Are Conservatives Facing Oppression in Texas’ Private Schools?

The Texas Freedom Network Insider gives us a look this morning at an intriguing and influential line of conservative educational thinking.  For several decades now, conservative educational activists have claimed to be fighting for their civil rights.

The TFN, a liberal watchdog group, denounced Texas State Senator Dan Patrick’s attempt to make this argument recently.

Patrick, as chair of the Senate Education Committee, made his statement in favor of Senate Bill 573.  The bill would allow homeschool and private-school students to compete in the state’s University Interscholastic League.

Patrick claimed in a recent hearing,

“When you say the UIL has functioned for a hundred years, and everybody’s been happy, if you were black in this state before the civil rights movement, it didn’t function for you. And now I feel there’s discrimination against Catholics and Christians in these parochial schools.”

The TFN columnist and several commentators did not buy Patrick’s argument.  After sharing pictures of a lavish private school and a cramped, inadequate African-American school (c. 1941), the TFN columnist asked, “Seriously, guys?”

Commenter Linda Hunter asked, “Is it possible he [Patrick] actually believes what he’s saying? If so, perhaps he received the standard whitewashed version of history in school. Oh, I don’t think even that explains his argument.”

Whether Patrick is sincere or not, this line of argument has long been a favorite of conservative educational thinkers and activists.

Gish fossils say noTo cite just one example, in the early 1980s the late creationist leader Duane Gish was invited to join a conference of mainstream scientists to discuss evolution and creationism.  At the time, Gish was a leading voice at the Institute for Creation Research and best known for his book Evolution: The Fossils Say No! (1973, 1978, 1979)

At the conference with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gish grumbled right away that he had been led into a trap.  He complained that only two creationists had been invited to face a bevy of evolutionists.  As he put it, he would “proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”[1]

Around the same time, the creationist academic Jerry Bergman protested that he had been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University due to rampant discrimination against his religious beliefs.  As Bergman claimed in his 1984 book The Criterion,

“Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’. . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices.  This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue.  But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’[2]

Bergman the criterionFor Gish and Bergman in the 1980s, as for Senator Patrick today, as for the generation of conservative activists in between, the notion is a powerful one.  Many intellectuals and pundits have claimed that conservatives today face the same kind of repression that bedeviled African Americans in the run-up to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.

For those of us who want to understand conservative educational philosophy, the Texas Freedom Network’s question is not the point.  Whether or not conservatives really believe they are oppressed, pundits and politicians have found the claim of minority persecution effective.

Check out Senator Patrick’s speech on the TFN Insider.  They include a video so we can see this ideology in action.

[1] Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 26.

[2] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 44.


TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIa: The Cult of Multiculturalism (cont.)

In an earlier post, we argued that the dominant ideology of public schooling speaks in the language of inclusion and tolerance, but it therefore must exclude and suppress any traditionalist notions of a single transcendent truth.  Fundamentalists have complained long and loud that such unacknowledged discrimination is at the heart of contemporary education.  They have appropriated the language of the twentieth-century civil rights revolution to appeal for their own rights as an aggrieved minority.

For instance, in 1984 the pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science invited prominent creationist Duane Gish to a meeting between creationists and evolutionists.  When he arrived, Gish complained that he had not been afforded the equal treatment he had been promised.  The conveners of the “confrontation,” Gish claimed, had disingenuously told Gish that they had not had time to invite more creationists, but they had found time, he noted, to include more evolutionists.  Such unfair treatment, Gish complained, allowed biased evolutionists “to do what is done every day in practically every university in the United States.”  The evolutionists could dominate the proceedings and relegate the science of creationism to the role of the unwelcome outsider.  Gish protested against such unfair treatment by concluding, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”

Like other beleaguered minority groups, Gish implied, fundamentalists could not get a fair hearing in mainstream academic culture.  Other fundamentalist authors agreed.  Jerry Bergman, for example, complained that he had been refused tenure at Bowling Green State University merely because he held fundamentalist views.  He admitted that he had spoken with students about his beliefs, but not as part of his instruction.  He had talked with students about it, but to refuse him tenure for that reason, Bergman argued, was as if a “black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”  Those who might be expected to come to Bergman’s defense, he complained, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, did not, since “many members are intolerant, narrow-minded, anti-religious bigots.”  In Bergman’s opinion, “Not since Nazi Germany turned on the Jews has such widespread intolerance existed in a modern, ‘advanced,’ educated nation.”

Other examples of discrimination against fundamentalists and especially creationists in America’s pluralist schools have become legendary in fundamentalist circles.  One of the most well-worn sagas of intolerance in American higher ed among fundamentalists is the story of Clifford Burdick.  Burdick attracted attention among both creationists and evolutionists for two of his most controversial claims.  First, Burdick insisted that he had found evidence of pollen in layers of core samples that, according to an evolutionary interpretation, ought to have been laid down before any such pollen had evolved.  Second, Burdick found what he claimed were human footprints in rock layers that also included dinosaur fossils.

More relevant, though, Burdick and his supporters insist that he had been denied his PhD from the University of Arizona because of Burdick’s religious beliefs.   Burdick completed all his work for the degree, but one of his professors adamantly refused to grant a fair hearing.  The only reason for this hostility, Burdick claimed, was because that professor had found out that Burdick was a committed creationist.

Of course, the professors had a different explanation.  They found Burdick’s scientific work sloppy and incompetent.  More damning, Burdick—as he himself later admitted—could not answer many of the questions posed during his oral examination.  Even some relatively sympathetic creationists considered Burdick to be more of an intellectual liability than a persecuted martyr.

But COULD such discrimination play a role in the millions of minor decisions Americans make about one another every day?  Could fundamentalists fairly complain—even if stories like that of Clifford Burdick don’t hold water—that they are the targets of bigotry and unfair prejudice?  Consider the results of a 1993 Gallup poll, in which 45% of respondents admitted they had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “religious fundamentalists.”  Or a similar Gallup finding from 1989, in which 30% of Americans admitted they would not like to have “religious fundamentalists” as neighbors, while only 12% said out loud they would not like to have African American neighbors.

Such poll results, one might object, do not fairly specify the meaning of “fundamentalist.”  The folks answering such questions might have objected to living next door to Osama bin Laden as much as they did to Jerry Falwell.  The 1993 poll, for instance, found that only 25% of respondents had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “born-again Christians” in general.  And in the 1989 poll, even 24% of the respondents who identified themselves as “evangelical” said they would not want to live next door to a “religious fundamentalist.”  Even more befuddling, these polls merely ask respondents for their views of fundamentalists in general.  They do not shed much light on whether or not a creationist doctoral candidate can get a fair hearing before a committee of evolutionists, or whether a fundamentalist who opposed gay marriage can get a fair hearing before a school board staffed with people committed to equal status for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.  But it makes a good deal of intuitive sense to suppose that those situations would be even more slanted against fundamentalists.  That is, if almost half of Americans don’t want fundamentalists as neighbors, think how much more strongly those people would feel about having fundamentalists as their children’s teachers.  If such respondents don’t even want fundamentalists living in the same neighborhood, think how unsympathetic they would be to fundamentalist worries that the public schools are indoctrinating their kids with ideas that break down their home morality.

We can’t know much for sure from such polls.  But taken as yet another piece of evidence, they suggest that some Americans tend to see bias against fundamentalism as a badge of honor.  They openly admit to this kind of bias, ironically, because they think it demonstrates a fashionable open-mindedness.  This kind of convoluted belief runs especially strong among the cultural left.  In some circles, it is fashionable to go to excessive rhetorical lengths to bash fundamentalists.  Consider the case of Timothy Shortell of Brooklyn College.  This case came to light in 2005 when Shortell was elected chair of the Sociology Department.  In a 2003 article published in the online journal Fifteen Credibility Street, Shortell used highly derogatory language to describe not just fundamentalists, but all people of faith.  As he put it:

On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying—like pop music or reality television. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.

The phrase that garnered the most attention was Shortell’s “moral retards.”  Ouch.  To be fair, the bigotry and cruelty of Shortell’s comment caused the higher-ups at Brooklyn College to block his advancement to department chair.  Yet the fact that his hostile anti-religious beliefs did not disqualify Shortell in the eyes of his colleagues from taking on a leadership position speaks volumes.  Imagine if an academic writer had used such language to condemn any other social group.  He or she would likely be hounded from his or her position; he or she would become a social pariah as well.  Yet Shortell was not only accepted but lauded by his colleagues in spite of his use of such offensive language.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance argues that “Fat discrimination is one of the last publicly accepted discriminatory practices. Fat people have rights and they need to be upheld!”  Fundamentalists might make a similar claim.  Like the plight of fat people, fundamentalists in American life have reason to complain that they are one of the few cultural groups that it is still considered socially acceptable to attack.  When nearly half of surveyed adults say that they would not want you as a neighbor; when your children in public schools are forced to repudiate central beliefs of their families and faith traditions; when every group in society except yours is apparently granted special rights and privileges to counteract the pervasive prejudice to which Americans are prone; these conditions make it difficult to deny fundamentalists’ claims of a unique form of cultural persecution.


FURTHER READING: Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984). Ron Numbers, The Creationists (2006); Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 25-37; George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1993 and George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1989.