What Vouchers Can Do: Florida Tax-Funded Fundamentalism

I guess we shouldn’t really call it an “exposé” because it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t expect. Still, it can be eye-opening to see the sorts of things voucher programs can do. This week, the Orlando Sentinel explores the content of fundamentalist textbooks used at area private schools. The story prompts us to ask a tough question about voucher programs: Is it fair to limit voucher programs only to religions we like?

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Should taxes pay for these textbooks?

As I’ve argued in a couple of academic articles, the history of fundamentalist textbook publishing is key to understanding both the “Christian-school” movement and the subsequent evangelical homeschooling exodus.

Without the work of school publishers such as A Beka Book, Accelerated Christian Education, and Bob Jones University Press, I believe, conservative evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s would not have been able to open so many small private schools. And without pre-made curricular materials, evangelicals would not have been able to leave school by their millions in the 1990s to homeschool.

Plus, no one should think that these fundamentalist textbooks are static or monolithic. As I explored in a chapter in AJ Angulo’s terrific book Miseducation, ACE, A Beka, and Bob Jones are all very different from one another, and all have radically changed their treatment of topics such as US History.

It’s not just me: Dr. Jonny Scaramanga has devoted his early academic career to exploring the curriculum to which he was subjected as a youth. Dr. Scaramanga argues that Accelerated Christian Education never escaped its racist, homophobic origins, despite some surface changes and lip service to liberalization.

As the Orlando Sentinel explains, voucher programs in Florida are sending tax dollars to schools that use textbooks by the “big three” fundamentalist school publishers. As the investigators discovered, the textbooks are full of creationism, ethnocentrism, and historical denialism. As OS puts it,

[Investigators] found numerous instances of distorted history and science lessons that are outside mainstream academics. The books denounce evolution as untrue, for example, and one shows a cartoon of men and dinosaurs together, telling students the Biblical Noah likely brought baby dinosaurs onto his ark. The science books, they added, seem to discourage students from doing experiments or even asking questions. . . .

The social studies books downplay the horrors of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans, they said. One book, in its brief section on the civil rights movement, said that “most black and white southerners had long lived together in harmony” and that “power-hungry individuals stirred up the people.”

We have to ask: Is this sort of thing okay for a tax-funded school? After all, there is nothing in this story that should come as a surprise. If we want to allow voucher programs that send tax money to private schools, we should expect some of those dollars to pay for curricula we disagree with. Is that okay?

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Hard-hitting curriculum for Florida’s third-graders. This sample comes from an Accelerated Christian Education reader.

Or, to put it in nerdier terms: How should policy-makers decide if religious schools qualify to participate in tax-funded programs? It can’t be simply on the basis of our own personal religious views. For example, I believe the ACE, BJU, and Abeka textbooks are terrible and I would never want my kid to use them in school. But my personal preferences can’t suffice to dictate policy. How can we decide which religious schools qualify for tax-funded voucher programs?

One option would simply be to make ALL religious schools off-limits for voucher-funded students. In some cases, though, that would seem to keep deserving kids from getting a higher-quality education than their local public schools can provide.

Another option would be to rule out schools that limit their students’ life chances. As one of the OS investigators argued, for example, using these creationist textbooks would hurt students. As the article explains,

“Students who have learned science in this kind of environment are not prepared for college experiences,” said Cynthia Bayer, a biology lecturer at the University of Central Florida who reviewed the science books. “They would be intellectually disadvantaged.”

But WOULD they? Anyone who knows the real story of American higher education knows that creationist students have plenty of creationist colleges they can attend. Is it fair to say that students can’t study creationist books because they don’t agree with mainstream science? Isn’t that the whole point of private schools in the first place?

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly against using tax dollars to fund private religious schools. I think we should nix ALL religious schools from that sort of public funding. But we can’t do it only for some religious schools and not for others, based on the fact that we don’t like some of the religions. And we should not be surprised to find out that voucher programs are doing precisely what they were designed to do: Fund religious schools.

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Biblical Peanut Butter at the Museum of the Bible

What is the Museum of the Bible for? Its conservative-evangelical founders insist it is supposed to be more like the Smithsonian than the Ark Encounter, but recent revelations have left me puzzled.motb-peanut-carver.jpeg

Here’s what we know: Thanks to the generosity and diligence of an ILYBYGTH correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous, your humble editor recently came into possession of some MOTB publications.

Most intriguing, MOTB publishes a glossy booklet, 99 Earth-Shattering Events Linked to the Bible. As the title promises, this publication offers biblical connections to 99 key events in human history, from the Magna Carta to Nelson Mandela.

Some of them have left this reader scratching his head. They certainly seem more Ark Encounter than Smithsonian. Am I missing something?

For example, the book credits the Bible for inspiring George Washington Carver to “Unlock . . . Peanut’s Potential.” We all know Carver’s remarkable story. In this telling, though, it was not grit or genius or perseverance that fueled Carter’s career, but rather the text of Genesis I. “To Carver,” the booklet explains,

This Bible passage revealed the potential of what he could do with the peanut to help others be lifted from poverty—particularly, the struggling African American farmers.

To this reader, the connection seems…strained, to say the least. Dr. Carver may have been an earnest Bible-believing Christian and he may have given his faith credit for his work. But so did the white-supremacist politicians and their violent allies who forced African American scientists into segregated institutions.

How can we credit the Bible for one, without also blaming it for the other? To me, this seems like Wallbuilders history–not a sincere attempt to understand the past, but rather a collection of awkward celebrations that distort the historical record.

We’ve All Got It All Wrong

Whether you call yourself a conservative, a progressive, or something else, if you’re like me you’ve probably got it all wrong. As I was reminded in a discussion last night, those of us who try to shape schools usually make a huge mistake—one we could recognize if we just thought about it for half a second.univ of hawaii

Here’s the background: I was happy last night to talk with some graduate students at the University of Hawaii. (No, I didn’t get to go there in real life. I wish. We used cutting-edge interwebs technology to talk.) They had read my book about the history of educational conservatism and they had some great questions, ideas, and experiences to share.

As I argue in the book, it’s difficult to generalize about conservative activists. Just like progressives, conservative thinkers and doers come from a dizzying array of backgrounds and they are motivated by a huge spectrum of ideas and beliefs. But one thing they do share—at least the ones I studied—is an unexamined faith that school shapes society. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it in the book:

Educational conservatives have insisted, in short, on two central ideas. First, schools matter. Conservatives, like their progressive foes, have rarely questioned the notion that the schools of today generate the society of tomorrow. Second, because schools matter, their content and structure must be guarded ferociously. Ideas that challenge inherited wisdom must not be crammed down the throats of young, trusting students. And teachers must not abdicate their roles as intellectual and moral authorities. Educational conservatism, in other words, has been the long and vibrant tradition of defending tradition itself in America’s schools. Without understanding this tradition, we will never truly understand either American conservatism or American education.

One idea on which everyone can agree, in other words, is that schools shape society. The reason so many of us spend so much energy on school reform is precisely because we think it matters. For some conservatives in the twentieth century, teaching kids evolution was dangerous because it threatened to take away their moral and religious compass. For others, teaching kids about sex was a bad idea because it tended to unhinge their self-control. And for yet others, teaching kids socialist ideas was obviously terrible because it would lead to the corruption of their morals and of the entire society.

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You can fix schools all you want, but you can’t fix the outcomes…

Last night, the Hawaii students shared stories that helped puncture those school-reform assumptions. One student, for example, reported that he came to the realization that he was conservative in high school. He was guided to that realization by his favorite teacher. At first, I assumed that the teacher was a conservative, too, and inspired the student by reading Hayek and Burke and smoking a pipe. In fact, the student told us, his favorite teacher was a heart-on-her-sleeve liberal. She taught social studies in a progressive way, one that hoped to help students examine their own ideas and decide questions for themselves. In the student’s case, that meant he came to the realization that his ideas were apparently “conservative.” The left-y teacher, in other words, didn’t indoctrinate this student into leftism, but precisely the opposite.

Another Hawaii student told a very different story. She only realized that she was a liberal when she was teaching Sunday school at her church. The goal was to help young people deepen their religious faith, but it had the opposite effect on her. Instead of becoming more religious, teaching Sunday school convinced this student that her church was full of hooey.

What’s the takeaway? Once we hear the stories, it seems pretty obvious. School doesn’t really work the way we sometimes think it will. No matter what our politics, we can’t control the future of our students by teaching them X or Y or by keeping them away from Z or A. Students are not predictable, programmable outputs. They have their own ideas and backgrounds and sometimes our best-laid plans at shaping America’s future will come out in ways we didn’t predict.

My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

Now I just don’t know what to think. I have long admired heroic teachers like Susan Epperson and all the less-famous Susan Eppersons out there. Our ILYBYGTH conversations lately, though, have me wondering. Are teachers heroic if they buck the rules to teach the way they should? …what if they think they should teach Christianity or white supremacy? Or if they’re gun-toting rage-aholics?

Maybe people don’t remember Susan Epperson anymore. She was a science teacher in Arkansas in the 1960s. Due to a law passed during the 1920s evolution/creation battles, she was legally barred from teaching her students about evolution. She did it anyway.

Instead of just keeping her science subversion quiet, Epperson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the anti-evolution law was tossed out.

Epperson has always been a hero of mine. Not only her, but all the teachers out there who go against idiotic system rules to teach children the way they deserve to be taught. It can be as simple as ignoring an order to focus only on test-related content and instead help a student discover what she thinks about a poem or painting. It can be as fundamental as introducing students to the real, ugly history of race relations in the USA, even though a school principal advises against doing anything “controversial.”

But with recent stories about white-supremacist teachers and the history of left-wing teacher purges I’m not sure what to think anymore. If teachers are heroic for teaching “what’s right” instead of what’s in the state-approved curriculum, how can we police creationist and other teachers for breaking the rules to teach their own peculiar moral visions?

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Can my heroes out-sneak your heroes?

After all, as political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer found, the most important influence on most high-school biology teachers is not the state curriculum. It is the values of the local community. If teachers think creationism is the right thing for their students, they’ll teach it, no matter what the curriculum says.

And activists on both the right and the left encourage teachers to ignore the rules and teach “what’s right.” Brad and Susanne Dacus, for example, have published a handy-dandy guide for teachers who want to inject more Christianity into their teaching. As they put it,

Worrying about your public schools changes nothing. . . Knowing how YOU can make an impact in your school can change everything!  Public schools have dramatically changed over the last several years.  Now is not the time to give up on your school.  Now is the time to stand up and be heard!

For those of us who want secular public schools, these promises sound worrisome. Yet we can’t help but recognize that the same heroic impulse to fight the system underlies both Epperson’s pro-science activism and the Dacus’s pro-Jesus work.

Is there any way we can encourage heroic teachers, but only the kinds we agree with? Sounds pretty hypocritical to me. As Professor Clarence Taylor argued recently in these pages, do we need to defend ALL teachers’ rights to political activism, even if we hate it? Or is there some way to support teacher activism for “our” side while fighting teacher activism for “theirs?”

I’m Like a Creationist (and You Are Too)

SAGLRROILBYGTH know I’m no creationist. But this week I had an experience that I think is similar to what some thoughtful creationists go through. When it comes to questions of religion and public life, that is, sometimes the issue is not really the issue. I’m wondering this morning if everyone—creationist or non-creationist—has had similar experiences.

Here’s what I’m talking about: A new bill in Iowa’s state legislature would allow public schools to teach Bible classes. I’m all for public schools teaching about religions, including Christianity. It is clearly constitutional, as long as the teachers aren’t preaching any particular religion. And it is IMHO a vital part of a comprehensive education. How can we expect to teach US History, for example, without teaching about Puritan values? How can we teach literature without reading the Bible? Yet in spite of the fact that I support religious ed in public schools in theory, I oppose this bill and others like it.

Why?

My beef is not directly about Bibles. It’s really a question of trust. When it comes right down to it, I don’t trust the bill’s backers. I think they are hoping to sneak some old-fashioned Protestant devotion into their public schools. They SAY they want students to learn about the historical and literary impact of the Bible, but when they talk about their proposed classes, you can almost smell the revival-tent sweat.

According to the Des Moines Register, for example, one of the bill’s ardent supporters insists the Bible class would help students be better Christian Americans. As he put it,

foundational and historical American values did not spring from the cornucopia of ‘world religions,’ but specifically from the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

To my secular ears, that sounds a lot like a Wallbuilders-style evangelical power play.

Do I want more education about religion in public schools? Yes!

But this bill is not-so-secretly intended to preach a specific, conservative-evangelical religion. It is intended to have a religious impact on students, which public schools should never attempt.

How does this make me like a creationist? Simple. Many creationists have had similar experiences. Throughout the twentieth century and today, even the most radical young-earth creationists often want their children to learn about evolution. But they distrust the motives of public-school types who teach it. Many creationists worry less about evolutionary science than about the sneaky atheistic teachers who they think want to use evolutionary theory Dawkins style, to prove the ridiculousness of religious faith.

I found over and over again in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education that creationist schools promised to teach evolution, but to do it safely.

At Liberty University for example, in 1985 founder Jerry Falwell promised that all Liberty students would learn about evolution. As Falwell explained to potential enrollees,

You’ll learn all about evolution, but you’ll learn why you don’t believe it. . . . To our knowledge, we’ve never graduated an evolutionist.

Closer to home, right here at ILYBYGTH we’ve heard from creationists who are eager to teach their kids about evolution, if they can do it without cramming atheism down their throats.

Beyond these anecdotes, there seems to be solid sociological evidence that creationists like evolution, but worry about something else. In their study of religious people’s attitudes toward science, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle found that evangelicals tended to have more positive attitudes about science than the general population. But evangelicals also tended to think more often that scientists were out to get them. In other words, evangelicals—some of them, at least—like science itself, but they are suspicious of people who call themselves scientists.

So here’s my hunch: We’re all the same when it comes to these questions of religion and public life. Even when we support an idea in principle, we don’t support it in practice because we distrust its supporters.

For me, that means opposing Bibles in public schools, even though I ardently desire better religious education in those public schools.

For creationists, that means opposing the teaching of mainstream evolutionary theory alone in public-school science classes, even when they really want their children to learn evolution.

  • For all you creationists out there, am I off the mark?
  • And for my fellow non-creationists, have you had a similar experience?
  • Is the central issue not really Bibles or evolution…but TRUST?

Betsy Devos: Progressive Champion?

We could be forgiven for being confused. Ed Secretary Betsy Devos just delivered a rousing endorsement of progressive ideas about schooling and education. What gives?

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be sick of all this—maybe it’s just too obvious even to mention. But since my years wrestling with the history of educational conservatism (you can read all about it here), I can’t help but obsess over the never-clear meanings of “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to schools.

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I hart progressive ed…or do I?

And now arch-conservative Queen Betsy just threw a Grand-Rapids-size rhetorical wrench into the culture-war works. If she’s talking this way, is there any meaningful way to differentiate the two sides? I think there is.

Here’s what we know: Secretary Devos delivered a prepared talk at the free-markety American Enterprise Institute. In her speech, she harped on progressive themes. Consider the following examples:

  • Progressives say: High-stakes testing is bad.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards.

  • Progressives say: Teachers have been disempowered.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.

Quoth Queen Betsy:

we must rethink school.

  • Progressives say: Factory schooling is needlessly rigid and dehumanizing, yet it persists.

QQB:

Think of your own experience: sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. Repeat. Students were trained for the assembly line then, and they still are today.

  • Progressives say: Schooling should focus on the needs and experiences of every individual child.

QQB:

That means learning can, should, and will look different for each unique child. And we should celebrate that, not fear it! . . .

Our children deserve better than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journey. Schools should be open to all students – no matter where they’re growing up or how much their parents make.

  • Progressives say: School must help make society more equitable. More resources must be dedicated to schooling for low-income Americans and students from minority groups.

QQB:

That means no more discrimination based upon zip code or socio-economic status. All means all….

We should hope – no, we should commit – that we as a country will not rest until every single child has equal access to the quality education they deserve.

What are we to make of all this intensely progressive-sounding rhetoric?

Some pundits pooh-pooh it. ILYBYGTH’s favorite progressive ed writer offers a perfect, pointed put-down: “poison mushrooms look edible.

It is not difficult, after all, to see how Secretary Devos’s endgame is different from that of most progressives. Unlike progressives, Queen Betsy’s final goal is an old conservative favorite, namely, the reduction of federal influence in public schooling. If Devos mouths progressive phrases, she also always returns to the same ultimate desire.

Consider these lines:

QQB:

  • federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped….

  • The lesson is in the false premise: that Washington knows what’s best for educators, parents and students….

  • The lessons of history should force us to admit that federal action has its limits.

In the end, then, what we’re seeing here is the same old, same old. All sides in our hundred-years culture war have shifted tactics from time to time, while generally keeping the same long-term strategies.  As I argue in my book (and if you’re really lazy you can read a brief version of this in my short essay at Time), for example, in the 1920s, it was conservatives who pushed hard for an increased federal presence in local schools. Why? Because they thought it would force greater Americanization of immigrants and pinkos.

Devos’s canny adoption of progressive rhetoric is another example of this culture-war scheme. All sides tend to use whatever language best helps them achieve their long-term goals. They We tend to fight for any short-term goal that promises to bring them us closer to their our ultimate aims.

For Devos and her allies, the big picture is more religion, more privatization, and more tradition in public schools. Right now, they apparently think local school districts are the most likely governments to help achieve those aims. If bashing “factory models” and “inequality” will help achieve the ultimate goals, so be it.

What Goes on in Fundamentalist Schools?

When does bad school cross the line into child abuse? The depressing answer is that it depends on who’s asking. Jonathan Kozol famously decried the racist and abusive practices in America’s urban public schools. Now Rebecca Klein is warning that tax-funded evangelical schools are doing more than just bad teaching. Are these schools using your tax dollars to abuse children?

Klein’s article focuses on the stories of fundamentalist school survivors such as Ashley Bishop. Bishop tells a story that has become depressingly familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. Like some of the voices on this blog, Bishop’s experience in conservative evangelical schools was beyond terrible. Her schooling left her deeply conflicted and depressed. It took her years to become comfortable with herself and with her sexual identity.

My heart breaks for Ashley and all the other young people traumatized by hostile school environments. We tend to hear about brave survivors like Ashley, but we must remember that there must also be many more students who never escape, who make their lives entirely within a community in which they feel isolated and unworthy. The more attention such students can receive from journalists like Klein, the better.

Klein looks at the number of schools that use fundamentalist textbooks and concludes grimly,

there are thousands of kids receiving an extremist and ultraconservative education at the expense of taxpayers.

For full disclosure, I should point out that I spoke with Klein as she put this article together and she refers to my research. I must also point out that there are a few important points that she leaves out.

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This is terrible stuff. But is it abusive?

First of all, education scholars and historians know that we can’t simply equate textbooks with school curriculum. We certainly can’t look only at textbooks and think we know what kind of learning goes on.

Second, though Klein states that A Beka, Bob Jones, and ACE all share “largely similar educational philosophies,” that’s simply not the case. As I discovered a few years back, there are actually vast differences between the A Beka, ACE, and BJU approaches. A Beka insists on a rigid, traditionalist, teacher-driven classroom. BJU wants the opposite.

It’s also important to note that these textbooks are not static. In a recent book about education and ignorance, I argued that the treatment of history in A Beka and BJU textbooks has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. In some ways, the textbooks have become more like mainstream offerings. In others, they have become very different. In general, both BJU and A Beka have increased their emphases on the distinctive religious elements of their historical vision. A Beka history books, for example, explain in more recent editions that Native American populations originated from the downfall of the Tower of Babel.

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Textbook apocalypse.

Finally, and most important, we need to remember that abusive schools are not bad only if they use tax dollars. The state has a responsibility to protect all children in any school or homeschool. Even if a school is entirely privately funded, it has no right to enact policies that aren’t in children’s best interests.

In some cases—such as physical abuse or neglect, or sexual predation—that line is fairly easy to discern. When it comes to religious ideas, though, it becomes enormously difficult. Is it abusive to teach children that homosexuality is a sin? Is it abusive to teach children that mainstream science is a cauldron of lies?

If it is, then the state has the right and duty to intervene. It doesn’t matter whether or not the schools receive tax dollars in the form of vouchers. If it isn’t, though, then religious families and schools must be allowed freedom to have schools that we wouldn’t want our children to attend.

Let My Children Go

Even the smartest conservatives don’t get it. There’s a big win for conservatives buried in the Senate’s tax plan. If it goes through, though, it will not prove the strength of conservative ideas, but rather the desperate strait they are in.

Before we dig into that, let me back up a little bit and tell a story. When my book about the history of educational conservatism came out, I did an interview with National Review’s John Miller. He wanted to know how twentieth-century conservatives had pushed for charters and vouchers.

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Things are not always what they seem…

The problem was…they hadn’t. As I have argued elsewhere, when Milton Friedman first proposed charter schools in the 1950s, no one listened. The conservative push for charters and vouchers only gained real steam at the very tail end of the century.

By and large, conservatives didn’t want to escape from public schools in the twentieth century. Why not? It’s obvious: They still hoped to control them.

There were exceptions. After Brown v. Board in 1954, whites in the South massively resisted by privatizing public schools. And yes, the evangelical exodus from public schools took off in the 1970s. Then the second-stage flight from fundamentalist schools to fundamentalist homeschools began in the 1990s.

In the big picture, though, conservatives generally considered public schools their schools throughout the twentieth century. In the Reagan era, conservative intellectuals who cared about schools—most notably William J. Bennett—didn’t want to help conservative parents escape from public schools. Rather, Bennett thought the public schools themselves could be nudged in conservative directions. As we’ve seen lately, though, there’s a huge divide between today’s conservative thinking about public schools and Bennett’s. Most obviously, Bennett’s conservative dream for common state standards met with virulent conservative opposition.

What does any of this have to do with the Senate tax bill? The Senate version contains a clever sweetener for conservatives who want to remove their children from public schools. As reported in Quartz, their proposed tax bill will extend the use of 529 plans to K12 education. In the past, those programs allowed parents to squirrel money away for their children’s college expenses. Any earnings weren’t taxed, as long as the money was spent on tuition.

The new tax bill allows parents to do the same thing with private and charter schools. In effect, the new bill is a modest tax break for conservatives who want to keep their children out of the hands of the public schools.

I should add the usual clarification: SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I’ll say it again. I am no conservative myself. I am deeply concerned about the two terrible tax bills currently under debate. The push to reduce and reroute funding for public education is a cruel and shortsighted effort. IMHO.

As a historian, though, I can’t help but notice that this is yet another example of the ways conservative dreams have deflated in the past century. In the 1920s, as I argued in my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives hoped for nothing less than to legislate the theocratic control of public education.

These days, as this tax plan demonstrates, conservatives no longer hope to push public schools in conservative directions. Rather, conservative strategy consists of sneaking in tax breaks and incentives for parents who are trying to flee.

Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.

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The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

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A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.

Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.