SCOTUS Decision: Who’s the Bigot Here?

The script isn’t new. In every culture-war battle these days, both sides like to call each other bigots. The recent landmark SCOTUS ruling is no different. When the Court ruled this week that a church school cannot be prevented from receiving public funds, both sides insisted they are on the side of the anti-bigotry angels. From this historian’s perspective, one side has the much better case. Am I off base?

If you’ve been following the Trinity Lutheran case, you’ve heard all about “Blaine Amendments.” Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that Missouri could not exclude a religious school from receiving public funds for its playground. The school had applied for a grant to re-surface its playground. The state of Missouri, though, rejected the otherwise successful application because its state constitution prohibits funding religious schools, in a clause popularly known as a “Blaine Amendment.”

So far, so good.

The majority in this case fulfilled the dreams of conservatives such as Clarence Thomas. Blaine Amendments, Thomas has long argued, have their roots in anti-Catholic prejudice. As a product of 1870s bigotry, they deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of historical justice. In his opinion in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), for example, Justice Thomas excoriated such doctrines as “born of bigotry.”

Is he right? The other side insists that the real bigots are the ones who want to erode the goal of a secular government. The true bigots, they’d say, are the folks like Clarence Thomas who hope to chip away at the post-World-War-II SCOTUS consensus that there should be a firm wall of separation between church and state. The ultimate goal of such SCOTUS scheming is to take away the hard-won rights of religious and non-religious minorities, to cram majority Christianity down the throats of Americans of all backgrounds.

Who has the better argument?

On one hand, Justice Thomas isn’t totally wrong. Although savvy historians such as Benjamin Justice of Rutgers have made a good case against him, the Blaine Amendments really do have roots as relics of anti-Catholic populist bigotry.

In his terrific book The Bible, the School, and the Constitution, Steven K. Green describes the context in which the Blaine Amendments took off. From Green’s perspective, Justice Thomas’s argument is far too simplistic. Senator Blaine himself wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot. His mother was Catholic and he sent his kids to Catholic schools. Moreover, as Green points out, there was not a single “Blaine Amendment” and the supporters of such amendments had a variety of motivations, not just anti-Catholic bigotry.green bible school constitution

However, just because Blaine wasn’t an anti-Catholic bigot, his amendment certainly played to the popular anti-Catholic bigotry of his day, as Green also relates. In the years following the Civil War, the Republican Party used popular anti-Catholic sentiment as a campaign tool. Leaders such as Blaine and Grant inflamed the anti-Catholic prejudices of voters in order to discredit their rivals in the Democratic Party, the traditional political home of Irish Catholics.

Blaine’s proposed Constitutional amendment was at least in part a House-of-Cards-style attempt to inflame anti-Catholic bigotry. According to Green, contemporary newspapers recognized Blaine’s proposal as fueling “the excitement of Protestant fanaticism.” Rallies in support of the Blaine Amendment made no secret of it. They insisted the anti-Catholic measure would guarantee the victory of “the promulgation of the doctrines of true religion” in America.

So, although Justice Thomas distorts the history of the Blaine Amendments by over-emphasizing this bigoted anti-Catholic support, he is not wrong to suggest that supporters often did react out of knee-jerk Protestant chauvinism. Though the Blaine Amendment failed, its language was incorporated in one way or another into several state constitutions, including Missouri’s.

In this historian’s opinion, however, there is a more important flaw lurking in Justice Thomas’s use of the history of Blaine Amendments, due either to surprising ignorance or profound cynicism. If bigotry lurked at the heart of the Blaine Amendment, precisely the same bigotry has fueled a generation of conservative attempts to wedge religion—a certain form of religion—back into America’s public schools. When Justice Thomas fights against Blaine-ist bigotry, he is promoting the very same.

The dangerous, bigoted implication—in Blaine’s day or in ours—is that there is one type of religion that is somehow more American than others. To my mind, this is the big danger in this debate, and it is a danger that has worried conservative religious people as much as secular progressives like myself.

As Robert Daniel Rubin argues in his terrific new book Judicial Review and American Conservatism, since the 1970s religious conservatives have fought against the separation of church and state in order to restore Christianity to its place as America’s de facto religion. As part of this campaign, since the days of Senator Jesse Helms and Justice William Rehnquist, conservatives have pushed to wedge more and more Christian prayer and Bible-reading back into schools.rubin book

Moral-Majority types have always valued the privileges of Christian majorities over the rights of religious (or non-religious) minorities. Justice Rehnquist, for example, thought the primary goal of courts should be to defend the rights of majorities to promulgate their doctrines in public institutions, including public schools. As Rubin puts it (pg. 214), Justice Rehnquist felt

solicitude toward the majority and its capacity to fashion policies embodying its moral and political preferences. To honor dissenters’ rights more jealously than states’ laws was to disgrace the democratic process.

Just like Senator Blaine and Justice Thomas, Justice Rehnquist wouldn’t have called this solicitude “bigotry.” In the end, though, if we have to play the bigotry card, I can’t help but think that Thomas has the weaker case.

Why? The most dangerous, bigoted notion in these cases, IMHO, is the implication that there is a real American religion, that Christianity (or Protestantism, or evangelical Protestantism) have somehow a better claim to government support. In this idea lurks the true and dangerous bigotry in this perennial conflict. It is a bigotry, to be fair, that has been strenuously opposed by plenty of religious conservatives themselves. As we’ve noted in these pages, many conservative evangelicals are horrified by the notion that theirs is somehow a merely “American” religion.

Among conservative evangelicals, however, it has proven difficult to oppose moral-majoritarianism. And so we come to our culture-war battle over the proper role of Christian religion in public schools. One on side, we have conservatives who fight to include Christian sentiment and activity in government-funded activities, including schools. On the other, we have progressives who favor a strict secularity in government funding.

Ideally, we could have these discussions without calling each other bigots. When it comes right down to it, though, if we are going to start flinging mud, the balance seems clear to me: In this case the bigger bigots are those who hope to cram Christianity back into public schools. They ignore the rights of minorities; they insist that their ideas are right for everybody.

Many SAGLRROILYBYGTH will likely disagree. What do YOU think? Is it fair to call pro-Christian activism “bigotry?” Or do Christian groups have a right to legal protection from anti-religious “bigotry” such as the so-called Blaine Amendments?

Governor Haley and the Changing Face of Fundamentalist America

Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina has a new book out.  The cutely titled Can’t Is Not an Option may be a bald-faced bid for the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nomination, but it can also tell us something about the ways Fundamentalist America is changing.  The book itself sounds sugary, but Haley’s personal story is compelling.

Haley is an Indian-American child of immigrants.  The fact that a dark-skinned female politician whose father wears a turban can succeed as a conservative Republican politician in a state known for racism and evangelical Protestantism means a lot. 

Haley joins a small but growing list of non-white conservative heavy hitters: businessman/politician Herman Cainwriter Dinesh D’Souza, politicians Bobby Jindall and Allen West, and jurist Clarence Thomas, among others.  Such a showing, especially among African Americans, makes a good deal of sense from a fundamentalist perspective.

Conservative intellectuals, notably those at the Heritage Foundation, have made a concerted strategic effort to overcome fundamentalism’s traditional connection to white supremacist ideology.

But although it may make strategic sense, it is a tall order politically.  African Americans have been tightly linked to the Democratic Party since the 1930s.  Before that, African American voters stuck just as close to the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln.  For most of American history, the vortex of race and race consciousness has overwhelmed all other identity issues, pushing most African Americans to vote first as African Americans, and only second as conservatives, liberals, secularists, religious, etc.

But beyond party politics, African Americans tend toward a deep fundamentalism.  Gallup polls consistently demonstrate this.  For example, one 2005 poll showed that about seven in ten African Americans called themselves “evangelical” or “born again” Christians.  African Americans, according to a 1999 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll are significantly more likely (85%) to support school prayer than are whites (69%).  This conservative religiosity among African Americans has influenced cultural attitudes among African American young people as well.  A 2002 poll found that only 8% of African American teens say they drink alcohol, compared to 25% of white teens, likely due to higher rates of conservative religiosity.  Among non-whites in general, according to a 2003 poll, only 52% think that premarital sex is morally acceptable, compared to 59% of whites.

Race is a tough issue for fundamentalists.  There are plenty of fundamentalist whites who seem to cling to traditionalism in their white supremacist ideology, just as they cling to traditionalism in religion, education, and culture.  But non-whites, in large majorities, are fundamentalists in everything except party politics.  If more non-whites like Nikki Haley continue to emphasize their cultural conservatism, and if they tie that cultural conservatism to political conservatism, then more and more non-whites may continue to embrace all the meanings of Fundamentalism.

Agnotology and Education

Late-night comics must miss the days of Cheney and Rumsfeld.  Dick Cheney shot people and literally had no heartbeat due to a special kind of pacemaker. Donald Rumsfeld offered rhetorical gems during press
conferences, none better than the following from 2002:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some
things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Along these lines, although with pithier prose, historian of science Robert Proctor  has suggested a promising line of study, about the things we don’t know and the ways we don’t know them.  He calls the field agnotology, or the study
of ignorance.  Others have suggested different terms, such as agnoiology.  (See Tim Lacy’s discussion of the history on the US Intellectual History blog for more.)

In a recent collection of essays co-edited with Londa Schiebinger, Proctor laid out a three-part structure of agnotology.  In Proctor’s view, it will be helpful to differentiate between types of ignorance:

ignorance as native state (or resource), ignorance as lost realm (or selective choice), and

ignorance as a deliberately engineered and strategic ploy (or active construct).

Proctor and some of the other essay contributors are especially interested in the ways that ignorance can be a strategic ploy.  Proctor, for instance, describes the ways tobacco companies constructed plausible ignorance about the negative health impacts of smoking.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in their contribution “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War,” explore the conspiratorial history of the George Marshall Institute and its quest to create ignorance about the causes of global climate change.

It seems to me the study of ignorance has another productive application in our thinking about the cultural and intellectual role of institutional education.  Notions of education usually include the implicit claim to be combating ignorance.  But in fact, some kinds of ignorance have long been part and parcel of educational goals.  In general, this has taken the form of certain types of information from which young people must be shielded.  This has a long and storied legacy.  Anthony Comstock, for example, made his career on protecting youth, women, and other “vulnerable” classes of people from exposure to lewd information.

In American schools, a Calvinist hangover has implicitly shaped ideologies of mandatory ignorance, especially for the young.  Pre-1857 editions of McGuffey’s Third Reader included a short anonymous selection that typified this tradition.  In the short dialogue, “Knowledge is Power,” the first speaker asserts confidently, “Knowledge is an excellent thing.”

An old man replies, “It may be a blessing or a curse.  Knowledge is only an increase of power, and power may be a bad as well as a good thing.”  The old man goes on to give examples that overwhelm the initial reluctance of his optimistic interlocutor: A horse without a bridle can wreck a barn. A pond without dams can flood a field.  A ship well steered goes faster, but if steered wrong, “the more sail she carries, the further will she go out of her course.”

The younger man is convinced.  Without tight control, such things can cause damage.  “‘Well, then,’ continued the old man, ‘if you see these things so clearly, I hope you can see, too, that knowledge to be a good thing, must be rightly applied.  God’s grace in the heart will render the knowledge of the head a blessing; but without this, it may prove to us no better than a curse.”

This short bit captures the powerful drive toward ignorance that long ruled the Reformed tradition in the United States.  Knowledge, in this view, was not a simple good.  It must be carefully examined and weighed before being pursued.  By itself, knowledge could be the sinful knowledge first banned for Adam and Eve.  It could be the knowledge of pernicious doubt and skepticism.  To become wise, in this tradition, meant remaining ignorant of such fields.

This tradition of mandatory ignorance has been enormously influential on American thinking about education and youth.  Throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the notion that ignorance must be actively promoted and defended among young people has proven culturally and politically powerful far beyond the circles of religious conservatives.  Knowledge about sex, violence, and—among certain circles—scientific topics such as evolution has been seen as an intellectual poison.  Building and defending walls of ignorance around such notions has been asserted as the primary aim of education.

For instance, in the 1920s, when the culture wars over the teaching of evolution first heated up, anti-evolutionists insisted that any chink in the armor of ignorance protecting young people would be worse than death.  In 1923, anti-evolution evangelist T.T. Martin demanded relentless defense of the ignorance of young people.  “Ramming poison down the throats of our children is nothing,” Martin accused, “compared with damning their souls with the teaching of Evolution.”

Other anti-evolutionists in the 1920s argued that this ignorance should only extend through children’s formative years.  By the time they reached college age, many thought, they could be safely allowed to know.  For instance, Alfred Fairhurst, a fundamentalist educator active in the 1920s controversies, had always argued that “in the colleges and universities [evolution] ought to be taught honestly and fully to the select few who have the ability to comprehend it in all its bearings.”

Similar arguments were made throughout the twentieth century about the importance of ignorance about sex for young people.  One of the most prolific fundamentalist writers about education and ignorance has been Tim LaHaye.  In his 1983 Battle for the Public School, LaHaye decried the fact that explicit knowledge about sex had been “jammed down the throats of our children.”  LaHaye described one passage of a sex-ed book:

thescene of intercourse portrays a naked father astride his equally naked wife,
intent on three areas of contact: lips, breasts/chest, penis/vagina.  The genital area offers an ‘inner’ diagram,
so that the child can perceive the mother’s vagina and uterus; the father has
inserted his penis into the vagina and is emitting sperm cells.

Such knowledge, LaHaye insisted, exemplified “this reckless policy of inflaming young minds with adult information.”  For LaHaye as for Protestant fundamentalists of the 1920s, this was not an undifferentiated insistence on ignorance, but rather a belief that certain types of ignorance must be maintained for young
people specifically.  As many conservative Protestants did not—and do not—object to the teaching of evolution
to older students, so LaHaye famously celebrated sex knowledge for some audiences.  In his 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, LaHaye promoted frank, explicit knowledge of sex for adult married couples.

This distinction between young unmarried people and married couples runs throughout current conservative Protestant thinking about sex education.  Ministries such as Joe Beam’s Family Dynamics promote knowledge about sex, but only within a traditional marriage.

For such Christian conservatives, knowledge as such is not dangerous, but the boundaries around knowledge must be vigorously defended.

The notion that young people must be protected from certain types of knowledge has powerful influence beyond the ranks of Protestant fundamentalists.  Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v.
Entertainment Merchants Association
(2010) that the state of California could not ban violent video games for those under eighteen years of age.  The Court agreed that such a ban violated the game-makers’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Justice Clarence Thomas made a curious rejoinder.  In his dissenting opinion, he argued that California could ban violent video games because the founding generation believed in and rigidly enforced parents’ ability to severely curtail the outer bounds of knowledge accessible to their children.

Thomas argued that the founding generation demanded strong control over what young people could know.
He stated, “Adults [in the founding era] carefully controlled what they published for children.  Stories written for children were dedicated to moral instruction and were relatively austere, lacking details that might titillate children’s minds.”

Like LaHaye and the 1920s anti-evolutionists, Thomas insisted on the educational tradition of promoting, defending, and enforcing ignorance.  Certain topics, especially concerning sex, violence, and religiously charged notions such as evolution, must not be broached with young people.  There is an inherent danger, according to this line of thinking, in the merest exposure of young people to such forms of knowledge.  In this view, schools join parents as gatekeepers of such forbidden forms of knowledge.  The role of the school, parent, and society, is to become active purveyors of constructed ignorance for young people.