Trump Scores Better Than Us on GREs

It wouldn’t work. It’s not even new. But Trump’s tweeted support for school Bible bills shows that he understands what grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) really think.

At the Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt took Trump to task for a nonsensical and self-defeating policy. As Merritt wrote,

If conservative Christians don’t trust public schools to teach their children about sex or science . . . why would they want to outsource instruction about sacred scripture to government employees?

From a theological point of view, Merritt’s absolutely right. Moreover, conservative evangelical intellectuals have always agreed. That’s why so many of them supported SCOTUS’ 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale. In that ruling, SCOTUS decided that a state couldn’t impose a prayer in public schools, even a bland ecumenical prayer that seemed acceptable to people of many faiths.

The National Association of Evangelicals supported Engel, as did fundamentalist activists such as Carl McIntire. Why? Because they agreed with Merritt. They didn’t want public schools telling children how to pray. As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute wrote,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

For a long time now, conservative evangelical intellectuals have recognized the distinction Merritt’s making. And, as leading school-Bible scholar Mark Chancey noted at WaPo, there’s really nothing new or constitutionally challenging about teaching the Bible in public schools. There’s no need for new bills or laws, because academic study of the Bible has always been constitutional.

In these pages, too, we’ve looked at the nonsensical curricular plans of these types of school-Bible bills. In Indiana, for instance, Senator Dennis Kruse has slapped together a MAGA stew of Bible, “In God We Trust,” and creation science. It wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. It wouldn’t teach kids their parents’ faiths. It wouldn’t change anything at all.

But for all of our rational superiority, Trump’s Bible tweet still makes sense, on both a religious and a political level. Religiously, grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) have long seen the Bible as a supernatural book, a uniquely magical book that has power to change lives and save souls. For all Merritt’s reasoned counterargument, no one will shake GREs from this bedrock faith. Simply getting the Bible into public schools, many GREs think, will be enough. The Bible can take it from there.

bicabooks

Recipients of MBI’s school outreach, c. 1940.

For instance, a while back I studied the Bible outreach programs of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. Among its other goals, the MBI missionaries tried to get Bibles and tracts into schools in the Appalachian region. To the missionaries, the words of the Bible—even in tract form—had the power to convert people by the merest glance. As head of the program described in 1921,

A man was given a tract by the roadside; simply glancing at it, and coming to a hedge, he stuck the tract into the hedge; but it was too late; his eyes had caught a few words of the tract which led to his conversion.

For many GREs, the Bible maintains this sort of power. Regardless of what wonks like Merritt might say, GREs think the Bible can never do wrong, even in the hands of secular public-school dupes.

Far beyond religious considerations, Trump’s Bible tweet nails once again the angry nostalgia among white GREs. These bills aren’t about making real change in public schools, as Prof. Chancey has made abundantly clear. Instead, they are about—in Trump’s words—“Starting to make a turn back”. Part of the imagined MAGA past of GREs is a world in which their faith ruled America’s public spaces. Not in a theologically pure form, but in a symbolic way.

So we nerds can say what we want. We’re not wrong. Trump’s support for today’s batch of school-Bible bills is nonsensical at best, anti-conservative at worst. None of that really matters, though. Trump is not trying to convince us or actually save children’s souls. He is only trying to placate white GREs who love his hat.

Trump make america great again

GRE’s: About the hat as much as the Bible.

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I’m Like a Creationist (and You Are Too)

SAGLRROILBYGTH know I’m no creationist. But this week I had an experience that I think is similar to what some thoughtful creationists go through. When it comes to questions of religion and public life, that is, sometimes the issue is not really the issue. I’m wondering this morning if everyone—creationist or non-creationist—has had similar experiences.

Here’s what I’m talking about: A new bill in Iowa’s state legislature would allow public schools to teach Bible classes. I’m all for public schools teaching about religions, including Christianity. It is clearly constitutional, as long as the teachers aren’t preaching any particular religion. And it is IMHO a vital part of a comprehensive education. How can we expect to teach US History, for example, without teaching about Puritan values? How can we teach literature without reading the Bible? Yet in spite of the fact that I support religious ed in public schools in theory, I oppose this bill and others like it.

Why?

My beef is not directly about Bibles. It’s really a question of trust. When it comes right down to it, I don’t trust the bill’s backers. I think they are hoping to sneak some old-fashioned Protestant devotion into their public schools. They SAY they want students to learn about the historical and literary impact of the Bible, but when they talk about their proposed classes, you can almost smell the revival-tent sweat.

According to the Des Moines Register, for example, one of the bill’s ardent supporters insists the Bible class would help students be better Christian Americans. As he put it,

foundational and historical American values did not spring from the cornucopia of ‘world religions,’ but specifically from the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

To my secular ears, that sounds a lot like a Wallbuilders-style evangelical power play.

Do I want more education about religion in public schools? Yes!

But this bill is not-so-secretly intended to preach a specific, conservative-evangelical religion. It is intended to have a religious impact on students, which public schools should never attempt.

How does this make me like a creationist? Simple. Many creationists have had similar experiences. Throughout the twentieth century and today, even the most radical young-earth creationists often want their children to learn about evolution. But they distrust the motives of public-school types who teach it. Many creationists worry less about evolutionary science than about the sneaky atheistic teachers who they think want to use evolutionary theory Dawkins style, to prove the ridiculousness of religious faith.

I found over and over again in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education that creationist schools promised to teach evolution, but to do it safely.

At Liberty University for example, in 1985 founder Jerry Falwell promised that all Liberty students would learn about evolution. As Falwell explained to potential enrollees,

You’ll learn all about evolution, but you’ll learn why you don’t believe it. . . . To our knowledge, we’ve never graduated an evolutionist.

Closer to home, right here at ILYBYGTH we’ve heard from creationists who are eager to teach their kids about evolution, if they can do it without cramming atheism down their throats.

Beyond these anecdotes, there seems to be solid sociological evidence that creationists like evolution, but worry about something else. In their study of religious people’s attitudes toward science, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle found that evangelicals tended to have more positive attitudes about science than the general population. But evangelicals also tended to think more often that scientists were out to get them. In other words, evangelicals—some of them, at least—like science itself, but they are suspicious of people who call themselves scientists.

So here’s my hunch: We’re all the same when it comes to these questions of religion and public life. Even when we support an idea in principle, we don’t support it in practice because we distrust its supporters.

For me, that means opposing Bibles in public schools, even though I ardently desire better religious education in those public schools.

For creationists, that means opposing the teaching of mainstream evolutionary theory alone in public-school science classes, even when they really want their children to learn evolution.

  • For all you creationists out there, am I off the mark?
  • And for my fellow non-creationists, have you had a similar experience?
  • Is the central issue not really Bibles or evolution…but TRUST?

What Does School Look Like in Christian America?

Talking about education in general is like talking about sex in general. There are a few things that are usually true, but it’s only interesting once you get down to specific cases. A recent article in the Kokomo [Indiana] Tribune gives us a look at the way evangelical Christianity still dominates the public schools of Greenwood, Indiana. As tempting as it might be for pundits to say that the Supreme Court kicked God out of public schools in 1963, in reality God is still very much a fact of life in many American schools.

We need to remember, though, that this is not simply a time warp. A public school run by conservative evangelical Protestants today is profoundly different from the way that kind of school would have been fifty years ago, or a hundred years ago.

In Greenwood, it seems, the public schools are not just friendly to evangelical Protestantism. They are dominated by it. The Bible class, for example, is taught by the gregarious and popular Peter Heck. As the article notes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching classes about the Bible in public schools. Constitutionally, the courses need to be taught about the Bible as an historical and literary document. They should not be taught devotionally, as a way for students to deepen their Christian faith.

What the Heck is going on here?

What the Heck is going on here?

Heck’s class seems to do the latter. On the day the reporter went in to observe, students were learning how to use the Book of Judges to consider ways that God could use anyone to accomplish His goals. The watchdog group Americans for the Separation of Church and State charged that Heck’s conservative religion influenced the message in his classroom. On his radio show, Heck blasted President Obama and articulated his support for the conservative group American Family Association.

If Heck allowed his conservative Christian activism to influence his teaching, he was not the only one. Karol Evenson told the Kokomo Tribune that she used the school’s Christmas pageant to help spread the Gospel. When she’s teaching about the birth of Christ, Evenson told the newspaper,

I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.

At the highest levels, too, the district supports this sort of religious infusion in the classroom. Superintendent Tracy Caddell denied that the Greenwood schools taught any religious doctrine. But he admitted that he saw the teaching staff as

a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings. . . . Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and that doesn’t stop just because the school bell rings. . . . As a leader, I’m hoping that we’re promoting what people would call Christian values. However, we’re not promoting or teaching Christian doctrine. There’s a big difference.

As Professor Mark Chancey found in his study of Bible classes in Texas, this sort of attitude is not uncommon in America’s public schools. Nor is this new. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp (1963), in which prayer and Bible reading had supposedly been ruled unconstitutional in American public schools, political scientists Kenneth Dolbeare and Phillip Hammond found that many schools simply continued with their traditional prayers.

Depending on where you go to school, it seems, you might just get a dose of religion as part of your public-school day. Yet things have changed in the past fifty years. Back in 1963, I doubt the teachers and superintendents in towns like Greenwood would bother to say that they did not teach Christian doctrine. Back then, it is likely that a school like Greenwood High would not think twice about teaching Christian values.

Does that matter? I think it does. Fifty years ago, in places like Greenwood, the Bible teacher would not have the same pugnacious spirit as Peter Heck has today. On his radio show, it seems, Heck not only speaks from the perspective of a conservative evangelical Protestant, but assumes that his values are under attack. In his first book, Heck argues that “Christians Can Save America.”

Similarly, Greenwood’s superintendent acknowledged that his district flouted some of the norms of today’s secular culture. “Over time,” Superintendent Caddell told the Kokomo reporter,

we’ve gotten so worried about political correctness in this country that people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable being a Christian in a public school. I think that’s sad, because that’s who you are.

The conservative Christians running public schools in Greenwood, Indiana—like Christians who do similar things in other American schools—are not simply trapped in the past. As I argue in my new book, in order to understand American education, we need to understand the ways conservative attitudes have shifted over the generations.

In Greenwood, at least, conservative school leaders understand that they are doing something outside of the norms. They just disagree with those norms.

The OTHER Hobby Lobby Case

You’ve been following Hobby Lobby’s case for religious freedom before the US Supreme Court.  But did you know Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green has also prepared an ambitious Bible curriculum for use in America’s public schools?

According to Religion News Service, the school board of Mustang, Oklahoma has voted to use the Bible curriculum in its public schools.  Of course, despite some rumblings to the contrary, there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching the Bible in public schools.  The US Supreme Court’s ruling in 1963’s Schempp decision specified that the Bible can and should be taught in public schools, as long as it is not taught devotionally.  That is, children can learn about the Bible, about religion, but not be drilled in any particular religious belief.

But it often seems as if the folks who want to see more Bible in public schools have a decidedly devotional bias to their activism.  As Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University found in his study of Texas Bible classes, a significant proportion of them end up teaching religion, not just teaching about religion.

In this case, no one questions Steve Green’s ardent religiosity.  As the Religion News Service article points out, Green has admitted in public statements that he hopes the Bible curriculum will show that the Bible is “good,” that it’s “true,” and that the Bible’s impact,

whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … when we apply it to our lives in all aspects of our life, that it has been good.

It seems evident that Green hopes this Bible curriculum will lead students toward faith, at least incidentally.  For that reason, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has promised to “scrutinize” the Bible curriculum.

More evidence, it seems, of the uselessness of talking about “America’s public schools” in general.  Schools in some communities, such as Mustang, Oklahoma, may welcome evangelical Protestant curricula into their class schedules.  In other places, Green’s Bible curriculum will not be an issue.  Local school boards make decisions that fit with the cultural politics of their local communities.