Have Conservatives Already Won the Culture War?

No. No, no, and no. The argument in today’s Washington Post that American conservatives have a “huge, long-term advantage” in our long-simmering culture wars can only work if we water down our definition of “conservatism” to be entirely meaningless. I’m no conservative, but if I were, I would horrified not encouraged by the implications.

is segregation scriptural

Are conservatives winning? No. They often don’t even want to remember what they used to fight for.

David Byler doesn’t want conservatives to panic. He admits conservatives have lost the long-term battles over the definition of marriage, gender, and proper sexuality. But he thinks that conservatives have a huge—ahem—trump card up their sleeves, one that too many of them don’t recognize. As Byler puts it,

Despite the perception that institutions that conservatives hold in high regard — the military, police, the two-parent nuclear family and religion — have taken hits, the public has a high level of trust and attachment to them. And that faith gives conservatives a huge, long-term advantage.

It doesn’t take much of an expert in the history of American conservatism to see the big problem in this argument. Namely, if conservatism today means only a defense of the military, the police, the family in general and religion in general, then it has become a wispy half-memory of what conservatism meant in the recent past.

After all, not very long ago, American conservatives fought for things (and lost) that might seem to today’s conservatives either a fanciful dream or an embarrassing reminder of their real past.

To pull just a few examples from my research into twentieth-century conservatism, twentieth-century conservatives fought for nothing less than evangelical dominance of the public square, forcible racial hierarchy, and total male dominance of political life.

Example #1: In 1922, Kentucky’s legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill. The bill would have done far more than ban the teaching of evolution from the state’s public schools and universities. A Senate amendment would have forbidden any public library in the state from owning any book that would

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

Example #2: In 1928, the conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution explained her vision of the proper role of women in public life. As she put it without apparent irony,

We need some cheer leaders for America; we need some fearless citizens to sit on the side lines and do a little talking in the interest of this country.

Example #3: Jumping to 1960, fundamentalist stalwart Bob Jones Sr. published his thoughts on race and religion. His sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” offered his thoughts on the dilemma of racism among white conservative evangelicals. Did Jones think segregation was a Christian necessity? Short answer, yes. Why? It was not because non-white people were inferior. It was not because they were any less Christian. Nevertheless, Jones insisted,

Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble. . . . God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations.

What’s the point? The point is NOT that today’s conservatives secretly want to bring back racial segregation, male-only politics, or evangelical control of public institutions. Some of them might think that such things would Make America Great Again, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that many conservatives really want to return America to those old inequities.

The point, rather, is that conservatives have always fought a rear-guard action against cultural change in the United States. In 1960, some religious conservatives wanted to maintain racial segregation as a God-given right. In 1928, some patriotic conservatives wanted to keep women on the side lines, limited to cheering for good political ideas. In 1922, some conservatives hoped to impose a frank theocratic law on their state, banning any books that might challenge evangelical Protestant ideas.

Today’s conservatives are generally fighting for other things, such as reducing abortion rights, restricting LGBTQ rights, and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Even on those limited aims, conservatives are losing, just as their predecessors in the twentieth century lost their fights to keep public institutions Christian, to keep politics male, and to keep the races separate.

In order to make a claim that conservatives are winning, David Byler needs to water down conservatism so much that it becomes an awkward stand-in for society as a whole. Yes, conservatives tend to be fonder of the traditional family and of religion in general, but those things are not the province of conservatives alone. Plenty of people who consider themselves progressive also hold family and religion dear. And to say that conservatives are dominant because lots of Americans respect the army and police is almost beyond the need for refutation. Yes, lots of Americans—of all political opinions—respect the army and police. That is not a strength of conservatism but a strength of our society as a whole.

Byler concludes by insisting that “Conservatives have the winning hand. They just don’t know it—and that’s why they might lose.” It’s just not true. Conservatives have always had a losing hand, but they have managed to eke out temporary victories when they have played it well. Long-term conservative victories have come from conservatives’ impressive ability to reshape and reform what it means to be “conservative.”

Advertisements

Billy Graham and Bob Jones

The news is in: Billy Graham has passed away at age 99. I’m not among his evangelical followers, but over the past several years I’ve gotten to know Billy Graham as I’ve worked on my new book about evangelical higher education.

Billy Graham

Graham preaching to the multitudes, London 1954.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Graham became the embodiment of a new spirit among American fundamentalists. He reached out to other Protestants to help lead big revival services all across the world. Some fundamentalists thought he went too far. (For details, check out my archival survey of fundamentalist fury about Graham’s revival successes.) As I note in my book, Bob Jones Sr. in particular had a long and tempestuous relationship with Graham.

Graham had started his college career at Bob Jones College. After a year, though, Graham left, ending up with an anthropology major from Wheaton. Jones and Graham kept in close contact and their correspondence is the best single source I’ve found to understand the rift between fundamentalists and new-evangelicals.

By the 1950s, Jones actively warned fundamentalists not to trust Graham or any institution that welcomed Graham. Jones’s letters show both the reasons and the personal anguish involved. Below I’ll quote from a five-page single-spaced letter Jones wrote to Graham in 1951.

                Here is the difference between your mistakes and mine: My mistakes grew out of the way I did things because I did not know how to do them.  After I got the right kind of advice, I quit making them.  Your mistakes have not grown out of your lack of information or your inability to get information.  Your mistakes have grown out of the fact that you are not building your evangelistic campaigns on the right foundation and the right principles.  Billy, if you build a house on the right foundation, the storms and wind may blow that house down, but you do not have to ever rebuild the foundation. . . .

In your heart, you love Jesus, and you are happy to see people saved; but your love for glamour and your ambition (which is the strongest ambition I have ever known any man in evangelistic work to have) and your desire to please everybody are so dominant in your life that you are staggering from one side of the road to the other. . . . You, in your effort to please, are putting yourself on the spot. . . .

Most of the material that goes out about you, you put out. . . .

I could tell you much more, Billy; but it does not do any good to talk to you.  You will agree with a fellow, but you go on just as you are, and that is the discouraging thing about it. . . .

You are popular like any showman is popular, but you have no real grasp upon the hearts of the people like Billy Sunday and other men had. . . .

[When you were young, you begged me] to call you one of my boys and told me that you got your slant on evangelism at Bob Jones  University.  My evangelistic heart was touched, and I put about you the arms of evangelistic affection.  I came back here to the school and told everybody that you were one of our boys.  I did not tell them what kind of a record you made here.  I took at face value what you said about going to Florida because of your health.  I asked all of our boys to pray for you.  I asked my friends to pray for you.  Remember, Billy, that was before you made the headlines. . . .

you began to think that probably the best thing for you was at least on certain occasions and in certain places not to let people know that you were here [as a student at Bob Jones College] and that, as you had said, you got your slant on evangelism here.  So you began to sort of soft pedal. . . .

Now that you are in the headlines, the fact that I ever said that you were one of our boys because you told me to, and people know about that, and you cover it up gives the idea that we are trying to hang on to your coat tail because you are in the headlines; but we are not, Billy. . . .

I still love you…

A February for Fundamentalism

Don’t dilly-dally. You’ve only got three weeks left to pick out your outfit. It’ll need to look sharp, because you’re invited to a talk on February 23rd, on the scenic campus of Binghamton University.

All joking aside, all Binghamton-area folks are heartily invited to come hear me share some of my current research as part of the university’s spring 2015 speaker series. In this talk, I’ll discuss the ways conservative evangelical colleges helped define what it meant to be a “fundamentalist” in the 1930s.

bju bannerI’ll tell stories from three very different places: The Denver Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Bob Jones College. Each of them had a very different idea of what it meant to be fundamentalist, as well as a different idea of who had the right to decide.

At DBI, supreme leader Clifton Fowler ran into hot water in the early 1930s as his faculty and church split. Fowler was accused of holding non-fundamentalist ideas about sex, leadership, and Scripture. To heal the rift, Fowler appealed to fundamentalist leaders nationwide to conduct an investigation.Billy Graham Center 2

At Wheaton, meanwhile, President J. Oliver Buswell was tossed out for a range of offenses, including Buswell’s leadership of a Presbyterian faction as well as Buswell’s moderate ideas about creationism.

Down at Bob Jones College (not Bob Jones University until the 1940s), founder Bob Jones Sr. engaged in a very different sort of definition. When faculty members got too chummy with students, when they played jazz records and mocked Jones’s uptight attitude toward modern culture, Jones gave them the boot. At Bob Jones College, fundamentalism meant what the founder said it meant.

DBISignIn each case, we can see the ways institutions wrestled with the tricky question of definition. At a small school like DBI, the leader had to ask famous fundamentalists to give him a fundamentalist seal of approval. At Bob Jones College, on the other hand, leaders imposed a more top-down idiosyncratic definition. At Wheaton, fundamentalism did not have room for the sort of bare-knuckle denominational wrangling that Buswell considered the heart and soul of fundamentalism.

These stories have it all: sex, jazz, and Presbyterianism. So come on down to Binghamton University at four o’clock on February 23rd. We’re meeting in the conference room of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, on the first floor of the Library Tower.

The event is free and open to all; no registration is required.

Outlaw Colleges

Why do so many otherwise right-thinking Americans embrace leftist ideas?  For generations, conservative intellectuals have blamed the skewed perspective of American colleges and universities.

This morning in the pages of National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson offers a ten-point condemnation of the American higher educational system.

For those unfamiliar with the real history, it might be tempting to assume that conservatives turned against the higher-education system during the campus tumults of the 1960s and 1970s.  Free speech movements, hippies, sit-ins, campus radicals occupying dean’s offices…there was certainly enough reason for conservatives to look askance at campus culture in those years.  But conservative intellectuals and activists had worried about the state of higher education long before that.

In the 1920s, for example, religious conservatives worried that mainstream campuses converted faith-filled young people into atheists and skeptics.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalists realized that college determined culture.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, often trumpeted the findings of James H. Leuba.  Leuba had studied the beliefs of college students, and in his 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality, Leuba concluded that the number of self-identified religious believers declined during college years.  In speech after speech in the 1920s, Bryan used Leuba’s numbers as proof that college wrecked faith.

Bryan wasn’t the only one.  Throughout the 1920s, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. warned of the dangerous effects of typical college curricula on young people.  One of the reasons Jones founded his own uniquely religious school, he explained in sermons, was because too many young people became college “shipwrecks.”  He told the story of one hapless family who had scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

In the 1930s, too, conservatives fretted that college corrupted culture.  Beyond the ranks of religious conservatives, activists in patriotic organizations such as the American Legion warned that colleges had been subverted by anti-American socialist moles.  As I argue in my upcoming book, worries about the subversive state of higher education became a central tenet of their conservative ideology.  For instance, in 1935 New York Congressman, red-hunter, and American Legion co-founder Hamilton Fish attacked the state of higher ed.  He named names, including Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  These elite schools, Fish warned, and many others, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists, and Communists.”  A less prominent American Legion writer echoed this sentiment.  “Colleges all over the land” Legionnaire Phil Conley warned in a 1935 article, had begun teaching “the overthrow of our government . . . through subterfuge and through destroying faith and confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Long before “The Sixties,” then, conservatives concluded that colleges and universities threatened to shatter the cultural cohesion that had made America great.  These days, too, conservative intellectuals often condemn the state of higher education.  Of course, just as with earlier generations of conservatives, today’s conservatives may find many different reasons to worry about what goes on in America’s campuses.  Publications such as Minding the Campus and from the National Association of Scholars offer conservatives forums for sharing their complaints about the state of higher ed.

In the pages of National Review Online, we read one summary of conservative complaints about college today.  Victor Davis Hanson calls the state of higher education criminal.  He damns “virtual outlaw institutions” that take students’ money mainly to line their own pockets and fuel the narcissistic lifestyles of fat-and-happy professors and administrators.  “If the best sinecure in America,” Hanson concludes,

is a tenured full professorship, the worst fate may be that of a recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan. That the two are co-dependent is a national scandal.

In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.

Hanson offers a ten-point brief.  College can be saved, he argues, if these senseless traditions are subjected to radical reform.  First, abolish tenure.  Second, rationalize hiring.  Third, take ideological garbage out of the curriculum.  Fourth, add transparency to the admissions process.  Fifth, cut the fat out of administration.  Sixth, remove the useless teaching credential.  Seventh, add national competency tests for faculty.  Eighth, publish school budgets.  Ninth, eliminate expensive and unnecessary university presses.  Finally, open campuses to real free speech.

Taken together, Hanson suggests, these radical reforms promise to renew the promise of American higher education.  Without them, American students and their families will continue to be held at intellectual and financial knife-point by the highway robbers known as professors and administrators.

How bout it?  Have you experienced college strife?  For those readers who come from conservative religious backgrounds, did your college experience shatter your faith?  Or did college turn you from a patriotic youth into a skeptical adult?  And what about Hanson’s broader challenge?  Do colleges take students’ money and offer only a skewed ideological indoctrination in return?