One Big Unhappy Family

Normal people might be forgiven for saying ‘Enough already.’ The Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College has been poked and prodded by commentators and armchair pundits from every conceivable angle, including my own humble contribution at History News Network about Wheaton’s relevant history. But just one more word from me before I let the subject drop: Does this purge help heal the rift between fundamentalist universities?

In case you’ve been living life and not keeping with the latest, here’s a quick refresher: Professor Hawkins was fired for her statements that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Commentators have offered a full spectrum of analysis. One Wheaton professor defended his school. Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher also spoke up for Wheaton’s right to police its theological borders. A former student said Wheaton’s decision was in line with evangelical tradition. And perhaps most intriguing, historian extraordinaire Michael S. Hamilton told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Wheaton doesn’t like it when people don’t fit into its white, Northern, fundamentalist tradition.

In all the hullaballoo, I missed an important piece in this evangelical jigsaw puzzle. Just as Wheaton decided to suspend Professor Hawkins, they got some support from an unlikely source. President Steve Pettit of Bob Jones University tweeted his support for the beleaguered administration.

pettit tweet BJU supports Wheaton firing dec 2015

Are they all on the same page again?

As I noted recently, my current research into the history of evangelical colleges has revealed continuing tensions between the two schools. I won’t rehash the whole story here, but in brief, a stormy rivalry in the 1930s developed into an outright breach in the 1970s. By that point, BJU had become the flagship university of steadfast separatist fundamentalism, while Wheaton represented the best of a broader conservative evangelicalism.

Maybe things have changed. President Steve Pettit of BJU recently visited Wheaton’s campus, a remarkable thaw in the deep freeze between the two schools. Now President Pettit is extending his support to Wheaton’s “embattled” leaders in this difficult time.

What does that mean?

Might it mean that President Pettit hopes Wheaton will move closer to its fundamentalist roots? At Bob Jones University, fundamentalism had often meant ruthless purges of dissenting faculty and administration. Since its founding in the 1920s, Bob Jones University has maintained a steady record of firing anyone who does not agree with the administration. As founder Bob Jones Sr. memorably expressed it in a chapel talk,

We are not going to pay anybody to ‘cuss’ us. We can get ‘cussin’ free from the outside. . . . We have never been a divided college. . . . We are of one mind in this school. We have not always had smooth sailing, but we have thrown the Jonah overboard. If we get a Jonah on this ship, and the ship doesn’t take him, we let the fish eat him! We throw him overboard. . . ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ That is the reason that in this school we have no ‘griping.’ Gripers are not welcome here. If you are a dirty griper, you are not one of us. . . . God helping us, we are going to keep Bob Jones College a kingdom that isn’t divided and a house that stands together.

I’ve got no inside scoop here, but I can’t help but wonder: Does Wheaton’s recent faculty purge put it back on the “fundamentalist” side of this long-lived divide?

Teacher Fired for Heroic Incompetence

I’m no cynic. But anyone who’s paying attention knows that schools serve a range of purposes. We see depressing evidence today that one of their primary functions is to contain and control young people. How do we know? Because a teacher in New York City was fired, according to her, for talking about structural racism in a way that would “rile up” her African American students. Yikes.

Lee Walker Fired

Fired for heroic incompetence…

The story is grim. Jeena Lee-Walker has sued New York schools for her termination. Beginning in 2012, school administrators asked her to tone down her teaching about the Central Park Five case. As all New Yorkers remember, a group of young men were falsely convicted of raping a woman. They were eventually freed, but only after spending long years in prison.

Lee-Walker taught her students about the case. Many of them, she thought, “should be riled up” about the deep injustice done, as well as about continuing injustices in American society.

Her administrators thought differently. They gave her several bad evaluations and eventually fired her for “insubordination.”

Let me be crystal clear here: I think all teachers should be like Ms. Lee-Walker. All teachers should “rile up” their students about injustices in our society.

But we need to recognize two complicating factors. Though I’m a big fan of his, I think Curmudgucrat Peter Greene misses the boat here when he says Lee-Walker was “fired for competence.”

She was fired for two other reasons, reasons central to the successful functioning of any school. Even as we praise Ms. Lee-Walker’s bravery and integrity, we need to be a little more clearheaded about what was really going on. In short, Ms. Lee-Walker’s unwillingness to go along with the school system really DID make her incompetent as a teacher. Heroic, yes, but not willing to do the job.

That might sound odd, so let me offer two long-winded explanations.

First, teachers are not simply private citizens. Ms. Lee-Walker will not have luck protesting that her First Amendment rights have been breached. And, by and large, none of us want to cede to teachers such rights. Consider, for example, what we might think if she had been accused of promoting political or religious agendas with which we don’t agree. What if she “riled up” students by denouncing abortion? Or by denouncing evolution?

In principle, then, we need to acknowledge that teachers are bound to stick within curricular guidelines established by the school and community. I’ll repeat: in this case I think those guidelines are utterly bogus. I think we should encourage all New York City high schools to emulate Ms. Lee-Walker’s decision to teach the Central Park Five case. It is the truth and young people deserve to learn about it.

But if and when a heroic teacher decides to go against her superiors, she should be prepared to be kicked out. That is equally true whether we agree or disagree with the teacher’s ideas. I’m going to say this again, just because I think it could be misinterpreted: In this case, I side wholly with Ms. Lee-Walker. Her protest, however, should not be taken as a simple case of good teaching vs. evil administrating. Rather, this is a heroic attempt to push the curriculum in New York City schools toward this sort of teaching. Ms. Lee-Walker should have expected to get fired—even WANTED to get fired—because that was her only chance to take her appeal to a wider stage.

We don’t have to like it, but I think we need to be clear about our terms. In this sort of case, the closest analogy is that of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses. To some, she was a hero, to others a poorly coiffed villain. In the end, however, she was a government bureaucrat who refused to do her job. Whatever we think of her politics or religion, no institution can function if it doesn’t purge such folks.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis celebrates her release from the Carter County Detention center in Grayson Kentucky

Fired for heroic incompetence…

That brings us to our second point. This story drives home the depressing custodial role schools and teachers play in our society. We tend to think of schools as educational institutions—and they are—but they are also holding pens of varying levels of pleasantness.

As a result, a big part of the job of school administrators is to keep the students relatively calm. With a dizzyingly high student-to-teacher ratio, most schools rely on passive and compliant students. When and if students choose to throw off schools’ restraints, there is not much administrators can physically do to coerce them into submission.

In some schools, this results at worst in hijinx such as food fights. In other schools, we get a prison-like atmosphere in which students are continually monitored and physically controlled.

Is that a good thing? Not at all. But if we want to make sense of this case and the many other cases like this, we need to understand the many things that schools do in our society. Teachers are not merely Socratic wisdom-peddlers in the agora. They are street-level bureaucrats who help process large numbers of young people in educational containment systems.

The point of Ms. Lee-Walker’s actions—if she was acting intentionally—was not merely to teach children something true. The point was to make a public spectacle of the fact that New York City schools do not regularly include that sort of teaching. She was not “fired for competence,” but for her stubborn insistence on principled incompetence, her brave unwillingness to go along with a system that fails students so miserably.

…so very angry…

I don’t get out much. I’ve been happily ensconced in my nerd cocoon for the past couple years, working on my new book about the history of conservative higher ed. So I know I’m out of touch with what normal people think and know about these things. But I’m still surprised by the venom of some recent comments about Wheaton College. Is the average person-in-the-street really so very angry about evangelical colleges?

raw story wheaton comments

…so very angry…

Here’s the background: I recently published in History News Network a few thoughts about the history behind Wheaton’s decision to terminate tenured Professor Larycia Hawkins. In short, Professor Hawkins is being fired for saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same god.” RawStory picked up the essay.

I am floored by the level of venom in the RawStory comments thread. Of course, I know that internet comments are the abode of trolls. Still, I’m surprised by the hostility people seem to have toward Wheaton College.

Here are a couple of examples of the comments people saw fit to make:

  • I have a very special file for job applicants who graduated from religious “schools.” It is round, and lined with a plastic bag.

  • So people willingly and enthusiastically jump into sewers and then act shocked when they’re shit upon? I just don’t get it.

  • How wonderful it is receiving a degree from a Troglodyte University!

  • Hopefully Prof. Hawkins can find another position at a real school and put the memory of Holy Roller Hogwarts’ behind her.

  • I don’t get how a strict, fundamentalist college can also be an elite learning institution. In what exactly? The made up field of theology? Perhaps (heavily censured) literature and definitely rewritten history to fit the Christian angst? Home economics? Does creationism even qualify as serious subject of study? Really, what?

And there’s more!

Again, I know I live and work in an intellectual bubble. But are people in general really so very angry towards evangelical colleges? I thought people in general respected Wheaton as a top-tier evangelical school. In fact, I KNOW people do. But are they the exceptions?

Why Did Wheaton Fire Larycia Hawkins?

Did you hear the news yet?  According to Christianity Today, Wheaton College in Illinois has begun termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins.

HNN article Larycia Hawkins

All the news that about the old…

Why?  For explanations from Professor Hawkins and Wheaton College, take a look at the Christianity Today piece.

But for historical context, check out my essay at History News Network.  In short, I argue that this kind of faculty uber-supervision is par for the course at evangelical colleges, even elite ones such as Wheaton.

A False “Idol?”

I admit it. I’ve never watched it. But bajillions of Americans have loved American Idol for the past fourteen years. It has been one of the most influential TV programs in our recent past. And it has proven particularly friendly to conservative evangelical Protestant singers. To this reporter, the life and death of American Idol seems to typify the paradox at the heart of American religious culture. Is America sexier and more secular now than it has ever been? Yes. And is America dominated now by fiercely traditional evangelical Protestantism? Also yes!

adam lambert

Would Adam Lambert have made it on the Ed Sullivan Show?

The face of conservative Christianity has changed a lot in the past century, but one thing has remained constant: Christian thinkers and pundits have consistently lamented the supposed fact that America has just kicked God out of its public life. As I’ve argued in academic publications here and there, evangelical Protestants, especially, have continually lamented the fact that their generation—whether that was the 1920s generation or the 1960s one—has witnessed the final prophesized turn of America away from its Christian roots.

There is no doubt that mainstream American culture has changed over time. Mainstream America was ferociously, even murderously hostile to homosexuals as recently as the 1950s. Public norms of dress and behavior have certainly loosened up in the past century. And public pronouncements have shed over time much of their explicitly Christian language. Some of them, at least.

Even granting all those major changes, it still seems remarkable to me that smart conservatives still lament the “loss” of America. Crunchy thinkers such as Rod Dreher call for conservative retreat, for a “Benedict Option.” And conservatives of all sorts recently howled over a perceived “War on Christmas.”

In each case, conservative Christians have insisted that the last straw had finally been laid, that American culture had finally transformed from a city on a hill to Babylon.

Now, it’s not my place to tell conservative Christians or anyone what to think. Anyone who reads their history, though, can’t help but be struck by the complicated truth. There has never been a single event or Supreme Court decision that finally kicked God out of the public square, but there has always been an outcry among conservatives that they were witnessing precisely such an event.

Today’s news about American Idol serves as a good illustration of this weird legacy. On one hand, we can see in the blockbuster show just how much America has changed. The stars wear intoxicatingly low-cut dresses. There is no defense of old-fashioned gender or racial hierarchies. Famous contestants such as Adam Lambert have been proudly gay. None of this would have happened on a TV show from the 1950s.

On the other hand, as the Christian Post reported recently, the show has also launched the careers of some of today’s top evangelical Christian performers. Singers such as Mandisa, Colton Dixon, Jeremy Rosado, and Danny Gokey all got their starts on the show.

Now, I admit it proudly: I have no idea who any of those people are. According to the Christian Post, however, they seem to have made a splash in the world of Christian pop music.

We might say, then, that as American Idol goes, so go America’s idols. The show is certainly not explicitly Christian or even religious. Its norms for dress, language, and behavior would certainly shock mainstream Americans from the 1920s or 1950s. Yet among all the hedonism, anything-goes morality, and sexiness, conservative Christianity still claims an enormous place.

Hijab & Halloween

Well, that just proves it, you might be tempted to say. When Wheaton College can suspend a tenured professor for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” it just goes to show that the “Fundamentalist Harvard” is (still) more “Fundamentalist” than “Harvard.”

Hawkins Wheaton

Whose God?

But wait just one minute. If we look at this episode another way, we see that Wheaton’s recent strange action puts it smack dab in the mainstream of elite higher education these days.

You’ve probably seen the story by now. As Christianity Today reports, political science professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended recently. Professor Hawkins planned to wear a traditional Islamic headcovering—the hijab—during Advent this year to express her Christian solidarity with Muslims.

That’s not why she was suspended, at least not officially. The college suspended her, officially, for her statements about God. In a Facebook post on December 10, Professor Hawkins explained the reasons for her act of sartorial solidarity: “as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Non-evangelicals like me might not see the problem. But as Christianity Today pointed out, the question of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is intensely controversial among some Christians.

It is tempting to see this episode as proof of Wheaton’s continuing status as a school outside of the higher educational mainstream. As I’m arguing in my new book about the history of conservative evangelical higher education, however, the truth has always been more complicated. Wheaton is NOT outside the mainstream here. Rather, this is exactly the sort of action that is taking place at elite colleges across the nation.

Of course, the details are different; the specific issues are different. In Wheaton’s case, the administration acted to suspend Professor Hawkins because, in their words,

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.

This final problem of “theological clarity” seems to be the rub. Wheaton’s administration said they sympathized with Prof. Hawkins’s sympathy for Muslims. But, they repeated, “our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.” Professor Hawkins, in short, was suspended for “theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”

Obviously, no pluralist, liberal, or secular school would suspend a professor for an act of theological un-clarity. As we’ve seen over the past few months, however, elite colleges everywhere are suspending professors and administrators for actions and statements that seem inconsistent with their non-theological convictions.

Like Professor Hawkins, for example, Erika Christakis at Yale has left her teaching duties. Why? Because she wrote an email that many students found unsettling. We might say that Christakis’s suspension was due to her lack of sufficient “clarity” about her racial ideology.

Or, we might consider the case of Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna College. Did Dean Spellman make racist comments? No, but her attempt to care for one non-white student seemed to lack clarity to many students and activists.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it. But I think it is true, and I think this episode is further proof: Mainstream colleges today are moving more toward the “impulse to orthodoxy” that has been the hallmark of conservative evangelical colleges like Wheaton.

It’s easy enough to point out differences, of course. At Wheaton, pressure came from conservative alumni and administrators. At the other schools, pressure came—at first—from students. At Wheaton, the statement of faith is explicit and official, whereas the other orthodoxies are implicit and tentative.

In the end, though, I think the parallels are striking. At elite colleges these days, instructors, students, and administrators are expected to do more than agree generally and in principle with their schools’ current orthodoxy. They are expected, rather, to agree with forceful clarity. They are expected to avoid any statement or action that “seem[s] inconsistent” with dominant moral ideas.

To this reporter, it looks as if Wheaton College continues to be more similar than different from other elite schools these days.

HT: EH

Christian Colleges Find LGBT Loophole

What are conservative Christians to do? Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage must be recognized nationwide, some conservatives have called for retreat, for the “Benedict Option.” Christian colleges, some fret, are in a particularly difficult position, since they could be forced to violate their own religious principles in order to include same-sex couples, transgender students and faculty, and unmarried homosexual students and faculty. Some schools, however, have taken advantage of a loophole in federal law that seems to alleviate some of these fears. This loophole, however, only sidesteps the real problem; it leaves the most important questions unaddressed.

First, a little background: As we noted in the run-up to the Obergefell decision, conservative religious colleges worried that the SCOTUS ruling could force them into an impossible position. It would not be theologically possible for many schools to introduce housing for same-sex couples, for instance. Yet if they did not, they would be in violation of non-discrimination rules.

As I predicted based on my current research into the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this kind of thing would likely lead to another fracture among the network of conservative colleges and universities.

Once the decision was passed, it did indeed prompt a split among conservative Christian schools. Some schools immediately changed their policies about homosexuality to accommodate the ruling. Others doubled down on their existing policies banning homosexuality.

We read with interest this week that some three dozen religious schools have applied for a waiver from Title IX. Via the New York Times, we see news from The Column that handfuls of Christian college have successfully applied for waivers.

Column list of schools

Waivers for all?

As The Column reports, the original language of Title IX banned sex- and gender-based discrimination at institutions of higher education. But it included a vital loophole. Such rules, the law stated, could be waived in some cases. As Andy Birkey of The Column puts it,

When Title IX was passed in 1972 to combat discrimination based on sex, Congress added a small but powerful provision that states that an educational institution that is “controlled by a religious organization” does not have to comply if Title IX “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Apparently, thirty-six schools have applied for these waivers, and twenty-seven have been approved. For many of the schools, the Christian Legal Society has provided a how-to guide to apply for such waivers.

For conservative colleges, this waiver might seem to solve their legal and religious pickle. But it will not heal the rift between such schools. Schools such as Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, have already left the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They changed their policies to welcome homosexual faculty, and presumably transgender faculty as well.

This loophole might provide wiggle room for some conservative religious schools. It leaves the most important questions on the table, however. What is the proper religious attitude toward non-heterosexual sex? Toward non-traditional marriages? Toward gender identity and sexuality as a whole?

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.

In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.

To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.

Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.

It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.

President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.

How Facebook Can Save America

It won’t be by buying new computers for schools. It won’t even be by dumping bajillions of dollars into schools. But Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement that he plans to donate 99% of Facebook shares—some 45 BILLION dollars’ worth—might just make a difference if he can learn from his mistakes.

facebook-zuckerberg-chan-launching-private-school-thumb-525x403-16272

Take my money…Please!

You’ve seen the story by now. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged oodles of their nerd-gotten gains to help low-income families. Good for them. The danger is that they will continue to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between schooling and society.

Money helps. But in the past, philanthropists in general and Zuckerberg in particular have misunderstood the basic relationships involved. As a result, big money has not made a big impact.

You may have read about Zuckerberg’s ill-fated promises in Newark. Charmed by Mayor Cory Booker, Zuckerberg pledged up to $100 million in matching funds to improve Newark schools.

As journalist Dale Russakoff described in her book The Prize, big dreams petered out into only meh results. Russakoff blamed poor communication between philanthropists, city managers, teachers, and parents. The money, she argued, did not go to the right places at the right time, because Zuckerberg and Booker took a “knight in shining armor” approach to complicated educational problems. Instead of communicating with interested locals, they hired fancy $1000-a-day education consultants. Instead of building a consensus about problems and solutions, they dictated solutions and labeled people as problems.

There is a more basic difficulty, however, that Russakoff did not address. She argued that the roll-out of the Newark plan was flawed and ill-considered. At a more foundational level, however, even the best-considered plans to fix society by fixing schools are doomed.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Schools can’t fix society. Schools ARE society.

In other words, if a society is racist, dominated by a wealthy elite, and strangled by cultural divisions, a new set of textbooks, computers, or state standards will not change that. Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my recent book, conservative activists repeated progressives’ attempts to reform society by reforming schools. Without the proper understanding of the ways schools function in society, such plans are doomed before they begin.

Consider the sobering example of Native American education. As a recent article in Politico described, government-run schools are a failure. And they fail despite the fact that they spend more money per student than do comparable schools.

The Facebook folks have made some worrying noises. In announcing their gift, they suggested that they were still trapped in their old, mistaken views. They seemed to be saying that society can be healed—poverty can be alleviated—if only we can make sure that all kids have good schools. It is just not that simple.

In their announcement, for instance, Zuckerberg and Chan declared that their money would help level the social playing field. As they put it,

You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.

Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the Internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity.

Watch out! Despite their qualification that “it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life,” it sounds as if the rest of their plan depends on their assumption that the right technology can indeed do just that.

To be fair, they make smarter noises elsewhere. They have also argued, for example, that

“We need institutions that understand these issues are all connected.” . . . Only with schools, health centers, parent groups, and organizations working together, they said, “can we start to treat these inequities as connected.”

That is exactly right. Only if we understand that young people are more than just schoolchildren can we see the problem with earlier philanthropic efforts in education.

We need to be careful about the conclusions we draw. Some observers have concluded that since increased spending on schools does not lead to utopia, we don’t need to increase funding for schools. That’s not right.

Rather, we need a better analogy. Spending money on schooling is not like putting a Band-Aid on a gut wound. Rather, spending money on schooling for low-income students is like building a three-legged stool with one strong leg. Only one. Because the other two legs are harder to reach, they are usually ignored. But a three-legged stool needs three strong legs, not just one. The legs need to be improved at the same time, in the same degree, in order to make a real difference.

I’ll say it again and then I’ll be quiet: We DO need to pour money into schools.  But not ONLY into schools.  We need to address questions of poverty and structural racism.

When Evil Sounds Like You

No one is in favor of murder. And all of us use pretty heated language at times. That’s why all of us have an extra responsibility to denounce violence perpetrated by those who agree with us. It looks like leading GOP candidates have failed at this important culture-war responsibility.

Dear

War and Culture War

It is still early days, but it seems as if the terrible shootings at the Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic may have been inspired by anti-abortion sentiment.  Suspect Robert Dear seems to have claimed he was motivated by Planned Parenthood’s alleged sale of “baby parts.”

I would expect every prominent cultural conservative to denounce this sort of political violence in the strongest terms. Yet, as progressive sources such as The Nation and ThinkProgress have pointed out, the leading Republican Party presidential hopefuls have done no such thing.

I am truly stumped.  I would think that every politician would rush to distance him- or herself from such an atrocity.  Especially leaders such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have campaigned against Planned Parenthood as a retailer of baby parts.

Yet they did not.  Other anti-abortion activist groups have done so, including the National Right to Life Committee, Operation Rescue, and other pro-life activists.

Precisely because they are known to share very strong anti-abortion sentiments, such folks have leaped to denounce the shootings in the strongest terms. This is as it should be. Culture-war activists, after all, stand to be accused of collusion with such crimes. They have a duty to tell the world that such violence is not and never will be part of their strategy.

As NRLC put it,

National Right to Life, which represents 50 state affiliates and more than 3,000 local chapters, unequivocally condemns unlawful activities and acts of violence regardless of motivation.  The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life.  The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal.

The National Right to Life Committee has always been involved in peaceful, legal activities to protect human lives threatened by abortion, infanticide and euthanasia.  We always have and will continue to oppose any form of violence to fight the violence of abortion.  NRLC has had a policy of forbidding violence or illegal activity by its staff, directors, officers, affiliated state organizations, and chapters.  NRLC’s sole purpose is to protect innocent human life.

This kind of talk is not political bravery, but merely common decency mixed with self-protection. Leaders such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, then, could simply agree with these pro-life groups. They could work hard—and even cynically try to appear “presidential”—by weighing in against this sort of terrorist attack.

Yet they haven’t.

This is bad news for all of us, regardless of our political opinions or religious beliefs. If it is true that GOP candidates did not want to appear too energetic in their denunciation of this sort of extremist violence, then our political climate offers little hope for any sort of reasonable discussion of sensitive issues.

When simple human decency, combined with savvy political strategizing, don’t compel prominent politicians such as Marco Rubio to distance themselves in the most forceful way from folks such as accused attacker Robert Lewis Dear, we should all tremble.

Why? Because it hints at a breakdown of our implicit agreement about the fundamental nature of civil society. Aspiring GOP leaders should be falling all over themselves to demonstrate their understanding of this central idea. They should be jostling with one another to show just how leader-y they are in their denunciation of this sort of extremism.

If they don’t, we should worry that they think voters won’t like such denunciations. We should worry that these candidates, with their finely tuned political antennae, have decided that plenty of GOP voters condone or at least excuse this sort of terrorism.

If they’re right, we’re facing a frightening prospect.

We hope that in coming hours and days, GOP leaders will recognize their proper role. We hope they will see that it is their job to police their right wing, just as it falls upon progressives to police their left. Both sides, we must agree, must agree that terrorism is not part of their culture-war coalition. Once someone crosses a line into assassinations, we must all agree, they are no longer part of our civil society.

Only this implicit agreement keeps our vicious culture wars from devolving into all-too-common real culture wars.