Should Christians Be Afraid?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have heard it all before. For the past century, conservative evangelicals have warned that their religious beliefs have made them the target of anti-Christian religious discrimination and persecution. Today we hear the same warning from radical young-earth creationist Ken Ham. So should Christians be afraid?

ken ham ny lawFirst, the history: In spite of today’s rosy nostalgia, evangelical Protestants have always felt themselves the targets of creeping secular attack. To pick just one example, when SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools in 1963, evangelicals responded with apocalyptic alarm.

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

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

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

But! We might say that those conservatives were wrong, but today’s might be right. As Ken Ham warned his Twitter followers this morning, perhaps “It’s coming!” Maybe New York’s new gender law really will put conservative evangelical pastors in a legal bind.

After all, it is not only radical young-earthers who are concerned. Conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher have similarly warned of the creeping overreach of today’s secular gender ideology.

And in some ways, as higher-ed watchers like me have noticed, changes really are afoot. Institutions such as universities that rely on federal student-loan dollars to stay afloat might face intense pressure to comply with anti-discrimination guidelines.

But will a preacher ever be pulled out of his pulpit for “preach[ing] faithfully from God’s Word that there’s only two human genders God created”? No. That’s not how religious discrimination works in the USA. Just ask any historically persecuted minority.

For example, the federal government has long shelled out huge subsidies to farmers, including hog farmers. Does that mean that religious preachers who tell their audiences that eating pork is sinful are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Similarly, the federal government has funded school textbooks that teach basic chemistry. They teach that the core of a substance is determined by its molecular makeup. Does that mean that Roman Catholic priests who tell parishes that wine has been transubstantiated into blood are “arrested for hate speech”? No.

Or, to take the most painful 20th-century example from the world of evangelical Protestantism, when the federal government passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, were white evangelical preachers ever stopped from including racist content in their Sunday sermons? No.

In spite of what alarmist preachers might say, the problem for conservatives won’t be about their pulpits. When they want to refuse service to same-sex couples or refuse admission to transgender students they might have to deal with a new legal reality.

But the idea that the amped-up gender police will storm into churches to arrest pastors is more Thief in the Night than Queer Nation.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading: Teachers’ Strike Special Edition

Maybe I’m just too close to see it clearly, but to my eyes the LA teachers’ strike is pushing last year’s teacher walkouts in new directions, directions that will shape our conversations about public education for years to come. Here are a few of the most compelling commentaries to come out so far:

When we lambaste the charter schools that urban parents may choose as undermining public education, but say nothing of the urban private schools and exclusive suburban public schools that enable affluent parents to exit struggling districts, we not only apply a dangerous double-standard, but we also place the blame for low-performing schools on those who must attend them.

these modern walkouts are about the very idea that public schools should be kept healthy at all.

What inspires well-paid teachers to deny the needs of kids they love in exchange for angry strikes they loathe? Union deception and brutality.

Numerous Latino teachers repeatedly told me that a sense of solidarity with their students is what’s driving them to the picket lines—a profoundly personal connection to those children, and a fear that current school conditions are not serving them.

My advice to the district: Hold strong. Replace them all. If they want a dramatic impact on education, fire the union and begin to repair the schools, just like Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.

Where’s the Outrage?

I’m not seeing it, and I’m looking. Since the big LA teachers’ strike started yesterday, I assumed conservative commentators would jump all over it. After all, as I’ve argued here and here, teachers’ unions have long been the boogeyman of conservative thinking about schools and society. So why aren’t conservatives mad now?

la teachers strike

Why aren’t more conservative madder?

I checked all the usual suspects. National Review offered only a bland review of the strike news. Even more extreme outlets such as The Blaze and WORLD Magazine just sort of regurgitated the facts. I didn’t see anything about the strike in The American Conservative, Flypaper, or any other of the conservative sites that tend to oppose the power of teachers’ unions.

I had to dig all the way down to Breitbart to find the usual anti-union rhetoric. While the other conservative news outlets are giving the story pretty short shrift, Breitbart is breathlessly warning that

the so-called “grassroots” movement fueling the strike is actually a radical organization spreading socialist “propaganda.”

…and THAT’S the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from conservative pundits about teachers’ unions. Why haven’t other conservatives jumped on the usual anti-union bandwagon? After all, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, opposing the power of teachers’ unions has always been a hallmark of American educational conservatism.

Free-marketeers have always hated the stranglehold unions have held over market-based innovation. Anti-socialists have always decried teachers’ unions as bastions of left-wing subversion. Religious conservatives have always worried that union power forced kids to learn about evolution and sex.

So where’s all that outrage now? I’ve got a couple of guesses and I invite corrections.

First guess: It’s on its way. That is, conservatives simply haven’t gotten around yet to their usual anti-union complaints.

Second guess: The strikes last year convinced most people that teachers had a point. Walk-outs in Oklahoma and North Carolina and elsewhere weren’t led by formal unions and most people tend to agree that public schools really should have decent textbooks and classrooms.

Third guess: By and large, the strike wave of 2018 remained focused on bread-and-butter issues, in spite of lefties’ best efforts to impose broader ideological goals on the strike. Unless and until the strikes become broader lefty efforts, maybe conservatives will not find the strikes so offensive.

Fourth guess: Last year’s strikes were mostly in pretty red states. The teachers were not particularly left-wing. If this is true, it means that the new LA strike will take things in a new direction. In other words, I can picture conservative commentators blasting LA teachers in ways they wouldn’t have blasted OK ones. By this estimate, the LA strike will roil culture-war politics in ways last year’s strikes didn’t.

After all, as historians and journalists are pointing out, the LA teachers’ strike has a very different complexion than did last year’s strikes. Prof. Diana D’Amico noted that the urban/suburban racial divide lurks beneath every issue in LA. And Alia Wong argued that the racial makeup of LA’s strikers is notably different than that of Oklahoma’s teachers. Will that make a difference? I can’t see how it won’t. A bunch of Latinx teachers fighting for justice for non-white city students will probably ignite culture-war anger in ways that Oklahoma strikers never could.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Happy Monday: Time for another weekly round-up of top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from around the interwebs…

A Jewish scheme to wreck civilization: An interview with the author of A Specter Haunting Europe at RWN.

Sex, marriage, and the creation of an evangelical market, by Daniel Silliman.

LA gets ready for its looming teacher strike, at LATimes.

la teachers strikeA(nother) call for a conservative secular higher-ed alternative, at NA.

Can a serious conservative-evangelical scholar still work at Liberty U? The New Yorker profiles Karen Swallow Prior. H/T: AT

Sometimes, when her students become disheartened by Liberty’s conservative political bent, they ask her why she stays. “And I tell them, honestly, I went to a liberal university. I know what it’s like. I mean, it’s not perfect here, but it’s better.”

Teachers with guns? This Florida teacher says no, at SFSS.

prior nyorker

I wuvs you, but I don’t wuvs Trump…

Historians on Trump’s wall speech at HNN.

Zoiks: Fan of localism and democracy? Then get ready for rich white men to control your schools, at T74.

Things get ugly at a classics convention, at IHE.

Williams turned and addressed Peralta directly, declaring that she was “not a socialist” and that Peralta only got his job because he is “black,” those present said.

Winter got you down? At least it’s not as bad as the “Great Die-Off” storm of 1887, at Smithsonian.

Evangelicals and Trump—a commentary collection at Righting America.

Is Evolution Education Doomed?

I could see how Bill Nye might be bummed. An example from my local paper this week shows that creationism might be a nearly universal American trait. If we speak clearly enough, though, we can see that this isn’t really a problem for evolution education.

First, a little background. Evolution wonks like me tend to feel flustered when pundits and scholars use the term “creationism” when they really mean only radical young-earth creationism. Gallup, for example, has long called young-humanity beliefs “creationist,” and other creation-ish beliefs not creationist. That doesn’t make any sense.

gallup creationism poll may 2017

It’s not sensible to call only the #3s “creationists.”

In practice, most Americans have vague, heterodox ideas about both evolutionary theory and creationism. (Don’t believe it? You’ll have to wait for my new book for my long demonstration of this counter-intuitive point.) If we use a sensible definition of “creationism”—like the idea that life must have had some sort of active creator at some point in the past—then the label could work for almost everybody.

Exhibit A: In my local newspaper, a guy named Rick Marsi has a regular column about nature and outdoor living (for some reason, it was not posted online. I have no idea why not.) In a recent essay, Marsi advocated heading out on a kayak instead of sitting around complaining. When you do, he says, and you catch a beautiful fish, you’ll have no choice but to

Drink in that raspberry stripe [and] . . . marvel at perfect design.

Well, of course we DO have a choice. We can recognize that—speaking scientifically—there was no “design” involved at all, perfect or not. The “raspberry stripe” wasn’t put there to wow kayakers. According to evolutionary theory, it wasn’t put there at all.

So what are the Bill Nyes and the Josh Rosenaus of the world supposed to do? Wail and gnash their ties at the widespread dunderheadness of American culture?

Not at all!

If we have a sensible attitude toward evolution education, then the “intuitive theism” we see so often shouldn’t bother us at all. As Harvey and I argued in Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation and I’m fleshing out more fully in my new book, there is absolutely no reason for evolution educators to fret if their students retain a quasi-theistic idea about the origins of life.

Our goal in public-school classrooms should never be to encourage or disparage specific religious ideas. If students want to agree that trout stripes are a “perfect design,” so be it. We can and should cultivate a beneficent indifference when it comes to students’ religious thinking. All we want to do is help people know and understand what evolutionary theory really says. What they choose to believe about it is absolutely up to them.

Bad News for Lefties?

I’ll plead guilty. As a teacher, I have a deep faith that I can help students be better citizens. I can help them understand how power works in society. Ultimately, their engagement can transform society, can make things fairer and more just. But is my faith in local democracy just another of my lefty biases? As recent studies show, are the scales so tipped in local elections that richer, whiter, GOP-er people have extra power?

Here’s what we know: The74 looked at new research about local school boards. It’s not really much of a surprise, but the authors concluded that school board elections tend to favor people with more money. Those people tend to be richer, whiter, and more often members of the Republican Party.

74 school board elections

More money, more representation…

The researchers looked at 610 school districts in Ohio for two election cycles. They looked closely at the winners of school-board election. Where did they live? How much money did they make? How did they tend to vote? Their conclusions weren’t too shocking:

We find that more citizens from affluent areas run for school board, and because a large proportion of school board elections feature minimal competition, these higher propensities to run explain disparities in representation.

What are the implications for school politics? And here’s the dilemma for my fellow lefties: Is there any way to address this election trend without trashing the basic function of local democracy?

The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

early-1980s-promo.jpg

It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hello 2019! We’re starting strong with a full week of culture-war contention. Here are some of the stories that caught our eye this week:

How evangelicals can embrace evolution, at CT.

Jim Carrey I Dont Care GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

You probably heard Jerry Falwell Jr.’s odd Trumpist speech. What does it mean? One analysis at WaPo:

Like many heretics, Falwell and his fellow evangelical Trump apologists are on their way to founding a new religion, one in direct conflict with the old.

It’s not easy to be an anti-racist evangelical these days. A portrait of non-white activists in The New Yorker.

What are educational conservatives saying these days? A new speaker series hopes to restore the conservative glory days of the 1990s.

Do young-earth creationists have any answer to geocentric critics? RA says…still no.

Inclusive campuses for everyone—even Nazis. At IHE.

fuck nazis

Do Nazis deserve manners?

Stalker or romantic? At KCStar.

Will the USA extradite Fethullah Gulen? At RNS.

Update: anti-porn students find allies, at IHE.

Bad news for Trumpists: China’s Great Wall didn’t keep out invaders, at NG.

Michael Petrilli: School discipline needs to make sense, not just culture-war nonsense. At Flypaper.

Crime and Punishment

I don’t often agree with free-marketeer Michael Petrilli, but this time he’s exactly right. When pragmatic issues such as school discipline become culture-war footballs, students are always the losers. What we need instead are policies that put students first. Alas, the history of educational culture wars makes me pessimistic that we can replace polemics with pragmatics.

Petrilli recently lamented the unhelpful back-and-forth over the issue of school discipline. The Obama administration supported the idea that racial disparities in punishments could be cause for federal intervention. Trump’s administration, in chest-thumping contrast, rejected the notion.

 

As Petrilli rightly noted, schools need something different. They need policies that recognize the cruel injustices of racially loaded punishments while still creating safe schools. Petrilli hoped even

In this age of base politics . . . communities nationwide can reject such cynical approaches and craft school discipline policies that can bring us together rather than drive us apart.

That would be nice, but as I found in my research into the history of educational conservatism, school discipline has always been about more than pragmatic problem solving. Planting a flag for harsher school punishments has always been a hallmark of American conservatism.

Consider the flood of pro-discipline conservative outrage that confronted Pasadena’s superintendent in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The new superintendent, Willard Goslin, became the whipping-boy for a host of perceived problems with “progressive” education. As one furious conservative critic wrote in the local paper in 1949,

But pity the poor teacher!  After all, it is his job to pamper the pupils (in progressive schools), and it is worth his job if he tried any old-fashioned discipline.  Problem children are not only tolerated but pushed right along ‘to get rid of them’—out into society, for others to worry about.

Better-known conservative pundits have also always taken pot-shots at non-traditional ideas of school discipline. Max Rafferty, a nationally syndicated columnist and one-time state superintendent of public education in California, had nothing but scorn and contumely for new-fangled ideas about punishment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…he didn’t win.

In one 1964 column, Rafferty lambasted new ideas of school discipline in his typically colorful language. As he put it,

a child usually has neither the maturity nor the judgment to understand the need for self-discipline. Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In every decade, in every educational situation, school discipline has always been an us-or-them culture-war issue. Progressives have always lamented the racially loaded and ineffective traditions of whipping and my-way-or-the-highway teaching. Conservatives have always been sure that new-fangled ideas about child-rearing tragically misunderstood real human nature. As Rafferty explained in 1964,

The psychologists had been right in one respect.  Junior certainly had no repressions.  He could have used a few.

What If 2020 Teachers Copied 1980 Preachers?

They are two of the strongest traditions of American life. 1.) Teachers will refrain from indoctrinating students in partisan politics, and 2.) Preachers will stay out of elections. As states consider bills to legislate teacher non-politics, we have to wonder: What if teachers these days copied the (in)famous “New Christian Right” strategies of the 1970s? What if they abandoned their traditions of political neutrality in the classroom and starting pushing specific partisan politics on their students?

First, the usual caveats. Yes, some teachers are already very politically active. The Badass Teachers Association, for example, “reject profit-driven education reform” and offer a list of political demands. And back in the 1980s, the much-ballyhooed entrance of conservative evangelicals into politics was not really the revolution it was purported to be. Conservative evangelical preachers had ALWAYS been involved in politics. And, finally, conservative activists have always assumed that most teachers are already preaching left-wing doctrines in the classroom, even though we are not.

In spite of all that, it makes for an intriguing question. Consider the traditional story of the so-called New Christian Right. (And if you have time, read the longer, more accurate versions written by historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Matthew Avery Sutton, and yours truly.) Although it didn’t really match the historical facts, in the late 1970s conservative evangelical preachers such as Jerry Falwell claimed to be abandoning their previous political neutrality to encourage Americans to vote for “God’s Own Party,” the Republicans. It wasn’t really a leap into politics, but it was a dramatic leap into the arms of one political party.

President Ronald Reagan and Rev. Jerry Falwell

I love you, you love me, let’s all vote the GOP…

And it leads us to ask: What if large numbers of classroom teachers began openly to teach their students that the Democratic Party was correct? That only Joe Biden, or Anthony Brindisi, or Elizabeth Warren was on the right side of history?

It won’t happen. Though some progressive scholars, activists, and organizations have always yearned for a more partisan teaching force, teachers themselves have always—by and large—respected the tradition of their profession. Teach children about politics? Absolutely. But teach that only one political party is acceptable? Never. It’s just not part of how most teachers think about their proper jobs.

george counts

…time for teachers to wake up and smell the ballot box, c. 1936.

Consider the lament of George Counts, a leftist education profession who captured the imagination of progressive folks in the 1930s with his call for schools to “Build a New Social Order.”

Professor Counts wanted teachers to do more than teach. He hoped teachers would

be prepared to deal much more fundamentally, realistically, and positively with the American social situation.

In specific, Counts wanted teachers to tell their students more directly that one sort of politics was correct. But as even Counts realized, not many teachers would listen. As he put it,

when the word indoctrination is coupled with education there is scarcely one among us possessing the hardihood to refuse to be horrified.

The tradition of non-partisan teachers runs deep, despite the carping of paranoid conservative pundits. Most teachers, just like most evangelical preachers, would never stoop to pushing one partisan idea on their students. As Counts noticed, we are “horrified” at the idea that we should indoctrinate our students.

Even if teachers wanted to, classrooms aren’t like evangelical churches. Like-minded congregants don’t decide to attend one class or another, the way they do with their churches. Students in most public schools are a captured and constrained crowd and teachers could never build a politically like-minded following out of their come-one-come-all public schools.

This morning, though, we can’t help but wonder: What if they did? What would happen if a large group of teachers tried to impose partisan political beliefs on their students?