Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.

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The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

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A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.

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Lesbians and Libraries: We’re All Victims Now

The recent fuss over Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mothers’ House has followed a familiar pattern.  First, a mother from conservative Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City, complained when her daughter brought the book home from her school’s library.  The book celebrates a family with two mothers and three children.  Next, the school district decided to keep the book, but put it behind the library counter.  Students would need a parent’s permission to check out the book.  Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, claiming the book must be freely available for all students.

In this case as in so many others, both sides rushed to insist on their own victimhood.

Both sides make the customary arguments.  The ACLU fights for First Amendment freedom.  In the words of one ACLU blogger,

“Removing library books because they ‘normalize a lifestyle that parents don’t agree with’ or contain positive portrayals of LGBT protagonists violates the First Amendment rights of all students to access ideas in a school library on a viewpoint-neutral basis.” 

Conservative Christians claim the books are part of a widespread conspiracy—the “homosexual agenda”—to teach children in public schools that all sexual lifestyles are equally valid.  In this case, opponents of the book cite Utah law, which they say forbids school curricula that promote homosexual lifestyles.

Just as predictably, both sides depicted themselves as the victims.  Consider the author’s defense.  Polacco, writing on the ACLU’s blog, told the story of the book’s origins:

“One year I was visiting a fourth grade class and the teacher had arranged for me to hear essays that her students had written entitled: ‘My Family.’ . . . one little girl stood up and began to read. She was immediately asked to take her seat by an aide. The aide said scornfully, ‘No dear…you don’t come from a real family…sit down!’

“This child came from a family of two mothers and two adopted siblings. I was so appalled and insulted on that child’s behalf that I immediately, after school that day, went back to my hotel room and wrote, In Our Mothers’ House.”

From the other side, one commenter on a conservative Christian website asked, “Does the ACLU also require that Bibles be on the shelves!”  Another lamented, “Law suit by law suit [the ACLU] are coarsening the moral fabric of America, and our children are the victims!”  A third chimed in, “I don’t hate these people [i.e. homosexuals] & if they want to live this way that’s their business but don’t try to push it on the rest of us!! God help them!!”

Clearly both sides in this school-library dispute focus on their own victimhood.  The ACLU insists that hiding such books behind library desks hurts families.  Polacco argues that treating some families as illegitimate hurts children.  Conservative Christians, for their part, worry about the creeping influence of the ACLU.  Conservatives fret that they have no voice in public institutions.  Their books, most notably the Bible, have been “kicked out,” while books that denigrate traditional lifestyles and morals are promoted.

Neither side publicly notices their own strengths.  We will not hear conservative Christians gloating over the Christian-friendly policies of this Utah school district.  Nor will we hear ACLU types celebrating the power and influence of their national watchdog presence.

Does the rush to victimhood matter?  Only in the sense that a cornered animal fights the fiercest.  By reassuring ourselves that we are the true victims, we condone any escalation in culture-war rhetoric or strategy as a matter of simple self-defense.  If we are all victims, we all have the moral high ground; we all have license to fight dirty.

In the News: Dancing the Rights Away

The New York Times reports this morning on a strange crackdown in Cranston, Rhode Island.  Seems a father-daughter dance tradition had been taking place despite a state law and district policy against it.  In addition, Federal Title IX rules forbid any gender-discriminatory activities.  In this case, a single mother of a daughter objected to the dance.  Though the school had also organized a mother-son baseball game, the two events were ruled to be not similar enough to avoid charges of sex discrimination.

In the big scheme of things, this tempest on a dance floor seems like no big deal.  The mother attended the dance with her daughter, and the school district reminded dance organizers of their ban on gender-specific events.

But the story serves as an illustration of a few items of perennial interest to those trying to understand the conservative impulse in American education.  First of all, we see again that school policy does not always match school practice.  Most memorably, when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading violated students’ First Amendment rights, many schools continued to sponsor prayers and Bible-reading regardless.  As political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found in their 1971 study, many towns and schools continued to pray and read the Bible without eliciting a whisper of controversy.

Even the district in Cranston, Rhode Island, had hung a “prayer banner” in its high school, according to the New York Times.

As in many other cases, we see in this disco scuffle the ways conservatives embrace such seeming government overreach as a culture-war cause.  In this case, Sean Gately, a candidate for State Senate, along with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, have come out strongly in favor of father-daughter dances. Such politicians have publicized the ban and tried to associate it with their Democratic opponents.  As Gately told the NYT, “Having those little father-daughter dances and seeing her all dressed up in her pretty dress — it’s a very special moment.”  Gately said the ban “offended me as a father and a husband.”   In the end, Gately insisted, “Nobody is being hurt by a father-daughter dance.”   Fox News condemned the “political-correctness police” of the American Civil Liberties Union for stirring up controversy where none existed.  The ACLU, according to Fox, had objected to the dance tradition as perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes: fancy dances for girls, baseball games for boys.  Gately told Fox this was a case of the “local ACLU kind of bullying our school system.”

From the ACLU’s perspective, local school officials just don’t “get it yet,” as state ACLU director Steven Brown told the New York Times.  Gately would likely respond that Brown simply does not “get” that most Cranstonites have no problem with reinforcing gender stereotypes for their children.

Perhaps most important, this dance debate demonstrates the way schools are more often guided by tradition than by explicit policy.  According to the NYT, the district had banned this father-daughter dance years ago.  However, no one on the current Parent-Teacher Organization was aware of that policy.  They organized the “Me and My Guy” dance simply because they had done so in the past.

In dancing as in much else, these kinds of traditions tend to be more powerful than any policy, whether in Cranston, Rhode Island, or from the US Supreme Court.