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?

School Punishes Girl for Modesty

It sounds like a dystopian fundamentalist fantasy: secular school wardens careening out of control, punishing religious students for having decent morals. But in France this week, a girl was really sent home because her skirt was too long.

Of course, things are different in France than they are in the United States. In France, public schools and institutions are governed by the rule of laïcité. No one may wear religious symbols to school, not headscarves, skullcaps, or big crosses.

In this case, “Sarah K.” was sent home when administrators decided her skirt represented religious garb. Like her friends and co-religionists at the school, Sarah had removed her headscarf as she went in. But her skirt still represented religious attire, school leaders believed. The principal wrote a note to her parents, according to the New York Times, warning them to “rectify her clothes if you want her to continue her schooling.”

"Ta jupe est trop longue..."

“Ta jupe est trop longue…”

In this country, we’ve seen our share of outraged religious conservatives kicked out of public schools for culture-war clothing issues. Remember the flap over the Romney shirt in Philadelphia? Or, up north, remember the kid who got kicked out for his “Life Is Wasted without Jesus” shirt?”

To this uninformed observer, Sarah K.’s case seems like an overreach by overzealous school officials. How can they decide if a skirt is part of a religious outfit, or if it is just a skirt? How can they conclude that Sarah K. intended for her maxi-skirt to be a statement of her religious faith?

Phonics for Phundamentalists

How can conservative religious people save their children from a monstrously hypertrophied public school system? In the pages of the Christian Post, Paul de Vries offers a few suggestions to restore the educational prerogatives of conservative families and churches. Could they work?

De Vries, an evangelical philosopher and school leader, suggests a religious solution to angst over high-stakes Common-Core tests. In short, de Vries wants to “restore” the “prize-winning, God-ordained architecture of education that made our country great.” Instead of passing off education to the public-school system, de Vries writes, conservatives need to increase the educational role of the family and the church. Not only can this plan help students learn to read and cipher, but it will inject a dose of Christian morality and soul-winning into a woefully secularized system, de Vries believes.

He offers a menu of specific things conservative religious people can do to assert more control over education. For instance, churches can offer Saturday school in phonics instruction to all the kids in their neighborhoods. It would be a win-win. Young people would get better reading skills, which would help them in their education and standardized school tests. Churches would get more people to heaven, by using the Bible as the only textbook, instilling a deeper appreciation for the Christian Gospel in all the kids of the neighborhood.

Could it work? De Vries says that it does already. Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan, one of the foundational churches of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, already runs a program like this.

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Save Our Children from Jesus!

Elsewhere, though, religious add-on programs have run into trouble. In Portland, Oregon, for example, parent activists mobilized to spread the word about Christian attempts to spread the Word to children. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) may remember, in that case the Child Evangelism Fellowship promised to educate kids about God and phonics in fun-filled after-school programs. The CEF had the Supreme Court on its side, but non-evangelical parents promised to block access to unwary children.

Professor de Vries hopes that parents will want educational success badly enough that they’ll send their children to Saturday morning church-school. The phonics program, he hopes, will be an attractive lure for children who might otherwise never enter a church.

A Liberal Leader Pushes Religion in Public Schools

They say only Nixon could go to China. Maybe now they’ll say that only de Blasio could get religion back into New York’s public schools. According to the New York Times, Mayor de Blasio has been irking his liberal allies by his repeated efforts to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. With greater success than many conservative activists, this liberal mayor has been able to push religion in the Big Apple.

Public religion: Texas style

Public-school religion: Texas style

No one doubts de Blasio’s left-of-center politics. The Washington Post called his leadership “a laboratory of sorts for modern progressivism.” Yet this progressive politician has done more to integrate religion and public schools than many of the conservative politicians we’ve studied in these pages.

For example, in his quest to expand pre-kindergarten classes to all of New York’s children, de Blasio has included religious schools. As the New York Times relates, the Mayor has welcomed the participation even of very conservative religious schools, as long as they agree to include children of all religious backgrounds. This plan, of course, would funnel tax dollars directly to religious organizations.

Similarly, Mayor de Blasio has added two Islamic holidays to the New York City public school calendar, precisely because they are religious holidays. Muslim leaders celebrated, but civil libertarians point out that this act violates a long-standing principle of church-state separation.

The Mayor has long supported the use of school buildings by religious groups for services, though conservatives accuse him of reversing himself. One case might soon end up before the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS bans this traditional practice, will de Blasio protest? Will the Mayor take the side of religious groups against a constitutional clarification of the required wall between religious groups and public education?

Public-school religion, New York style

Public school religion, New York-style

New York Times writers Michael M. Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman call New York a “famously secular city.” But we need to be careful when we say such things. As Grynbaum and Otterman note, de Blasio’s success has come partly with support from conservative religious New Yorkers, “a substantial portion of the city.” As we’ve explored in these pages, New York, like many big cities, is not secular, but rather riotously religious.

Indeed, that ferociously diverse religiosity might be the key to Mayor de Blasio’s success. Conservative activists have tried time and again to push evangelical Protestantism in the public schools of places such as Kansas and Kountze, Texas. In New York City, on the other hand, the Mayor can make a good case that he is not pushing any one sort of religion. In his efforts to improve public schooling for all, he has the liberty to open the door to religious groups in ways a more conservative politician might not.

A Strange Poll Question for Conservatives

What would “Christian America” look like? No one really knows, but plenty of Republicans want to make it official. At least according to a new poll from the Public Policy Polling firm, significant majorities of likely GOP primary voters—57%–want to make Christianity the official religion of the USA. This brings us to a tough question: Do today’s religious conservatives intend to make a break with conservative tradition? Or are they just unaware of their own history?

The PPP poll gives some intriguing breakdowns. For those GOP voters who prefer Governor Mike Huckabee, a whopping 94% support the notion. Even those who support the more secular Rand Paul like the idea, by a margin of almost two to one.

Younger GOP voters are MORE likely to back the proposal. Among 18-45-year-olds, 63% say they support the idea. Only 51% of those over 65 do.

There are other intriguing aspects to this poll. For example, among supporters of Huckabee and of Paul, we see a neat flip-flop when it comes to evolution. Only a tiny margin (7%) of Huckabee backers say they “believe” in evolution, while a whopping 85% of Paul supporters do. Clearly, there’s a lot of daylight between the notions of “conservatism” and “creationism” these days.

But that’s not nearly as compelling, IMHO, as this weird question of establishing Christianity as the national religion. What would that mean? Would public schools nationwide all look a lot more like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana? Would other religions have to pay some sort of tax?

Perhaps most interesting from an historical perspective, do these likely GOP voters know that conservative Protestants—especially Baptists—have always been the leaders in making sure that the government was kept entirely separate from religion?

My hunch is that most of these respondents think of “Christian America” as a conservative concept, something along the lines of David Barton’s Wallbuilders and Representative Fisher’s Black Robe Regiment. In short, this strain of conservative thought emphasizes that the United States was founded by Christians, for Christians. The Founding Fathers, that is, were guided explicitly by Christian ideas and they never intended for any sort of wall of separation to be built. Judges should be free to have the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in their courtrooms. Town meetings and football games should be free to start with a prayer. Currency should continue to Trust in God. And so on.

Was America founded as a Christian nation?  Should we make it official?

Was America founded as a Christian nation? Should we make it official?

As I argue in my new book, this kind of Christian patriotism has had a long and strong pull on the conservative imagination. In the 1930s, for example, big-business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers trumpeted the connection between religiosity, democracy, and free enterprise.

Traditionally, however, conservative Christians have always taken the lead on maintaining a strict separation between government and religion. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, for example, many conservatives jeered, but conservative evangelicals cheered. Secular conservatives like Herbert Hoover declared that the Court had just killed public education. But religious conservatives like William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute thanked the Supreme Court for its “protection in this important area.”

In that decision, of course, SCOTUS ruled that state governments could not impose a prayer on public schools. For some conservatives, that meant that the Court had kicked God out of the public square. For religious conservatives, it meant that religious belief and practice could never be dictated by a government body.

Which brings us back to this curious recent poll. Among the front runners for the GOP nomination, Governor Huckabee leads, along with Dr. Ben Carson, as the most religious of the conservatives. One might think that Huckabee’s supporters would be horrified at the idea of establishing a national religion. ANY national religion. But that is clearly not the case. As the demographics suggest, younger conservatives seem more comfortable with the idea of establishing Christianity as the national religion.

Maybe they know something we don’t. My guess, though, is that these young conservatives have a new understanding of “Christian America.” Unlike their grandparents and great-grandparents, conservative Baptists today do not seem convinced that their first job is to keep the government at arm’s distance.