How Far Should the Creationist Purge Go?

Is a creationist historian worse than a socialist one? That’s the question science pundit Jerry Coyne is not asking. But he should be.

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne. His tenacious attacks on all things religious are witty and smart. But in this case, his historical short-sightedness has caused him to blunder into dangerous terrain.

Here’s the story: In his continuing campaign against creationism, Coyne and his allies have singled out the creationist activism of Professor Emerson T. McMullen. McMullen teaches history classes at Georgia Southern University. Based on Coyne’s evidence, it does seem as if McMullen injects a good deal of proselytization into his classes.

McMullen teaches classes about the history of science and evolution. And, as one student noted in her evaluation, he gives extra credit if students attend religious films. As she warned, “most of it is trying to convert you, but hey, free points!”

Coyne and his allies in the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the administration of Georgia Southern. They urged GSU to “investigate” McMullen’s teaching. They did not object to teaching about religious views, especially in a history class, but they did object to McMullen’s practice of pushing those views on students.

This presents us with a difficult question: How far do we want to go in purging creationists from college faculties? We agree that McMullen’s teaching seems to cross over into preaching. But there are a couple of ominous historical parallels that Professor Coyne seems to dismiss too breezily.

So, first, as Coyne and Co. acknowledge, there is no constitutional ban on teaching religion in publicly funded schools. As Justice Tom Clark made clear in his landmark 1963 opinion in the Schempp case,

Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As Justice Clark specified, and as Professor Coyne acknowledged, the issue is not the teaching of religion, but the preaching of religion. As subsequent SCOTUS rulings have specified, public schools must not lend their imprimatur to religious preaching by either students or teachers. McMullen seems to be doing more than teaching about creationism. He appears to be using his authority as a teacher—dispensing grades and extra credit—to encourage students to repeat creationist-friendly ideas.

Does this mean we should actively “investigate” all such teaching? That universities have a constitutional duty to get rid of any professors or classes that move from teaching about religious ideas to preaching the ideas themselves? I think not, for two reasons.

First, university teaching is fundamentally different from K-12 teaching. The SCOTUS decisions about teaching and preaching have mostly dealt with younger students at public schools. Though Georgia Southern is a school that receives tax funding, its status as a university makes it a substantially different case from a high school, middle school, or elementary. The main issue in the Schempp verdict was that school prayer was something students could not evade. Such students were coerced, in effect, into listening to preaching. If, like the young Schempp himself, they have a pass to leave the classroom during prayers, they are still singled out by that action.  In contrast, students in college have enormous freedom to select classes. The faculties, in most cases, are much broader and more diverse. In most public high schools, students are assigned to a teacher without much input. In college, on the other hand, students put together their own schedules.

More important, Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the tradition he would be joining if his McMullen campaign were successful, though Coyne nods to the importance of academic freedom. As I detail in my upcoming book, conservatives have conducted similar campaigns against leftist professors for decades. I doubt Professor Coyne wants to open up universities to allegations and investigations of ideologically suspicious professors.

In 1941, for example, a group of conservative leaders from the American Legion and the Advertising Federation of America teamed up to encourage Coyne-like investigations of college professors. Their main target was Professor Harold Rugg of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Should we guard the gate?

Should we guard the gate?

As the Guardians of American Education, they investigated Rugg’s teaching. They polled students and obtained copies of syllabi and course descriptions. One of Rugg’s courses, they alleged, featured what they called the “denial of certain natural and inalienable rights of man.” They gave specific examples of the way Rugg used his position as a professor to proselytize. On page 59 of Rugg’s syllabus for a course in Educational Foundations, for instance, Rugg pushed students to “admit the far too rottenness in our social, political, and financial life.”

Is this the sort of club Professor Coyne wants to join? In his earlier campaign against Eric Hedin at Ball State, Coyne alienated allies such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran. Both Moran and Myers thought that Coyne had gone too far in ignoring the sometimes-uncomfortable need to respect academic freedom. And that case was stronger than this one, since Hedin was teaching intelligent design as if it were mainstream science.

So, back to our main question: How far do we want to go to punish professors for their views? What should we do?

The purge is not the right approach. Instead, we should follow the model of Portland parents. When secular parents found out about preaching in an after-school club, they did not shut the club down. They couldn’t. The “Good News Club” had every constitutional right to do what it was doing. But the Portland parents realized that free speech and academic freedom cut both ways. They conducted a campaign to warn their fellow parents about the activities of the Good News Clubs.

That should be our model here. We do not want to slide into witch hunts and creationist-baiting. We do not want to encourage universities to investigate and purge faculty for their beliefs. Instead, we can let students at Georgia Southern know what goes on in McMullen’s classes. The publicity campaign should not be targeted at the administration of Georgia Southern, but rather at its students.

How far do we want to go in purging professors? In this case, Coyne goes too far.

Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

No, YOU’RE the Weirdo

Do you have a smartphone? Does everyone you know have one? If so, that puts you in a small minority, even though you feel like you’re part of a vast majority. And that sort of presumption of normality has a lot to say about our continuing educational culture wars.

I came across the statistic in this week’s Economist. It seems over 1.7 billion people use smartphones. That’s a lot, but it leaves 80% of the human population phone-less.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

What a bunch of WEIRD-os.

So what? We might notice this as more fuel for the WEIRD fire.  As in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan argued a few years back that too many subjects of psychological tests came from this relatively restricted background.  The results of those tests, they argued, should really only be claimed to apply to people of similar backgrounds.

But I also think this is a good example of the culture-war dangers of what we might call “majority myopia.” The things to which we are accustomed sometimes seem as if they are common to everybody. With smartphones, for example, it might seem like an eccentricity these days to go without one.* But despite our perceptions, actually a vast majority of people share that “eccentricity.”

When it comes to public schooling, we see this sort of myopia time and again. When it comes to teaching evolution, for example, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have argued that the most important question to ask–after teachers’ personal beliefs–is what the community believes about evolution. If the community tilts toward creationism, then teachers will, too.

As they put it,

traditional districts and cosmopolitan districts tend to hire teachers whose training, beliefs, and teaching practices serve to reinforce or harmonize with the prevailing local culture.

In other words, there are some ideas that seem universally shared. Why? Because everyone we know agrees on them. With science teachers, they may certainly feel as if they are teaching the ideas that everybody agrees to be true. They are teaching the ideas that everyone in their community seems to share.

This spreads wider than evolution, of course. Back in the late 1960s, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond set out to investigate the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s 1963 Schempp ruling. In that ruling, an eight-to-one court decided that reciting the Lord’s Prayer and devotional reading of the Bible could not Constitutionally be part of a public-school day.

Dolbeare and Hammond journeyed into four municipalities in an unnamed Midwestern state. They found to their surprise that the Schempp decision had had virtually no effect. In schools that had prayed before, students and teachers still prayed. In schools that hadn’t, they still didn’t.

Most puzzling at all to the political scientists, none of this raised any whisper of controversy in any of the towns. For those who lived there, it simply seemed as if the vast majority of people must share their views about school prayer. Even if they knew what the Supreme Court had decided, their “majority myopia” made them see their own praying public schools as the norm.

I’m sure there are other cases out there. For some religious schools, I’m guessing it must seem as if everyone agrees on doctrines such as a young earth. And at some progressive schools, like the ones I attended as a kid, it certainly seemed as if everyone agreed on the basic principles of secularism and left-leaning social justice.

But as this smartphone statistic shows, even those things that seem most universal can really be part of a very small minority.

*Full disclosure: I’m smart-phone-less myself. Don’t judge me.

Obama Persecutes Christian Schools

Does President Obama have it out for conservative evangelical Christians?  Does he plan to crush them by hitting them where it hurts?  In the pages of today’s Christian Post, Michael Zigarelli worries that Obama’s anti-discrimination policy will do just that.  By putting the squeeze on religious colleges, Zigarelli writes, Obama plans to squeeze the life out of conservative evangelicalism.  This sort of conspiracy-theorizing may sound far-out to non-conservatives like me.  But for those who know the history of evangelical education, it might not seem so wacky.

Zigarelli is commenting on the recent controversy at Gordon College in Massachusetts.  As we’ve noted in these pages, President D. Michael Lindsay of Gordon College attracted attention for signing an open letter to President Obama.  In case you missed the story, Lindsay signed the letter requesting an exemption from a planned executive order.  The order would ban discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

For those like me outside of the world of conservative evangelicalism, Lindsay’s attitude sounds an awful lot like a license to discriminate.  If, as Lindsay wrote, Gordon College does not discriminate against gay students and does not plan to start, why would they need such an exemption?

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, but as I understand it, the evangelicals did not ask to be able to discriminate against anyone, but rather to be able to continue their policy that requires all students and faculty to agree to a goal of chastity outside of marriage.  As we discussed here at ILYBYGTH, to many non-evangelicals and former evangelicals, that seems like a distinction without a difference.

But if we put those sorts of questions to one side for a moment, we can see that Zigarelli’s attitude demonstrates key elements of evangelical thinking.  His op-ed articulates some of the fears of conservative evangelicals.  For many conservatives, Obama’s order means more than just the end to discrimination.  It means the end of conservative evangelicalism in general.  Once conservatives are no longer able to operate their schools and colleges as they see fit, they will no longer be able to educate their children properly.  As Zigarelli concludes ominously,

Empty desks will follow empty pews, at least if this capricious; destabilizing theology is foisted upon our Christian schools. It’s time to take a stand.

To historians, this sort of rhetoric sounds familiar. As I’ve argued in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, conservative evangelicals made very similar sorts of statements after the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer decision in 1963. That school decision prompted conservative evangelicals to shift their thinking about their relationship to the broader American culture. As the editors of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today expressed it, before that decision, they were confident of their roles as leaders of America’s “devout masses.” After the decision, though, they worried that conservative evangelicals had become nothing but a “believing remnant” in a sinful American culture.

For evangelicals, like all other Americans, any loss of control over schooling can signal a loss of control over public life itself. Some of us may scratch our heads and wonder why evangelicals worry so much about President Obama’s planned non-discrimination order. If, as President Lindsay insists, conservative schools don’t discriminate against homosexuals, what do they have to worry about?

Throughout the twentieth century and into today, though, conservative evangelicals have maintained a tense relationship with the wider American culture. Many conservatives believe themselves to be the representatives of the real American mainstream, the “moral majority.” At the same time, however, conservatives see themselves as persecuted outsiders in a twerking culture besotted with sin, sexuality, and secularism. When big public-policy decisions seem to hurt Christian education, evangelicals react vigorously.

Does Obama plan to crush conservative opposition? As Zigarelli admits, such statements may sound “absurd” and “alarmist.” But given the past fifty years of evangelicals’ relationship with public education, the notion that the federal government might take drastic steps that hurt Christian education does not seem absurd or alarmist at all.


Teen Rebels, Creationism, and the Real History of Kicking God Out of the Public Schools

The Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) case is not usually remembered as a case of teenage rebellion or creationist science.  But as the man at the center of the case recalled recently in the pages of Church & State, we can’t separate out such issues from the Bible, school prayer, or “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

As I’ve written in these pages and in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this case for American schooling, religion, and culture.  In its decision, the US Supreme Court decided that public schools must not mandate the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the reading of the Bible.  Among many religious conservatives, this decision has taken on enormous symbolic significance as the moment that the United States “kicked God out of the public schools.”  In reality, the decision specified that religion still belonged in public schools.  It was only teacher-led devotional religion to which the Court objected.

Ellery Schempp, who went on to a highly successful career as a physicist, remembered his teenage decision to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to protest his treatment in his Pennsylvania public high school.

As Schempp recalled, his protest came partly from principle, and partly from “teen rebellion.”  The sixteen-year-old Ellery resented being squeezed into a conformist mold.  Schempp recalled his lightbulb moment:

“It was one day when some kid read Genesis in 10th grade,” Schempp continued. “I thought, ‘This is nonsense; this does not fit with the science that I know.’ I began to pay more attention.

For those like me who hope to understand the meanings of conservatism and conservative religion in American education, Schempp’s memories offer two important reminders.

First, we must keep in mind that we cannot easily separate out issues such as Bible reading, prayer, evolution, sex ed, or progressive pedagogy.  For activists and pundits on both sides of these culture-war divides, there is no bright line dividing them.  In this case, we see that the young Schempp was offended both by the Christian heavy-handedness of his school’s policy and by the anti-science of Biblical creationism.

Second, we must never forget the hidden vector of school issues: youth.  In most cases, protagonists such as the young Schempp are not only activists, they are young activists.  In his memories, at any rate, Schempp protested against the implied coercion to become another cog in the soulless wheel of American corporate governance.  As Schempp recalled, “There was enormous pressure to conform as the greatest goal in life – to be ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.’”  Fighting against this conformist compulsion was just as important a motivator as any civil-liberties principle.

Of course, folks like me sometimes assume that all teen rebellion must push against revealed religion and social traditions.  But we must remember that teenage pushback often pushes back in a variety of directions.  As we’ve noted before, in some cases conservative young Christians rebel by embracing a much more radical young-earth creationism than do their moderate Christian parents.

In whatever direction young people rebel, the youthfulness of that protest must be part of our analysis.  We can’t forget that schools are full of a specific type of people—young people.  As such, they may have very different attitudes and perspectives than the rest of their families.  They may be more likely to protest against traditional religion, OR more likely to fight for more traditional religion.