Nailing Jello to the Wall…Again

Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?

These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.

It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.

Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.

Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.

Sutton

What is fundamentalism? “Radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”

In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.

These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.

Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.

George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.

Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.

Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.

Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.

pietsch disp moder

Nothing old…

At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.

I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.

If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:

  • What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
  • What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
  • What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.

It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.

We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.

We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist.  Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.

In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.

See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What did you miss last week?  Here are a few stories that might be of interest…

The tradition continues: The entire faculty senate at Gordon College resigned suddenly this week. HT: JF

All you college teachers out there: Dan Willingham reviews two new studies about students who use laptops during lectures.  Dell won’t be happy.

READING woman apple

Words, words, words…

Senator Bernie Sanders introduces his free college-tuition plan. He doesn’t think it will pass, but that’s not the point.

Will privatization school reformers repeat the mistakes of the GOP health-care flop? Andrew Rotherham makes the case.

Why are some free-marketeers nervous about Betsy DeVos? They want more charters and more choices, too, but they think her plans to get them might backfire.

Hersh? Ze? They! Grammar nerds decide we can use “they” and “them” instead of “he or she” and “him and her.” As in “everybody has their opinion,” instead of “everybody has his or her opinion.”

Evangelical Christians have always had a complicated relationship to nationalism and patriotism.  Is America a “Christian nation?” Has God been “kicked out?”  Is Trump’s appeal to Christian nationalism anything new?  For a great set of academic articles considering these tough questions, check out the new volume of Religions, edited by the inestimable Mark Edwards.

 

Inside the Belly of the Beast

Why would they do it?

Why would a group of college students physically attack a professor in order to show their disapproval of an invited speaker?

Why would students demand the resignation of a professor because his wife told them to relax about the politics of Halloween costumes?

These reactions seem extreme and mind-boggling. If we want to make sense of the new wave of repressive student activism on college campuses, we need to start with two not-so-obvious facts:

  1. Only a few college students actually behave this way—and there’s a pattern to it.
  2. There’s a long history to this sort of thing.

So, first, who are the students who are staging these sorts of shut-down-speaker protests? As usual, Jonathan Zimmerman hit the nail on the head the other day. Students at elite schools like his tend to be more aggressively united in their leftism. What seems normal at Penn and Yale, though, isn’t normal at most schools.

He’s exactly right. Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution crunched some numbers and came to the same conclusion. As they put it,

the schools where students have attempted to disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average. . . . The average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.

The wonks at The Economist agree. “Colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited,” they concluded recently. They even plotted an attractive three-color chart to prove it:bicker warning

So it seems safe to say that richer students at fancier schools tend to be more likely to stage this sort of shut-up protest than college students in general. Of course, we don’t know for sure in every case, but the tendency is clear.

So what?

It adds a moral dimension to these protests that needs more attention. We’ve been down this road before.

In the 1970s, a group of elite college students broke off from Students for a Democratic Society to form the violent militant group Weather Underground. They didn’t do much, but they wanted to. By the 1970s, the FBI was after them.

weather_wanted

Okay, but did they contribute to the alumni fund?

They weren’t just run-of-the-mill college students. Bill Ayers’ father, for example, was CEO of Commonwealth Edison. Ayers the Elder even has a college named after him at my alma mater. That’s not something most Americans have experienced.

Bernardine Dohrn grew up in the tony Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay. (When I taught high school in Milwaukee, the kids jokingly referred to it as “White Folks’ Bay.” Ha.) She graduated from the super-elite University of Chicago. Clark also attended the University of Chicago. Boudin’s father was a high-powered New York lawyer and she went to Bryn Mawr College.

Their elite backgrounds and college experiences mattered. Weather rhetoric was flush with talk about their privileged status and the need for white elites to act violently.

In 1970, for example, Dohrn issued the Weather Underground’s first “communication,” a “DECLARATION OF A STATE OF WAR.” Rich white kids, Dohrn explained, had a “strategic position behind enemy lines.” They had a chance to strike from inside the belly of the beast. And they had a moral duty to act violently in support of world-wide anti-American revolutionary movements. It was time, Dohrn wrote, for rich white kids to prove that they were not part of the problem, they were part of the violent solution. As she put it,

The parents of “privileged” kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us. But the war and the racism of this society show that it is too fucked-up. We will never live peaceably under this system.

Again…so what? What does this prove?

It helps us understand college protests that don’t seem to make common sense. Why would a group of college students assault a professor to protest against racism? Why would they react so ferociously to a seemingly innocuous comment about Halloween costumes?

Because—at least in large part—students from wealthy families at elite colleges are in a peculiar pickle. If they are at all interested in moral questions, they find themselves in a tremendously compromised moral position. They are the beneficiaries of The System. They are the ones who profit from America’s imbalanced racial and economic hierarchy. They enjoy their cushy lifestyles and glittering future prospects only because they were given an enormously unfair head start in life.

If you care at all about social justice, that’s a heavy burden to bear. One way to handle the strain is to go to extreme lengths to signal your rejection of The System. Though protests at fancy colleges may seem strange to the rest of us, they make sense if we see them as demonstrations of rejection, as proof of position. In other words, some students at elite colleges—at least the ones who do the reading—are desperate to demonstrate that they are not happy with racism, sexism, and class privilege. They need to show everyone that they are not lapdogs of the exploiters. Their protests are not only about changing policies, but about proving something about themselves. And those sorts of protests will necessarily swing toward extreme actions.

In the end, we will only scratch our heads if we try to figure out why liberal students insist on illiberal policies in terms of day-to-day political strategy. Instead, we need to see these protests as shouts of separation, desperate and ultimately ill-starred attempts to prove that students from the 1% are standing with the rest of us.

Word Up

Wowzers. I just came across a doozy.

Like a lot of nerdy types, I like to find weird words. This morning, I hit one that was absolutely new to me.

I’m re-reading Brendan Pietsch’s terrific 2015 book Dispensational Modernism. In it, Pietsch makes a powerful argument that the ways early fundamentalist thinkers crafted their theology was not old at all, but profoundly new.

I’ve read it before, but now that I’m revising and polishing my Fundamentalist U manuscript, I want to walk through his book one more time to see if I need to chuck, polish, and/or revise my argument.

And there it was! Smack-dab in the middle of Pietsch’s description of the roots of the Niagara Bible Conferences on page 46:

Gyrovague

“Gyrovague”…! How bout it, SAGLRROILYBYGTH? Without looking it up, can anyone offer a definition?…a guess?

I couldn’t.

Spaced Out

What can I say? I’m just a two-space guy, I guess. My recent editing work, though, has gotten me into a new habit. I’m not sure yet if I like it or not.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m putting the finishing touches these days on my new book manuscript. That means polishing, editing, talking to other nerds, and revising, revising, revising. Among my editorial tasks has been an odd-feeling switch at the end of every sentence. Instead of following every sentence with two spaces—the way God intended—I’ve been following the stylebook and changing it to only one.

In recent days, I’ve tried it out in these pages, too. Do you like it?

I know, I know, it’s a lot to take in all at once. For me, there’s something pleasant about the one-space approach. Sentences seem huddled comfortably together; punctuation marks and capital letters don’t feel so starkly divided.

Just like every issue in these pages, I’m sure this question will raise hackles on both sides. Are there any other two-space dinosaurs left out there? Or has all of America made the switch?

Florida Christians Speak Up for Satan

Have you seen them? Conservative religious folks these days like to push new school laws that would protect students’ rights to be religious in public schools. And it has led to some pretty odd bedfellows.

These laws, often called Religious Viewpoint Antidiscrimination Acts, generally insist that students can’t be stopped from expressing their religious ideas in class assignments and school activities. Several states have passed or considered similar bills.

No one disagrees that students in public schools have every right to be religious. They can pray, wear religious symbols, and join religious clubs. These bills want to take those rights one step further. If cheerleaders in Texas want to hold up Bible-based placards, for example, these laws would protect their rights to do that. If valedictorians in Tennessee want to lead a prayer at graduation, these laws say that’s okay.

On my recent trip to sunny Gainesville, Florida, some of the edu-gators (ha) were talking about a similar new bill in Florida. The state Senate just approved it, and the House will be voting next week.

Opponents are dismayed. One high-school biology teacher worried that this bill would smash any protections against religious preaching in public schools. “Does this mean,” he asked,

That a teacher or school personnel can then talk about stuff like the age of the Earth and evolution from a religious perspective, and if someone was to try to counsel them not to do that, would that be discrimination against the teacher?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State shared similar worries.  As they argued,

A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.

Supporters of Florida’s bill put it in a different light. Senate sponsor Dennis Baxley said his bill “protects everybody.” He was especially concerned about students such as Erin Shead.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH* may recall, ten-year-old Erin was asked to write about her hero. She picked God. Her teacher asked her to pick someone else.

In Florida, and around the country, conservative Christians are pushing these types of laws in order to clarify Erin’s right to admire God in class. But the Florida debate is producing some weird rhetoric. The selling point of these bills—at least one of them—is that they are not meant to push Christianity, but rather to protect students’ rights to practice any religion.

And one Florida activist isn’t shy about spelling out what that means. Pam Olsen of the Florida Prayer Network told Florida lawmakers that the bill wasn’t just a Christian power play. Everyone, she insisted, would be protected. As she put it,

That means Christian, it means Muslim, it means Jewish, it means the Satanic people. Because that is a religion now.

Okay, so, hrmmmmm…I can’t help but wonder what would happen if a group of Satanists really did speak out in favor of this law. Or if a group of Satanist students started a “prayer circle” at their local Florida public school.

Would the Florida Prayer Network support them?

*Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, of course.

 

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Stories that swirled by our editorial desk this week that might be of interest to SAGLRROILYBYGTH:

How can schools save America?  A conservative case for Head Start.

READING

Words, words, words…

Forget about fundamentalism for a second.  Is Liberty University just a good ol-fashioned scam?  Kevin Carey makes the case in the New York Times.

What happens when Ivy Leaguers hang out with the Bible-college crowd?  Jonathan Zimmerman describes the results.

Have religious conservatives really become persecuted minorities?  A review of Nelson Tebbe’s new book, Religious Freedom in an Egalitarian Age.

Was Trump University just another higher-ed scam after all?  Check out the lawsuit settlement deal.

It’s Football Season!

What do football and tattoos have to do with evolution?  We’ll find out tomorrow.  David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution Studies Program at Binghamton University continues its tradition of bringing a cavalcade of experts and celebrities to our humble burg.

evolution education in the american south

Required reading

The roster of nerds and wonks has been impressive.  For those of us obsessed with creation/evolution debates, Evos has hosted heroes such as Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project and Michael Berkman of Penn State, among many others.

What’s on tap this week?  All the way from sunny Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Professor Christopher Lynn will be talking about his work in evolutionary anthropology. Professor Lynn just published a new edited book that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be interested in, Evolution Education in the American South.

Tomorrow afternoon, Professor Lynn will share his work, in a talk titled “Tattooing Commitment, Quality, and Football in Southeastern North America.”  As Lynn describes it,

Tattooing appears to be a cultural and psychological pattern of behavior rooted in Darwinian processes. It is the result of an evolved tendency to manipulate human bodies in meaningful ways with distinctive benefits. Tattooing can signal group affiliation or commitment through using the body as a human canvas. Tattooing also provides cues about biological quality because it is an injury to the body, and the healing process on the surface of the skin is visible to everyone and impossible to fake. These factors make tattoos costly honest signals, consistent with evolutionary models in multiple species, including humans. I review the functions of tattooing from an evolutionary perspective, outline historic and prehistoric evidence from the North American Southeast, analyze biological implications, and discuss contemporary functions of tattooing among college football fans as a signal of commitment and quality.

For those in the Binghamton area, the talk is free and open to the public.  It will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in room G-008 in the basement of Academic Building A.  Monday, April 3rd, starting at 5:15 PM.

Hope to see you there!

The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Hello, Florida!

Good morning, SAGLRROILYBYGTH!

Wish me luck–I’m on my way to the Sunshine State.  Thanks to my colleague Sevan Terzian, I’ll be giving a keynote talk at the University of Florida’s research symposium this evening.  I can’t wait.

What will I be talking about?  Well, you’ll have to wait until after the talk for a synopsis, but I can tell you that I’ll be using these images from my research into twentieth-century educational conservatism.

Allen Zoll’s attack on progressive education, from Pasadena, 1950

The American Legion warns of treasonous textbooks, 1940

Watch out for communism in your local school, c. 1951

Scopes Trial, 1925

Kanawha County’s protesters, 1974