SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bigotry.green bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another rip-roaring week has come and gone in the offices of ILYBYGTH. Here are some stories you might have missed:

Anti-Muslim? Or pro-secular? School-prayer debates in Ontario.

Forget about free speech and violent protests for a second. At WaPo, Jeffrey Selingo argues that there are much bigger problems to worry about in the world of higher education.Bart reading bible

Southern evangelical churches wonder what to do about their Confederate monuments.

Summer vacation is here. From the Fordham Institute, Christopher Rom says we need to get rid of it. And it’s not because we’re not all a bunch of farmers anymore.

Jerry Falwell wants in. But other university leaders want out. Queen Betsy’s Ed Dept is having trouble filling its ranks.

The more things change…Southern Baptist Convention debates an anti-racism resolution.

More Trumpian tragedy: Cabinet meeting relives the opening of King Lear.

Helicopter parenting and the authoritarian personality: Pratik Chougule makes the case at the American Conservative.

Teaching climate change: A rundown of the latest developments.

DeVos’s Ed Dept. closes a sexual-assault investigation at Liberty University.

What do we do when a religion is all about racial violence? The question of Odinism.

Will vouchers help? Only at the edges, two researchers claim. Positive effects from vouchers are due to something else.

The Surprising History of Turkey’s Creationism

A devilish Jewish conspiracy? A beloved Christian import? Recent news from Turkey builds on the surprising evolution of creationism in that country.

Here’s what we know: Alpaslan Durmus, the Turkish education minister, denounced evolution as “beyond their [students’] comprehension.” It will be removed from K-12 textbooks. Durmus explained that the government thought evolution was too “controversial;” that students “don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend.”

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Evolution’s out

That’s not the surprising part. After all, even when Turkish official textbooks did discuss evolution, they were hardly fair, balanced, or free of religious bigotry. According to The Financial Times, earlier Turkish textbooks warned students that Darwin “had two problems:  first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth.” The books mocked Darwin’s lack of formal education, noting strangely that he preferred to spend his time with monkeys in the zoo.

For a while, then, Turkey’s public schools have catered to popular bigotry about evolutionary ideas. Turkey is hardly alone. Evolution is deeply unpopular in many Muslim-majority countries. According to Salman Hameed of Hampshire College, fewer than a fifth of Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis say they think evolution is true. Only eight percent of Egyptians do. Turkey is no exception. Just as in the United States, evolutionary theory is widely denounced, even if it is not widely understood. Anxious leaders curry favor with conservative religious populations by throwing Darwin under the bus.

It is not news, then, that Turkey’s government is trying to win support among religious voters by eliminating evolution from textbooks. We might be surprised, however, by the history of cross-creationist connections that have long linked Turkey’s Islamic creationists to San Diego’s Christian ones.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

A worldwide flood of creationism

As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421).

The relationship between powerful Turkish creationists and American creationists thrived. In 1992, a Turkish creationism conference invited ICR stalwarts Duane Gish and John Morris as keynote speakers.  Professor Numbers also describes the founding in 1990 of the Turkish Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV).  In Numbers’ words, “For years BAV maintained a cozy relationship with Christian young-earth creationists, feting them at conferences, translating their books, and carrying their message to the Islamic world” (pg. 425).

However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

It’s not shocking, then, that Turkish and American creationists keep one another at arm’s length, in spite of American outreach to Turkey and lavish and expensive efforts by Turkish creationists to woo American scientists.

Here’s the last question: Will Turkey’s recent move finally convince pundits to stop saying that the United States is the only country in which creationism thrives? Will creationism finally be seen as the world-wide conservative impulse that it really is?

HT: V(F)W; JC

From the Archives: Klan Kollege

Higher ed can be exclusionary. For students who don’t have the funds for tuition or the money for SAT prep classes or the ability to focus on four (or more) years of post-secondary education, college has always been out of reach. At some schools, though, there has been another sinister reason why college was not for everyone. Scott Jaschik reports today in Inside Higher Education about the Ku Klux Klan konnections of Wesleyan College in Atlanta. It’s an important story, but they left out the most extraordinary part.

Wesleyan’s story has plenty of shockers. Students had been proudly affiliated with the Klan since the late 1800s, with sports teams sporting the name “Tri-Ks” until the 1990s. Students hazed one another in masks with nooses. The school didn’t admit an African-American student until 1968. But the story of Wesleyan is not the most intriguing story of the Ku Klux Klan in higher education. At the height of its influence, the “second” Klan in the 1920s made plans to purchase its own Klan Kollege.Daily-Republican-Rushville-IN-August-16-1923

A little background: The 1920s Klan was very different than its earlier and later incarnations. As I note in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s the Klan was still violent and racist, but it had much more mainstream credibility than later Klan groups.

During the 1920s, ambitious leader Hiram Evans planned to use the issue of education to bring together the millions of Klan members nationwide. As I’ve argued in an academic article, the plan was to mimic anti-immigrant mainstream educational ideas left over from World War I. Public schools, Evans believed, could be the tool to “Americanize” the nation.

fiery cross pic valpo

Spoke a little too soon…

At the height of its popularity, the 1920s Klan ran the states of Indiana and Oregon. They were enormously politically powerful. As part of their soaring ambition, they hoped to invest in the future by building their own university.

How? They proposed to purchase the financially strapped Valparaiso University in Indiana. It would become a dedicated Klan school, an institution that would teach the principles of Ku Kluxism, Indiana-style. Valpo would become the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” Klan leaders promised. The school would teach the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the 1920s Klan. As they explained in their Indiana newspaper,

Those un-American and alien forces that would disrupt every move that is planned to better any Protestant undertaking are busy stirring up strife and discord where possible in an attempt to block the project. The futility of such attempts, however, is realized when it is noted that whatever the Ku Klux Klan starts out to do, it always does. In this instance, the Klan has started out to make Valparaiso a great national institution; to make it a monument to American ideals and principles.

Fiery-Cross-August-24-1923

Big dreams of Klan Kollege

It didn’t work. Due to feuding between the powerful leader of the Indiana Klan and the national leadership in Atlanta, the money fell through at the last minute. It still shows, though, how higher education has always been central to America’s long-running culture wars. For the 1920s Klan to cement its role as a real leader in American culture, it wanted to have its own college. Other conservative groups–from fundamentalists to free-marketeers–have had more success.

Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.

Trump and DeVos: Improving Science and History Education?

It’s too soon to tell, of course, but that’s not going to stop me from wondering. Historians, science-educators, and members of the Democratic Party have all been horrified by Trumpism. But murmurs from the field suggest that Trump’s excesses are sparking a pro-history, pro-science, pro-donkey backlash. At least a little.

History first. It didn’t take an expert to be shocked by some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Shouting about “America First,” for example, seemed to willfully ignore the tortured history of that phrase.

Then science. Trump has long bashed climate-change science as a “hoax,” a “Chinese plot,” a “con job.”

And politics. Trump’s surprise victory had many Democratic Party faithful wringing their hands at their abject failure. If they couldn’t stop a buffoon like Trump, how could they expect to get anywhere?

Trump and devos

So bad it’s good…?

So maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but we’re hearing all sorts of mumbling about anti-Trump backlash.

Amy Wang asks if Trump’s surprise victory has sparked renewed interest in history on college campuses. In the past few years, the number of history majors has slumped, as more and more college students study business and engineering. At Yale, however, the history major recently regained its top spot. Elsewhere, students are looking at the history major with renewed interest. Wang wonders if Trump’s victory

has broken through an apathy barrier of sorts. People who’d become disengaged with politics suddenly started paying attention again.

And at least one progressive Seattle science teacher claims that Trumpist science-denialism has sparked greater interest among his students in studying real science. As he put it,

My students are angry and frightened and I am humbled by the fact that most of them have only deepened their commitment to do what Trump will not: honestly explore and enact how best to live on Earth.

When it comes to politics, too, Democrats are finding that Trump and DeVos make excellent fundraisers…for Democrats. As Politico reports, Democratic Party campaigns that focus on DeVos’s policies are raking in the dollars. As Politico’s Michael Stratford reports,

Emails citing DeVos are raising money at a faster clip than others and driving engagement from supporters.

We shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. No one was less popular in the 1930s than FDR, and he stayed in office for four terms. Nobody provoked greater animosity than Abraham Lincoln, and he got the penny. So we don’t want to overestimate the importance of inevitable anti-Trump backlash.

We can’t help but wonder, though: Will Trumpism really spark a renaissance of academic history, science education, and Democratic Party politics?

Free Speech Firestorm Jumps the Creationist Gap

Everyone supports free speech. But these days, academic “free speech” has become the latest creationist tactic to wedge creation-friendly science into schools. Mostly, that has been a K-12 effort, but it seems like creationist tactics have piggybacked their way into higher education.

The latest incarnation comes from the University of Wisconsin. Conservative lawmakers have promoted a bill to protect free speech on campus. To be fair, the conservatives who push Wisconsin’s bill insist that it has nothing to do with classroom topics, creationist or otherwise. The target, they insist, are leftist radicals who won’t allow conservative speakers on campus.

Wisconsin free speech

Let creationism ring?!!?!???

In Wisconsin’s case, the headline-grabbing incident was a talk by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In November 2016, Shapiro was shouted down for about twenty minutes before campus police kicked out the shouting protesters. Conservative lawmakers hope their bill will guarantee a balanced ideological environment; an infusion of conservative ideas on campus. The bill is patterned after other campus free-speech bills, inspired by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

To this reporter, though, it seems like the current higher-ed furor over free speech has leaped the curricular gap. Here’s what I worry about: Campus free-speech efforts will be used to protect the “free speech” of creationists and other conservative folks locked out of mainstream science. Attempts to box out creationist ideas will be stymied.

Full disclosure: I can’t even pretend to be neutral on this one. I love my alma mater and I quake at the notion that lawmakers would pass any sort of law demanding or prohibiting certain forms of teaching. It’s not just an intellectual or political thing, either. If big granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health think UW is shackled by creationist science, they will be less likely to fund UW-based projects. Alumni will shy away from sending in donations. Students will be less likely to bring their tuition dollars. In short, the possible negative ramifications of a move like this could be huge.

But at this point, my dear SAGLRROILYBYGTH, you may be asking yourself a smart question: What does this conservative political move to welcome conservative speakers have to do with creationism?

First, the background: For years now, creationists have pushed for “academic freedom” bills in K-12 schools. The idea is to protect teachers and students from harassment or discrimination if they choose to voice their creationist ideas. Seattle’s Intelligent-Design mavens at Discovery Institute, for example, have offered the following language in their “academic-freedom” petition:

Teachers should be protected from being fired, harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for objectively presenting the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory. Students should be protected from being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for expressing their views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory in an appropriate manner.

The idea is to mandate the intellectual rights of creationists in K-12 schools, to protect teachers and students from any sort of negative reaction to their zombie science. If successful, these bills put science education in a legal gray area. A school can’t insist on teaching mainstream science. Teachers can’t insist that students learn it.

We’ve seen glimmers of this sort of creationist “academic freedom” dispute in higher ed, too. Remember Eric Hedin at Ball State? He earned tenure after facing charges of preaching intelligent design. Or Mark Armitage at Cal State Northridge? He successfully sued after facing discrimination for his creationist publications.

The Wisconsin bill, however, introduces a new element to these creationist “academic freedom” battles in higher education. According to Madison’s Capital Times, the bill’s sponsor is a convinced young-earth creationist. His bill would create a Council on Free Expression. Creationist students who feel persecuted could file complaints with this Council.

In the give-and-take in the Wisconsin legislature, skeptical Representative Terese Berceau questioned Jesse Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, on this question. What if, Berceau asked, a student in a geology class argued that the earth was only 6,000 years old?

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

“The earth is 6,000 years old,” Kremer offered.  “That’s a fact.”

Representative Kremer insisted the new law would not affect classroom discussions. But he affirmed that a creationist student—any student—who felt discriminated against could take his or her complaint to the Council on Free Expression.

Again, I know I’m not thinking clearly and calmly on this one. I’m nervous about the possible ramifications of Kremer’s bill and I’m likely to make creationist mountains out of conservative molehills.

Am I being overly paranoid? Or will conservative free-speech bills end up giving creationist students in college the ability to jam up the works of mainstream science classes? Will efforts to set up an intellectual preserve for conservative ideas on campus end up giving creationists more control over college classes? And, most important, will that new creationist influence stymie the mainstream science that usually goes on in Madison?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week has come and gone. Here are some stories that flew by our editorial window:

More on Evergreen State: Michael Aaron argues that we should see it as a “mo/po-mo” battle, “a petri dish for applied postmodernism.” HT: MM

Why are American schools getting more segregated?

Does America need more “intellectual humility?” Philosopher Michael Lynch makes his case in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

READING

Words, words, words…

Southern Baptist Convention: Kicking out LGBTQ; wondering about the “alt-right.”

Nerd note: Drew Gilpin Faust stepping down as Harvard’s president.

Nerd follow-up: Who’s in the running to replace her? How about President Obama?

The libertarian case against public education.

DeVos continues to make long-held conservative educational dreams come true. The latest? Announcing a plan to scale-back civil-rights enforcement.

Michigan jumps in. The university at Ann Arbor announced a free-tuition program, joining similar plans in Boston and New York.

How can we improve lame and uninformative student evaluations of college classes? How about teaching partnerships?

Shakespeare takes center stage in culture-war showdown: A conservative activist disrupts a production of Julius Caesar.

Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

image-from-who-was-jim-crow-coloring-book

Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.