Several people have asked me lately to clarify my position. If I’m not trying to boost fundamentalism, and I’m not trying to fight against it, why bother with this blog? I appreciate the question, so I’ll take a stab at an explanation.
Blog readers tend to come from a few different camps. Some are refugees from Fundamentalist America (or Australia, or Canada, or UK). That is, they grew up in conservative religious families and have been estranged from that tradition. Others are residents and defenders of Fundamentalist America. A few are resolute anti-fundamentalists.
I fit into none of those categories. I grew up in a mostly secular, culturally liberal family. We lived in the northern suburbs of Boston, where it was easy to assume that fundamentalism belonged only in Footloose.
I’ll have Bacon with mine.
Once I moved out of that bubble, I found myself working and living with people who shared a profound cultural conservatism, very different from the kind of culture I grew up with. Most of them were not the monsters I had expected. By the time I started teaching high school, I had some encounters with cultural conservatives that left a sour taste in my mouth. I began my academic career as a historian interested in populist movements. I had hoped to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular insurgencies. I was particularly interested in the strength of conservative popular insurgencies. When I started my PhD work at the University of Wisconsin, I felt that the conservative folks that I had lived and worked with had not been adequately studied. Once I read more deeply from recent academic history, I realized that such historians had, indeed, spent a good deal of time examining the conservative popular tradition. I decided to join that group.
I was particularly interested in educational history, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was influenced by both the work and the personality of Bill Reese. Reese had studied grass-roots educational insurgencies. His work showed me that the best place to study cultural conflict was in educational history. The field combined all the interesting parts of political history, cultural history, religious history, and intellectual history. After all, it was—and is—in the schools that the cultural fat hits the fire, so to speak. The nature of morality, the boundaries of legitimate knowledge, the fundamental premises of religion and culture…all these issues are often only articulated in the public sphere when they need to be adjudicated in public schools.
Once I decided to study educational history, I looked for an important educational movement or group that had not been studied by academic historians. The Protestant fundamentalists of the 1920s seemed like such a group. Once Ron Numbers–historian of science and medicine, the world’s leading academic authority on scientific creationism, and an all-around great guy–agreed to work with me, my research path was clear.
Years later, after I have published and spoken a good deal about such conservative religious folks, I found that one question kept coming up, especially among my academic audiences. Some members of such audiences always wondered why so much educational policy was “still” dictated by cultural conservatives. Prayers in school, creationism, “heritage” history; all these seemed to come as a surprise to many members of my academic audiences.
Like me, many of the members of those audiences had lived most of their lives in very sheltered, very liberal, very secular environments. They often shared a disturbing combination of profound ignorance with utter arrogance. They thought that all of America did or should share their cultural beliefs. And they believed this while considering themselves open-minded and committed to welcoming a diversity of cultural voices.
I found myself deeply embarrassed for such people, especially because I shared the same background. Before I began exploring the educational, intellectual, cultural, and religious histories of conservatism, I assumed—without examining my own assumptions—that Fundamentalist America represented only a cultural backwater, destined to dry out and disappear as our society evolved.
Perhaps an example will clarify. After one talk I gave about anti-evolution activism in the 1920s, one audience member raised a hand and asked, “What is the matter with these people?” The rest of the audience giggled and nodded. I have since come to know the person who asked that question. She is delightful. She cares deeply about other people. She is a prominent education researcher and well-known scholar in her field. She has dedicated her professional life, and much of her personal life, to making public education more accommodating for people with physical disabilities. She would be horrified to be accused of bigotry, closedmindness, or prejudice.
Yet when she heard my talk about the intellectual background of anti-evolutionism, she did not think twice about dismissing all such people—nearly half of American adults—as “these people.”
It is for people like her that I write this blog. My mission, if that’s not too lofty a term, is to introduce Fundamentalist America to people who are ignorant about it. Part of that means demonstrating the popularity and strength of conservative religious ideas in American public life. Part of it means explaining the reasons why intelligent, well-meaning people may embrace notions such as young-earth creationism and an inerrant Bible as a primary authority in making political decisions.
None of this means I agree with such positions. I don’t. But I would like to join those who try to build understanding between opposing cultural visions. Like Jonathan Haidt, I believe that many of our cultural battles could be less bloody. One way to make them so is to make sure each side understands the other. As someone who comes from outside the borders of Fundamentalist America, but spends much of my time exploring the history and culture of Fundamentalist America, I believe I can be of use in explaining FA to other outsiders.
Will this solve all our disagreements? Of course not. But I believe it will be better to understand and even sympathize with our opponents’ positions, even if we must eventually respectfully disagree.