What Should Religion Do in Public Schools?

With apologies to Yogi Berra, I’ll steal his line in this case. I’m heading down to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio. It’s the big one for education wonks and nerds. And it’s a zoo. Like Yogi said, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

crowd

Pardon me, sir, you’re stepping on my PhD.

Why would anyone brave such crowds, heat, and academic foolery? In my case, I’m going because we’ll have a chance to wrestle with the most interesting question in the world: What is the proper relationship between religion and public education in the United States?

A panel of experts was put together by one of my all-time favorite ed historians, Ben Justice. He and his co-author Colin MacLeod just published a terrific book about religion and school. They invited me and my recent co-author Harvey Siegel. We rounded up a few more experts, including Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey.

have a little faith

And you got your church all over my school…or did you get your school all over my church?

I’m looking forward to the discussion. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, these are questions that keep me up at night:

  • Is it fair to creationists to force their children to learn an idea that they find religiously objectionable?
  • Do conservative evangelical Protestants have any special rights in public schools? If everyone in a town is the same (evangelical Protestant) religion, is it okay for the schools in town to lean that way, too?
  • Are public schools really hostile to religious belief? Conservatives often howl that schools are cesspools of “secular humanism,” but are they really?

And so on.

Each of us only gets a few minutes to say some things, then we’ll open up the room to a wider discussion. I’ll have a hard time keeping my opening presentation short, but I’ll try.

Watch this space—I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it all goes down.

Florida Christians Speak Up for Satan

Have you seen them? Conservative religious folks these days like to push new school laws that would protect students’ rights to be religious in public schools. And it has led to some pretty odd bedfellows.

These laws, often called Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Acts, generally insist that students can’t be stopped from expressing their religious ideas in class assignments and school activities. Several states have passed or considered similar bills.

No one disagrees that students in public schools have every right to be religious. They can pray, wear religious symbols, and join religious clubs. These bills want to take those rights one step further. If cheerleaders in Texas want to hold up Bible-based placards, for example, these laws would protect their rights to do that. If valedictorians in Tennessee want to lead a prayer at graduation, these laws say that’s okay.

On my recent trip to sunny Gainesville, Florida, some of the edu-gators (ha) were talking about a similar new bill in Florida. The state Senate just approved it, and the House will be voting next week.

Opponents are dismayed. One high-school biology teacher worried that this bill would smash any protections against religious preaching in public schools. “Does this mean,” he asked,

That a teacher or school personnel can then talk about stuff like the age of the Earth and evolution from a religious perspective, and if someone was to try to counsel them not to do that, would that be discrimination against the teacher?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State shared similar worries.  As they argued,

A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.

Supporters of Florida’s bill put it in a different light. Senate sponsor Dennis Baxley said his bill “protects everybody.” He was especially concerned about students such as Erin Shead.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH* may recall, ten-year-old Erin was asked to write about her hero. She picked God. Her teacher asked her to pick someone else.

In Florida, and around the country, conservative Christians are pushing these types of laws in order to clarify Erin’s right to admire God in class. But the Florida debate is producing some weird rhetoric. The selling point of these bills—at least one of them—is that they are not meant to push Christianity, but rather to protect students’ rights to practice any religion.

And one Florida activist isn’t shy about spelling out what that means. Pam Olsen of the Florida Prayer Network told Florida lawmakers that the bill wasn’t just a Christian power play. Everyone, she insisted, would be protected. As she put it,

That means Christian, it means Muslim, it means Jewish, it means the Satanic people. Because that is a religion now.

Okay, so, hrmmmmm…I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a group of Satanists really did speak out in favor of this law. Or if a group of Satanist students started a “prayer circle” at their local Florida public school.

Would the Florida Prayer Network support them?

*Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, of course.

 

The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974

Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school. Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field. It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it. You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.

Us & Them Visits the Gablers

Who’s in charge of American public education? Some folks say that “progressive” ideas took over education back in the 1930s. John Dewey and his ilk, these folks insist, turned American education in progressive directions. But what about all the ferocious and successful conservative input into what schools teach? In the latest episode of Trey Kay’s Us & Them, Trey looks at the influence of Mel and Norma Gabler since the 1960s.

What Norma says goes...

What Norma says goes…

Trey only has a half-hour to work with, so he couldn’t include the longer historical context. For those in the know, however, Texas’s culture-war battles over textbooks and curriculum go back far longer than the 1960s, and they have changed in bigger ways than he has time to delve into.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in culture wars and education should spend a half-hour with the new Us & Them episode. Trey talks with former Texas board of ed chairman Don McLeroy, as well as with liberal critic Kathy Miller.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Texas’s fights over textbooks attracted attention nationwide. Conservatives pushed for more traditional visions of American greatness. Liberals fumed that Texas’s culture-war politics doomed schoolchildren to a skewed vision of the past. (For the best introduction to those fights, be sure to check out Scott Thurman’s documentary The Revisionaries.)

Before those recent battles, however, Mel and Norma Gabler made themselves famous as mom-and-pop culture-war heroes. Beginning in the 1960s, the Gablers insisted on their rights to speak at the hearings of the Texas State Board of Education. They compiled damning lists of factual errors in adopted textbooks. More important, they insisted on revisions to make textbooks more traditional, more religious, and more patriotic.

As you might expect, the Gablers play a leading role in my recent book about conservative educational activism. Long before they waged their gadfly campaign, however, similar culture-war fights roiled educational politics in Texas and elsewhere. Going back to the 1920s, Texas demanded and received special editions of its textbooks. The board demanded the excision of evolution and anti-Southern history. The board only adopted what one publisher in 1926 called “tactfully written” books that did not mess with Texas.

Indeed, when the Gablers became involved, they looked to several existing organizations for guidance and inspiration. As I recount in my book, the first group they looked to was the Texas chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Since the 1920s, the DAR had played a leading role in textbook publishing and culture-war monitoring. In 1951, for example, the Texas DAR mobilized its thousands of members to make sure that schools and textbooks “taught the principles embraced by our forefathers.” That year, the Texas DAR claimed to have sent 1,695 of its members to observe history classrooms across the state.

If we hope to understand culture-war politics, in Texas and elsewhere, we need to be aware of this longer history. We also need to understand the ways 21st-century ed politics have changed. Throughout the twentieth century, conservative activists like the Gablers envisioned themselves as outsiders, charging hard to block the work of a progressive educational establishment. Like the Gablers and the DAR, conservative groups such as the American Legion successfully blocked textbooks they didn’t like.

By the 21st century, however, things had changed. Some conservative intellectuals have argued that dominant efforts in recent education policy, such as the Common Core standards and the No Child Left Behind Act, were actually inspired by conservative ideas and intellectuals. As Michael Petrilli and Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute claimed about NCLB, that law “sketched a vision of reform informed by conservative intuitions and insights.”

Instead of the Gabler-style outsider approach, conservatives these days can claim to have taken over key parts of the educational establishment.

No one can gainsay the enormous influence of the Gablers on educational culture wars in the twentieth century. Everyone who is interested will benefit from listening to the Us & Them episode. Just remember to keep it in historical context!

Does Your School Smell of BO?

Conservative intellectuals these days are talking a lot about the “Benedict Option.” The idea is to create intentional communities that preserve traditional values as mainstream culture hurtles ever-faster toward anti-Christian values. In the wake of Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, will such ideas catch on?

Short answer: No. If history is any guide, conservative evangelicals, at least, will continue to feel quite at home in their local mainstream communities. A quick burst of community-founding might happen, but it will likely ebb once conservatives realize how un-alienated they are from the mainstream.

Blogger Rod Dreher seems to have sparked the recent discussion of a “Benedict Option.” Dreher profiled intentional lay communities in Clear Creek, Oklahoma and Eagle River, Alaska. He asked if more conservative Christians would follow suit:

Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

As Dreher has developed the idea, it has naturally come to focus on educational goals. Even in staunchly Christian communities, Dreher has argued, the public schools lack any sense of guiding values. Kids in fifth grade share porn; they have no beef with same-sex marriage. Even in such apparent Christian havens as small-town Louisiana, Dreher believes, kids and their parents have embraced a bland, therapeutic religiosity. The Benedict Option, Dreher thinks, offers conservatives their only hope. As he put it,

There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.

Dreher has taken some heat from fellow conservatives for culture-war pessimism. Not every conservative wants to turn inward. But as Dreher recently noted, many prominent evangelical thinkers such as Russell Moore seem to be adopting a BO approach to mainstream culture.

Similarly, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University has recently endorsed a BO attitude. Earlier this week, Kidd wrote,

for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

As Dreher and other BO-friendly conservatives repeat, BO does not mean Amish. It does not mean turning away entirely from mainstream culture. In some BO communities, for instance, families make their money from internet telecommuting. They insist on remaining engaged in mainstream politics and local affairs, even as they insist on retaining more control over their children’s upbringing.

Will the Benedict Option attract more and more support from conservative Christians? If history is any guide, the likely answer is no. As Dreher, Kidd, and Moore all realize, the tension among conservative Christians between engagement and withdrawal is as old as Christianity itself. In recent American history, as I’ve argued in academic articles about Christian schools and school prayer, evangelical Protestants have tended to wax and wane in their enthusiasm for BO approaches to schooling.

In 1963, SCOTUS decided that the Lord’s Prayer could not be recited in public schools, nor could the Bible be read devotionally. This decision caused some conservative evangelicals to conclude that they had been kicked out of public school and American society.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.” No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried. Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America. In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed. The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These attitudes helped fuel a burst of new Christian schools in the 1970s. But as Christian-school leaders are painfully aware, many of those new schools couldn’t survive. Why? At least in part, because not enough conservatives feel alienated from their local mainstream communities. Why should they?

As I argue in my new book, public schools are far more conservative places than most pundits acknowledge. There is a lot of talk among both progressives and conservatives about the progressive takeover of public education, but for most Americans, their local schools remain fairly conservative places.

At the very top, leaders such as Arne Duncan embrace free-market approaches to education reform. In places such as Texas, creationist homeschoolers—folks who might fairly call themselves BO activists—have risen to the top of the state public educational hierarchy.

Why would conservatives think that they no longer had any pull in public schools? As Dreher is fully aware, many conservatives do not object to mainstream culture; they feel no yearning to give their children a radically different upbringing. If that’s the case, talk of BO in schools will not be a more than a minority sentiment.

Just as relatively few progressives abandon public schools for purer options, so too only a handful of conservatives will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education.

Postcards from Christian America

Is America a “Christian” nation? What do we even mean by that question? Historically, as I argued in my recent book, even secular conservatives have tended to assume that the United States needs Christianity. Is that still the case? Will it be the case for the foreseeable future? A couple of new polls offer contradictory impressions.

LifeWay, an evangelical research organization, asked 1,000 Americans if they thought God and America had a “special relationship.” Most did. Fifty-three percent overall agreed. In different categories, the percentages went up. Just over two-thirds of self-described evangelical Protestants thought America and God had a special bond. African Americans believed it (62%) more commonly than white Americans (51%). Tellingly, among the highest percentages of agreement were from white evangelicals over 45, seven of ten of whom agreed (71%).

Special friends?

Special friends?

Perhaps this demography helps explain a seeming paradox. Another Fourth of July-timed research report from the Public Religion Research Institute asserted that the numbers of Americans who think the USA is a “Christian nation” is declining, fastest among the young. Only about a third of respondents agreed that the USA is now and has always been a Christian nation. Older people tend to believe it more often.

What does it mean to think of the country as a “Christian” nation? These polls are tricky, since different respondents can think different things, even if they check the same boxes. For some respondents, the idea of a Christian nation likely evokes a tight bond between public spaces and evangelical religion. In a properly Christian nation, some think, public schools and meetings ought to be guided by Christian prayers and ideas.

Other people might simply mean that the USA has a majority of Christians. If we understand “Christian nation” in this sense, it means public spaces can still be secularized, even if a majority of citizens share a Christian faith.

As I’ve argued in the past, it is a mistake to try to pinpoint one point in time when America turned into a secular society. It is a mistake to try to understand the history of evangelicals in America as having changed at a specific point in time from an unchallenged majority to a beleaguered minority. We hear these sorts of claims all the time, of course, especially when the Supreme Court issues a seemingly anti-Christian decision.

Booming with boomers...

Booming with boomers…

From an historical perspective, evangelical Protestants have always held enormous influence over the entirety of American society. Over the long haul, certainly, evangelicalism’s influence in public life has waned.

Does that mean America is moving away from its history as a “Christian” nation?

Or does it only mean that the United States is now and has always been a pluralistic society, with evangelicals battling for control with all kinds of other religious and non-religious groups?