Trump Scores Better Than Us on GREs

It wouldn’t work. It’s not even new. But Trump’s tweeted support for school Bible bills shows that he understands what grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) really think.

At the Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt took Trump to task for a nonsensical and self-defeating policy. As Merritt wrote,

If conservative Christians don’t trust public schools to teach their children about sex or science . . . why would they want to outsource instruction about sacred scripture to government employees?

From a theological point of view, Merritt’s absolutely right. Moreover, conservative evangelical intellectuals have always agreed. That’s why so many of them supported SCOTUS’ 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale. In that ruling, SCOTUS decided that a state couldn’t impose a prayer in public schools, even a bland ecumenical prayer that seemed acceptable to people of many faiths.

The National Association of Evangelicals supported Engel, as did fundamentalist activists such as Carl McIntire. Why? Because they agreed with Merritt. They didn’t want public schools telling children how to pray. As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute wrote,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

For a long time now, conservative evangelical intellectuals have recognized the distinction Merritt’s making. And, as leading school-Bible scholar Mark Chancey noted at WaPo, there’s really nothing new or constitutionally challenging about teaching the Bible in public schools. There’s no need for new bills or laws, because academic study of the Bible has always been constitutional.

In these pages, too, we’ve looked at the nonsensical curricular plans of these types of school-Bible bills. In Indiana, for instance, Senator Dennis Kruse has slapped together a MAGA stew of Bible, “In God We Trust,” and creation science. It wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. It wouldn’t teach kids their parents’ faiths. It wouldn’t change anything at all.

But for all of our rational superiority, Trump’s Bible tweet still makes sense, on both a religious and a political level. Religiously, grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) have long seen the Bible as a supernatural book, a uniquely magical book that has power to change lives and save souls. For all Merritt’s reasoned counterargument, no one will shake GREs from this bedrock faith. Simply getting the Bible into public schools, many GREs think, will be enough. The Bible can take it from there.

bicabooks

Recipients of MBI’s school outreach, c. 1940.

For instance, a while back I studied the Bible outreach programs of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. Among its other goals, the MBI missionaries tried to get Bibles and tracts into schools in the Appalachian region. To the missionaries, the words of the Bible—even in tract form—had the power to convert people by the merest glance. As head of the program described in 1921,

A man was given a tract by the roadside; simply glancing at it, and coming to a hedge, he stuck the tract into the hedge; but it was too late; his eyes had caught a few words of the tract which led to his conversion.

For many GREs, the Bible maintains this sort of power. Regardless of what wonks like Merritt might say, GREs think the Bible can never do wrong, even in the hands of secular public-school dupes.

Far beyond religious considerations, Trump’s Bible tweet nails once again the angry nostalgia among white GREs. These bills aren’t about making real change in public schools, as Prof. Chancey has made abundantly clear. Instead, they are about—in Trump’s words—“Starting to make a turn back”. Part of the imagined MAGA past of GREs is a world in which their faith ruled America’s public spaces. Not in a theologically pure form, but in a symbolic way.

So we nerds can say what we want. We’re not wrong. Trump’s support for today’s batch of school-Bible bills is nonsensical at best, anti-conservative at worst. None of that really matters, though. Trump is not trying to convince us or actually save children’s souls. He is only trying to placate white GREs who love his hat.

Trump make america great again

GRE’s: About the hat as much as the Bible.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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