Thanksgiving, ILYBYGTH Style

Ah…Thanksgiving. The holiday that brings us together to yell at each other and watch football. How can one Thursday fire up so much culture-war angst? How can it help explain both Rush Limbaugh and creationism?

simpsonsturkey

This year, as your humble editor prepares to head to an undisclosed location somewhere in upstate NY to avoid any hint of culture-war histrionics, we stumbled across the ILYBYGTH Thanksgiving archives. Check out some of the ghosts of ILYBYGTH Thanksgivings past:

First, how does Thanksgiving help us understand the way schools really work? For everything from sex ed to evolution, Thanksgiving dinners can serve as metaphors for the real reasons why it is so hard to get schools to dive into controversial issues.

Second, were the Pilgrims really communists? And why do conservative pundits say they were? It seems to me conservatives would want to defend the tradition of friendly buckle-wearing Pilgrims.

Next, how does Thanksgiving play a role in climate-change culture wars? Some advice from the folks at National Center for Science Education.

Finally, some bad Thanksgiving advice on how to outsmart your crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncles.

The OTHER Myth about Evangelical History

Thanks to leading historian Matthew Avery Sutton, we see a reminder this morning that Trump is nothing new. Conservative evangelicals have always backed morally besmirched leaders. The idea that evangelical voters previously preferred “clean” candidates joins the myth that evangelicals retreated from politics in the twentieth century. It’s just not true. Weirdest of all, though, white evangelicals have long tended to pretend—maybe even believing it themselves—that their immoral candidates somehow personally embody Christian virtue. Why?

saint-donald1

St. Donald the Orange?

Professor Sutton, author of field-defining books such as American Apocalypse and now Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States during the Second World War, points out that conservative evangelicals have a long history of supporting Trumpish crooks. Back in the 1920s, for example, prominent institutions like the Moody Bible Institute gave cigar-puffing, booze-swilling, corrupt wheeler-dealer Warren Harding their full-throated support. As Prof. Sutton relates,

The editors of the leading fundamentalist periodical Moody Monthly routinely praised Harding for his leadership. “We are thankful just now for a Federal administration,” they acknowledged, “which seems honestly disposed to do its best for the nation.” They insisted that “it is generally admitted that the President has gathered around him an efficient cabinet with a genius for team work.”

Conservative evangelical support for the train-wreck presidency of Warren Harding was not the exception. As Prof. Sutton writes, conservative evangelicals also picked divorced actor Ronald Reagan over Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter in 1980. They ignored Eisenhower’s meh attitude toward organized religion. Support for Trump among white evangelicals is just more of the same. As Prof. Sutton concludes,

Fundamentalists in the 1920s separated Harding’s personal morality from his pro-fundamentalist policies. Evangelicals in the Trump era do the same. If politicians champion white evangelicals’ proposals on immigration, foreign policy and religion in the public square, they are willing to forgive many, many personal sins. And when Trump’s nonvirtuous behavior serves their political goals by boosting his political power — for example, by accepting election interference from the Russians or by allegedly trying to pressure the Ukrainian president by withholding aid — they may see these acts as advancing a virtuous cause.

And evangelical support for dodgy politicians is often more than merely a pragmatic political decision. As Professor Sutton reminds us, white evangelicals have talked about their support for moral monsters in odd terms. As some evangelical leaders are doing these days with Trump, evangelicals have tended to lavish praise on their chosen political leaders, as when they hailed President Harding as “the Christian president,” or as “‘an earnest Christian man’ who ‘in all his speeches … advocated a return to the Bible and to Bible righteousness.'”

Support for Trump among white evangelicals is not an exception. It is the rule—white evangelicals have always done more than just hold their noses and vote for candidates based on hard-nosed policy considerations. In every case, some evangelicals will pretend to themselves that their candidates are actually good Christians.

Can anyone explain that one to me?

Do People Actually Listen to Academic Books?

The numbers seem pretty clear, but I still have a hard time believing it. Based on the Amazon.com reports, the audio version of Fundamentalist U is its most popular format.Fundy u new audible screen shot_LIMaybe I’m just an old out-of-touch codger, but I’m surprised. I can understand why someone would want to listen to an exciting novel, but do people really listen for twelve hours to a book about the history of evangelical higher ed in the USA?

Maybe it’s a quirk of the Amazon ranking system. Perhaps there are not as many Audible books to choose from, so the ranking of the audio format of this book looks a lot higher than the ranking of the hard-copy format.

Even if so, my question remains. I’m not saying Fundamentalist U isn’t a good enough book and all, but I can’t imagine listening to ANY academic history. Am I out of step? Are the kids these days really listening to academic titles along with their podcasts and tik toks and whatnot?

Badger Bound!

When conservative activists have won their battles about public education, how have they won? I’m excited to make my case next Monday at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

bucky badger

Thanks, Bucky. It’s great to be back!

Thanks to an invitation from my grad-school mentor William J. Reese, I’ll be traveling to sunny Madison, Wisconsin this week to talk about the history of conservatism and American education. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that I explored this history in my second book, The Other School Reformers (Harvard University Press, 2015).

In that book, I wondered what it has meant to be conservative about education in these United States. It’s not as simple a question as it seems. Some conservatives want one thing, others want another. Most people–whether they consider themselves conservative or not–don’t have crystal-clear ideas about what they want out of schools.

In my talk next week, I’ll share some of that research, but I’ll also expand it to include my more recent findings. In short, I think that conservatives have won NOT by proving their case for conservative values and ideas, but rather by doing something else.

What’s the “something else?” Well, you’ll just have to come to Wisconsin on Monday to find out. Good seats still available: Monday, October 14, 12:00, Education Building room 245.

madison talk flyer

Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

What Does “Evangelical” Mean?

This is why we can’t agree on much. Historians and other scholars of American evangelicalism have always had a difficult time agreeing on the simple fact of what it means to be an evangelical. In Alan Jacobs’ recent review of Thomas Kidd’s new book, we get a glimpse of the problem. As Jacobs describes,kidd who is an evangelical

here’s the definition that Kidd offers in his new book: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” It would be difficult to do much better in a single sentence.

Except…I think it would be easy to do better. If we really want to understand evangelicalism, we can’t start with this kind of religion-centered definition.

Here’s my version:

evangelicals are people who grew up in homes that considered themselves evangelical and didn’t publicly ditch the label, plus a few people—whatever family they grew up in—who made soul-searching decisions to become born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The Mess at Liberty U: Historians’ Perspectives

Even given everyone’s low expectations, the recent expose of Liberty University’s flim-flamming seems shocking. Alumnus Brandon Ambrosino accused Liberty of being a straight-up scam, not just a well-meaning Christian college with a few fundamentalist foibles. What have historians had to say about it?

LU sign on mountain

Go tell it on the mountain…

In case you’re the one person who hasn’t yet read Ambrosino’s piece, it includes “insider” rips like the following:

“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

What have historians of evangelicalism had to say?

Over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea of Messiah College warns that these scandals are nothing new in the world of fundamentalist empire-building. Nor do they tend to tarnish the power and influence of leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. As Dr. Fea concludes,

I imagine that many students and alumni at Liberty will see Falwell Jr. and Liberty as victims of the liberal media and other forces trying to undermine evangelical Christianity, religious freedom, and Christian nationalism in America. Liberty will remain a safe place for these parents and students.

At Righting America, William Trollinger of the University of Dayton compares the Falwell of today with the founder of American fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Dr. Trollinger points out that Falwell’s institution is not all that unusual. As Dr. Trollinger puts it,

it is important to keep in mind that Falwell is not an anomaly. In fact, for the past century it has been a feature of fundamentalist institutions – colleges, churches (particularly megachurches), apologetics organizations, and the like – to be run by a male autocrat who holds almost total sway over his fiefdom.

For William Bell Riley in the 1930s, like Jerry Falwell Jr. today,

there were no checks on the Great Fundamentalist Leader. He said what he wanted, did what he wanted, and there was no one there who could stop him, no one who would dare challenge him. There was, for example, no one to suggest that his behind-the-scenes scheming to take control of the Minnesota Baptist Convention was unseemly and unethical.

My research into evangelical higher education has led me to similar conclusions. In Fundamentalist U, I argued that the tendency toward autocracy and eventual corruption was not a bug, but a feature of a theologically vague interdenominational fundamentalist movement. It didn’t happen at all schools, but in places like Bob Jones University and Liberty University, the answer to the dilemma of fundamentalist authority was to invest all power in a single domineering leader.

As I argued recently in these pages, back in the 1930s Bob Jones Sr. pioneered Falwell’s brand of autocratic fundamentalist leadership. At Bob Jones College,

All faculty members were required to agree with every jot and tittle of Jones’s beliefs. . . . It might never have been crystal clear what “fundamentalism” meant, but at Bob Jones College (later Bob Jones University), it always meant whatever the leader said it meant. Any disagreement, any “griping,” meant a fast ticket out the door, with a furious gossip campaign among the fundamentalist community to discredit the fired faculty member.

Are the recent revelations about Liberty sad? Yes. Dismaying? Yes. Surprising? Not to anyone who is familiar with Liberty U and the history of American fundamentalism.

The Myth About Evangelical Politics Just Won’t Die

Big-name pundits such as Newt Gingrich and Kevin Kruse are battling about one historical myth. Meanwhile, in a quieter corner, there’s another myth that just won’t go away. Among historians, there is no doubt that conservative evangelicals never really retreated from politics. As one evangelical writer just demonstrated, however, that historical fact hasn’t sunk very deep roots yet. What’s it gonna take for people to stop saying that evangelicals retreated from politics between the 1920s and the 1970s?

Gods own party

Evangelicals have ALWAYS been political…

First, the history. Let’s start with Daniel K. Williams’ work, God’s Own Party. In this terrific book, Prof. Williams demonstrates that conservative evangelicals did not retreat from politics in the 1920s only to re-emerge with the Moral Majority in the 1970s. That was a convenient story for evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., who could claim to be a reluctant politico. It just wasn’t true. As Williams concludes,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Avery Sutton argued in American Apocalypse that the “rise-fall-rebirth” myth of evangelical politics doesn’t match reality. As Prof. Sutton wrote, the fundamentalists’

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

For what it’s worth, I made a similar case in Fundamentalist U. Ever since the 1920s, fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical intellectuals remained closely involved with politics, keenly interested in protecting their rights to radio airtime, leading anti-communism rallies and networks, and allying with secular conservatives to fight in the political arena against a variety of foes, including racial integration.

SuttonJust as the furor over the recent 1619 Project demonstrated that we can have vast discrepancies between well-established historical truths and widely held popular opinions about history, so this non-controversial historical truth about evangelical politics seems to be limited mainly to academic circles.

The latest case in point: In a recent article in Christianity Today about Classical Christian schools, Louis Markos repeated the old, false myth about evangelical politics without a blush. As Markos put it,

In the wake of the fundamentalist reaction against modernism and especially Darwinism, conservative evangelicals tended to withdraw from society. If they did engage society directly (e.g., the temperance movement), it was likely to be critical—asserting what they were against, rather than what they were for.

As the universities, the media, and politics absorbed more and more of the modernist world­view, evangelicals withdrew even further, circling the wagons as a means of protecting their children from a society cut off from its Christian roots. Rather than seeking to be salt and light, they embraced a more Old Testament ethos and sought to separate themselves from the unbelievers around them (Ezra 10:11).

This ethos manifested itself in a Bible-only approach to learning that cast suspicion on non-biblical sources of wisdom.

…really? Politics aside, a description of mid-century evangelical higher education as a “Bible-only approach to learning” would come as a nasty surprise to twentieth-century fundamentalist scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Gordon Clark, not to mention hundreds of less-famous evangelical teachers of the period. Clark, in particular, was famous at Wheaton College in Illinois for teaching classical philosophy. With his Ivy-League doctorate, Clark helped launch the careers of many well-known evangelical scholars, including Edward Carnell, Carl Henry, Paul Jewett, and Harold Lindsell. And Prof. Clark did it by challenging the comfortable assumptions of his students, having them read and debate anti-Christian and pre-Christian philosophy. To be sure, Clark’s approach was controversial at the time, but it was anything but a “Bible-only approach to learning.”

Or consider the final exam from Harold Lindsell’s class at Fuller Seminary in 1961. Students who enrolled in Lindsell’s “Critique of Communism” course confronted the following final exam:

Select any FIVE of the following and write a short and concise statement of what each term means:

  1. Democratic centralism
  2. Socialism in one country
  3. Class struggle
  4. Surplus value
  5. Imperialism
  6. State socialism
  7. Utopian socialism

SELECT ANY THREE OF THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS AND WRITE AN ESSAY ON EACH ONE OF THEM.

  • Analyze the concept of DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM, showing what its ideas and components consist in and how it is related to the Weltanschauung of Communism.
  • Describe the unique contribution made to Communism by Lenin.
  • Discuss in detail the Communist system of ethics and indicate how this ethical system operates in actual practice at home and abroad.
  • Construct your own plan of action as an answer to Communism and show what specific steops you would take in order to meet this danger.
  • Analyze the ways in which the views of Marx and Engels have proved to be wrong and state what changes have been made since then to modify their original theories.

Does this sound like a course at a school that had withdrawn from politics? That taught students only the Bible? That was “withdraw[n] from society”? Quite the contrary, and Lindsell’s course was only unusual in that he retained all the papers—including the final exams—in his voluminous files for later historians like me to uncover.

Yet intelligent, informed writers like Markos still default to the old “retreat” story without hesitation. Why? We know—or we have a good guess—why some political conservatives resist the lessons of the 1619 Project so vociferously. But why do smart evangelicals these days embrace this myth of evangelical politics so consistently? And why cling to it when it has been rejected so completely by historians?

The Ink Is Dry!

For all you secular people out there: Have you ever wondered why so many religious people seem determined to make themselves look as stupid as they possibly can? And for the Christians: Tired of people assuming that you hate science? If so, my new book is just for you. I’m happy to announce that I’ve signed a contract for my new book about American creationism and evolution. Jesus and the Dinosaurs: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution will be published soonish with Oxford University Press.

Jesus on a dinosaur.jpg 1

Why???

Why another book about creationism? A bunch of years ago, my sister-in-law asked me why so many Americans believed in outlandish things, such as a 6,004-year-old planet, and a real, literal, even-though-it-is-absolutely-impossible worldwide flood. As she put it back then, “Why do they keep putting Jesus on a dinosaur?”

This book is my way-too-long answer to her question. I argue that secular people like me and my sister-in-law tend to misunderstand creationism. We tend to think that most creationists hold fairly radical views about religion and science. We tend to think that tons of our fellow Americans–up to 40% if we believe the new Gallup numbers–think that God created our species recently in Iraq.

In my new book, I’m arguing that we Americans have always had the wrong arguments about evolution and creationism. In fact, when it comes right down to it, the crux of our arguments have not really been about evolutionary science at all. Rather, the idea of evolution has been smushed into a contorted shape; “Evolution” has become an ill-fitting stand-in for all kinds of modern and post-modern cultural norms.

gallup creationism 2019

…can this really be true? Can this many Americans really believe in a radical creationist idea?

When radical creationists like Ken Ham and Henry Morris fume and fret about evolution, they are fighting about something much bigger. Yes, they dislike evolutionary ideas. Those ideas, however, are only the canary in the devil’s coalmine. The real dangers–from their perspective–come from a spiritual attitude that spurns God’s authority, that questions gender roles and sexuality, that allows abortion rights and encourages religious skepticism.

aig dangerous public school bus

Answers In Genesis, “One Generation Away,” 2015

As Ken Ham’s organization loves to point out, thinking in evolutionary terms is not necessarily dangerous in itself, but it is very dangerous in its spiritual implications, especially for innocent young minds. Once people believe in a long evolutionary history, Ham warns, they will be open to changing their ideas about sexuality and morality. The public-school bus, Answers In Genesis warns, takes kids down the road to environmentalism, abortion rights, and LBGTQ rights.

So when the radical fringe of young-earth creationism warns about the dangers of evolutionary thinking, they’re not actually angry about evolution itself. Indeed, as I found in the research for my book about evangelical higher education, conservative-evangelical colleges –even including the uber-conservative ones that Ken Ham calls “Creation Colleges” –teach evolutionary theory to their students. They just do it in their own way.

More than that, once we really understand American creationism, we understand that radical young-earth creationists are not typical creationists. When it comes right down to it, most Americans are creationists of one sort or another. Most religious people embrace some vague idea that God (or gods) had a role in creating life. But for most people, that doesn’t mean that we don’t want our children to learn the best modern science. Most Americans are creationists, in other words, and most creationists want their children to learn evolutionary theory.

So why do we keep fighting about evolution? In the new book, I’m making the case that “Evolution” stopped being about evolutionary science a long time ago. When we fight about “Evolution,” we’re not fighting about evolutionary science. We’re fighting about LGBTQ rights, and abortion, and the proper role of evangelical Christianity in our government.

Will my lil book stop all these fights? Course not. But it can’t hurt to clarify the real terms of our culture-war disagreements and stop shouting uselessly across our culture-war trenches.

Fundamentalist U Review

It is nerve-wracking waiting to hear what the experts have to say. The latest academic review of Fundamentalist U is in and I’ll be taking the rest of the day off to celebrate.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

The experts weigh in…

Tim Gloege was the reviewer. Dr. Gloege is author of the terrific book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism. He knows all there is to know about the history of evangelicalism and evangelical higher education. Naturally, I was dying to hear what he had to say about Fundamentalist U.

The good news: Not only did he conclude that Fundamentalist U is “essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern evangelicalism,” he claimed that the book succeeded in making three contributions to the history of American evangelicalism. Namely,

Fundamentalist U . . . challenges three persistent myths that have also been targets of the new evangelical historiography. First, it demonstrates evangelical “orthodoxy” was an aspiration, a dream—and a fleeting one at that. . . . Second, Fundamentalist U challenges the myth of fundamentalist “withdrawal from culture” between 1920 and 1970. . . .Finally, Laats demonstrates the utility of defining evangelicalism as a social network anchored by educational institutions. . . . Fundamentalist higher education may be an oxymoron to many outsiders, but Laats has convincingly demonstrated it has been central to American evangelicalism.”

Thank you, Dr. Gloege, for this generous and meaty review! Almost makes me want to read the book.