For those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America in the twenty-first century, a good place and time to start would be Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1974.
The raucous 1974-1975 school year in this county surrounding Charleston saw a burst of public controversy over the teaching in its public schools. Protesters vilified a set of textbooks adopted by the school district. At its peak, the protest and school boycott included a sympathy strike by the area’s miners and even a spate of gunshot attacks and the bombing of a school-administration building. The fight in Kanawha County, as argued by both protesters and historians, can correctly be seen as the birthplace, or at least the midwife, of an emerging populist conservative movement.
Thanks to the energetic activist Karl Priest, we now also have an account of the controversy written from a prominent member of the movement itself. Priest’s 2010 book Protester Voices offers a view from inside the textbook protest movement.
Priest’s story is unabashedly partisan. The tone and style of his book are those of a bare-knuckled culture warrior rather than those of a disinterested academic. Priest has achieved a reputation as one of today’s leading anti-evolution internet brawlers. In addition to his anti-evolution work, Priest is also currently active in Exodus Mandate. This organization promises “to encourage and assist Christian families to leave government schools for the Promised Land of Christian schools or home schooling.” Those who hope to explore the worlds of conservative Christian activism in twenty-first century America will soon run into the work of Karl Priest nearly everywhere they turn. Indeed, when ILYBYGTH first starting imagining how intelligent, educated people could embrace creationism (see, for instance, here, here, here, here, and here), we were accused of being merely a front for Priest.
In his 2010 book, Priest takes other writers to task for their anti-protester bias. He dismisses Carol Mason, for example, as someone who “concentrate[s] on the exception to the rule” (37). The protest movement, Priest insists, must not be understood as an irruption of racism or vigilante violence. The protesters themselves cannot fairly be dismissed as “wild-eyed ignoramuses” (xiii). Such accusations, Priest insists, demonstrate the bias of left-leaning scholars more than the lived reality of the protest itself. The leaders of the movement, in Priest’s view, “suffered financial loss. . . . [and] endured snide remarks and mocking.” They did so in order to defend their schools and community against the imposition of taxpayer-funded textbooks that included aggressive racism and sexual depravity. Priest defends the rank and file of this movement, also slandered mercilessly by other writers, as “Norman Rockwell Americans” (63).
Priest agrees with other commentators that this textbook controversy provided the launching pad for a new kind of conservative activism. Kanawha County attracted national leaders such as Mel Gabler and Max Rafferty. The fledgling Heritage Foundation sent legal advisers. The 1974 protest, Priest claims, heralded the new generation of populist conservatism that continues in today’s Tea Party movement.
For anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America, this book is an important resource. Not only does Priest’s account offer a staunch defense of the fundamentalist side of one of the most significant controversies of the late twentieth century, he also includes a reflection on the meanings of fundamentalism itself. Though he prefers the term “Bible-believing Christian,” Priest insists that “Being a fundamentalist, contrary to what liberals have propagandized, is nothing to be ashamed of just by the attachment of the term” (3).