A New Focus

I’m happy to announce a new focus here at ILYBYGTH.  From now on, we’ll limit ourselves to exploring conservative, traditionalist, “fundamentalist” ideas about schools and education. 

When this blog was born, about a year ago, I had planned to play devil’s advocate in the culture wars.  I hoped to imagine the best arguments for both sides in issues such as evolution, education, abortion, etc.  As the year went on, I discovered that only the conservative side of these issues was really interesting to me. 

Not because I believed those conservative notions myself, but precisely because many of them did not make any intuitive sense to me.  The interesting questions to me were those that dug into the reasons conservatives might give for believing in a young earth, for instance, or for opposing the distribution of condoms in schools.  Evolution makes sense to me, as does offering young people protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. 

Now I realize that the most consistently interesting questions are those that have to do with schooling and education.  It seems those questions are the ones that force people to articulate their vision for proper culture.  It is often when public schools have to decide on what to teach that we hear the most illuminating arguments in favor of creationism, the Bible, and traditional religious values. 

So that will be our focus.  I hope you like it.  If you do, please help.  You can “like” us on Facebook, follow the blog on Google Reader or similar platforms, and share our posts as widely as you can.  You can comment and contribute to the discussions.  You can attend or host a talk by ILYBYGTH’s Adam Laats.   Whatever you do, thanks for visiting.

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NEW TOPIC: Family & Sexuality

What makes up a family?  What is the right way to have sex?  Fundamentalist America has strong feelings about these questions.  For many outsiders like me, conservative opinion on these issues is truly perplexing.  If it is “conservative” to want a smaller government, for instance, why is it also “conservative” to regulate all the sexual behavior in all the bedrooms in the country?  If Fundamentalist America wants strong families, why do they deny same-sex partners the rights to marry and raise healthy, happy children?  Even more foundationally, why does Fundamentalist America even care if people are gay, straight, or otherwise curved?  How does it stop a conservative Christian from following her religion if other people have sex in ways she doesn’t like?

For the next several weeks, ILYBYGTH will explore these questions.  Posts will fall into three basic categories:

  • The fights against same-sex marriage;
  • Notions of sexuality; and
  • Contraception.

Just as we’ve done with the topics of creationism, traditionalist education, and the Bible, our goal will be to present the best possible arguments from Fundamentalist America.  Our goal as outsiders will be to understand conservative thinking on these issues, not to attack or defend it.

This will certainly be tricky.  It is much easier to speak calmly and dispassionately about such things as evolution, John Dewey, and Bible apocalypses than the intimate relationships that make up family life.  Attacks on homosexuality, for example, come much closer to home for many people on both sides of the issue than, say, denunciations of evolution.

One more reminder: when we talk about “Fundamentalist America” here at ILYBYGTH, we mean something wider than simply those very conservative evangelical Protestants who might call themselves small-f fundamentalists.  We are talking here about a broad conservative, traditionalist impulse, shared among many different types of conservative people.  Conservative Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims may all be part of this sweeping interpretation of FA.  Indeed, even mainly secular people who favor traditional society may include themselves as part of this coalition.

The purpose of ILYBYGTH is to understand the ideas of this deeply conservative tradition in America.  You can help.  Share your experiences, comment on posts, ask questions.  Even with this intensely personal and highly emotional topic, we’ll resolve to talk calmly, respectfully, and with a sincere desire to understand, even if we can’t agree.

 

Confessions of an Outsider in Fundamentalist America

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.

INTRO: God Hates . . . Figs? The Bible as America’s Book

If you log your required hours on Facebook, you’ve probably already seen this one.  The provenance of this photo isn’t clear, but it has been flying through many of the interweb’s tubes lately.  I got it from the site Stuff Fundies Like  The folks there speculate it must have come from an annual Peeps diorama contest.  Makes sense.  Who else would spend the time?

I’m including it not only because it’s hilarious, but because it helps me introduce ILYBYGTH’s newest thread: Why do fundamentalists care so much about what the Bible says?  For non-fundamentalist Americans, it seems like a bizarre fetish.  Why, after all, would we base our public policies on a group of texts from a relatively obscure bunch of herders writing their ancient prohibitions thousands of years ago in the dust and dismay of the Jordan River valley?  Why should the science curriculum in our children’s schools be influenced by the creation myth of one obscure group of ancient people?  The criticisms seem too easy to bother to make.  Perhaps we could similarly ban exploration of the North Pole since it will disrupt the operations of Santa’s Workshop?  Maybe a powerful faction of our government could get together weekly for ‘Fairy Breakfasts’ to discuss the use of the Tooth Fairy as a non-governmental supplier of dental care?

Yet unlike these other quaint myths, the Bible does play a significant role in guiding contemporary American politics and culture.  Those who indulge in snarky critiques of Bible believers—Peep-based or otherwise—are really the ones who have a fundamental misunderstanding of American culture.  Through the late twentieth century, according to Gallup polls, roughly one-third of Americans agree that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.”  In addition, roughly one-half of Americans believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, though perhaps not literally true word for word.  In 2000, when asked, “Do you believe the Bible answers all or most of the basic questions of life, or not?” 65% of respondents answered yes.  The corollary is obvious: there is a strong public sentiment in the US of A that the Bible should somehow be included in all decisions, public and private.  A significant proportion of citizens do not find it odd to use this collection of ancient Hebrew writings to make twenty-first-century policy decisions.

Posts on this thread will explore the reasons for this widely shared belief.

  • First, ILYBYGTH will look at the history of the Bible in public life.  How has it been used as a textbook in American public schools?  What does it mean that one of the most pressing emergencies on November 22, 1963, a day seared into national consciousness, was to locate a Bible so that LBJ could be sworn in as the new President on Air Force One?
  • Next, posts will delve into reasons why fundamentalists care so much about it.  Why do fundamentalists insist that the Bible should be allowed to dictate public policy?  Why do they think the Bible must remain the guide, moreover, to our understanding of science and humanity?
  • Third, ILYBYGTH will look at the ways the Bible has been seen as a universal panacea.  Historically, fundamentalists have seen the Bible as a literally miraculous book.  The merest exposure to its pages, many fundamentalists believe, can convert the ignorant to fundamentalism.  Similarly, reading the Bible has been seen as an inoculation against all forms of spiritual danger and doubt.
  • And finally, at the end of all times, we’ll explore the end of the world, Bible style.  We’ll look into different readings of Bible prophecy and predictions of the apocalypse.  Such prophecies have tended to focus the fundamentalist mind on the tricky question of Biblical interpretation.  For most fundamentalists, one of the Bible’s unique powers is that its meaning is clear to all readers.  So how have so many earnest interpreters differed on such key questions as the end of all times?

Of course, this plan is subject to change and digression.  And new Bible questions are welcome from readers and commentators.  If you consider yourself a Bible believer, why do you think the Book has such supreme importance?  If you’re a skeptic, how do you feel about fundamentalist insistence on the Bible as the source of all knowledge and true wisdom?

 

A NEW DIRECTION

Dear Readers,

I’m not trying to be funny when I announce that I Love You But You’re Going to Hell has evolved.  I began this project as an exploration of both sides of America’s culture wars, but in the process, I’ve discovered that I and most of my readers are more interested in a different question.  The most interesting part of these writings, for me, has been the analysis and explication of the ideas of the conservative side of these cultural battles.

In past posts, I’ve attempted to imagine the best arguments of both pro- and anti-evolution thinkers.  I’ve imagined arguments explaining the case for progressive and traditionalist education.  When I’ve argued pro-evolution and pro-progressive education, though, I feel too much proximity to each one to make it interesting.  I AM a pro-evolutionist and a progressive educator.  So laying out those arguments has not been as interesting or as challenging to me as trying to imagine what the other side would say.  I am confident that my arguments have not been as coherent or convincing as lots of other writers out there.

Plus, as the blog has progressed, it seems as if most of the readers and contributors feel the same way.  The interesting parts have not been about the arguments for evolution or for progressive schools.  As one reviewer noted, “The pro-evolution stuff we already know, but the underpinnings of the creationist stuff could be interesting.” The most interesting questions have become: How could intelligent, educated people fight for more traditional schools?  How could they fight against the teaching of evolution in those schools?  Why is the Bible so important to Fundamentalists?  Why do they care if I’m gay?  Etc.

In recognition of these developments, I am changing the approach of I Love You But You’re Going To Hell.  Instead of exploring both sides of these culture-war issues, I’ll focus on trying to make sense out of the conservative side.  To reflect this change, I’ll take the bold step of revising my subtitle.  The original subtitle was: A Primer for Peaceful Coexistence in an Age of Culture Wars.  I’m still for peaceful coexistence.  But in order to help that come about, I’ll articulate the ideas of the conservative side to those from the progressive side.  My hope will remain: if each side can recognize that intelligent people of good will can hold these ideas in good faith, perhaps we can all work together more peacefully and productively.  So my new subtitle will be: An Outsider’s Guide to Fundamentalist America.

Like it?  I hope you do.  I invite you to keep on reading and commenting as I focus exclusively on what makes Fundamentalists tick.

New Topic: Education

Recent posts have tried to describe reasons why intelligent, informed, well-meaning people might believe either in creation or in evolution.  These arguments haven’t necessarily been the only arguments out there, or the ones that advocates of creation or evolution prefer.  They have merely been my attempts to construct reasons for such differing beliefs.

In upcoming posts, I’ll try to do a similar thing with a new topic: education.  There is not as clear a divide in educational thinking these days; there is not a single bright line dividing educational ideas the way there is between creation and evolution.  Nevertheless, I’ll try to
describe two competing themes that run through educational thinking.  I’ll call them  traditionalism and progressivism.

The labels are tricky, since what I’ll be calling “progressive” thinking about education has a long and influential tradition of its own stretching back to the nineteenth century.  This is the chain of thinking that runs through Pestalozzi, Froebel, Vygotsky, and Dewey all the way through James Banks, Michael Apple, and Paolo Friere.

Traditionalist thinking is also hard to define, since many of its adherents claim to be the true progressives.  Still, there is a clear body of thinking that can be labeled traditionalist; an educational ideological tradition that has fought against progressivist changes since the opening of the twentieth century.

In general, I’ll look at traditionalism as the notion that education is about the transmission of ideas and values.  Traditionalists argue that schools exist to instill a set of information and morals into children.  In addition, traditionalists in this usage insist that a reform of schooling will lead to a general reform of society as well.  By bringing schools back to the “Three Rs,” traditionalists hope to bring American society back to its Godly, patriotic roots.

In contrast, progressives see formal, institutional education—the kind of thing that school is supposed to do—as properly being about discovery and transformation.  Progressives try to view children as persons in their own right, with a rich body of experiences that must be used in order to construct knowledge.  School should facilitate that knowledge construction in each individual, in this view.  School should also work to transform both individuals and society as a whole.  Schools, in the progressive view, have the unique ability to make society less racist, less unequal, and less authoritarian.

It is a muddy field.
American educational thinkers have tended to draw from both sides of these competing visions of education to formulate proposals for improvement in education.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to sketch out reasons why advocates of both sides might have reasonable,
intelligent beliefs, even though the two may disagree entirely.

I Love You but You’re Going to Hell

A Guide to Peaceful Coexistence in an Age of Culture Wars.  This blog is intended for every person who has someone in their family, or at work, or in their apartment building or neighborhood, or on TV, who doesn’t make sense at all.  Maybe it is a teacher at your school who refuses to teach evolution.  Maybe it is the opposite: someone who insisted that business meetings can no longer start with a prayer.

This blog will try to articulate both sides of these difficult culture-wars issues.  The goal is not to convince or convert the other side, but just to show that intelligent people of good will can have good reasons for believing ideas that seem crazy or stupid to others.