The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

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 Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

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

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

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Love Letters from Unexpected Quarters

There aren’t a lot of heroes in Julie Schumacher’s new novel. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered Schumacher’s surprising exception. It wasn’t really the main character, a crusty and cynical novelist and chair of the English Department. It wasn’t even the out-of-touch Shakespeare scholar who insisted on keeping the liberal arts in a liberal arts college. No, the only character that came out as truly sympathetic didn’t come out of the world of elite higher ed but rather from the closed-off world of evangelical home schooling. And it leads us to a bigger question: Do the conservative skeptics have more allies in mainstream higher-ed than they realize?

shakespeare requirement

We’re (almost) all adrift…

I don’t want to give away too much of Schumacher’s plot, so I’ll tell my own story instead. When I first took my current job, a friend in the English Department of the high school at which I worked gave me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

“Read it,” my friend said. “You’ll need it.”

Straight Man was my introduction to the field of higher-ed satire. In the novel, a bumbling hero fights to keep college less insane. As the imagined traditions of liberal-arts education crumple in the face of careerism, credentialism, and ruthless bottom lines, Russo’s straight man can only offer ridiculousness in protest.

More recently, one of my current colleagues recommended Schumacher’s fantastic higher-ed satire, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher offered a witheringly on-point send-up of today’s higher-ed scene, with embittered English professor Jay Fitger revealing through a series of recommendation letters his dwindling influence at Payne University. Hilarious and bitterly accurate.

So it was with a lot of eagerness that I finally got my hands on The Shakespeare Requirement. In this novel, Jay Fitger is back, and Payne University is still wallowing in the unenviable position of a small liberal-arts college. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around an attempt to bring the school—and its wacky English Department—into the contemporary world of mainstream higher education.

External funding rules the campus, and notions such as knowledge for knowledge’s sake are out the window. Under pressure, the English Department eliminates its requirement of a Shakespeare class for all English majors. Antics ensue.

All told, I’m pretty disappointed by the novel. It does not capture the wit and weariness that made Dear Committee Members so good. But it does include a curious celebration. Few of the characters or types come off well in the novel. Students are lazy and selfish. Professors are either grasping or clueless. The administration is, at best, pathetic.

Given the bleak landscape, I was surprised to find Schumacher’s ray of hope. One character shines. Angela Vackrey is a freshman, from a family that didn’t want her to come to Payne. She had been homeschooled in a rigorously conservative evangelical household. Angela wanted to find out more about the world than

The pile of paperbound workbooks (Broad Horizon: A Christian’s Historical Perspective) next to the chicken-and-egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the maple table where she had completed her schoolwork at home.

Angela is not at all typical of Payne students. For one thing, Schumacher tells us, she still dresses as if she were at church:

Unlike most of the young women in the room, who dressed as if stopping by class on their way to a nightclub, she wore a homely denim skirt and white buttoned blouse.

Also unlike most Payne students, Angela takes her school work seriously. As Professor Fitger discovered, Angela’s writing

Evinced a startling ability to think clearly, express original ideas, and write.

At Payne University, in any case, such abilities make Angela stand out. Her modesty, temperance, and hard work are a stark and startling contrast to the rest of the student body, and even to the debauched faculty.

Indeed, if this novel were to some from some of the usual conservative suspects—higher-ed critics such as Rod Dreher or Peter Wood—it wouldn’t be very interesting at all. But as far as I can tell, Professor Schumacher is no conservative. The yearnings of her characters are not for a purer, Christian society. Rather, Jay Fitger is utterly adrift, and at times, sympathetically so.

In the end, The Shakespeare Requirement is, like Professor Fitger, rudderless. Yet even from that position of cynical drift, Schumacher seems to yearn for a better world, one that can only be maintained by fundamentalist strictures that no one can abide.

I Am Out of Whack

I’m absolutely flummoxed. New poll numbers reported in The Economist make me wonder how I got so out of whack with what most people are thinking. Am I missing something?metoo backlash economist

Here’s what we know: According to The Economist,

this year-long storm of allegations, confessions and firings has actually made Americans more sceptical [sic–wacky Brits] about sexual harassment.

With only one categorical exception, it appears the respondents in the Economist poll tend to feel more suspicious today about women who complain about sexual harassment than they did last year. Only Clinton voters, that is, are more likely today to think that twenty-year-old harassment accusations are worth acting upon. And even those Clinton voters are more likely now to think that false accusations are a bigger problem than unreported assaults, and that women’s complaints cause more problems than they solve.

Can I really be this out of touch with majority opinion? In my imagination, at least, the last year has provided a public coming-to-terms with the dangers and demons of sexual harassment. It has forced all of us to reckon with old demons of frat-boy antics and glib sexual aggression.

But unless I’m reading this wrong, my sense of how my fellow Americans are feeling is not even close to reality. Can someone please explain this to me?

1.) How is it possible that more people are more suspicious of women’s accusations than of men’s aggressive actions? And

2.) What was it in the past year that made people feel this way?

Admissions of Guilt

I don’t know anything about the Harvard lawsuit. But there is no doubt that America’s elite universities have a long tradition of elaborate systems of admissions meant to keep out certain categories of student. For a century now, schools like Harvard have scrambled to set up ways to eliminate academically talented students who didn’t fit the Ivy-League mold.

geiger

Non-WASPs need not apply…

Here’s what we know: As Politico reports, the Harvard lawsuit has been dragging on. The school is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Based on test scores and other numerical data, it appears that Asian-Americans have a higher bar for admissions.

Harvard’s chief admissions officer has made some embarrassing admissions (pun intended. Sorry.) It’s no big surprise to anyone, but students from families of big donors tend to get a better chance. One applicant was added to a list mainly because of input from the fundraising department. As that department chair wrote to the admissions chief in an email, the donor

“has already committed to a building” and “committed major money for fellowships … before the decision from you!) and all are likely to be prominent in the future. Most importantly, I think all of these will be superb additions to the class.”

It’s not only big bucks that give some students preferential treatment. The litigants accuse Harvard of harboring social prejudice against Asian-Americans. Even with great test scores and stellar applications, some students were given poor scores after personal interviews, in which alumni rated the applicants as less likeable. Allegedly.

As historian Roger Geiger has shown, this sort of social scale has always weighed heavily in elite college admissions. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did not start holding competitive admissions processes until the 1920s.

Back then, the schools struggled to find a way to admit desirable students and a fair-sounding way to exclude the undesirables. Back then, according to Prof. Geiger, most of the undesirables were brilliant, hard-working Jewish students. At the time, these Jewish students were derided as “grinds,” students who worked too hard and didn’t fit it with the genteel college culture of the day.

At Princeton, admissions officers in the 1920s had an official social scale. Any student—based purely on their family background and the accompanying personalities—was graded on a four-point scale. The “ones” were automatic admits. Even without looking at messy data such as high-school transcripts, those students from elite families were in. At the other end, students from working-class or non-WASP backgrounds were likely to be branded a “four.” They were automatically barred without any consideration of their academic merit.

Maybe the ugliest example of this genteel anti-Semitic tradition was at Yale. Yale worked closely with the Scholastic Aptitude Test to derive an evaluation that was tightly linked to the curriculum at a few elite prep schools. Students from those schools would do well and earn admission. Students from other schools wouldn’t, no matter how talented or hard-working.

This system allowed Yale to claim an objective, numeric measure for rejecting Jewish applicants, without making the Yalies seem prejudiced or biased.

Are things any different today? The Asian-American plaintiffs say no. They say Harvard is trying to limit the numbers of Asian-American students and using biased, prejudicial standards to do so. I have no idea if they’re right, but elite schools certainly have a long history of doing exactly that.

Penn Puzzles

Can anyone REALLY teach students how to know and understand something without believing it? That’s one of the questions that sharp students brought up yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania.penn gse logo better

Some context: I headed down to Philadelphia yesterday to talk about evolution, creationism, and the goals of public education. My friend and hero Jon Zimmerman had asked his class to read Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

As usual, readers were generally more interested in the philosophical arguments of my co-author Harvey Siegel than with my historical chapters about evolution education. Is it really possible, students wondered, to teach students to know evolutionary theory in a deep way, to understand it, without insisting that they believe it?

Harvey and I make the case that it is, but as yesterday’s lively seminar proved, it is a difficult distinction to imagine in many cases.

For example, think about the reverse. What if a public-school history teacher wanted to teach students that American history should be understood as the triumph of “JudeoChristian” values? What if the teacher assured secular parents that he was not trying to force students to “believe” in any particular religious values, but only to “know” and “understand” the importance of Christianity in the forming of United States government and society?

Or consider the challenge for any person—especially a young person—of separating out her desire to please an authority figure from her personal religious beliefs. Is it really practical to tell teachers that they don’t want to influence students’ religious beliefs? That teachers should somehow be able to separate out such closely related concepts?

Most challenging, we considered yesterday other sorts of student belief that teachers DID want to challenge. What if a student in history class, for example, argued that her racist beliefs were acceptable, because they were her personal beliefs? Could a teacher really not challenge them?

I think a teacher not only can, but must. And I think a teacher can do that without therefore insisting that he must challenge every student belief with which he disagrees. As Harvey and I argued in TECN, and as I’m elaborating in my new book about creationism, even though such real-world challenges are intense, it is still vital to clarify our goals and our mission when it comes to creationism and evolution education.

But What Do Conservative Students Think?

The headline caught my eye, but the actual survey sidestepped the main question. From what I can tell, we still don’t know the most important data of all.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students doing their thing…

At Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich followed up on the political poopstorm that enveloped the University of Nebraska recently. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the story. A conservative student activist felt berated by a progressive grad student and faculty member. The story caught the imagination of both local conservative politicians and the national culture-war paparazzi. The university was called to political account. Did they mistreat and abuse conservative students?

Apparently, as part of the process, the university teamed up with Gallup to conduct a campus climate survey. They wanted to know if students, faculty, staff, and alumni valued free speech. They wanted to know if conservatives felt free to speak their minds on campus. From what I can tell, however, it seems like they avoided the main question.

gallup u nebraska

Conservative students SHOULD feel free to talk…but DO they?

Most respondents thought that liberals were definitely able to “freely and openly express their views.” A large majority—though not quite so large as for liberals—thought that conservatives were too.

Maybe I’m reading the results wrong, but from what I can tell the survey avoided the main point. It asked respondents to identify as students, staff, faculty, or alumni. It asked respondents to identify by race, gender, and sexuality. But it didn’t ask students to identify by ideology. In other words, we might know how 4,403 student respondents felt, but we have no idea how conservative students felt, compared to liberal students.

To my mind, the survey missed the main point. We don’t only want to know how ALL students thought conservative students should feel. We really want to know how the conservative students themselves felt, and, importantly, if there was a meaningful distinction between how conservative students felt and how other students thought conservative students felt.

In other words, I’m not interested in what the campus as a whole thinks about conservative students. I want to find out what conservative students themselves think.

Why School Reform Flounders

How can we make something better if we can’t agree what something is? In The New Yorker, Jill Jepore offers a review essay that raises a key question: Is Education a Fundamental Right? It’s an important question, but it sidesteps an even more fundamental problem: What IS education in the first place? If we can’t agree on that—and we can’t—we won’t be able to make progress toward improving schools.

As brainy observers such as Larry Cuban and Peter Greene have reminded us recently, when we can’t agree on the fundamental goals of education, we won’t be able to formulate sensible plans to improve it.

Prof. Lepore offers an insightful review of Justin Driver’s The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind. Driver examines the key SCOTUS case of Plyler v. Doe, in which undocumented migrants sued for the right to send their kids to public schools.

The case raised difficult questions: Can education be considered a fundamental right? Do undocumented Americans have a right to send their kids to public schools, the way they have the right to fire protection if their house is ablaze?

As historians like Prof. Cuban have long pointed out, the question of whether or not education is a basic right needs to take its place in line with all the other fundamental questions about education. Is it a right? Is it a public utility? Is it a tool of class domination?

In every tough case, these multiple visions of the basic goals of education bump uncomfortably along together. Partisans of various political agendas and reform proposals usually insist on one or more definition of the fundamental purpose of education, even though they almost never notice that they are doing so.

The Plyler v. Doe case was no exception. As Prof. Lepore’s review demonstrates, leading voices in that case relied on different unexamined assumptions about the true nature of American education. Consider the following excerpts:

Education is a Right:

Prof. Lepore asks,

Is education a fundamental right? The Constitution, drafted in the summer of 1787, does not mention a right to education, but the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress that same summer, held that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” By 1868 the constitutions of twenty-eight of the thirty-two states in the Union had provided for free public education, open to all. Texas, in its 1869 constitution, provided for free public schooling for “all the inhabitants of this State,” a provision that was revised to exclude undocumented immigrants only in 1975.

Education is a Public Good:

During the Plyler hearings,

Witnesses presented testimony about economies: educating these children cost the state money, particularly because they needed special English-language instruction, but not educating these children would be costly, too, in the long term, when they became legal residents but, uneducated, would be able to contribute very little to the tax base.

Education is An American tradition:

As one lawyer in the Plyler case put it,

An educated populace is the basis of our democratic institutions. . . .  A denial of educational opportunities is repugnant to our notions that an informed and educated citizenry is necessary to our society.

Education is A vehicle for fixing social inequities:

In a related recent case, Lepore writes,

the Detroit plaintiffs . . . identified the absolute denial of education as a violation of the equal-protection clause, and ruled that no state can “deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders.” Dismissed by a district court in June, the case is now headed to the Sixth Circuit on appeal.

Education is An imposition on non-White/non-middle class children:

Lepore notes,

If the schoolhouse is a mini-state, it has also become, in many places, a military state.

Education is A public utility:

She records this interchange during the Plyler hearings:

Marshall: Could Texas deny them fire protection?

Hardy: Deny them fire protection?

Marshall: Yes, sir. F-i-r-e.

Hardy: Okay. If their home is on fire, their home is going to be protected with the local fire services just—

Marshall: Could Texas pass a law and say they cannot be protected?

Hardy: —I don’t believe so.

Marshall: Why not? If they could do this, why couldn’t they do that?

Hardy: Because . . . I am going to take the position that it is an entitlement of the . . . Justice Marshall, let me think a second. You . . . that is . . . I don’t know. That’s a tough question.

Marshall: Somebody’s house is more important than his child?

Who is correct? They all are. Education is a right, a public good, a public utility, a means for economic advancement, a tool of class domination . . . all at the same time.

With all these unrecognized assumptions about the basic nature of education, it is hardly surprising that improving education has remained such a chimera. Even regarding a SCOTUS case explicitly dedicated to figuring out if education is a right, lawyers, activists, and historians all appealed unreflectively to all the other fundamental goals of education as well. And, of course, there are many others we could add to the list. Depending on whom you ask and on the case at hand, the basic nature of American education can and has been defined as all of the following:

  • A private matter;
  • A religious affair;
  • A consumer product;
  • A national security imperative…
  • And many more.

Is education a fundamental right? Yes. Is it also all those other things? Also yes. Whenever Americans have a disagreement about the goals of education, they pull from this bubbling cauldron of conflicting and confusing fundamental goals to make their cases. And none of them are wrong.

In the end, they point to the reason why it is so difficult to fix schools. Not only is it difficult to tell what is broken; it is difficult even to find out what schools should do if they were fixed.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

Tinder and the Death of God

Where did YOU meet your spouse? If you’re as old as I am, you likely met them through friends, or at work, or out and about. If you’re much younger, chances are increasing that you met online. A recent survey in The Economist has me wondering if the popularity and success of online dating has something to do with the slo-motion secularization of society.meet market

Here’s what we know: Apps like Tinder have become the norm for dating. So while a significant proportion of married couples used to meet at church, that number has dwindled to nearly zero in recent years. I can’t help thinking that couples who met in church might be more likely to remain in that church and raise their kids in that church.

If fewer and fewer couples—both same-sex and hetero—are meeting in church, does that bode ill for religious affiliations? Are couples who meet on line less likely to have a strong affiliation with a church, or with organized religion as a whole?

Liberty U Continues the Ugly Tradition…

The story has leaked out already, but WORLD put it all together, with some depth. Student editors and reporters at Liberty’s student newspaper told their tale of administration bullying and Trumpish power-grabs. I’m sorry to say that such administrative antics are not unusual for student newspapers in evangelical higher education.

liberty6

…all the news that fits [the Falwells’ vision]…

If you haven’t seen WORLD‘s story yet, it’s worth your time. Liberty’s hatchet man was Bruce Kirk. Kirk upbraided the student editors for trying to act like real journalists. After students tried to publish news of the controversial Red-Letter Revival last year, Kirk warned them that the student newspaper ought only to make the university look good. According to WORLD, Kirk told the students,

in the real world, which this isn’t, let’s just be honest, right? … You will be beholden to an organization, to a company. … That is just part of life. And it’s part of life for all of us by the way. Put journalism aside for a second. Do I get to do everything that I want to do or does Jerry dictate what I get to do? … Somebody else decides what you do and what you don’t say or do.

When student editor Erin Covey asked a question, Kirk tried hard to shut her down. Liberty University, Kirk told her, is not all that different from any other “family business.” Kirk went on,

it’s a family business, it is. I mean, Jerry Falwell and his dad Jerry before him and that’s how this university was founded, right? It wasn’t founded by somebody else. It was founded by the Falwells. . . . It’s their paper. They can do what they want. … If things aren’t followed, they’ll get stricter.

And get stricter they did. According to WORLD, student editors soon found themselves out of a job.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m no evangelical myself, nor did I attend an evangelical college. As I found in the research for my recent book, however, the recent goings-on at Liberty are not very far from the traditional norm. As I’ve pointed out in the book and in these pages, censorship has always been part and parcel of the student and faculty experience at evangelical institutions.

It might not be polite to point out, but I think it’s true: speaking historically, there can’t be any sort of free speech crisis at evangelical colleges. I hate to quote myself, but this is how I put it earlier, and I stand by it:

Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.