the best arguments our conservative relatives might make? Certainly nothing is less productive in culture-war battles than sitting back smugly and assuming our mastery of “facts” will soon bring our “myth”-laden opponents to their knees.

Rather, why not take an ILYBYGTH approach? Why not do some homework to learn why intelligent, informed conservatives might hold the positions they hold? Why not assume that people of good will might disagree sincerely on abortion, Obamacare, homosexual rights, evolution, and even the Common Core?

After all, the way to quiet a jerkface loudmouth uncle is not to publicly shame him. Rather, it might be more productive if we all studied the best arguments our culture-war opponents might make. Instead of asking: How can I trounce that argument? What if we asked: Why might someone believe that? Or, most important, what if we asked: How can we enjoy all of our blessings without screaming at each other?

Conservatives LOVE Science

Or at least they like it very much.  Or maybe they love it, but they’re not in love with it.  That’s the argument coming out of Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition project these days.

Professor Kahan takes issue with the slanted punditry that has latched on to recent analyses of social attitudes toward science. Too often, commentators inflate their claims about the extent to which self-identified “conservatives” have lost faith in scientists and scientific institutions.

Kahan's Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

Kahan’s Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

As Professor Kahan points out, a closer look at those findings gives a much different picture. In a nutshell, since 1974 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions. Some wonks seized on this finding to claim that conservatives were anti-science.

Nertz, says Professor Kahan. The number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in scientists may have declined, but the total number of conservatives who say they feel either “a great deal” of confidence or “only some” confidence in science has remained fairly steady.

Even more compelling, Kahan notes that these same conservatives rank “science” near the tops of their lists of social institutions they trust. Since 1974, only medicine or the military has outranked science as the number one most trustworthy social institution among conservatives. Other institutions, , such as organized labor, the President, the Supreme Court, education, TV, and, yes, even religious institutions and big corporations, have ranked lower on conservative rankings of trustworthiness.

You heard that right.  Overall, conservatives have consistently voiced greater trust in the institution of science than in the institution of religion.  Conservatives since 1974 have evinced more trust in science than in big business.

Check out Kahan’s argument for yourself. He has charts and graphs ‘n’ stuff, so you know it’s true.

Jesus in Uniform

Can US military officers be required to sign a conservative evangelical statement of faith? That’s the question posed by the Wheaton College Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. And it unearths broader questions about the proper relationship between the military and fundamentalist religion. Can fundamentalists serve as military chaplains?

Christianity Today reports on the investigation into Wheaton’s ROTC program. At Wheaton, faculty members above the rank of assistant professor are required to sign on to Wheaton’s conservative statement of faith. Recently, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation complained that ROTC officers at Wheaton, who are paid and appointed by the US government, are required to be “of Christian faith.”

According to the CT article, legal experts had differing opinions. One thought that the Wheaton rule passed constitutional muster, since the ROTC program required all professors at all schools to meet their schools’ policies. Another argued, in contrast, that the current situation represented an unconstitutional attempt to “Christianize” the ROTC program.

For Christ, Kingdom...and the Rolling Thunder Battalion?

For Christ, Kingdom…and the Rolling Thunder Battalion?

This report made me wonder about other military questions. In my recent trip to the archives of Bob Jones University, I discovered to my surprise that BJU had pursued an aggressive policy of finding spots for its seminary graduates in military chaplaincies. The fundamentalist school had used its considerable influence in the US government to grease the pipeline from the BJU seminary into military positions.

Now, I admit my vast ignorance about the role of chaplains in the US military. Most of what I know about a chaplain’s job comes from watching MASH. I earnestly invite those who know more to weigh in here. But the notion that BJU was sending its graduates into chaplain positions made me wonder.

As I understand it—and once again I freely admit that I don’t know much about it—the role of a military chaplain in the US armed services is to provide two things: religious services for those who desire them, and religious counseling for all.

Throughout the 1960s, at least, when significant numbers of BJU-trained ministers entered the chaplaincy, the school taught a rigid separatism. That is, a key religious tenet of BJU’s fundamentalist faith was that believers must not support the work of heretics. In the world of American fundamentalism, those “heretics” represented not only Jews, Muslims, and Catholics, but even liberal Protestants.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this doctrine of separatism came with when the Bob Joneses denounced the headline-grabbing crusades of Billy Graham in the 1950s and 1960s. Graham agreed to co-sponsor those mass meetings with liberal Protestant groups. When enthusiastic attendees saw the light, they were sent to various churches to learn more about their new or renewed faith. And that was the problem for the leaders of Bob Jones University.

As they made clear time and time again, Bob Jones Sr. and Jr. never had a personal problem with Billy Graham. But in their opinion, sending new Christians to liberal Protestant churches meant sending them to hell. Real Christians, the Bob Joneses argued, could and should work with non-real Christians and other heretics on political issues. But they must not work together on religious issues, since endorsing heretics meant endorsing heresy.

With separatism such a guiding element of BJU theology, it seems to me that BJU-trained chaplains would be putting themselves in a very difficult position. If their jobs require that they respect the faiths of their military “flocks”—even if they don’t agree with those faiths—but their own faith requires that they DON’T respect those heretical faiths, what are chaplains to do?

I could see how some fundamentalist pastors would see their non-fundamentalist troops as a sort of “mission field.” That is, fundamentalist chaplains could see their goal as the ultimate conversion of non-fundamentalist soldiers. But that would put those chaplains at odds with the US military. As a governmental body, the military needs to respect all faiths (or no faith) equally.

On the other hand, I could see how some fundamentalist pastors might agree to respect the home faiths of their troops, whatever those faiths might be. But especially at the ferociously separatist Bob Jones University, that would put those chaplains in an equally untenable situation. They might be implicitly endorsing those faiths by working with non-fundamentalists on an equal basis.

Things are fuzzy enough in the world of religion and public schooling. These military questions raise an entirely new field of fuzz. Perhaps Wheaton College can make a case that its ROTC policy is constitutional. But how can fundamentalist pastors serve as military chaplains?

A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.

From the Archives: Christian Comix against Communism

In this century, it can be difficult to remember the way most Americans used to feel about communism. As I describe in my upcoming book, the campaign against communism had an enormous influence on American education, one that is hard to overemphasize. As I work this week in the abundant archives of Bob Jones University, doing research for my next book, I’ve come across reminders of the ways conservative Christians saw communism as an existential threat. This evening, I’d like to share a few snippets from just one of those historical artifacts, c. 1965.

As the comics below demonstrate, for many conservative evangelicals, this was not just a question of politics, but of religion. Communism represented an aggressive atheism, the apotheosis of perverted human pride.

Other conservatives, of course, did not worry as much about religious issues. As historian George Nash has argued, the many meanings of communism allowed conservative intellectuals to coalesce around a vibrant anti-communism. Libertarians could join with Burkeans, who could clasp hands with religious conservatives and free-market conservatives. All could agree that the fight against communism outweighed any differences they might have among themselves.


Are Teach-Bots “Conservative?”

When Arnold Schwartzenegger played a robot, it was the mean, human-killing kind (at first). But when he played a teacher, it was the cute, love-them-kids kind. But in the real world, we will soon have machines performing crucial teaching tasks. Will this be embraced by conservatives?

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers...

Hasta la Vista, Human Teachers…

According to Politico, the company that is in charge of producing Common-Core-related standardized tests has promised to introduce computer grading. The company, Pearson, wants computers to grade student essays in order to cut down on the costs of test processing. In fact, those algorithm-guided grading programs were an essential part of Pearson’s original contract with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the folks behind the Common Core tests.

Caitlin Emma of Politico reports that those robo-graders have been delayed without explanation. Pearson’s original plan was to phase in computer grading. This year, all Common-Core tests would be graded by humans. Next year, two thirds would be done by computer. After that, computers would “read” and evaluate all student essays.

For us here at ILYBYGTH, this raises a tricky question: Is this plan “conservative?” As we’ve seen, conservatives have been bitterly divided over the plans to introduce Common Core curricula. Some conservatives have insisted that the CCSS are the best, most conservative way to reform education. Others have called the new standards a “progressive beer bong,” or a socialist plan fomented by “Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats.”

So what will conservatives say about robo-grading? I can imagine some free-market types will embrace the new technology. If computers can grade tests quickly, efficiently, and accurately . . . why not? This will represent, after all, the triumph of business principles in the hopelessly sclerotic world of public education, some might say.

On the other hand, conservatives might be aghast at the dehumanization of the process. It is one thing to use machines to grade multiple-choice answer sheets, but another thing entirely to have them grade essays. For one thing, conservatives might agree that computer grading is simply inaccurate. Conservative critics might side with progressive pundits who insist that computers can’t possibly evaluate the complex meanings of student writing.

My hunch is that this issue will divide the traditional “conservative” constituency. I’ve argued that the Common Core has forced a re-shuffling of what it has meant to be “conservative” on educational issues. This question of computer grading will only deepen that divide among conservatives.

From the Archives: Fundamentalist Luxury

Why do families choose fundamentalist colleges? As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’ve been wondering about this question as part of the research for my new book. Today’s work in the archive of Bob Jones University offered one surprising answer from the early days.

I’ll be working in the archive here all week. The archivist has been extraordinarily helpful and productive, digging through piles of files to track down whatever I’ve mentioned.

I'll be here all week...

I’ll be here all week…

One of the questions I’m curious about is the appeal of these schools. In its early days, Bob Jones College (it only became Bob Jones University in the late 1940s) worked hard to attract new students. In the early files, I found an example of a personal letter written by a college official to a potential student in 1928.

It’s not clear who wrote it, but it may have been any of a handful of early 1920s administrators. In any case, the letter starts out as you’d expect. As I argued in my 1920s book, back then schools such as BJC promised a safe haven from the developing higher-education world of evolution, smoking, and flappers.

So the letter’s first questions are about what we’d expect:

Would you like to attend a school where you would be taken care of physically, where you have fine Christian boys and girls for associates—where you would have fine, scholarly, Christian teachers who would give you personal and constant attention, and where expenses are reasonable? If so, fill in the enclosed application blank.

But as always, it’s more complicated than that. Check out the promises at the end of the letter:

I will give you and [your friend] a room together. This is one of the nicest dormitories you ever saw. There is a connecting bath between every two bed rooms, hot and cold running water in every room and steam heat for winter time. It is the last word in physical convenience and comfort.

Not what I expected! But of course, it makes sense that a college recruiter would pull out all the stops in an effort to get students for a brand new college…any brand new college. To me, this is more evidence that the world of fundamentalist higher education shared a good deal more with mainstream schools than we tend to think.

Rah rah

Rah rah

Just as colleges these days go broke building climbing walls and luxury dorm suites, so colleges in the 1920s fell all over themselves to attract paying students. Even fundamentalist colleges—or, at least, this one fundamentalist college—promised a collegiate life of luxury.

Firing Creationist Scientists


Can a scientist be fired for simply being a creationist? Or for teaching what Glenn Branch has called “zombie science?” In contrast to what sharp-tongued activists on both sides may say, the answer is not at all clear. The case of Mark Armitage in the California State University system brings these questions back to the fore.

Armitage, a microscopist formerly at Cal State Northridge, is suing his former employer for wrongful termination. Armitage had discovered some soft-tissue residue in a fossil from a Triceratops horn. Like many young-earth creationists, he took this as proof that the fossil layer was thousands of years old, not millions.

Though he left his creationist conclusions out of his peer-reviewed publications about the fossil, he did not leave those conclusions out of conversations with students. And, though Nature magazine could not get a satisfying answer from Cal State Northridge, it seems those conversations were the problem. Armitage was not accused of doing a bad job as a microscopist. That’s why he’s suing.

Armitage complains that he was fired for his religious beliefs. According to Armitage, he had always been open and forthcoming with his colleagues about his religious beliefs. He had always been praised for his work in the microscope labs. But he had also been open and forthright in sharing his views with students. And that seems to have been the problem. After one such conversation, Armitage claims that the department chair of biology “stormed” into Armitage’s microscope lab and roared, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!!”

Does Armitage have a case? Can a public university fire a scientist for being a creationist? Or for teaching students creationism?

It seems as if it would be easier to decide these issues at the K-12 level, but the case of John Freshwater demonstrates how complicated it can be even there. Freshwater was an Ohio middle-school teacher fired for teaching creationism in a public-school science class. Freshwater hoped to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He didn’t make it, but the lower courts didn’t give us the satisfying precedent we might hope for. The Ohio Supreme Court avoided any decision about Freshwater’s constitutional right to his religious and academic views. Instead, the Ohio court decided against him due to his insubordination.

When it comes to teaching creationism in public higher ed, the case is even more fudgy. Consider the case of Emerson McMullen at Georgia Southern University. McMullen attracted negative attention from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his blatant preaching of creationist religion in his history of science classes. The FFRF asked GSU to discipline McMullen, but the issue raises difficult questions of academic freedom. Even staunch anti-creationists such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran worry about this kind of college crackdown on creationists.

Even more confounding, the federal government does not seem to have any qualms about employing young-earth creationists as scientists. As we noted a while back, Douglas Bennett and Brent Carter worked for decades as geologists for the US Bureau of Reclamation, all the while actively promoting young-earth creationism.

Maybe the long government careers of Bennett and Carter provide the central clue. Maybe the government can employ creationists as scientists, but it can’t pay them to teach creationism as science. As far as I can tell, neither Bennett nor Carter taught anyone anything. And Armitage was fired, it seems, not for believing creationist ideas, but for teaching them as science.

Which returns us to our central question: Should public universities get rid of creationist scientists? Should they only get rid of them if the creationists in question actually teach creationism as science? Or should there be a more energetic inquiry into the scientific thinking of publicly funded scientists?

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution?  Jerry Bergman says yes...

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution? Jerry Bergman says yes…

For their part, creationists have long complained, like Mark Armitage, that they have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Over thirty years ago, Jerry Bergman insisted that he had been fired from Bowling Green State University solely for his religion. As he argued in his 1984 book The Criterion,

Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices. This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue. But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’

Creationists today are just as positive that Armitage is the victim of both religious and scientific persecution. As the Pacific Justice Institute put it,

It has become apparent that ‘diversity’ and ‘intellectual curiosity,’ so often touted as hallmarks of a university education, do not apply to those with a religious point of view. This suit was filed, in part, to vindicate those ideals.

Similarly, the headline in the ferociously conservative World Net Daily screamed, “Scientist Fired for Making Dinosaur Discovery.”

As Armitage’s lawsuit wends its way through the courts, I have a hunch that even the most conservative creationists might privately acknowledge that Armitage was not fired for his discovery. Rather, Armitage seems to have been fired for teaching students that the earth is likely only several thousand years old.

As Nature magazine concluded in its recent story about the affair, employers can’t legally fire someone for his or her religious beliefs. But employers can fire employees for conduct that goes against the mission of the institution. If radically dissenting visions of science undermine the assumptions of secular mainstream science, can a creationist scientist be fired?

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

If Fundamentalists Hate So Many People, Why Do They Love Artists?

Why does the leading fundamentalist university in America also have one of its best private art collections? Not just a collection of Jack Chick cartoons, either, but a diverse collection of religious art from the greatest of European old masters? One writer recently called this bewildering. The answer lies in the misunderstood nature of fundamentalism itself.

This is not what fundamentalist art looks like at Bob Jones University.

This is NOT what fundamentalist art looks like at Bob Jones University.

In the pages of The Imaginative Conservative, Dwight Longenecker recently described his trip to the art museum on the campus of Bob Jones University. As Longenecker explained,

I thought the art gallery would be perhaps a small and preachy collection of kitsch Evangelical art: pictures of the rapture taking place, memorabilia of the Jones family or stilted illustrations of Bible stories. I was wrong. The Bob Jones gallery houses an astounding array of old master paintings, icons, antiques, sculpture and Biblical antiquities.

And Longenecker asks the right questions: How can a school famed for its rigid fundamentalism host such an eclectic display of non-fundamentalist art? How can Bob Jones Jr. denounce Jerry Falwell as “the most dangerous man in America” in 1980 due to his willingness to work with conservative Catholics, yet splurge on a collection of Catholic and Russian Orthodox art treasures?

Fundamentalist art, BJU-style.

Fundamentalist art, BJU-style.

One question Longenecker doesn’t ask is also vital: How can a university pay faculty and staff much less than going salary rates, while its leader travels across Europe, purchasing world-class art for a private gallery?

The answer lies in the history of fundamentalist higher education itself. As I’m exploring in my new book, beginning in the 1920s, fundamentalist colleges struggled to figure out how to remain fundamentalist. After all, too many religious colleges had slidden into liberalism and eventually into secularism. Harvard, University of Chicago, Duke…too many leading schools had begun with conservative religious intentions, only to drift into worldly liberalism and pluralism.

Different schools worked out different solutions. One leading college, Wheaton College in Illinois, eventually settled into a pattern. The board of trustees kept careful watch on the goings-on among students and faculty. But the wider fundamentalist world, too, constantly questioned Wheaton’s leaders about on-campus events and tendencies. Conservative evangelicals around the country felt a right and a responsibility to keep Wheaton safely orthodox.

Wheaton’s archives are full of this sort of fundamentalist scrutiny. To pick just one example, President Hudson Armerding received a short, scrawled note in late 1968 from a woman who had no apparent personal connection to Wheaton. She was not an alumna, not a parent of a student. She was just a concerned fundamentalist who worried about the school’s continuing conservatism. “Recently after a church meeting,” she wrote to Wheaton’s president,

a group of persons was discussing Wheaton College. Some said that your school now teaches ‘theistic evolution’ and has departed from the fundamentals of the Bible. Is this true? Would you please investigate your curriculum? Also—statements made were that [sic] the school allows ‘worldly practices’—movies, smoking, etc. Please reply. Thank you.

At Bob Jones College (it became Bob Jones University only in the late 1940s), on the other hand, the 1930s wrought a very different way of maintaining orthodoxy. During that period, the school’s founder, Bob Jones Sr., established a principle of “loyalty.” The school community would be guided and maintained in its fundamentalist rigor by unswerving loyalty to the school’s original fundamental purpose. Faculty would be expected to support the school fervently and unstintingly. As Bob Jones Sr. put it in one chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

In practice, this expected loyalty to the school became an expected loyalty to the school’s leader. The Bob Joneses—Senior, Junior, then III—embodied the meanings of “fundamentalism” at the school. As outsiders have struggled to understand, this development allowed Bob Jones College to be more liberal in some matters, while still maintaining its status as a ferociously fundamentalist school.

For example, at the far less conservative Wheaton College, students were not allowed to put on plays until the 1960s. The worry of the broad fundamentalist community was that “worldly” drama might tarnish students’ religion.

But throughout its existence, Bob Jones University has encouraged students to dive into drama, especially the not-particularly-Christian work of Shakespeare. This may seem like a paradox, a mystery, but it is explained by the principle of loyalty at BJU. At BJU, the entire fundamentalist community did not debate whether or not Shakespeare was acceptable for fundamentalists. The leaders decided.

And once they decided, it became a principle of loyalty for faculty and community members to go along. One faculty member in the 1930s criticized the school’s policy of putting on Shakespearean dramas. Such worldly amusements, she argued, could not help guide the fundamentalist faith of BJC students. At a school like Wheaton, those arguments carried a lot of weight. But not at Bob Jones College. As Bob Jones Sr. later explained,

She walked around and said, ‘You know, I’m so concerned. They have drama at Bob Jones College, and I think we should have a prayer meeting.’ . . . that’s her privilege. You don’t have to love Shakespeare. . . . But she knew Bob Jones College loved Bill Shakespeare.

She was fired.

For many observers, this is the constant paradox of Bob Jones University. As Dwight Longenecker reports from his visit to the art gallery, the school combines an indefatigable insistence on rigid fundamentalism with an embrace of non-fundamentalist art that might shock even moderate evangelicals. From the worldly Shakespeare to the Catholic Old Masters, Bob Jones University has the ability to be less conservative about some things than more moderate schools.

Dwight Longenecker attributes this seeming paradox to the “eccentric and unique flair” of Bob Jones Jr., president of the school between 1947 and 1971. There’s truth to that, but only part of the explanation. At Bob Jones University, the loyalty/leadership principle allowed Bob Jones Jr. to indulge his taste for non-fundamentalist art and drama in ways that less conservative fundamentalist institutions could never have allowed.

This history matters for more than just the campus surprise of BJU’s beautiful art museum. The influence of BJU among fundamentalists is hard to overstate. Due to its extensive network of influential alumni and its powerful school-publishing arm, the meanings of “fundamentalism” at Bob Jones University can influence the meanings of fundamentalism nationwide.

And with so much of that meaning determined by the school’s leaders, the personality and taste of a leader such as Bob Jones Jr. can have an enormously outsized influence on fundamentalism in general.


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