Created in Nothing Flat

Okay, I’ll bite: What is the difference? News from Denver brings us back to an old chestnut: What is the difference between young-earth creationists and other dissident-scientists such as flat earthers? Certainly, there are differences in political power—we have a young-earther in the White House these days—but is there anything more than that? Or is it all just an accident of history?

The story from Denver’s flat-earth community points out some of the obvious superficial differences. At least in Denver, flat-earthers tend to be far more about government conspiracies than biblical hermeneutics.

And prominent creationists have always insisted that their beliefs have nothing to do with a flat earth. Back in the 1920s, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley fumed and fussed that his anti-evolution activism had nothing to do with “‘a flat earth’ . . . ‘an immovable world’ . . . [or] ‘a canopy of roof overhead.’” Those outdated scientific ideas, Riley insisted, were only used to poke fun at people who rejected the false science of evolution.

These days, too, young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis insist that their scientific ideas have nothing to do with a flat earth. AIG’s Danny Faulkner admits that there are some similarities between the two views, since both have been ridiculed by people who don’t understand them. In the end, though, Faulkner concludes that most flat-earthers are either kooks or insincere.

Officially, AIG contends that since the spherical nature of the earth can be observed directly, the question of the earth’s shape belongs in the realm of “observational science.” That is, we can trust the mainstream facts in this case, even if we can’t trust scientists who speak ignorantly about “historical science.”

For those who know the history, though, the idea of a flat earth has had a remarkably similar history to the notions of a literal worldwide flood and a six-day creation.

As creationist-history guru Glenn Branch has described, in the 1920s the two movements had enormous similarities. Back then, most anti-evolution activists did not believe in a literal six-day creation. They did not insist that the earth was only about 6,004 years old. But a vocal minority did. Spearheaded by the indefatigable activism of George McCready Price, the ideas of a young earth and “flood geology” grew until they became in the 1960s key litmus tests for fundamentalist faith. (For more on that story, check out Ron Numbers’s masterpiece, The Creationists.)

As Branch describes, back in the 1920s flat-earthers also represented a small minority of the anti-evolution crowd. Like the young-earthers, flat-earthers could claim an energetic and charismatic spokesperson, Glenn Voliva. Voliva crusaded against the notion of a spherical earth. Like George McCready Price, Voliva insisted that he had the Truth, a truth evolutionists and round-earthers were too prejudiced to admit.

At the time of the Scopes Trial, Voliva hustled to Dayton, Tennessee to help prosecute John Scopes. Voliva’s hope, according to author Christine Garwood, was to “eliminate the twin heresies of evolution and a spherical earth.”flat earth garwood

But that’s where the two ideas went their separate ways. Whereas the outlandish notion of a literally young earth came to be accepted as true by large minorities of Americans, the outlandish notion of a flat earth became an internet quirk adopted by basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.

So I ask again: What is the difference? I have a few ideas that I’m including in my current book about American creationism. In short, I think the answer lies not in dissident science, but in the mainstream world. By the 1960s, fundamentalist Protestants faced a new choice: Embrace mainstream evolutionary thinking and find a way to reconcile it with evangelical belief, or reject mainstream evolutionary science utterly and create a new creationist science.

When it came to evolution, the choice seemed simple, to many fundamentalists at least. Either kowtow to secular science or remain steadfast to young-earth beliefs.

Flat-earthers, though, never offered such a stark and simple choice. Belief in a flat earth (or a geo-centric solar system, for that matter) had always been embraced by some Biblical conservatives, but it never became a litmus test of orthodoxy.

At least, that’s the argument I’m trying to make in my new book.

What do you think?

SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bigotry.green bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

The Surprising History of Turkey’s Creationism

A devilish Jewish conspiracy? A beloved Christian import? Recent news from Turkey builds on the surprising evolution of creationism in that country.

Here’s what we know: Alpaslan Durmus, the Turkish education minister, denounced evolution as “beyond their [students’] comprehension.” It will be removed from K-12 textbooks. Durmus explained that the government thought evolution was too “controversial;” that students “don’t have the necessary scientific background and information-based context needed to comprehend.”

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Evolution’s out

That’s not the surprising part. After all, even when Turkish official textbooks did discuss evolution, they were hardly fair, balanced, or free of religious bigotry. According to The Financial Times, earlier Turkish textbooks warned students that Darwin “had two problems:  first he was a Jew; second, he hated his prominent forehead, big nose and misshapen teeth.” The books mocked Darwin’s lack of formal education, noting strangely that he preferred to spend his time with monkeys in the zoo.

For a while, then, Turkey’s public schools have catered to popular bigotry about evolutionary ideas. Turkey is hardly alone. Evolution is deeply unpopular in many Muslim-majority countries. According to Salman Hameed of Hampshire College, fewer than a fifth of Indonesians, Malaysians, and Pakistanis say they think evolution is true. Only eight percent of Egyptians do. Turkey is no exception. Just as in the United States, evolutionary theory is widely denounced, even if it is not widely understood. Anxious leaders curry favor with conservative religious populations by throwing Darwin under the bus.

It is not news, then, that Turkey’s government is trying to win support among religious voters by eliminating evolution from textbooks. We might be surprised, however, by the history of cross-creationist connections that have long linked Turkey’s Islamic creationists to San Diego’s Christian ones.

The_Creationists_by_Ronald_Numbers

A worldwide flood of creationism

As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421).

The relationship between powerful Turkish creationists and American creationists thrived. In 1992, a Turkish creationism conference invited ICR stalwarts Duane Gish and John Morris as keynote speakers.  Professor Numbers also describes the founding in 1990 of the Turkish Science Research Foundation (Bilim Arastirma Vakfi, or BAV).  In Numbers’ words, “For years BAV maintained a cozy relationship with Christian young-earth creationists, feting them at conferences, translating their books, and carrying their message to the Islamic world” (pg. 425).

However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

It’s not shocking, then, that Turkish and American creationists keep one another at arm’s length, in spite of American outreach to Turkey and lavish and expensive efforts by Turkish creationists to woo American scientists.

Here’s the last question: Will Turkey’s recent move finally convince pundits to stop saying that the United States is the only country in which creationism thrives? Will creationism finally be seen as the world-wide conservative impulse that it really is?

HT: V(F)W; JC

From the Archives: Klan Kollege

Higher ed can be exclusionary. For students who don’t have the funds for tuition or the money for SAT prep classes or the ability to focus on four (or more) years of post-secondary education, college has always been out of reach. At some schools, though, there has been another sinister reason why college was not for everyone. Scott Jaschik reports today in Inside Higher Education about the Ku Klux Klan konnections of Wesleyan College in Atlanta. It’s an important story, but they left out the most extraordinary part.

Wesleyan’s story has plenty of shockers. Students had been proudly affiliated with the Klan since the late 1800s, with sports teams sporting the name “Tri-Ks” until the 1990s. Students hazed one another in masks with nooses. The school didn’t admit an African-American student until 1968. But the story of Wesleyan is not the most intriguing story of the Ku Klux Klan in higher education. At the height of its influence, the “second” Klan in the 1920s made plans to purchase its own Klan Kollege.Daily-Republican-Rushville-IN-August-16-1923

A little background: The 1920s Klan was very different than its earlier and later incarnations. As I note in my book about educational conservatism, in the 1920s the Klan was still violent and racist, but it had much more mainstream credibility than later Klan groups.

During the 1920s, ambitious leader Hiram Evans planned to use the issue of education to bring together the millions of Klan members nationwide. As I’ve argued in an academic article, the plan was to mimic anti-immigrant mainstream educational ideas left over from World War I. Public schools, Evans believed, could be the tool to “Americanize” the nation.

fiery cross pic valpo

Spoke a little too soon…

At the height of its popularity, the 1920s Klan ran the states of Indiana and Oregon. They were enormously politically powerful. As part of their soaring ambition, they hoped to invest in the future by building their own university.

How? They proposed to purchase the financially strapped Valparaiso University in Indiana. It would become a dedicated Klan school, an institution that would teach the principles of Ku Kluxism, Indiana-style. Valpo would become the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” Klan leaders promised. The school would teach the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the 1920s Klan. As they explained in their Indiana newspaper,

Those un-American and alien forces that would disrupt every move that is planned to better any Protestant undertaking are busy stirring up strife and discord where possible in an attempt to block the project. The futility of such attempts, however, is realized when it is noted that whatever the Ku Klux Klan starts out to do, it always does. In this instance, the Klan has started out to make Valparaiso a great national institution; to make it a monument to American ideals and principles.

Fiery-Cross-August-24-1923

Big dreams of Klan Kollege

It didn’t work. Due to feuding between the powerful leader of the Indiana Klan and the national leadership in Atlanta, the money fell through at the last minute. It still shows, though, how higher education has always been central to America’s long-running culture wars. For the 1920s Klan to cement its role as a real leader in American culture, it wanted to have its own college. Other conservative groups–from fundamentalists to free-marketeers–have had more success.

Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.

Trump and DeVos: Improving Science and History Education?

It’s too soon to tell, of course, but that’s not going to stop me from wondering. Historians, science-educators, and members of the Democratic Party have all been horrified by Trumpism. But murmurs from the field suggest that Trump’s excesses are sparking a pro-history, pro-science, pro-donkey backlash. At least a little.

History first. It didn’t take an expert to be shocked by some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Shouting about “America First,” for example, seemed to willfully ignore the tortured history of that phrase.

Then science. Trump has long bashed climate-change science as a “hoax,” a “Chinese plot,” a “con job.”

And politics. Trump’s surprise victory had many Democratic Party faithful wringing their hands at their abject failure. If they couldn’t stop a buffoon like Trump, how could they expect to get anywhere?

Trump and devos

So bad it’s good…?

So maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but we’re hearing all sorts of mumbling about anti-Trump backlash.

Amy Wang asks if Trump’s surprise victory has sparked renewed interest in history on college campuses. In the past few years, the number of history majors has slumped, as more and more college students study business and engineering. At Yale, however, the history major recently regained its top spot. Elsewhere, students are looking at the history major with renewed interest. Wang wonders if Trump’s victory

has broken through an apathy barrier of sorts. People who’d become disengaged with politics suddenly started paying attention again.

And at least one progressive Seattle science teacher claims that Trumpist science-denialism has sparked greater interest among his students in studying real science. As he put it,

My students are angry and frightened and I am humbled by the fact that most of them have only deepened their commitment to do what Trump will not: honestly explore and enact how best to live on Earth.

When it comes to politics, too, Democrats are finding that Trump and DeVos make excellent fundraisers…for Democrats. As Politico reports, Democratic Party campaigns that focus on DeVos’s policies are raking in the dollars. As Politico’s Michael Stratford reports,

Emails citing DeVos are raising money at a faster clip than others and driving engagement from supporters.

We shouldn’t be surprised, I guess. No one was less popular in the 1930s than FDR, and he stayed in office for four terms. Nobody provoked greater animosity than Abraham Lincoln, and he got the penny. So we don’t want to overestimate the importance of inevitable anti-Trump backlash.

We can’t help but wonder, though: Will Trumpism really spark a renaissance of academic history, science education, and Democratic Party politics?

They Love You but They’re Going to Brexit

I admit it: I don’t get out much. I live in the USA. I study the history of the USA. I spend my time trying to understand parts of the USA that just don’t make any immediate obvious sense to me—things like creationism and fundamentalism. So my ears perked up when I heard that the new “kingmakers” in the UK were guided by “a mixture of old-time religion and secular nativism.” Based on the flurry of news about them, they certainly sound like US-style religious culture-warriors.

DUP

Look familiar?

But I don’t know much about it. Here’s what I’m reading: After Theresa May’s drubbing in the recent election, her Conservative Party has had to partner up with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. The DUP is an odd duck in Europolitics. As one European journalist described them, they don’t fit in in Europe, but “to an American, especially from the deep South, the party would seem much more familiar.”

After a quick look, it does sound eerily similar, but not exactly the same. The DUP are against LGBTQ rights; they are anti-abortion; they are climate-change deniers. Many of its leaders are regular church-goers; many leaders are creationists. Due to the turbulent and violent recent history of Northern Ireland, they also have ties to right-wing paramilitary groups.

Like many American fundamentalist groups, the DUP was founded by a Presbyterian hard-liner. The Reverend Ian Paisley—in yet another connection to historical American fundamentalism—was motivated by a political and theological anti-Catholicism.

Carl McIntire 1970

Carl McIntire, American Fundamentalist, 1970

Of course, there are big differences. Being anti-Catholic in Ireland is a world away from being anti-Catholic in Texas. Being a “militant” Presbyterian in a warzone is different from being a “militant” Presbyterian in New Jersey.

Yet the connections still seem palpable. According to The Economist, at least, the DUP is motivated by the same sense of usurped proprietary nationalism that fuels American fundamentalist outrage. As that paper put it,

What unites many voters of Protestant heritage, whether religious or not, is a feeling that the tide of history has, in some mysterious and unfair way, turned against them. . . . The DUP speaks to the fears and aspirations of those voters—sometimes in subliminally religious language and sometimes in more secular tones.

Educate me, SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Am I missing something? We hear time and time again that no other post-industrial society fuses together God and society the way American conservatives like to do. From what I can tell, the theocratic dreams and creationist textbooks of the DUP sound awfully similar.

Are Evangelicals Unfit for Office?

Remember Larycia Hawkins? Senator Bernie Sanders does. In a recent hearing, Bernie suggested that a Wheaton College grad was unfit for office since he publicly supported his alma mater in its fight against Professor Hawkins.

During the recent presidential campaign, Candidate Sanders sounded friendlier to evangelical Protestants. He even ventured into the fundamentalist lion’s den, making a speech at Liberty University.

Down in Virginia, Bernie didn’t make a secret of his disagreement with conservative evangelical politics. But he did say some friendly things about Liberty, such as the following:

You are a school which tries to teach its students how to behave with decency and with honesty and how you can best relate to your fellow human beings, and I applaud you for trying to achieve those goals.

This week, Bernie wasn’t applauding. He suggested that any earnest evangelical was unfit for public office.

Before we get to his ferocious criticism of evangelicalism, let me say a few words of clarification: I like Bernie. I’m no evangelical myself. I’m just a mild-mannered historian who has written a book about the history of schools such as Wheaton and Liberty.

And maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of evangelical institutions, but Bernie’s recent accusation seemed pretty surprising to my ears. I’m at a loss to know how we should understand this situation.

Here’s what we know: according to Christianity Today, Senator Sanders was questioning Russell Vought in his hearing for his appointment in the Office of Management and Budget.

Vought is a Wheaton alum and had defended the school’s decision to initiate termination proceedings against tenured political science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins had sparked controversy by wearing hijab and asserting that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the “same God.”

Vought disagreed. He applauded Wheaton’s firm stance. Only evangelical Christians, Vought wrote, can truly be saved. Only through the redemptive power of Jesus’s sacrifice can people come to God. As Vought put it bluntly,

Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.

Bernie didn’t like it. He challenged Vought:

Are you suggesting that all of those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too? I understand that Christianity is the majority religion. But there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

It’s a pickle. For secular folks like me (and Bernie), Vought’s language seems pretty harsh. Is sounds as if he is damning to hell everyone who doesn’t agree with him. And, in a way, he is. But Vought’s belief is nothing radical. In fact, however, it is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief. The National Association of Evangelicals recently offered a four-point statement of basic evangelical belief:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Some evangelical pundits were quick to lambaste Bernie. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called Bernie “breathtakingly audacious and shockingly ignorant.” Senator Sanders, Moore charged, was trying to impose an utterly unconstitutional religious test for office.

I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I agree with Bernie. Vought seemed to make his point in a particularly offensive way, using language calculated to seem harsh and intolerant. I don’t want public officials who see non-evangelicals as somehow inferior. And there are plenty of evangelicals who agree with me. Even at Wheaton, after all, plenty of earnest evangelicals decried the school’s decision to oust Professor Hawkins.

On the other hand, Vought’s statement was nothing but basic evangelical belief. Perhaps Vought said it more loudly than people like me find polite. But Vought and anyone else is perfectly free to think the rest of us are condemned. As a religious belief, that doesn’t do me any harm. In fact, however, I am no more offended by Vought’s belief that I am condemned than I am by scientologists’ notions that I am not “clear.”

What do you think? Is Bernie right to raise the red flag? Or should Vought and his comrades be free to voice their religious beliefs loudly and proudly?

Trump Makes Conservative College Dreams Come True

You can hear the cheering all the way from Michigan to Washington DC. The long-held dreams of Hillsdale College just might be coming true. This unique conservative institution has labored for 50+ years to become the premier intellectual training ground for American conservatism, and its influence in the Trump administration seems proof that it’s really happening.

hillsdale college

Take that, Harvard!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware of the Hillsdale story, but for those readers who aren’t, here it is in a nutshell: Back in the 1960s, the college dedicated itself to a self-consciously dissenting notion of conservative American higher education. Hillsdale is generally friendly to evangelical thinking, but it has never really been an integral part of the network of conservative evangelical schools I’m focusing on in my new book, Fundamentalist U. Some elements of its mission, though, are very similar.

Back in the early 1980s, for example, one of the fundamentalist schools I’m studying proclaimed its culture-war mission: In 1981, Liberty University’s Ed Hindson declared,

A few thousand highly committed and thoroughly trained young people, who were willing to put their Christianity to work in every sector of our society, could see America changed in our life time.

If you substitute “conservatism” for “Christianity” in Hindson’s sentence, you’d end up with something like what Hillsdale is looking for. Hillsdale’s newfound influence in the Trump administration seems proof that the plan is working, at least in part.

What does “conservative higher education” mean in Hillsdale, Michigan?

The school stridently refuses to accept any government funding. Its core curriculum teaches a traditional vision of the European canon, guided by “Judeo-Christian values.” Its campus proudly features statues of conservative heroes such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The faculty have always welcomed leading conservative thinkers, including Russell Kirk back in the 1970s, and today’s superstar conservative-evangelical historian and public intellectual D. G. Hart.

hillsdale college reagan statue

The Gipper chillin on campus…

When your humble editor read this morning that Hillsdale President Larry Arnn is getting some rare and valuable one-on-one time with Secretary Betsy DeVos, we wondered just how far Hillsdale’s star had risen with the new administration.

Turns out, pretty far.

In all the hubbub-ery following Trump’s inauguration, we missed one story: Back in February, President Arnn claimed to be on a short list for DeVos’s job. And, according to the school newspaper, Hillsdale alumni filled some important roles in the Trump administration. Josh Venable (Class of 2002) became chief of staff in the Ed Department. David Morrell (2007) served as associate counsel to Trump. And two alums, Brittany Baldwin (2012) and Stephen Ford (2010) wrote speeches for the President and VP.

At least, they did back in February. In the current fast-changing White House, maybe they are out by now.

The bigger point, however, remains the same. Hillsdale’s dreams, like those of other conservative schools such as Liberty University, Patrick Henry College, and The King’s College, has long been to exert more influence in government and politics. Hillsdale doesn’t talk about the “Christian” part as much, but the goal is very similar.

Those of us who scratch our heads and wonder how any intellectual—progressive, conservative, or other—could support the clown-prince buffoonery of Trump would do well to appreciate the ways Trumpism is making long-held conservative dreams come true.

Why Are Teachers Mad at Billionaires?

It’s not just because of the cars they drive. For as long as there have been school systems, there have been outsiders who have promised radical reform. Today’s crop of tech billionaires is no different and good teachers can only shake their heads and wait for the billionaires to figure it out. If only some of the billionaires had read one book—or maybe two—they’d see the problem with their approach.

In today’s New York Times, Natasha Singer wisely warns of the lack of democratic oversight in today’s tech-based school reforms. There is another lesson billionaires should learn, though, even if they don’t care about democratic input. The history is clear: Sweeping tech-based revolutions in schooling have (almost) always ended up stashed in the hallway closets of schools across the country. There is one obvious and important exception, as historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban pointed out over twenty years ago.

Of course, we need to be fair: It’s a good thing that billionaires devote some of their loot to improving public education. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. He pledged $100 million to Newark. His foundation is now promising to invest heavily in schools. Good for him.

The problem, though, is that such outsider attempts miss a vital part of real school reform. As Tyack and Cuban argued in 1995, school reform plans work when they allow teachers to do their jobs better. They flounder when they try to force schools to adopt tech-based answers to questions no one is really asking. It doesn’t matter how expensive the plan is or how good it looks on paper.

tyack cuban tinkering

Read these works, ye mighty, and despair…

Consider, for example, the 1950s attempt to bring better schooling to rural American kids. The Carnegie Foundation teamed up with the US Congress to pour tens of millions of dollars into a radical reform program. Believe it or not, they put planes in constant motion over the Great Plains states, beaming closed-circuit educational television programs to rural schools.

It seemed like a foolproof idea, a perfect solution to rural educational oblivion, made possible by the new technology of television.

It didn’t work, though. It seems too obvious even to mention, but rural schools found that the educational TV programs didn’t fit their classroom goals. Kids didn’t learn anything. The hokey programs went unwatched, and the expensive TVs were put into hallway closets to collect dust.

As I’m finding in my current research, this pattern of well-intentioned, expensive, and unproductive technology-based radical school reform has an even longer history.

Over two hundred years ago, English reformer Joseph Lancaster insisted he had solved the problems of urban education. His new-fangled modern factory model could educate the hordes of urchins that were cramming into modern American and European cities.

No surprise: It didn’t work either. Or, to be nerdily specific, it worked…but not in the ways Lancaster had over-promised.

Lancaster’s reform plan worked—as will any reform plan in any century—when it inspired teachers, parents, students, mayors, and taxpayers to pay a lot of eager attention to their local public schools. It didn’t work when it promised a tech-based anonymous reform plan that could instantly fix any school anywhere.

lancaster schools

Radical school tech reform, c. 1807

So why are teachers mad at billionaires? Because good teachers know this central truth about what Tyack and Cuban called “the grammar of schooling.” Like any other social institution, schools are impervious to silver-bullet tech reforms. Public schools will not be magically fixed because billionaires are suddenly and temporarily interested in them.

The recipe for improving schools is not new, nor is it secret. Every good teacher already knows it. Schools are made better when an entire community is excited and involved in them. Sometimes, that excitement and involvement can be boosted by eye-catching new technology. More often, though, involvement comes from long hours and years spent in classrooms, cafeterias, meeting rooms, and athletic fields.