Does Wal-Mart Want More Jesus in Public Schools?

The Walton Family loves school vouchers.

For years, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pumped money into plans to privatize schooling in the US of A.  Most recently, we read that the Walton Family Foundation has donated six million bucks to the Alliance for School Choice.  Why?

The ASC has a track record of supporting vouchers.  Its enemies accuse it of being nothing but a front organization for “fundamentalist” schemes to re-religiousize public education.

Do the mega-rich Waltons hope to get more Jesus into America’s schools?

Readers of Bethany Moreton’s relatively recent book To Serve God and WalMart won’t be surprised to hear of the connection between conservative evangelical Protestantism and big-box retailing.  But even the most scathing critics of the Waltons’ educational policies have sometimes left out the religious angle.  Diane Ravitch, for example, blasted the Waltons for copying in education what Wal-Mart had achieved in retailing.  As she put it,

The foundation supports charters and vouchers, though it prefers vouchers. It seeks to create schools that are non-union and that are able to skim off students from the local public schools. In time, the local public schools will die, just as the Main Street stores died.

Other critics of the Waltons’ beneficence have focused more closely on the religious angle.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for example, has long targeted both the Waltons and the Alliance for School Choice as leaders in the drive to sneak religion back into public schools through the back door of vouchers.  Rob Boston of Americans United, for instance, called ASC leader Betsy DeVos the “Four-Star General” leading a “Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation.”

According to Boston, Devos is a “fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist” with a sneaky goal: “nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.”

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask the tricky question: what’s the relationship between free-marketism and Jesus?  Groups such as the ASC and the Walton Family Foundation seem committed to both.  In the realm of schooling, that means vouchers.  For many conservatives, vouchers seem to contain a triple promise.  They can weaken the grip of teachers’ unions by diverting tax money away from union-dominated public school systems.  They can bring more ol’-time religion into schooling by funding religious schools.  And they can give parents and families the magic wand of consumer choice.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s a logical or theological connection between these policy ideas.  That is, from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology.  Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.

And there’s one other puzzle we need to suss out.  If these privatization campaigns are about both Jesus and capitalism, why don’t promoters mention either?  When the Alliance for School Choice tells us about itself, it does not mention religion or the panacea of the marketplace.  Why not?

For critics, this is all part of the ASC’s “sneak attack” on secular public schools.  The ASC wants more Jesus and more Milton Friedman, this line of argument goes, but wraps those goals in anodyne calls for more school choice for low-income families.  But why would conservatives try to hide their love for public religion or for capitalism?  Most conservatives make no secret of their goals.  Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?

 

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3 Comments

  1. “…from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology. Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.”

    This is what I call the “Jesus looks like Uncle Sam” syndrome. The “rugged individualism” that permeates conservative thinking is definitely expressed in capitalism. It’s all about the individual, all of the time. Anything having to do with the government is fraught with peril. Liberty is translated into Christians being free to make individual choices about every facet of life, including the free market.

    Christianity in this nation has become Americanized, and I don’t think that serves the faith well at all. We have lost the sense of community, of helping out those around us, and putting their needs before our own.

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  2. “Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?”

    Well, why bring it up? If what they want is school choice, and are trying to persuade people to their point of view, why make it controversial? Also, by the same token conservatives might ask, when the teacher’s unions oppose school choice, why don’t they advertise the fact that it’s really their leftist, i.e. socialist/communist bent which makes them want public control over schools and their curricula? And that this is really for the specific purpose (among other things) of keeping religion and morality out of the schools?

    Obviously both sides need to keep their “real” motivations to themselves when trying to make their respective positions as “marketable” as possible.

    “[F]rom my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology. Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.”

    There is some connection, I think, between Protestantism and free-market principles. Free-market-ism didn’t really take off until after the Reformation, and then mainly in Protestant countries. For a long time, one of the big Protestant arguments against Catholicism was that Catholic countries were so much poorer and economically backward than Protestant ones.

    The connection with Protestant doctrine I would say comes down to the two main Protestant principles: Sola scripture and sola fide. You don’t need any authority other than the Bible to know how to be saved; and you don’t need anything but faith in order to be saved. In other words, no Church, no authority, no priesthood, no sacraments, no corporate redemption, no communion with the saints in heaven. Rather, it’s a “me and God” Christianity — every man for himself, interpreting the Bible for himself and getting saved through individual experiences of God, with no reliance on the Church or priests or sacraments.

    The Church as an institution is bad because it’s run by men and men, being totally depraved (another big Protestant innovation), can’t be trusted. Mistrust of government is an extension of this idea. Trust in a written constitution rather than in a living government is another manifestation of the notion of putting one’s trust in the written record of God’s revelation alone, while rejecting the idea of being ruled, spiritually, by sinful men, i.e. bishops and popes.

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    • As a former fundamentalist Protestant, I applaud your comment. It is spot on. You said it so much better than I ever could.

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