For those of us trying to understand conservative, traditionalist, ‘fundamentalist’ culture in America, this TV ad offers some insight into conservative thinking. Many of us are puzzled by conservative opposition to gay marriage. Like Jonathan Rauch, it seems to me that a defense of traditional values should logically want to see as many people married as possible.
But for many conservatives, a redefinition of marriage will represent a cultural camel’s nose under the tent. That is, if two same-sex partners are allowed to marry, then a slew of other cultural transformations will soon thrust themselves into mainstream culture. Any opposition to these radical changes will soon be tarred as mere bigotry.
In the same-sex marriage debate–as in so many cultural contests–schools and schooling play a central role. For many conservatives, public schools often play the role of cultural contaminant. Ideas such as evolution, secularism, moral relativism, and sexual liberation, in the conservative vision, are transmitted into cultural circulation by being injected into children at public schools. Schools are used by progressive activists to subvert the proper relationship between parent and child. Schools fill the heads of impressionable children with pernicious ideas about the nature of morality and values.
We see a particularly striking example of this in California’s TV ads. During the fight over California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, ads depicted a girl coming home from school, happily telling her worried mother that she learned she could marry a princess. The ad warned ominously: without Proposition 8 parents would have no legal right to complain.
This ad plays upon a very commonly held notion about the flawed relationship between traditional values, families, and public schools. In this vision, schools become the institution that transforms cultural change from a general trend to a problem within conservative families. Schools become intrusive agents warping the minds of children and turning those children against the dearest beliefs of their parents.
I’m sympathetic. I support gay marriage, evolution, pluralism, etc. But I recognize that many of my well-meaning education colleagues really do envision public schools as a vehicle to transform children’s culture. When cultural conservatives worry about camels’ noses, I believe they are smart to worry. Progressives yearn ardently for a network of public schools as “change agents.” Just as fervently as conservatives worry about the intrusive moral role such schools might hope to play.