Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

Creation and the Ice Bucket Challenge

What does a young earth have to do with pouring a bucket of ice over your head?  According to Georgia Purdom of Answers In Genesis, the popular ice bucket challenge might not be the innocent do-gooderism it seems to be.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve seen images of people pouring buckets of ice over their heads.  The idea is to spread the word about the work of the ALS Association.  And it’s working.  Celebrities from all over the media map have done the deed, including former POTUS George W. Bush.

So why would AIG be against it?  According to Answers In Genesis, the Ice Bucket Challenge funnels money and attention to an immoral organization.  In the words of AIG’s Georgia Purdom,

the ALS Association that is promoting the frigid challenge promotes an unethical search for a cure. Many researchers are willing to use embryonic stem cells and cells taken from “electively aborted” fetuses to search for a cure.

Does this imply that President Bush is not pro-life?  That Bush and all the Ice-Bucketeers are somehow making a political statement in favor of embryonic stem cell research?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creationism, Conservatism, and the Common Core

What does creationism have to do with the newish Common Core Learning Standards? Some conservative activists and politicians are rejecting both in a knee-jerk attack on educational reform. In one new educational bill in Ohio, conservatives simultaneously threw out the Common Core and opened the door to creationism. But this isn’t just a question of creationism. Rather, this is a symptom of a broader conservative attitude toward public schooling.

Not just science, but history and literature are also targeted in this conservative educational power grab.

We first became aware of this new bill in Ohio thanks to the watchdoggery of the folks at the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE, naturally, worried first about the apparent opening of Ohio’s public-school science classes to intelligent design and creationism. Ohio’s House Bill 597 would insist on new standards that specifically “prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another.”  The sponsor of the bill, Andy Thompson of Marietta, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he included that language to allow school districts the freedom to include a variety of ideas about evolution, not to mandate that districts include intelligent design or creationism.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

Representative Thompson wants the Common Core OUT and conservative curricula IN.

But the anti-Common Core bill also includes a broad-spectrum attack on the purportedly progressive nature of school curricula in other subjects as well. The original draft of the bill specified that 80% of the literature taught must be from American or British authors before 1970, though Thompson quickly backpedaled from that goal. But why was such a target included in the first place? As I detail in my new book, conservatives since the 1970s have looked skeptically at the trend toward “multicultural” literature. Conservative leaders from Max Rafferty to Bill Bennett have insisted that proper education—conservative education—must be based on the classics of our Western civilization. Anything else, they insisted, dooms children to a savage unawareness of their own cultural heritage.

In history, too, the Ohio bill insisted that history instruction include

the original texts and the original context of the declaration of independence, the northwest ordinance, the constitution of the United States and its amendments with emphasis on the bill of rights; incorporate the Ohio constitution; define the United States of America as a constitutional republic; be based on acquisition of real knowledge of major individuals and events; require the study of world and American geography; and prohibit a specific political or religious interpretation of the standards’ content.

Here also we hear echoes of long-time conservative worries. From Lynne Cheney to Dinesh D’Souza, it has become a commonplace of the conservative imagination that leftist history has taken over public education. As I argued recently in a commentary in History News Network, conservatives assume that students are taught that American history is the record of cruel white hate crimes against Native Americans, women, and African Americans. The Ohio bill hopes to rectify this America-bashing by mandating “real knowledge,” not just hate-filled Zinn-isms.

As we’ve seen time and again, conservatives are not united in their thinking about the Common Core. Some conservatives love them….or at least like them. Others blast the standards as yet another attempt at sneaky subversion from Washington.

In this new Ohio legislation, we see how some conservatives combine their loathing of the Common Core with a grab-bag of other conservative educational goals: Less evolution in science class, more America-loving in history class, and less multiculturalism in literature class. Taken together, conservatives such as Ohio’s Andy Thompson hope to broaden the anti-Common-Core juggernaut into a more ambitious conservative panacea.

 

Kids: You’re Not Really Gay

What should conservatives tell gay kids?  One writer suggests that kids should learn that they’re not really gay.  But that writer, Michael Hannon, also wants us to tell non-gay kids that they’re not really straight.

Hannon’s original argument suggested that the construction of the notion of sexual identities in the nineteenth century doomed conservative Christians to a double danger.  First, it led some people to identify as homosexuals.  According to Hannon, such an identity enshrines sinful behavior as the core of a person’s identity.  To Hannon, anyway, it seems there is no moral way to have sex as a homosexual, since gay marriage is not for him a moral possibility and sex outside of marriage is immoral.

But heterosexuality is just as bad.  By allowing conservatives who identify as heterosexuals to rest satisfied that they had the “right” sexual identity, heterosexuality left people clueless about the abundant dangers of the entire idea of sexual identity.

In other words, if I understand him correctly, Hannon hoped religious conservatives would take their argument up one level.  Instead of suggesting that homosexuality was sinful and heterosexuality was not, Hannon wants us to recognize that the concept of a sexual identity—any sexual identity—was deeply problematic.  As he elaborated in a recent follow-up, Hannon argued that the real goal of religious people must not be Hollywood’s marriage-as-happy-ending, but a more complicated goal of spiritual friendship.

This is not the usual semi-hysterical “homosexual agenda” talk we hear from some religious pundits.  Over and over, conservative activists have warned that “sneaky” homosexuals are using public schools to infect young minds with gayness.  Hannon is making a much more subtle argument.

To be clear, Hannon does indeed think that homosexuality tends to promote sinful behavior.  As he put it,

Self-describing as a “homosexual” tends to multiply occasions of sin for those who adopt the label. . . .  Whereas the infusion of the theological virtues sets the Christian free, identifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”

But this is not the only problem of sexual identities.  Too many conservatives, Hannon charges, accept heterosexuality as a healthy sexual identity.  They yearn for boy-meets-girl and scorn boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, but in essence such conservatives miss the point.  Encouraging young people to understand themselves as primarily sexual beings—gay or straight—puts too much emphasis on sexual identities entirely.

What should young people hear about sexual identities?  Neither that they are inherently gay nor straight, Hannon says.  Rather, that sex is part of humanity, but never should make up the core of a person’s identity.

Critic John Corvino doesn’t buy it. According to Corvino, Hannon seems to be

asking for something much more difficult for us moderns to imagine: a world without sexual orientation as we understand it. Yet it’s hard to see how to avoid the closet as a necessary first step toward this goal. Worse, one worries that aiming for this goal would at most achieve a disastrous middle ground: a world where orientation categories were still salient but where the taboo against voicing them would leave those with same-sex desires lonely and miserable.

How about you?  Do you think Hannon’s argument has legs?  Can religious conservatives get out of their culture-war pickle by moving away from a condemnation of homosexuality and instead to a broader distaste for sexual identities as a whole?

 

 

Are Conservatives Secretly Racist?

No matter how much they may deny it, conservative intellectuals and activists these days are often accused of being secretly racist.  Influential African American conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson are accused of being suckers and “Uncle Toms.”  As an article in the New York Times argues, perhaps the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri will give conservatives a chance to prove their anti-racist claims.

Is this the "conservative" side? ...

Is this the “conservative” side? …

As I argue in my upcoming book, racial thinking among white conservatives as a whole has changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.  In the 1920s, school battles did not pit conservatives as the “racist” side against “anti-racist” progressives.  Indeed, in fights about evolution in the 1920s, mainstream scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn often supported the white-supremacist notions of writers such as Madison Grant.  White conservatives in the 1920s were mostly guilty of what we would call racism, but then again, so were white non-conservatives back then.

By the 1950s, mainstream conservatives had changed their thinking on racial issues dramatically.  First of all, the tumult over school desegregation led some conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. to support “states’ rights” over racial desegregation.  And in the massively resisting South, white resistance to desegregation often became coupled with a conservative anti-communism.

But outside the South, white conservatives often tried to insist that their opposition to school desegregation was not due to racism.  In Pasadena, for example, a progressive superintendent’s plan to desegregate the district met with ferocious opposition from conservatives.  But those conservatives insisted that they were not racist.  They insisted that their opposition to desegregation did not mean that they thought non-whites were inferior.

...Or is THIS the "conservative" side?

…Or is THIS the “conservative” side?

Similarly, in the school controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia in 1974, white conservative activists insisted that they were not racist.  They opposed new textbooks that included passages from racial firebrands such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  But, as conservative leader Elmer Fike put it,

The protesters do not object to authors because they are black, but they do believe convicted criminals and revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver should not be recognized.

Since then, mainstream white conservatives have worked hard to prove that their conservatism does not make them racist.  Does this new racial firestorm in Missouri give them a new chance to prove their sincerity?

In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Jeremy W. Peters suggests it might.  Peters cites the nervousness of conservative leaders such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Erick Erickson.  All three conservatives, Peters notes, have spoken out against the massively militarized police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.  Peters says that this sort of conservatism marks a shift.  Since the late 1960s, conservatives have traditionally been the side of law and order.  These days, Peters wonders, conservatism might find itself embracing instead a renewed emphasis on limiting the power of government.  What conservative, Senator Paul might ask, wants to see a militarized police force bearing down on protesting citizens?

But the Missouri conflagration suggests another important question as well.  If conservatives really are the anti-racists many of them claim to be, this Ferguson situation might offer white conservatives a chance to side with African American conservatives as a united anti-racist conservative voice.  Legitimate protests against overweening government power could certainly rally conservative support, white and black.

And if conservative activists want to prove that they are not secretly racist, what better way to do so than to side with the protesting citizens of Ferguson, Missouri?

 

College Helps Christianity

Watch out, Christians!  Sending your kids to college may mean sending them to hell.  That has been the standard wisdom since the 1920s.  One sociologist now suggests that this is no longer true.

The notion that college might lead children to abandon their faiths has been a staple of conservative thinking for a long time.  In the 1920s, conservative leader William Jennings Bryan warned of the dangers of mainstream higher education.  Bryan drew on the work of scholar James H. Leuba.  Leuba’s 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality suggested that eighty-five percent of college freshmen described themselves as believers.  Only fifty-five percent of graduates did.  The conclusion, Bryan warned, was clear.  College was turning children away from God.

As usual, fundamentalist firebrand T.T. Martin expressed the idea more colorfully.  In a 1923 book, Martin quoted one former college student’s complaint: “My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned. . . . I wish I had never been to college.”

As I argued in my 1920s book, this sort of anxiety about the results of mainstream higher education led fundamentalists to open their own network of colleges, universities, and seminaries.  My current research looks at the twentieth-century history of these schools.  How did they hope to give students a “college experience” different from the kind on tap at Harvard, Yale, and State U?  How did they hope to educate students who were conservative about the Bible, about evolution, and about gender roles?  Certainly, since the 1920s, these concerns have remained central to conservative evangelical Protestants.  Such folks have continued to hope that righteous colleges can crank out righteous Christians.

But according to a story in Religion News Service, one recent sociological study suggests that the college trend may have turned.  Sociologist Philip Schwadel has argued that people born between 1965 and 1980, “Generation X,” no longer have a correlation between college education and abandoning faith.  Because so many more people are going to college, Schwadel argues, there is no longer a correlation between higher education and personal secularization.

In other words, college no longer seems to be turning people away from their faiths.  For people born in the 1970s, those WITHOUT a college degree were more likely to abandon their faiths.  That’s right: for folks born in the 1970s, having a college degree made them more likely to retain their youthful religion.

Of course, as with any academic study, Schwadel’s is carefully wrapped in layers of caveats.  This study does not say anything about people born in the 1980s or later.  They simply haven’t had enough time to form their adult identities.  Nor does it claim that it has firmly proven the fact that college no longer moves people away from their childhood faiths.

But the correlation is fascinating.  Schwadel offers a few suggestions about why this change may have taken place.  First of all, more and more people in this age cohort went to college.  That means there is less and less elitism associated with a college degree.  Also, there is more religion on college campuses, Schwadel writes.  People can combine their “educated” adult identities with a “religious” identity firmed up in religious student groups.  Finally, as more and more college-educated people attend church, those without college degrees might feel socially unconnected.  Beyond theology, that sort of mundane social-connection may contribute to people leaving their churches.

 

How Much Sex Is Too Much for Kids?

What should teenagers be learning about sex?  It is a perennial question at the center of our educational culture wars.  A recent controversy from California’s Bay Area shows how this old battle has changed, and how it has stayed the same.  This time, parents in Fremont, California objected to a sex-ed textbook they found too racy.  After parent protests, the district pulled the book.

Too titillating?

Too titillating?

As I note in my upcoming book about educational conservatism in the twentieth century, the pattern seems familiar: A textbook includes explicit information about sex.  Parents object.  The administration buckles, allergic to any whiff of controversy.  Progressives lament the parents’ Victorian attitudes toward sex. Conservatives crow that their children are being pimped by an educational establishment that does not respect their values.

That script certainly seems to be playing out in Fremont, but there are some wrinkles.  The textbook, Your Health Today, contained a twenty-page section on sexual behavior.  As the parent petition protested, this section included information about more than just the mechanics of sex.  It told students about

sexual games, sexual fantasies, sexual bondage with handcuffs, ropes, and blindfolds, sexual toys and vibrator devices, and additional instruction that is extremely inappropriate for 13 and 14 year-old youth.

And, as in similar controversies in the past, the protesting parents quickly reached out to national conservative activist organizations for support.  In this case, Fremont parents contacted the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute for back-up.

But the “conservative” parents made clear that they did not oppose sex ed in general.  What they did not like was the inappropriate college-level sex ed this book contained.  Parent activist Asfia Ahmed told the Christian Post that the problem was not sex ed as such; the problem was that this book in particular “speaks to adults; it does not speak to teens and adolescents.”

Predictably, progressive commentators accused conservatives of being trapped in the past.  As one writer noted, “It’s frustrating that this is still controversial.” I personally agree. I’m a teacher and parent. I want my students and daughter to have frank, explicit information about sex. And I think that such information needs to include some sense of the wide variety of sexual behaviors that are common in our society. It needs to include the basic fact that sex should be pleasurable and should never be coerced.  Perhaps most tricky, I think that public schools have a duty to convey this information.  After all, with pregnancy and HIV on the line, these are literally life-and-death subjects.

But the notion of some anti-conservatives that these issues have been resolved in the past demonstrates the dunderheadedness of my fellow progressives. Some progressive commentators seem to think that these debates have already been settled. Whether the issue is sex ed, school prayer, or creationism, progressives often express surprise that these questions are “still” controversial. Such attitudes demonstrate the ignorance of progressives.

Conservative notions about sex ed in public schools have always had a decisive influence on the goings-on in those schools. In this case, for instance, we see how quickly the administration caved to parent protests. Here and elsewhere, the notion that there is some healthy connection between kids and sex is a very touchy one in our society. Conservatives need only say that a book goes too far to have that book quickly yanked by the district.

Perhaps the hard-hitting journalists of the Today Show made the most salient point about this story. They interviewed some of the young teenagers who would have read this textbook. As one told them, “Like ewwww. . . . I don’t really feel like I need to know about that right now.”

 

Do You BELIEVE in Evolution?

It’s a deceptively simple question and it lies right at the heart of the creation/evolution controversies.  Unfortunately, Keith Blanchard’s recent opinion piece on the subject seems to miss the point.  Not because Blanchard doesn’t understand the issues, but because he deliberately hopes to change the conversation.  But it’s not that simple.  In at least two important ways, we need to wonder more deeply what we mean when we say we “believe” in evolution.

Can you BELIEVE this???

Can you BELIEVE this???

Blanchard writes from the heart of mainstream science.  We shouldn’t say we “believe” in evolution, Blanchard writes.  As he puts it,

if someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution,” they are framing it wrong. That’s like asking, “Do you believe in blue?”

Evolution is nothing more than a fairly simple way of understanding what is unquestionably happening. You don’t believe in it — you either understand it or you don’t…

Of course, we see what he means.  I even agree with his position.  But IMHO, this line or argument is nearly entirely beside the point.  It puts us evolution-supporters in the silly position of insisting that there is no debate about evolution.  Like Blanchard, we mean that the scientific facts of evolution are not open to debate, any more than is the fact of gravity or the fact of blue.

But so what?  How does that position get us anywhere?

Because there IS a debate about evolution, obviously.  Lots of influential people do not accept the facticity of evolution.  They do not accept that evolution explains the deep history of species on this planet.  Therefore, it matters to say that we believe in evolution.  Saying we “believe” in evolution, politically, means taking a stand about educational politics and cultural politics.

On a more basic level, too, saying that we believe in evolution has a value beyond Blanchard’s knee-jerk empiricism.  After all, in our society, we believe all sorts of things about which we only have a tentative or tenuous understanding.  For instance, when we have a serious medical malady, we trust in what medical experts tell us.  Not blindly, of course, but we talk to several experts and decide on a treatment course that seems to make sense to us.  We don’t necessarily understand every jot and tittle of the medical science.  But we take the life-or-death advice of doctors.  When it matters, we trust our experts.

And that is also the case here.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means something different than saying we understand its meaning.  Saying we “believe” in evolution means we trust a certain set of authorities over others.  Not blindly, of course, but in general outline.  So, for instance, when the National Center for Science Education mounts its Project Steve, I’m convinced.  The sheer numbers of mainstream scientists who publicly announce their “belief” in evolution convinces me.

After all, for educated folks these days, the un-interpreted evidence of our senses has long been suspect.  Blanchard writes that we should all trust the “evidence of [our] own senses.”  If we do so, he concludes, we’ll be convinced about the fact of evolution.  But educated people know that their senses might mislead them.  After all, the intuitive case for creationism is very strong.  Things seem to have been created according to some system, some plan.  Creationists might regularly appeal to people’s senses to prove their point, along the lines of Paley’s watchmaker.

As careful studies have proven, people who reject evolution don’t necessarily have a spottier understanding of science.  Contrary to what Blanchard says, people can and often do understand evolution yet reject it.  Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for example, concluded from their large-group study of science teachers that creationists have an edge beyond the logic of folks like Blanchard.  Even among those Americans who understand that mainstream scientists agree on evolution, Berkman and Plutzer found, a large majority prefers that public schools teach both evolution and creationism.  That’s right: Even those Americans who know what mainstream science says about evolution still want schools to teach creationism.

In a world like that, Blanchard’s argument seems at best irrelevant.  Insisting that evolution is a simple fact, either to be understood or not understood, makes no sense in these circumstances.  On the other hand, if we say we “believe” in evolution, we’re doing something important.  Something with necessary political weight.

But there is one sense in which we should not try to “believe” in evolution.  Not Blanchard’s sense, but a more nuts-and-bolts kind of meaning.  As I’m arguing in an upcoming book with co-author Harvey Siegel, public schools need to get out of the belief business when it comes to evolution education.  That is, the goal of evolution education must not be to convince students to “believe” in evolution.  Rather, the goal should be to make sure all students understand it.

In a way, this is what Blanchard is saying, but I wonder if he would recoil in disgust from the implications.  Blanchard wants people to understand evolution.  We don’t “believe” in something that is obviously true.  We don’t “believe” in facts of nature.

In contrast, our prescription for public schools is that teachers adopt the goal of leading students to an understanding of evolution, and no more.  Students should be led to understand the principles of evolution, its mechanisms, and its evidence.  If they then choose not to “believe” evolution, that is an entirely private matter, beyond the realm of public school goals.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this sort of “understanding-not-belief” is not what Blanchard has in mind.

What about you?  Do you “believe” in evolution?  What does it mean to “believe” it, rather than to just “know” it?  Or, from the other direction, what does it mean to “dis-believe” it, even if you understand it?

 

Creationists Love Angry Science Teachers

Why would America’s leading young-earth creation ministry go to the National Education Association convention?  After all, Answers In Genesis castigates the NEA for its “godless, liberal agenda.”  AIG frets that the NEA combats conservatives’ right to homeschool their children and to teach godly creationism.

But that anti-God bias is exactly why the creationists go every year.  Answers In Genesis tries to engage NEA attendees with the gospel of creationism.  The creationist outreach at the NEA convention hopes to explain the goals of creationists and melt the hard hearts of some secular teachers.

The folks at AIG are not the first conservatives to try such tactics.  For generations now, the National Education Association has been perceived by conservative education activists as the enemy.  The NEA is seen as promoting secularism and a wrong-headed moral relativism.  As conservative gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler argued in the 1970s, the NEA had always tried to get public schools to teach that “there was no absolute transcendental God, Bible, or system of beliefs.”

And even long before the Gablers, conservatives tried to maintain their influence with the NEA.  As I note in my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, the patriotic school activists in the American Legion pioneered this approach.  For the stalwart conservatives in the American Legion, the NEA offered the best way to influence American public education.  Therefore, they held their noses and collaborated on American Education Week.  Starting in 1921, the Legion and the NEA encouraged schools nationwide to focus on a certain theme for a week.  They tried to get everyone in every community engaged with their public schools.  For the conservative leaders of the American Legion, this was a way to promote patriotism and religion in public schools.  For the leaders of the NEA, this seemed like a good way to direct the public’s attention toward its schools.

For conservatives, then, the NEA has long been a target.  Generations of conservatives have hoped to influence the NEA with conservative educational ideas.  Does it work?  The conservative creationists at AIG seem to think so.  One missionary to the NEA relates the story of “Tom,” a hostile secular science teacher.  After spending time with the creationists at the NEA convention, Tom was able to understand more about the wholesome gospel mission of the creationists.  Walls were broken down, hearts were touched.

 

Obama Persecutes Christian Schools

Does President Obama have it out for conservative evangelical Christians?  Does he plan to crush them by hitting them where it hurts?  In the pages of today’s Christian Post, Michael Zigarelli worries that Obama’s anti-discrimination policy will do just that.  By putting the squeeze on religious colleges, Zigarelli writes, Obama plans to squeeze the life out of conservative evangelicalism.  This sort of conspiracy-theorizing may sound far-out to non-conservatives like me.  But for those who know the history of evangelical education, it might not seem so wacky.

Zigarelli is commenting on the recent controversy at Gordon College in Massachusetts.  As we’ve noted in these pages, President D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College attracted attention for signing an open letter to President Obama.  In case you missed the story, Lindsay signed the letter requesting an exemption from a planned executive order.  The order would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

For those like me outside of the world of conservative evangelicalism, Lindsay’s attitude sounds an awful lot like a license to discriminate.  If, as Lindsay wrote, Gordon College does not discriminate against gay students and does not plan to start, why would they need such an exemption?

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but as I understand it, the evangelicals did not ask to be able to discriminate against anyone, but rather to be able to continue their policy that requires all students and faculty to agree to a goal of chastity outside of marriage.  As we discussed here at ILYBYGTH, to many non-evangelicals and former evangelicals, that seems like a distinction without a difference.

But if we put those sorts of questions to one side for a moment, we can see that Zigarelli’s attitude demonstrates key elements of evangelical thinking.  His op-ed articulates some of the fears of conservative evangelicals.  For many conservatives, Obama’s order means more than just the end to discrimination.  It means the end of conservative evangelicalism in general.  Once conservatives are no longer able to operate their schools and colleges as they see fit, they will no longer be able to educate their children properly.  As Zigarelli concludes ominously,

Empty desks will follow empty pews, at least if this capricious; destabilizing theology is foisted upon our Christian schools. It’s time to take a stand.

To historians, this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar. As I’ve argued in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, conservative evangelicals made very similar sorts of statements after the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer decision in 1963. That school decision prompted conservative evangelicals to shift their thinking about their relationship to the broader American culture. As the editors of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today expressed it, before that decision, they were confident of their roles as leaders of America’s “devout masses.” After the decision, though, they worried that conservative evangelicals had become nothing but a “believing remnant” in a sinful American culture.

For evangelicals, like all other Americans, any loss of control over schooling can signal a loss of control over public life itself. Some of us may scratch our heads and wonder why evangelicals worry so much about President Obama’s planned non-discrimination order. If, as President Lindsay insists, conservative schools don’t discriminate against homosexuals, what do they have to worry about?

Throughout the twentieth century and into today, though, conservative evangelicals have maintained a tense relationship with the wider American culture. Many conservatives believe themselves to be the representatives of the real American mainstream, the “moral majority.” At the same time, however, conservatives see themselves as persecuted outsiders in a twerking culture besotted with sin, sexuality, and secularism. When big public-policy decisions seem to hurt Christian education, evangelicals react vigorously.

Does Obama plan to crush conservative opposition? As Zigarelli admits, such statements may sound “absurd” and “alarmist.” But given the past fifty years of evangelicals’ relationship with public education, the notion that the federal government might take drastic steps that hurt Christian education does not seem absurd or alarmist at all.

 

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