Required Reading: Public vs. Private

[Editor’s Note: We are happy to include an interview with Robert Gross about his new book Public vs. Private. In his book, Dr. Gross explores questions near and dear to the hearts of SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Private schools, public schools, religion, government, and the politics of education. His new book examines the early history of these questions and we’re delighted Dr. Gross has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.]

1.) In the introduction to Public vs Private, you write,

American conceptions of public and private . . . are impossible to fully understand without placing education at the center of the regulatory state.

Could you please expand on that idea a little? Why is it so important to understand educational history in this area if we want to understand American concepts of “public” and “private?”

There are three main reasons that I think education needs to be placed at the center of our understanding of the history of the regulatory state. The first is simply that, by the early twentieth century, there was perhaps no other sphere of American life that was more heavily regulated. When focusing exclusively on private schools you see the scope of American market regulation in a way that is more hidden in other areas. States regulated almost the entirety of the private school sector: what classes they could teach, what credentials their teachers needed, what language they could speak in the classroom, and so forth. Private schools had to open their doors to inspectors and turn over their attendance rosters. And of course the state reached into the homes of private school parents—paying visits to them if their child was truant or not assigned to a schools.

public v private

Get your copy today.

The second way that education matters to understanding American government power is that court cases about public regulation of private schools have served as major precedents to define the broader scope of market regulation over business. I discuss a range of major supreme court cases in the book—from Dartmouth College v. Woodward to Berea College v. Kentucky to Pierce v. Society of Sisters—that centered on state regulation of private schools, but that also had a tremendous impact on how state governments could regulate to private enterprise more generally. Private schools have thus frequently been the sites over our most important legal contestations over the role of state power.

Finally, I was struck when researching and writing the book how much state officials relied on private schools to accomplish a crucial public goal: of providing mass education at no cost to taxpayers. I don’t think we can understand American government without seeing how it often uses private corporations to achieve public ends—we see that in health care, of course, but it was very much there in the 19th century with schooling.

2.) In the era you focus on in Public vs. Private, religion and religious arguments played a huge role in debates about funding for schools. How were those earlier debates different from today’s fights about religion in public schools? How were they similar?

Religious arguments were indeed used to prevent the vast majority of (religious) private schools from receiving direct state funding. But we have to remember that Catholic school systems, in particular, benefited immensely from a range of financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions. While this is not something I explicitly write about in the book, my sense is that religious arguments historically have been less successful in obtaining funds than broader, more secular claims from religious schools about the “quasi-public” nature of their work. For example, in the 19th century legislatures and courts allowed Catholic parochial schools to have property-tax exemptions not solely (or even chiefly) because they were religious institutions, but rather because they served an important “public” purpose of educating masses of children. You see a somewhat similar dynamic in the middle of the 20th century over whether private schools that engage in various forms of discrimination can maintain their tax-exempt status. Courts ruled that private schools excluding African Americans, for example, were violating an important area of public policy, and so had no constitutional protections, nor claims to a tax deduction, in doing so. In the Hobby Lobby era we may see a shift in this general trend, of course.

3.) At the heart of the story you tell is an idea that seems foreign to a lot of people today. Can you explain the ways some leading 19th-century school reformers considered all private education to be a threat? Why did they think private schools were dangerous to American liberty?

Horace Mann and other public school reformers wrote extensively in the middle of the nineteenth century about how public school systems not only would eliminate private schooling but should do so. Public schools, they argued, were created precisely to destroy the balkanized provision of education that had existed beforehand—where Americans attended schools on the basis of their religious denomination, their class, or their ethnic heritage. Private schools thus represented an inherent challenge to the public school’s ability to be the assimilationist institution their founders envisioned. And because the vast majority of private schools by the late nineteenth century were run by Catholic organizations and, often, immigrant Catholics, they became enmeshed in deeper American traditions of anti-Catholicism and nativism.

There were a variety of other arguments for why private schools were seen as threatening that I think are worth mentioning as well. Many state public school leaders used economic arguments to suggest that private schools were inefficient, that schooling itself was a “natural monopoly” best operated by the government, without private competition—similar to how the government was increasingly providing other public utilities like water, gas, rail transportation, and so forth.

4.) What do you wish Betsy Devos knew about the history of the line between public and private schools?

I cannot speak to what Secretary Devos knows or does not know, but there is an important lesson in this book that I would want any public official to understand. The first is that we spend too much time in our debates about educational policy over whether one “supports” charter schools, voucher programs, school choice, or doesn’t support these initiatives. I think we would be better off if we talked about school choice in less Manichean terms, and instead posed the question that the communities in Public vs. Private had to contend with: “If we have school choice, how do we want to regulate it?” To what standards should we hold schools that receive public subsidies but are privately governed? How should we hold them accountable? Public regulation, as I argue in the book, is what allowed us to have robust school choice in the first place a century ago, and yet too often we ignore it in our contemporary debates.

Author bio: Robert N. Gross is a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and writes about the social and educational history of the United States.

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Confirmed Sighting

It exists! Thanks to the folks at Oxford, I have received the first copy of Fundamentalist U. Looks good!

fundy u FIRST COPY

Hot off the presses…

Thanks to everyone who pre-ordered a copy. Those pre-orders will be shipping on Thursday. The kindle version will be available then, too. The hardcover release will be on March 1.

In the meantime, you can read some blurbs to see what leading nerds have had to say about it. You can also read a short Q&A at RACM, here and here.

Creationists Understand[ing] Evolution

[Editor’s note: To SAGLRROILYBYGTH, Dr. Don McLeroy needs no introduction. As the genial conservative former head of the Texas State Board of Education, Dr. McLeroy is well known especially for his firm creationist beliefs. As I finish up my new book about American creationism, I reached out to Dr. McLeroy to ask him about his ideas. He graciously responded with an explanation and some questions of his own. He asked me, for instance, why I had so much confidence in mainstream evolutionary science. For the past few months, Dr. McLeroy and I have been reading key works together. He has explained to me why he finds some of Kenneth Miller’s work problematic and finds some convincing. I suggested a few of my favorite books, such as Edward Larson’s Evolution and Kostas Kampourakis’s Understanding Evolution. Dr. McLeroy read both and offered his explanation of why he found Dr. Kampourakis’s book ultimately unconvincing. I thought Dr. McLeroy’s critique of Understanding Evolution would be interesting to others, so I asked Dr. McLeroy for permission to publish it here. It appears below, unedited and unmodified by me.]

A critique of Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2014

By Don McLeroy, donmcleroy@gmail.com

Kostas Kampourakis believes if you truly understand evolution—the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor as a result of unguided natural processes—you will accept it and to this end he wrote his book. He does offer a unique contribution to the literature; besides an original discussion of “the core concepts of evolutionary theory and the features of evolutionary explanations,” (p. xi) he specifically concentrates on explaining why he believes evolution is hard to understand and why it has not won widespread acceptance. He emphasizes the conceptual obstacles to understanding evolution, how it is counter-intuitive and why there is so much religious resistance.

As for explaining the core concepts of evolution, his book succeeds; I do have a better understanding of evolution. However, I do not find his discussion of the conceptual difficulties of understanding evolution very compelling. The main obstacle for the evolution skeptic is the evidence doesn’t support it. And, if evolution is false, rejection of evolution is not counter-intuitive. However, he may be right; conceptual obstacles could play a major role in the evolution controversies. Only I think he has it totally backwards and the conceptual difficulties lie with the evolutionist inability to reject evolution.

Understanding core concepts

He devotes two chapters of his book to the core concepts of evolutionary theory: “Common ancestry” and “Evolutionary change.” They are unlike any other evolutionary explanations I have ever read. They are challenging, interesting and I enjoyed studying them.  One reason is because Kampourakis has an excellent imagination and he uses it to create “imaginary” examples to help illustrate evolutionary ideas. He has imaginary beetles, imaginary families, an imaginary Gogonasus man, imaginary slides with rolling balls, imaginary “Jons and Nathans,” and an imaginary pizza shop evolving into an imaginary cookie shop. These examples do help in understanding evolutionary concepts, but I am left wondering, why not use actual examples to illustrate these ideas? Are simple real life examples unavailable to explain evolution?

Kampourakis’ book, like every other evolutionary apologetic book I have read, leaves me a stronger skeptic. The first thing I do when I read a new book on evolution is to look for any actual evidence cited that supports evolution. These books all claim they have lots of evidence, but when I read the books I do not find it. Kampourakis agrees the first requirement of a good scientific theory is the “empirical fit or support by data.” (p. 209) He claims “The fact that we do not know some details yet, as well as that we may never know all the details, does not undermine how strongly evolutionary theory is supported by empirical data.” (p. 209) Therefore, how many actual facts do we see included in this book? He presents some biology but not much evolutionary evidence. Interestingly, I find more imaginary examples than actual examples. His strongest example is Neil Shubin’s Tiktaalik.

The conceptual difficulties

The unique purpose of Kampourakis’ book is to focus “on conceptual difficulties and obstacles to understanding evolution.” (p. 62) I find it interesting his goal is not for everyone to “accept” evolution but simply to “understand” it. Again, he seems to believe if only we could understand it, then of course, we would accept it.  I believe I do understand evolution. And, the more I understand it the more skeptical I have become. What amazes me is how many intelligent, educated people understand evolution and then accept it. Therefore, let’s examine the conceptual problem in reverse. The question would now be: What are the conceptual difficulties facing the evolutionist in ultimately rejecting evolution. I believe they are easily identifiable.

Not knowing they don’t have enough evidence

This brings us back to the key issue—the evidence. I believe the first and most significant conceptual obstacle in preventing the evolutionist from rejecting evolution is in not realizing how much evidence is needed to show evolution to be true. To illustrate, how much evidence has evolution presented to demonstrate how the myriads of biochemical pathways have supposedly developed naturally? Kampourakis’ book is completely silent on this issue. But, Kampourakis provides for more evidence for evolution by referencing a “Further reading” section at the end of his first chapter. Here he begins “There exist numerous books which present the evidence for evolution as well as the main processes. A nice book to start with is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, which provides an authoritative overview of evidence and processes. Another book with several examples and useful information is The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution, by Richard Dawkins.” (p. 29) Therefore, based on Kampourakis suggestion, let us examine how well these two books explain the evolution of biochemical pathways.

In Dr. Coyne’s book, the only specific evidence he provides to demonstrate biochemical complexity is to hypothesize an imaginary common ancestor of sea cucumbers and vertebrates had a gene that was later co-opted in vertebrates as fibrinogen. (Coyne, ps. 131-3) Richard Dawkins presents even less evidence than Jerry Coyne. He describes the cell as “breathtakingly complicated;” stating “the key to understand how such complexity is put together is that it is all done locally, by small entities obeying local rules.” (Dawkins, p. 438) He also states some of the features of the cell descended from different bacteria, that built up their “chemical wizardries billions of years before.” (Dawkins, p. 377) These statements are not evidence. Click on the links associated with each picture to see what evolution must explain and decide for yourself how strong the evidence is for what Kampourakis’ experts present.mcleroy 1mcleroy 2mcleroy 3

In conclusion, Kampourakis, Coyne and Dawkins do not seem to be concerned about the lack of evidence supporting the evolution of biochemical pathways. And, this is only one small area evolution encompasses that needs explaining.

Not knowing how many just-so stories they tell

The second conceptual block the evolutionist faces in rejecting evolution is they don’t seem to realize or be bothered by how much they depend upon just-so stories in their explanations for how evolution actually happened. Kampourakis, to his credit, doesn’t spin too many just-so stories; he simply presents them as facts. Examine this table Kampourakis includes in his book (p. 172). These transitions are presented as facts, as the truth. Here, the conceptual block the evolutionist faces is the failure to ask the key question “HOW did this happen?” For example, can evolution answer these questions for the first four transitions?

  • HOW did repeating molecules arrive and HOW did these molecules become enclosed in a membrane?
  • HOW did these molecules become coordinated as chromosomes?
  • HOW did the RNA, DNA, and proteins develop protein synthesis and HOW did the genetic code information arrive?
  • HOW did the eukaryote cell arrive? Does the concept of endosymbiosis deal with enough of the complexities involved to assume the problem is basically solved?

kampourakis chartNot knowing the definition of science

Finally, the most foundational conceptual obstacle preventing the evolutionist from rejecting evolution is they have defined themselves into a box. Kampourakis, after a lengthy and excellent discussion of religion and how it relates to science concludes “Science is a practice of methodological naturalism: Whether a realm of the supernatural exists or not, it cannot be studied by the rational tools of science. Science does not deny the supernatural, but accepts that it has nothing to say about it. Science is a method of studying nature, hence methodological naturalism.” (p. 59) But, what if God really did create life? This would mean Kampourakis’ science would not be able to discover it. I find this an untenable situation for science.

The solution, as I see it, is to reject “methodological naturalism” and endorse “The National Academy of Sciences” definition of science. In its book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, 2008, the National Academy defines science as: “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” (p. 10) This wording is excellent: it supports both a naturalist and a supernaturalist view of science. With it, science must only limit itself to “testable explanations” not methodological naturalism’s “natural explanations.” Now, the supernaturalist will be as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. Let the view with the best empirical evidence prevail. Unfortunately, with Kampourakis’ purely naturalistic view, he and his fellow evolutionists are trapped in a box with only naturalistic explanations; they then must accept naturalistic evolution.  As a Christian, I am free to accept or reject evolution. Kampourakis even documents leading Christian scientists who accept evolution by quoting Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller. (p. 46)

Conclusion

Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution argues if you truly understand evolution you would come to accept it. For this to happen, he believes you just need to overcome conceptual obstacles standing in your way. I argue just the opposite; I believe if you truly understand evolution you will come to reject it. We agree though, for this to happen, you just need to overcome conceptual obstacles standing in your way.

Required Reading: Textbook Culture Wars

[Editor’s Note: I’m happy to be able to share my review of Charles Eagles’s recent book, Civil Rights: Culture Wars. It will appear in the March, 2018 edition of the Journal of American History. The editors gave us permission to reprint it here verbatim.]

What history should schools teach? Who should decide? And how? These questions have always been central to the United States’ tumultuous culture wars. With Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight over a Mississippi Textbook, Charles W. Eagles offers a valuable new exploration of one twentieth-century battle over these questions.eagles book

Eagles’ book examines the career of a controversial new state-history textbook in 1970s Mississippi. Sociologist James Loewen and historian Charles Sallis hoped their book, Mississippi: Conflict and Change, would introduce Mississippi’s ninth-graders to the kinds of history that had been widely accepted by academic historians. Instead of preaching a bland, saccharine history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil-Rights Movement, Loewen and Sallis hoped to tell the full story of Mississippi’s conflicted history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mississippi’s educational establishment balked. The new textbook was rejected by the state textbook commission as “‘unsuitable’ for classroom use” (156). Critics worried that Loewen’s and Sallis’ text harped on racial animosity. Images of a lynching, especially, caused consternation among commission members. Even one African American member of the commission believed the new textbook would remind African American students of a violent history “they want to forget” (183).

In the end, the authors had to force a federal lawsuit to have their book adopted for state use. Even with their victory in court, they found to their disappointment that not many school districts selected their book.

Eagles tells the story of the origins of the new textbook and its long struggle for adoption in admirable detail. He includes a fascinating examination of earlier history textbooks in Mississippi. By and large, those books told the story of heroic white Mississippians working tirelessly for freedom, assisted by loyal slaves and plagued by corrupt carpetbaggers.

One widely used textbook from 1930, for example, informed Mississippi schoolchildren that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant” (46) and that Reconstruction-era terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan was “a grim necessity” (47).

Eagles’ book also offers a valuable insight into the banality of culture-war bureaucracy. He details the process by which textbooks were adopted in Mississippi. More often than not, texts were not chosen for their intellectual rigor or methodological innovation, but rather for their low cost and ease of use. Members of the textbook committee recoiled at any whiff of controversy, preferring instead to select textbooks that celebrated Mississippi’s history, even the ugliest parts.mississippi conflict and change

At times, Eagles’ perspective seems too close to that of Loewen and Sallis. For example, Eagles praises the authors’ surprising ignorance about the field of secondary history education. As Eagles argued, that ignorance “actually benefitted the MHP [Mississippi History Project] by fueling their effort with an independent, even innocent, evangelical air” (99). It’s hard to believe that ignorance of the field would ever be an asset and Eagles is too willing to explain away Loewen’s and Sallis’ faults.

Despite this minor flaw, Civil Rights, Culture Wars offers a thorough, valuable description of the ways the convoluted politics of history and memory played out in 1970s Mississippi.

I Get the “Racist” Part…but Why Is It “Creationist”?

We history nerds are a-flutter. Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly got us riled up by stating that General Lee was an “honorable man” and that more “compromise” could have avoided the Civil War. To many of us, such arguments are a cruel attempt to whitewash the deep racism that fueled the war and today’s culture war over Confederate monuments. I’ve been putting in my two cents and following the debate closely. In general, I feel like I understand the various positions involved, but recent comments by one of my favorite pundits have me stumped.

Some of my friends and family generally agree with General Kelly. They don’t see why academic historians are so determined that support for heroes back then implies support for racism now. The common charge is that progressives and historians are trying to “whitewash” history by disrespecting monuments to our shared past.

To academic historians like me, it seems obvious: Most of the General Lee monuments didn’t go up right after the Civil War. They went up much later, in a blatant attempt to assert a heroic history for the slave regime of the Confederacy. They were an attempt by later white-supremacist state governments and organizations to whitewash history, to prove that the Confederates were the good guys, not really traitors after all.

The back and forth can be exhausting, but at least I feel like I (sort of) understand both positions. When Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a recent condemnation of General Kelly’s remarks, though, he flummoxed me. As Coates put it, “Regarding John Kelly’s creationist theorizing on Lee and the Civil War, its worth pointing out a few things.”

ta nahesi coates general kelly creationist tweet

…am I missing something???

As you can imagine, this is the line that stumps me. Why is Kelly’s defense of General Lee “creationist”? I agree that it’s bad history. I agree that at root it supports a white-supremacist-derived vision of American history, even if I understand that many people who agree with Kelly don’t think of themselves as racist.

But why, oh why, did Coates call this “creationist” thinking? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m fascinated with all things creationist. And I could imagine some reasons why someone would lump together Christian-history activists like David Barton with creationist activists like Ken Ham.

Is that what Coates is doing? Or do people in general just use “creationist” as an all-purpose adjective meaning “wacky” or “incorrect?” I looked over his twitter feed and I couldn’t find any explanation. Can you?

Why Are So Many People Angry about History?

Have you seen the clip yet?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, General Kelly’s pontifications about General Lee and slavery are the kinds of thing that drive academic historians bonkers.

These battles over history have a history all their own. In my book about educational conservatism, for example, I looked at the furious fight over Harold Rugg’s textbooks. Were they doing what history books were supposed to do?

In a recent piece published on History News Network, I argue for a different vocabulary to help make better sense of the deep anger that roils all around our culture-war battles over history.

Head on over to HNN to check it out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An earlier generation’s history wars…

Can Anyone Really Teach For America?

It’s personal for me. I remember being shocked and perturbed when I started teaching and realized the kinds of lives some of our students lived. It’s one thing to see it on TV; it’s another to get to know a kid who only comes to school when he feels like it because he lives in a house without any responsible adults, where there is no food but there are plenty of drugs and prostitution. Every teacher wants to help. And every good teacher realizes he or she can never help enough–the problems are so big and so overwhelming for so many kids that one great history class seems awfully meaningless in comparison.

A new memoir brings this crusty old question up one more time: How much impact can a teacher really have on students’ lives? Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo tells the story yet again. Kuo goes from Harvard to Arkansas with Teach For America. She finds herself shocked and unprepared for the conditions in which her students live.

At The Atlantic, reviewers gush. They write that Kuo manages to avoid the “every kind of awful” clichés of the teacher-as-savior genre.

Veteran teachers aren’t so smitten. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene laments the stale story. As he puts it,

only in teaching do we get this. Students who drop out of their medical internship don’t get to write memoirs hailed for genius insights into health care. Guys who once wrote an article for the local paper don’t draw plaudits for their book of wisdom about journalism and the media.   But somehow education must be repeatedly Columbusized, as some new tourist is lionized for “discovering” a land where millions of folks all live rich and fully realized lives.

Coincidentally, this week I’m asking the grad students I work with to consider this very question. Given the many structural and social inequities that create “tough” schools, how much positive influence can one teacher have on students’ lives?

As Greene points out, in every generation affluent Americans like to “discover” the “shocking” conditions in some urban schools. It’s such a cliché that the Onion can parody the predictable storyline without even breaking a sweat. In my class, I’m asking students to consider both the question itself and the way American pop culture keeps finding itself surprised to hear the same story.

We start with the movie Blackboard Jungle. In 1955, this movie shocked audiences by its depictions of gang warfare, sexual assault, and unruly teenagers. Oh, and of course rock-and-roll music, which was apparently a big thing at the time.

Of no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, in Blackboard Jungle, an earnest new teacher has some trouble with these violent and turbulent teens. Of even less surprise, he manages to forge positive relationships and get most of them to reevaluate their ideas about school and literature.

Next up: Up the Down Staircase. This 1960s memoir told the same story. In the 1967 film version, we see the earnest and affluent teacher move in to an urban high school. The students are rowdy. They are not all white. They give the teacher trouble.

After some twists—including one frank African American drop-out who explains to the naïve teacher the uselessness of school credentials in his life—the teacher manages by dint of personal awesomeness to help her students get something out of school.

Last but not least, we hear the story again in 2007’s Freedom Writers. In this version, we have an earnest and affluent teacher—wait for it—teaching in a gritty and violent urban school.

I don’t know if you need to hear the rest. It’s the same story told in twenty-first century accents. After significant struggle, by dint of extraordinary effort and personal moxie the heroic teacher manages to connect with her students. The students recognize their own potential as writers, thinkers, and voices for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these stories aren’t heroic in some sense. Most Harvard grads don’t take Kuo’s detour through Arkansas before law school. And even fewer return when things get scary. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t share the moral dilemma of these teachers.

But I still struggle to make sense of a few key questions:

  • Why do Americans keep finding themselves surprised to hear this same story?
  • Are these really “inspiring” or “hopeful” stories, when nothing has actually changed for most students?
  • What long-term impact can isolated, self-sacrificing teachers have in a hierarchical society?

History, not Faith

Why do so many white evangelicals support President Trump? Not just in a passive, least-worst, anyone-but-Hillary sort of way, but actively and even enthusiastically? Why have some white evangelical leaders become what historian John Fea calls “court evangelicals?” After all, President Trump is no one’s idea of a Christian. One recent argument ties evangelical Trumpism to faith, but not surprisingly, I think it has a lot more to do with historical imagination. For people who fantasize about a lost American “Shining City upon a Hill,” Trump’s “take-back-America” rhetoric punches important buttons.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

Over at Religion Dispatches, Eric C. Miller interviews Kurt Andersen about Andersen’s new book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve got it ordered. It sounds fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading the whole thing.

I can’t help but spout off a little, though, about some of Andersen’s arguments in this interview. Andersen describes his explanation of the odd relationship between the starchy moralists of America’s evangelical subculture and the wildly careening leadership of President Trump. Andersen makes connections between charismatic belief and Trumpism, but I think there’s a much more obvious and important explanation. Trump appeals powerfully not to anyone’s ideas about God and worship, but rather to white evangelicals’ implicit vision of American history.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but shudder at one of Andersen’s other statements. Like a lot of pundits, he makes some major goofs about the nature of creationism these days. As Andersen puts it,

Just in the last 15 years, it has become Republican orthodoxy to disbelieve in evolution and to challenge evolution instruction in the public schools. This is a uniquely American phenomenon, and it is a product of a religious tradition that, starting about a half a century ago, decided to make that stand in favor of creationism.

I added the emphasis to point out the problem. Andersen’s not alone on this point, but he is deeply wrong. Radical creationism’s political oomph is not at all uniquely American. To cite just one example, Turkey’s government has made even more aggressive moves in favor of creationism. This is not a minor error, but a major misreading of the nature of modern creationism. As I’m arguing in my current book, following in the footsteps of the great historian of creationism Ron Numbers, radical young-earth creationism is not “uniquely American,” but rather a popular and politically potent response to the dilemma of post-modern life, worldwide and across many religions.fantasyland

That’s a big intellectual problem, but it is not my major beef with Andersen’s argument this morning. No, the real question today is about the relationship between America’s politically active white evangelical Protestant community and the shoot-from-the-hip political style of President Trump. How could it happen?

For Andersen, the connection can be tied in part to one wing of evangelical belief. For charismatic Christians, Andersen explains, belief in the unbelievable is part and parcel of their culture of dissent. Here’s how Andersen made his point, with emphasis added:

[Miller]: Then I have to ask you about Donald Trump. He is now America’s Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, a position that he attained with support from 81 percent of white evangelicals. Does this research help account for that?

[Andersen]: It’s bizarre. It’s interesting, because he is not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. So why is it that our most fervently Christian fellow citizens support him so strongly? Well, as you say, our most fervently Christian white citizens. I think there is something there—it suggests that there are other reasons, cultural and economic reasons, together with the religious motivations that are driving that support.

But for my purposes, within this Fantasyland template, I think that they have some things in common beyond resentment of the elites and some of these other traits that are not necessarily connected to belief in the untrue—a lack of respect and all that. But Trump has shown a unique willingness to embrace claims that are demonstrably untrue—that Barack Obama wasn’t born here and a conspiracy covered that up; that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination; that five million illegal immigrants voted against him in the 2016 election; and on and on and on. The fact that he is so indifferent to empirical reality and so willing to stand up and embrace explanations that simply confirm his pre-existing ideas or are convenient for him because they make him seem better or his enemies worse—it’s somewhat unkind, I understand, to say that he shares that tendency with religious people, but I think that is shared.

There is no evidence that people who speak in tongues are speaking a holy language. There is no empirical evidence that faith healing works. There is no real evidence that Jesus was resurrected. I could go on. So, if believing these sorts of things as a matter of faith is central to your identity, then you might identify with a guy who is willing to take strong stands on unprovable claims. If he also shares—or pretends to share—your cultural biases and resentments, then you’re going to like him! That’s about as close as I can come to explaining this strange embrace. Certainly in terms of his lifestyle, his brutal disdain for the least among us, he is so, so unchristian. I haven’t entirely figured that out—it’s another book.

Now, I agree with a lot of what Andersen has to say. I agree that “cultural biases and resentments” are the key to understanding white evangelical Trumpism. But I disagree that we can best explain Christian Trumpism by invoking “religious motivations.”

Not that there aren’t plenty of white evangelicals who justify their Trumpism in religious language. Some leaders like to say that Trump is their modern David or Cyrus. But they wouldn’t say or even allow themselves to think that they can support Trump because they already believe in unbelievable things. I get what Andersen’s saying: If you are accustomed from your religious background to a conspiratorial or fantastic mindset you are more likely to choose and support a conspiracy-theorist president. However, it’s misleading to suggest that such religiously driven beliefs are a leading explanation for Christian Trumpism.

If it’s not mainly due to their religious beliefs, why DO so many white evangelicals actively support Trump? I think Andersen is on the right track when he talks about “cultural and economic reasons,” and “cultural biases and resentments.” As I’m arguing in my new book [have you pre-ordered your copy yet?] about evangelical higher education, a leading theme in evangelical intellectual life has been the story of evangelical exile, of being kicked out of the centers of political power. Among white American evangelicals, a unique historical vision of themselves as the true Americans has fueled a century of culture-war vitriol.

From the 1920s through today, white evangelicals have been goaded and guided by this unique sense of usurpation. Unlike other powerful religious minorities, such as American Catholics, white evangelicals tell themselves over and over again that the United States used to be solidly theirs. Unlike other religious groups—even groups that are closely connected to them by theology such as African-American evangelical Protestants—white evangelicals have been sure that they deserve to claim or reclaim their role as America’s religious voice.

In short, we can’t look to theology or faith to understand evangelical Trumpism. It’s tricky, because evangelical Trumpists will explain their decisions in the language of faith. But if we listen only to such biblical justifications, we’ll miss the far-more-important real reasons for evangelical Trumpism.

For almost a century now, white evangelicals have wanted to “take back America.” Their college campuses have been seen as both citadels and havens for an imagined real America, the kind of America from which the rest of America seemed to have strayed. When a political candidate comes along and declares his wish to “make America great again,” it resonates powerfully. Just ask Reagan.

It is this history of resentment, of a sense of historical exile, of usurpation, that best explains white evangelical Trumpism.

The Art Is In!

Thanks to the folks at Oxford, we have a terrific cover for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education. We had batted around a few other ideas about cover art, including artsy-fied excerpts from some of the student rulebooks. In the end, my editor thought those looked too busy and hard to read and I think she was right. Especially when I see this snazzy cover.Cover art final

When can you get your hands on a copy? Soon. Pre-orders are available now, and OUP promises to ship on February 1st.

Ready for Pre-Order!

I know, I know, a lot of eager readers were planning to dress up as their favorite evangelical university president and camp out at their local bookstore when the new book was released.

harry potter camp out

I’m pretty sure she’s dressed as Wheaton’s Hudson Armerding…

I’m happy to say that’s not necessary. You can put in pre-orders now for Fundamentalist U. Oxford is saying the books will ship February 1, 2018.

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