That’s Not How Religious Schools Work

You’ve probably seen it by now: The case of Shelly Fitzgerald has attracted a ton of attention. She is a counselor at a Catholic school in Indiana, under pressure to resign due to her same-sex marriage. Some critics have suggested that the case demonstrates the essential bigotry of religious schools. But that’s not how religious schools have ever worked. Instead, this case shows the eternally contested nature of religious schools.

Here’s what we know: Ms. Fitzgerald has worked at her Catholic high school for fifteen years. She has been in a same-sex marriage for twenty-two years. An anonymous activist outed her to the school administration and archdiocese. As a result, Fitzgerald has been asked to resign or separate from her partner. Alumni, meanwhile, are protesting in her favor.

What can this episode tell us about the nature of religious schools? It’s not what my friend the Friendly Atheist thinks. As Hemant Mehta noted, this sort of anti-gay policy should not come as any surprise. It is literally written in the contract signed by employees. As Mehta argued recently,

don’t get mad at the school for being run by bigots. Blame the Church for its rules and blame the parents for sending their kids here. Hell, blame Fitzgerald for taking a job with them when she should’ve known this day would come.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might agree that such blanket denunciations are simplistic, perhaps willfully so. As I argued in my recent book about evangelical higher education, religious schools have NEVER operated as simple outlets for orthodoxy. Instead, they have served as forums where adherents of a religion hash out what they really care about in terms of God, politics, and culture.

Consider a few recent examples.

At Gordon College near Boston, the president ignited a local firestorm. How? By reminding Gordonians and the public about Gordon’s long-established rules and policies concerning same-sex relationships. President Lindsay did not make up any new rules. He didn’t fire anyone or punish anyone. But even by simply publicly noting the institution’s rules, Lindsay caused a furor among students, neighbors, and alumni.

Or consider the case of Wheaton College’s conspicuous not-firing of Larycia Hawkins. Professor Hawkins came under fire for publicly sporting hijab and writing that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worshipped the same God. She didn’t break any rules, but she was still forced out.

What’s our takeaway? In religious schools the rules are not the rules. They are one weapon that partisans of different visions can use to change practice at their institutions.

The rules at any religious school are not etched in stone. Rather, in every case, the rules are a negotiation, a guess, a political statement, an aspiration. If you want to understand a religion, don’t look only at statements of faith or official policies. Instead, put in the time to understand how students, teachers, administrators, and church leaders view their schools.


Listen, America!

Is this normal these days? I was surprised to hear that Oxford has just released an audio version of Fundamentalist U. I hope that means more people can interact with the book in one format or another.

audio book

Now…for your listening pleasure…

If you are a listener rather than a reader, I hope this new format helps you get into the book.

I didn’t know that academic presses were issuing audio versions. Is that a twenty-first century kind of thing that my twentieth-century brain just needs to get used to?

Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International Offices are back up and running after a short vacation. Here are some of the stories that swirled while we sang our vacation theme song:

From the Archives: Mildred Crabtree does her thing, at National Archives.


Rockin the library, Crabtree-style.

Larry Cuban remembers creepy Channel One.

Non-white evangelicals in era of Trump: “When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under a bus.” At R&P.

Conservative Ben Shapiro challenges Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, at Fox. Does it count as sexual harassment?

In the belly of the beast: the American Humanist Association continues its fight against graduation prayers in the hometown of Bob Jones University.

The state of civics education in the USA, at Brookings.

Trumpism abroad: Evangelicals rally around a thug in Brazil, at The Conversation.

Peter Greene: Why heartwarming school stories don’t warm his heart.

No school should ever need a celebrity’s help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

The other Benedict Option, at CT.

The oxymoronic quest of academics to build their brands, at CHE.

Why Civics Education Can’t

It would be nice. It sounds logical. But pumping state standards full of more civics-education requirements won’t produce a more civil society. It can’t. As a recent report reveals, most civics education classes in practice are limited to the same old outlines of government checks and balances, calculated to turn students into nappers, not active citizens.

brookings citizenship

More talk than action…

Not that we don’t want civics education to work. As pundits continue to repeat, Americans in general could use more knowledge about government and about citizen rights and responsibilities. As one writer opined,

A functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry, including baseline knowledge of societal laws and institutions. Bafflingly, many schools no longer teach children how our government works, and what basic rights Americans are guaranteed.

And it’s not that school leaders haven’t tried. Many states have instituted new curricular rules about civics classes. A new law in Washington state, for example, drew praise from the editors of the Seattle Times. By requiring more time in civics class, the editors celebrated, the new law was

positive news for our democracy. Students who enter adulthood understanding government and their role as citizens are better equipped to participate in elections and hold officials accountable.

I hate to be a sourpuss, but I have to disagree. Not that educated adults aren’t a good thing. Rather, I disagree that mere standards and curriculum changes are enough to do the trick. As I found in the research for my book about the history of American educational conservatism, there is good reason why the centuries-old dreams of civics educators have never really come to fruition.

In a nutshell, civics education can’t work because Americans can’t agree what it is supposed to do. As a recent Brookings report highlighted, schools are very spotty when it comes to delivering the goals of civics education.

If high-quality classroom-based education in civics means anything, it should tend to include some basics. As the Brookings folks put it, there are ten goals:

  1. Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography

  2. Discussion of current events

  3. Service learning

  4. Extracurricular activities

  5. Student participation in school governance

  6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures

  7. News media literacy

  8. Action civics

  9. Social-emotional learning (SEL)

  10. School climate reform

Unfortunately, most civics education is limited to classroom discussions and stale memorization of schoolhouse-rock-level government info.

As the Brookings report found (emphasis added by me),

the most common practices are classroom instruction, knowledge building, and discussion-based activities. These are far more common than participatory elements of learning or community engagement. . . . The lack of participatory elements of learning in state accountability frameworks highlights a void in civics education, as experts indicate that a high-quality civics education is incomplete without teaching students what civic participation looks like in practice, and how citizens can engage in their communities.

In short, most civics classes aren’t able to do the most important parts of real civics education. They aren’t able to engage students in projects that students find meaningful and have an actual impact on public life.

Why not? Ask any teacher. From sex-ed to creationism, any topic that carries the scantiest whiff of controversy is anathema in most schools. Students often care a lot about social issues, but their teachers are hamstrung when it comes to helping students get politically active.

Imagine it: What if a student group decided that their civics project would be a protest against a local abortion provider? Or if students wanted to march in a gay-pride parade? Such activism should be the goal of all civics education, but it is the rare teacher and the rare principal who is willing to take the inevitable heat.

Most schools are caught in a bind. On one hand, they are called on to teach students their duties as active citizens. On the other, if students engage in activism that members of the public disagree with, schools and teachers will inevitably be attacked for it.

Would you want YOUR tax dollars to teach kids to actively oppose a cause you agree with? It’s easy to support civics education in the abstract, but when it comes right down to it, the most we can really agree to is a bland, passive sort of civics information.

Where Were You Radicalized?

Have you seen it yet? Emily Nussbaum asked a simple question on Twitter: Where were you radicalized? I admit I haven’t read all the responses, but there’s one obvious one that I have heard from lots of my ex-evangelical friends that I’m not seeing.where were you radicalized

Some of the responses are compelling. Patrick Deneen, for example, blamed the effete and impudent snobs. Where was Deneen radicalized?

Princeton University, upon hearing colleagues using the words “flyover country” without irony or embarrassment, and where being anti-Christian was an acceptable and even required prejudice.

Other respondents share stories of feminist, economic, anti-war, or other radicalizing epiphanies. But here’s my puzzle: I’m not seeing tons of responses from people who say they were radicalized in church. I thought I would.

I don’t mean the people who heard a left-wing pastor sing and play guitar. I mean the people who sat in pews and listened to the conservative, maybe fundamentalist spiel over and over until they rejected the whole thing.

As I polish and revise my creationism book, I came across example after example of evangelicals who turned away from creationism precisely because of the young-earth ideas to which they were exposed at church.

For example, as two intrepid evangelical scholars relate, they met plenty of students who were “radicalized” due to the intellectual shortcomings of young-earth creationism. As one student told them,

My parents saw evolution as incompatible with religion; I agree, and when I decided the evidence did not support a 6-day creation, I stopped believing in God.

So for all those left-leaning evangelicals and ex-evangelicals out there, where were YOU radicalized? Was it in Sunday school? At church? At your religious school?

Civil Debate? Catcall? Or Creationist Ruse?

What would YOU call it? Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro says it’s nothing but civil debate. Leftist darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dismisses it as a mere catcall. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be reminded of something else: a long-standing creationist plea for attention.catcall ocasio cortez

Here’s what we know: Ben Shapiro offered a cool ten grand to Democratic primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to debate. If you’ve been on vacation too long, you might need a little backstory. Ocasio-Cortez attracted tons of attention recently with her upset win in a New York Democratic primary election. She has electrified the Sanders left with her energy and victory.

On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez denounced Shapiro’s offer as nothing more than “catcalling.” Shapiro responded that he only wanted “discussion and debate.”

I’m curious to hear what you think: is it legitimate for Shapiro to offer $10,000 for a debate? Or is that merely an extension of rude, aggressive unsolicited male attention?

And finally, how about this: is Shapiro’s debate offer a remix of an old creationist tactic? For years now, radical creationists such as Joseph Mastropaolo have offered $10,000 to any mainstream scientist willing to debate the facts of evolutionary science. In the opinion of one mainstream scientist, such tactics are obviously a “scam designed to lure the unsuspecting” into a shoddy creationist publicity stunt.

Is that what’s going on here? Is Shapiro merely hoping to attract attention? Or does he really want to engage in a civil debate? Or, as Ocasio-Cortez accuses, is this the equivalent of verbal street thuggery?

On Vacation…

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

August already! Instead of reading those stupid back-to-school ads, read some of these ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the past week:

Which comes first, God or politics? Michele Margoulis’s new book says people choose their party first, then their pew, at RNS.

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Islam rants miss the point. At The Conversation.

The changing face of private education—the rich get richer. At Atlantic.

Dawkins call to prayer

Are some calls to prayer more violent than others?

Helpful locals donate eight assault rifles to their local Texas school along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in other weaponry. At AP.

Collusion confusion: Is Trump really in cahoots with Nancy Pelosi? At The Hill.

Milwaukee sheriff in hot water for touting toilet-paper doctorate from unaccredited fundamentalist colleges, at JS. HT: NS.

An atheist’s case for religion at RNS.

How to Kill Fundamentalist Higher Education

[UPDATE: thanks for letting me know about the bad link. It’s fixed now.]

Want to kill uber-conservative evangelical Protestant colleges and universities? The recipe is simple: Have a lot more news stories like this one from Milwaukee.

Schmidt young earth timeline

Schmidt preaches the young-earth gospel…

Outsiders like me might not get it at first. We might think that fundamentalist colleges are happy to live in a little bubble, utterly protected from trends in the wider world. And, to some degree, they are. But when it comes right down to the hard facts, even the most conservative evangelical institutions care what people think about them. They have to. If colleges want to attract students and their tuition dollars, they have to prove that students’ college experiences will help them professionally. Colleges have to be able to assert that they are more than an educational punchline.

As I found out in the research for my recent book about the history of fundamentalist higher education, even the staunchest fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College yearn for mainstream respect.

Even though they traditionally eschewed accreditation, fundamentalist universities and colleges promised that their educations were not only theologically and culturally pure, but also good preparation for professional careers. Bob Jones University liked to assert that its students’ GRE scores were higher than similar schools. Founder Bob Jones Sr. often claimed that his school would do more than protect students’ faith—it would prepare them to be faith-filled doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers.

His decision to avoid accreditation, Senior often noted, was not due to lack of campus resources. Rather, it was only a measure of BJU’s spiritual superiority. As founder Bob Jones Sr. bragged in 1950,

Bob Jones University is probably the only one in America that could join an association that does not join, and we refuse to join. We believe . . . that a Christian institution should make its own policies in line with the purposes it has in view and that no association of any kind should dictate the administrative policies of the institution.

For most institutions of higher education, though, accreditation has always represented a crucial mark of respectability. Schools that could not afford to earn accreditation have always risked losing students to accredited schools.

It makes sense. Why would a student spend tuition dollars at a university when those classes would not be recognized by other institutions? Why would students attend an undergraduate college when their degree wouldn’t qualify them to enter any graduate schools?

As a recent story from my adopted hometown of Milwaukee demonstrates, evangelical colleges risk losing credibility if they aren’t accredited. Here’s what happened: The current acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt, often brags about his advanced degrees. He has one PhD, he likes to say, and he is working on a second. His election signs tout him as “Dr.” Smith.

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately for Schmidt, his degrees are only from unaccredited evangelical colleges. He earned his undergraduate degree from Hyles-Anderson College. His doctorate comes from the defunct Northland International University.

The Milwaukee report skewers this sort of higher education mercilessly. Not only are both schools unaccredited, but they split their classes and majors by gender. The more serious topics of Bible study, for example, are considered to be for men. Women can focus on challenging courses such as “secretarial procedures,” “crock-pot cooking,” and “The Christian Wife.”

hyles anderson women program

Sorry, I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got my big final in Crock-Pot tomorrow…

This embarrassingly shoddy college poses a career risk for Acting Sheriff Schmidt. For our purposes, the bigger threat is to fundamentalist higher education itself. If conservative evangelical students and families see that unaccredited colleges are the butt of jokes, they just won’t attend. And if degrees from these schools prove a hindrance to professional success—as they are for Sheriff Schmidt—students will take their tuition dollars elsewhere.

In the end, if you want to kill off fundamentalist higher education, all you have to do is laugh at it.

Thanks to N(M)S for the tip.