School Shootings and the “Crime of ‘62”

Governor Mike Huckabee is not alone.

As we’ve noted, the former governor of Arkansas and prominent conservative radio personality denounced the lack of prayer and Bible-reading in public schools.  Such a-religiosity, Huckabee declared, must be part of the reason for last week’s terrible school shootings in Connecticut.

More recently, Bryan Fischer, public face of the conservative American Family Association, echoed Huckabee’s sentiments.  In this video posted by the watchdog group RightWingWatch, Fischer intoned, “Back when we had prayer, the Bible, the Ten Commandments in school, we did not need guns.”  In a follow-up article on the AFA website, Fischer offered similar explanations:

“The truth may be that God was made unwelcome and left. God submits himself to the law of faith, and will not go where he is not wanted. He will not force us to put with him if we don’t want him around. It may be that his protective presence is being removed from our land and from our schools because he has been told repeatedly that his protective presence is not wanted.

“We have, as a culture, systematically booted God from our public schools for over five decades.. In 1962, the Supreme Court issued a diktat that American schools could no longer seek his help and protection. In 1963, the Supreme Court issued a second diktat prohibiting the reading of his Word in our public schools. And in 1980, the Supreme Court issued a third diktat prohibiting the display or teaching of the Ten Commandments, God’s abiding and transcendent moral standard for human conduct.

“So God is no longer prayed to, his counsel is no longer sought and his standards are no longer respected. Is it any wonder that he might not be around when we need him? If we have spent 50 years telling him to get lost, it should not come as a surprise that we eventually begin to feel the absence of his powerful presence.”

Fischer’s evocation of 1962 as a major turning point in American culture is one that resonates deeply among conservative evangelical Protestants in the United States.

Yet among the broader culture, the year does not have the same dramatic power.  This was noticed by conservative evangelicals at the time, as well.

First of all, for evangelicals at the time, it was not 1962, but 1963 that was the real watershed.  In 1963, after all, the US Supreme Court’s decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp ruled that public schools may not lead devotional Bible readings or teacher-led classroom prayers.

The similar but distinct 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, was actually welcomed by many evangelical leaders.  In that decision, SCOTUS ruled that the state could not impose an ecumenical state-written prayer on public schools.

As I argue in my recent article in the Journal of Religious History, evangelical intellectuals at the time could not understand the widespread mainstream indifference to the US Supreme Court’s Schempp decision in 1963, especially when contrasted with the popular uproar that met 1962’s Engel decision.  The article is subscription-only, but here is a small snippet:

“A Moody Monthly poll of evangelical editors in early 1964 found that they considered the Schempp decision the most important event of 1963, outranking the year’s civil-rights activism and Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in importance to American culture and society.[i]  Yet compared to the popular outrage against the Engel decision, the Schempp decision caused less public protest.[ii]  As the editors of Christianity Today noted in the aftermath of the Schempp decision, ‘Why church leaders and the public at large took the broader 1963 decision more calmly deserves nomination for the mystery of the year.’”[iii]

It is difficult to know what to say in the wake of an event like the recent school shootings.  The public remarks of prominent conservative Christians such as Governor Huckabee and Bryan Fischer demonstrate the deeply held feelings among many Americans that the SCOTUS decisions of 1962 and 1963 put America on a woeful path.  Public schools, many feel, must embody the religious traditions of the nation.  Not only as history or literature, but as guideposts for morality and prayer life.

As Fischer’s comments illustrate, it is not the specifics of the SCOTUS decisions of 1962 and 1963 that matter to conservatives, but the notion that mainstream America has turned its back on God by kicking God out of public schools.


[i] “Report: The Month’s Worldwide News in brief,” Moody Monthly 64 (January 1964): 8.

[ii] Donald E. Boles, The Two Swords: Commentaries and Cases in Religion and Education (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1967), 111-112.

 [iii]  “Compliance, Defiance, and Confusion,” Christianity Today 8 (11 October 1963): 34.

Advertisements

In the News: “Gay” Is not Slander in NY

In a story from my new hometown, a New York appellate court ruled recently that it no longer counted as slander to falsely accuse someone of being homosexual.  In this case, a woman spread a rumor that Mark Yonaty was gay in order to get his girlfriend to break up with him.  Yonaty sued and lost.  As the New York Times reported, the appeals court threw out earlier rulings in Yonaty’s favor, saying they were “based on a false premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”

What does this mean for Fundamentalist America?  On one hand, it could mean that FA will find itself more marginalized if it maintains its opposition to homosexual sex and relationships.  Some conservative groups, for instance James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, emphasize love and care for those engaging in homosexual behavior or identifying as homosexuals, even while condemning all sex outside of marriage, especially including gay sex. 

Other FA voices keep up harder-edged language against homosexuality.  A recent article by Bryan Fischer, for instance, on Rightly Concerned, affiliated with the American Family Association, notes that America must discriminate against homosexuals not out of hate but out of love.  However, Fischer also compares healthy anti-homosexual discrimination to other healthy forms of discrimination:

We discriminate against adults, even priests, who have sex with children. We discriminate against teachers who have affairs with students. We discriminate against teachers who moonlight in the porn industry. We discriminate against students who engage in sexting. We discriminate against rapists. We discriminate against those who expose sexual partners unknowingly to the AIDS virus. We discriminate against those adults who commit statutory rape against minors.

If the recent ruling from Albany is a bellwether for the direction of mainstream American culture–and that’s a big if–then Fischer’s type of argument is swimming upstream.  If it is no longer an insult to call someone ‘gay,’ then it will make no sense legally, politically, or culturally to discriminate against homosexuality. 

There’s another lesson we can draw from this article.  At least one gay-rights activist has warned that this decision must not be taken as the end of discrimination against homosexuality.  As the UK’s Daily Mail reported, New York activist Jay Blotcher insisted that being identified as gay could still summon up “something akin to a lynching mob” in parts of the country.  “It’s still a thorny issue,” Blotcher said. “Bottom line, just because you have gay characters on television that make everybody laugh doesn’t mean that the entire country embraces gay people as equal citizens yet.”

Blotcher’s comments illuminate one of the most puzzling aspects of these kinds of “culture-war” debates.  Instead of celebrating the achievement of mainstream acceptability for homosexuality, Blotcher emphasizes the continuing persecution of homosexuals.  Like Blotcher, many voices from FA insist on their own status as beleaguered cultural minorities.  This tradition among American Protestantism has long roots, back to the seventeenth-century persecution of “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” that led in part to the founding of New England.  In the twentieth century, fundamentalist activists have often used Blotcher’s language of continuing discrimination to defend the borders of Fundamentalist America.     

To cite just one example, in 1965 in the wake of the US Supreme Court rulings against school-sponsored religious devotions in public schools, fundamentalist editor and publisher John R. Rice insisted that “White Minorities Have Rights, Too.”  In the pages of his Sword of the Lord magazine (volume 31, September 3, 1965, page 1), Rice asked,

“If Christian people do not have a right to have the Bible taught in the schools, then infidels have no right to teach infidelity in the schools . . . . Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?  Why not observe the rights of white people as well as the rights of Negroes?  Why not observe the rights of nonunion workers as much as the rights of union workers?  Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?” 

Just as Jay Blotcher warned not to remove homosexuality from the category of defended minorities, so fundamentalists such as Rice insisted that they be allowed to claim minority status.  One of the quirks of America’s culture wars is that both sides often claim the rights and privileges of both majority AND minority status.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the continuing propensity of fundamentalists to do both at the same time.