Stupid Question: Are You “Extremely Proud” to Be an American?

Just in time for the Fourth: New poll results prove that Democrats are a bunch of anti-American no-goodniks. But anyone who knows culture-war history will see that Gallup goofed in the wording of this patriotic question.gallup pride

The poll results won’t really surprise anyone. When asked how proud they are to be Americans—“extremely proud, very proud, moderately proud, only a little proud or not at all proud”—fewer and fewer respondents are saying they are “extremely proud.” Among Democrats, the number has slid to a mere 22%, from a post-9/11 high of 65%.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, asking someone if they are “extremely proud” to be an American doesn’t tell us much. For almost a full century now, this kind of phrase has not been a true measure of one’s love of country, but rather a marker of which side you were on. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, following World War I a certain sort of knee-jerk patriotism became a hallmark of cultural conservatism.

Consider the case of Harold Rugg. Rugg’s textbooks were used by millions of American students. Starting in the late 1930s, however, conservatives in the American Legion and other “patriotic” groups attacked Rugg as sneakily socialist. The books, conservatives argued, were un-American because they questioned America’s role as an unqualifiedly positive force in world history.

As have lefties ever since, Rugg fought back. He insisted that he DID love America, but that children should learn about its faults as well as its virtues. As he put it in 1941, he felt

profound admiration and deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.

He also believed that real American virtues were under attack, not by lefties like him, but by

a few false patriots in our midst who, while mouthing the slogans of Americanism, stamp on the Bill of Rights, destroy tolerant discussion of issues, bear false witness and defame the characters and reputations of other Americans who are sincerely striving to honor and protect the democratic process.

These days, too, asking people if they are “extremely proud” to be American seems to be the wrong question to ask. Consider the flip side: With a few exceptions—such as conservative isolationism in the early 1940s—generally the Left has been the side of “peace.” Since the Vietnam War in particular, saying that you are in favor of “peace” has lined you up with hippies and vegetarianism and Jane Fonda.

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Boring…boring…boring from within.

Of course conservatives are also in favor of “peace.” Who isn’t? But any poll that asked Americans if they were on the side of “peace” would get skewed results. It would find that Democrats apparently favored “peace” more than Republicans.

For this Fourth of July holiday, too, with T-diddy promising “brand-new Sherman tanks” in a Stalin-esque military display, it seems perverse to ask people if they are “extremely proud” to be Americans. Ask us if we love this country. Ask us if we are willing to make sacrifices for the common good. Ask us a million different questions and you’ll get a better answer.

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What Do Women Want?

It is a difficult thing for secular, progressive people like me to get through our thick skulls. I’ve been reading the work lately of historians such as Beth Allison Barr, Kristen Kobes Dumez, and Emily Suzanne Johnson about the relationship between conservative religion, conservative politics, and what people used to call “the woman question.” If we needed any reminding, recent poll numbers remind us that conservative women are often MORE conservative than conservative men about the proper public role of women.

So a little true confession: Way back in the 1980s, I would have agreed with my Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She has insisted that there are two sides in politics today: Trump vs. Women. As Senator Gillibrand put it,

I believe that if President Trump wants a war with America’s women, it’s a war he will have and it is one he will lose.

A younger me would have assumed—as Senator Gillibrand is hoping people will assume—that women in general will have a certain political viewpoint. I would have assumed that women should be in favor of abortion rights, equal pay for women, and other feminist basics. I would have agreed that it just makes sense for women voters to be especially outraged by Trump’s violent talk and anti-feminist politics.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of historical study, however, to realize that there is no natural “woman’s” position in religion or politics.

Certainly, as I found in my research into educational conservatism in the twentieth century, conservative women usually played a leading role in pushing for traditional gender roles and anti-feminist politics. In the early part of the century, leaders of the Daughters of the American Revolution articulated a conservative vision for the proper role of women in society. As DAR leader Grace Brosseau put it in 1928,

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.

This notion of women fighting for their right to NOT be leaders themselves has always been difficult for me to comprehend, but it is not an anomaly in American history, politics, and religion. Lots of women have insisted on their proper roles “on the side lines” instead of on the field.

Today’s poll numbers show that some women today still feel the same way. Buried in a 2018 PRRI survey about the differences between men and women in politics we find some important numbers. First, most respondents say they have no gender preference in political candidates. All things being equal, 70% of Americans say they’d vote for the most qualified candidate regardless of gender.

Only 11% say they would prefer a male candidate, but among Republican women, that number jumps to 23%. In fact, more Republican women (23%) than men (14%) are willing to admit to preferring a male candidate.

A younger me would have been astounded by this number. Like a lot of my progressive, secular friends, I used to assume that women would “naturally” avoid religious hierarchies that put them below men. I used to think that women voters would “naturally” want more political rights. It’s just not the case.

Why Religious Joe Biden Won’t Win the Religious Vote

Okay, so VP Biden is religious. Really religious. However, unlike what GOP consultant Rob Stutzman opined recently in the Washington Post, no matter how sincere Democrats are with their Christianity, it just doesn’t matter. Our culture-war history helps explain why.

biden religious

…I’m serious, you guys…

I’m not doubting any of Mr. Stutzman’s evidence for Biden’s profound dedication to his Catholic faith. As Stutzman writes,

Biden, a Roman Catholic, speaks genuinely about how his faith has been a sustaining aspect of his life through family tragedies, including the loss of his son, Beau, to brain cancer. He wears Beau’s rosary around his wrist, describing it as the connection he keeps daily with his late son. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard — “Faith sees best in the dark ” — to explain how he and his wife’s shared belief in God connects him with tens of millions of Americans who rely on a sustaining faith amid myriad challenges.

But Stutzman makes a Jimmy-Carter-sized mistake when he suggests that religious voters might be attracted more to the very religious Biden than to the clown-car Trump. Stutzman is off base, in other words, when he concludes,

What happens to Christian voters when they see a Democratic candidate living an authentic faith juxtaposed with a Republican president just renting some religion? My guess is that many will think twice.

They won’t. And before any of my progressive friends get high and mighty about the hypocrisy involved among conservative Christians, consider the fact that we do it too. As any historian of American conservatism will tell you, for the past fifty years many conservatives—especially the intellectual sorts—have taken pains to refute the charges that the GOP is the party of white racism. None of us “think twice” about believing them.

As I conducted the research for my book about educational conservatism, I was struck time and time again by the insistence of conservative thinkers and activists that they really weren’t racist. It didn’t matter. The charges of racism stuck, for good reason.

Why? As I found in my study of the explosive school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in the mid-1970s, many white conservatives considered themselves truly anti-racist, for purely conservative reasons.

Conservative protest leader Reverend Avis Hill, for example, liked to tell reporters that his conservative congregation was evenly mixed between whites and blacks. Conservative teacher and activist Karl Priest told me that he intentionally coached an interracial basketball league, devoting untold hours of his free time to fight the scourge of racism.

Local African-American leaders even voiced their agreement with the conservative protesters. Local NAACP leader Ronald English, for example, told one school-board meeting that most African Americans in Kanawha County were “very conservative,” and they agreed with white conservatives that public schools should not include “anti-Christian . . . unpatriotic” material.

Nevertheless, just as Joe Biden won’t make any headway with conservative Christian voters, white conservatives in Kanawha County never managed to convince African Americans to join their protest. And white conservatives in general have never been able to convince anyone but themselves of the sincerity of their anti-racism. The political logic is too obvious to need spelling out, but I’ll do it anyway.

avis hill kanawha protest

Avis Hill: I’m no racist, but…

In Kanawha County in the 1970s, conservative African Americans didn’t buy the anti-racism claims of white conservative protesters. Their reason was clear. In addition to the anti-racist claims of some white conservatives, everyone also heard other white conservatives denouncing the new controversial textbooks as “those n***er books.” And among the conservatives who flocked to Charleston to take the side of the white conservatives, Ed Miller, leader of the West Virginia Ku Klux Klan, promised to bring in thousands of robed and hooded klansmen to join in.

In short, no matter how sincere the anti-racist beliefs of many GOP-voting conservatives–and I believe that many of them are truly sincere about it–American conservatism as a whole has never been able to shake its well-earned image as the party of white racism. As a result, the GOP—for the past fifty years the party of conservatism—has never had much appeal to non-whites.

Similarly, no matter how devout and sincere is the religiosity of Joe Biden, or Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Barack Obama, the Democratic party is the party of secularism. Even if conservative religious voters believe in the sincerity of individual Democrats, they will still shy away from the Democratic Party as the party of secularism.

I’d like to share Stutzman’s optimism, but no matter how devout they are, no Democrat is going to attract the support of conservative religious voters.

Why Liberal Evangelicals Aren’t

I’ve been trying to think of one for a long time and I think I’ve finally found an analogy that fits. Let me know: Does this comparison help you understand the difficult pickle in which politically liberal white evangelicals find themselves? Or did you have to grow up watching hockey for it to make sense?

 

It’s an old problem, I know, but I started thinking about it again this week talking to a reporter from Inside Higher Ed about the changes and cuts at Gordon College. As a relatively elite, relatively liberal evangelical college, Gordon has long found itself in a tough position. It has been accused of being too liberal, yet its president has also staked out some relatively conservative positions on LGBTQ issues in recent years.

At Taylor University, too, liberal students and faculty have protested against the school’s welcome of VP Mike Pence. Several dozen students walked out when Pence took the podium at their commencement ceremony. At least one student (at the 1:27 mark in the video above) refused to shake Pence’s hand.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, I don’t share the optimism of some liberal white evangelicals that we are at the start of a new age in America’s culture wars, one with a vibrant “evangelical left,” one in which evangelical religion frees itself from its pact with conservative politics.

Rather, I think these recent higher-ed dilemmas highlight the ultimate weakness of politically liberal white evangelicalism.

Before I lay out my analogy, I should repeat that I don’t have any skin in this game. I’m no evangelical myself, liberal or otherwise. My personal politics certainly tip toward the progressive, so I’m more in tune with liberal evangelicals than conservative ones, but I myself can’t claim to share in the travails of liberal evangelical friends, though I admire them.

From the bleachers, then, I’ve been wondering why politics has been so difficult for politically liberal evangelicals for the past fifty years. As David Swartz has explored so well, the “evangelical left” has always struggled to gain electoral traction. From Mark Hatfield to Pete Buttigieg, from Jim Wallis to John Alexander, liberal evangelicals have often attracted enthusiastic support, but not huge numbers.

Why?

I think I have finally found an analogy that makes sense. The evangelical left is in a similar position to hockey purists who want to ban fighting.

 

 

Think about it: In many ways, the anti-fighting faction has a strong case. They argue that the sport is being hurt by the constant fighting, that brutish “enforcers” are kept on team rosters just to intimidate the opposition. The anti-fight faction can point to decades of expert opinion on their side, including a strong 1988 anti-fight statement from the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine. The constant fights, experts agree, are killing the game of hockey. At the college and youth levels, fighting has significantly decreased.

Yet fighting retains its revered unofficial status in the NHL. Why?

For one thing, fans love it. For many hockey lovers, fights are the big attraction, not an unfortunate exception. Indeed, I would wager than many hockey fans have no idea that one could separate fighting from hockey. And it’s not only the fans who love it. Players, coaches, advertisers, team owners…all of them consider fights to be a central part of the appeal of professional hockey.

And here’s the kicker: People who love the fights support them with their dollars. People who don’t like the fights have an easy option; they can just stop watching. Why would the governing body of the National Hockey League listen to the anti-fight faction—the group that is likely to leave the sport—instead of the pro-fight faction—the group that is invested for the long haul?

So forgive me if I’m stretching this analogy too far, but I think it helps me understand the ticklish dilemma of politically liberal white evangelicalism. Like the anti-fight hockey faction, liberal evangelicals have a very easy door out, but a very difficult, slippery, obstacle-filled uphill climb to change things.

Why Progressives Should Cheer for Creationism

Good news for science, but bad news for progressive culture warriors: We’ve got a smart conservative voice preaching to the creationist choir. In National Review this week, geneticist Razib Khan makes the obvious case that conservatives should not paint themselves into a science-denial corner.  If conservatives were to listen to Dr. Khan, progressives would be in trouble, but there’s no need for my fellow progressives to fret.

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Why won’t Dr. Khan’s argument get anywhere? Exhibit A:

As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism (more news on that front soon), there is no logical reason for evolutionary theory to be so scary to American conservatives. As Dr. Khan sensibly explains,

evolutionary biology is nothing for conservatives to fear, because it is one of the crowning achievements of modern Western civilization. It should be viewed not as an acid gnawing at the bones of civilization, but as a jewel. The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value. And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.

Absolutely true. Moreover, Dr. Khan points out a strategic truth that should leave progressives trembling. Namely, if conservatives ever got over their evo-phobia, they would have a powerful new weapon with which to fight culture-war battles. As Khan puts it,

the political implications of evolutionary biology do not favor the Left. Today many on the Left reject the very idea of human nature, to the point of effectively being evolution deniers themselves. They assert that society and values can be restructured at will. That male and female are categories of the mind, rather than of nature. In rejecting evolution, a conservative gives up the most powerful rejoinder to these claims.

Khan hopes to turn the culture-war tables. For example, if conservatives could put together credible arguments against same-sex marriage based on science rather than the Bible, they would have a far stronger political case. After all, almost all American voters revere the idea of science (even if they sometimes define ‘science’ in odd ways), but only a minority care about the Bible.

Moreover, Dr. Khan has history on his side. Historically, evolutionary theory has been used politically to fight for a wide range of political ideologies. Back in the 1920s, for example, it was the politically progressive pro-evolution side that used evolutionary theory to fight for eugenics and “scientific racism.” There is no logical reason–theological or otherwise–why today’s conservatives could not use evolutionary theory to fight for their conservative political beliefs.

However, there is one enormous flaw in Dr. Khan’s argument. Yes, conservatives should embrace evolutionary science. They should turn the idea of ‘evolution’ into a battle field instead of merely retreating from it. But they won’t.

Consider the case of former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Jindal is a smart cookie—Ivy League degree, biology major, Oxford graduate degree…the works. There is no doubt that Governor Jindal understands the scientific power of evolutionary theory. Yet when he was asked about his policy on creationism, Jindal hedged. He hemmed and he hawed and he finally agreed that he wouldn’t want to tell anyone that they should learn about evolutionary theory.

What does any of that have to do with Dr. Khan’s argument? Plenty. Evolutionary theory is a simple no-go for American conservatives. It’s a third rail. Conservative politicians will have no more luck embracing Dr. Khan’s suggestion than progressive ones would have with Larry Summers’ ideas about gender.

So for that reason, progressives should celebrate the political power of creationism. In many ways, the conservative coalition’s addiction to fighting evolutionary theory is one of its greatest weaknesses. Progressives’ only hope is that smart conservatives like Dr. Khan remain lonely voices shouting into the anti-science conservative wind.

Conservatives Should Be Nervous About This

I’m no conservative, but if I were I wouldn’t be celebrating this recent essay by David French. I’d be quaking in my penny loafers. If we’ve learned nothing else from the history of the culture wars, it’s that this kind of talk heralds the bitter end.

Here’s what we’re talking about: In the pages of National Review this week, conservative pundit David French made the case for freer conservative speech on college campuses. He decried the tactic used by progressive students to declare conservatives beyond the pale of civil discourse. Too often, French lamented, aggressive progressives freeze out any conservative challenge by labeling it “dehumanizing.”

As French puts it,

An atmosphere that is devoid of truly meaningful debate is one that is more likely to give birth to bankrupt ideas. And the woke progressive monocultures in quarters of academia and Silicon Valley have advanced and protected both the idea that speech is violence and the idea that disagreement is dehumanizing — especially when disagreement touches on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m no conservative myself, yet I’m on the record as agreeing with French that college campuses should welcome real culture-war debates. If I were a conservative, though, I would be terrified to hear French talking this way. If I knew my culture-war history, I’d know that this line of argument is always a memorial to a battle lost long ago.

Consider the case of creationism in public schools. A hundred years ago (ish), at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, the defenders of evolution education pleaded with America to allow evolution to be heard. As lead attorney Dudley Field Malone made his case,

For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open — close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both. Let them both be taught. Let them both live….

It was a desperate argument for a losing side. Evolution education was not popular in 1920s America, at least not in places such as Dayton, Tennessee. As I discovered in the research for my first book, anti-evolution laws were usually only the sharp point of a much vaster campaign to impose theocratic rule on America’s public schools.

Fast forward seventy years, and the argument had switched sides. By the 1990s, it was the radical creationists who were pleading to have children’s minds kept open. They made their case for inclusion because by the 1990s creationists were just as desperate as Dudley Field Malone was in the 1920s. In 1995, arch-creationist Duane Gish told crowds it was now the creationists who were frozen out. Gish insisted he only wanted to fight against the “bigotry” of excluding creationism.

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu…

What does any of this have to do with David French? A lot. Evolution-lovers like Dudley Field Malone only pleaded for inclusion when they were frozen out. Radical creationists like Duane Gish only begged for inclusion when they had already decisively lost the creationism culture war. By the 1990s, Gish’s brand of young-earth creationism had already become a relic of an imagined fundamentalist past, a fossilized idea that no longer had any real chance of returning to its spot in the American mainstream. It was still popular in fundamentalist pockets, but it had zero chance of returning to its former glories in the Princetons and Harvards of these United States.

If I were a conservative, I’d worry that French’s let-me-in rhetoric heralds the same sorry state for his outdated ideas about sexuality, gender, and race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are strong conservative arguments that can be made in favor of greater inclusion of traditional sexual norms, but French ain’t making em.

The idea that traditional gender ideas should be included because all ideas should be included won’t convince anyone. Moreover, the fact that French feels obliged to make this case shows how desperate he is. If I were a conservative, these kinds of arguments would make me very nervous about the current state of conservatism in America.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Democratic socialism, evangelical racism, and dirty dogs: This past week saw a lot of action. Here are some of the top stories that crossed our desk:

Lots this week about the connections of racism and evangelicalism.

1.) An interview with Jemar Tisby at R&P:

every time that the white community—especially Christians—failed to confront racism in its everyday, mundane forms, they created a context of compromise that allowed for an extreme act of racial terror like planting dynamite at a church. That’s the idea of complicity. It’s not that every Christian was a foaming-at-the-mouth racist hurling racial slurs and burning crosses on peoples’ lawns.

2.) The dangers of racism for the future of evangelical religion, at CT:

a warning sign for those concerned about the possible waning of evangelicalism in the United States. While current survey data says that white evangelicals have not experienced statistically significant population declines in the last decade, this will likely not continue into the future.

maga smithsonian 3

Art to choke hearts.

Wow. Trumpy artist sues to get his painting displayed at the Smithsonian, at TI.  HT: TWOILH.

High school doesn’t have to be boring, at NYT. HT: LC.

Harvard University: Creationist factory? Interview with creationist Harvard PhD at WORLD.

What do today’s teens worry about? Not what you might think, at The Economist.

TEEN WORRIES ECONOMISTSOCIALISM 2020

Preaching Christianity to Christians, at RNS:

Christianity as merely a family tradition only requires maintaining the tradition. . . . Sadly, many people in the Bible Belt are haunted by the idea of Christ, while not understanding His love for them.

Queen Betsy threatens the budget for Special Olympics, but the budget goes up. Turns out this happens a lot, from MS.

dirty dogCountry dog? City dog? An argument for letting dogs be dogs at FPR:

while city dogs enjoy ever more doggy parks, doggy play dates and dog-friendly shops and stores, their elevated status burdens them with human-dominated constraints.

Can conservatives find a way to love Trump? At RCP:

Many [conservatives] are repulsed by [Trump’s] crudity, thin-skinned nature, and vitriolic personal attacks. . . . But—and this is crucial—conservatives and many independents recognize Trump’s biggest achievement, beyond strengthening the economy and rebuilding the military, is his persistent effort to roll back the administrative state, with its endless regulations and executive orders.

Conservatives: Half Full? Half Empty?

Is the sky falling? Do conservatives think it is? I’ve been pondering these questions since Prof. Seth Cotlar asked about them recently in a tweet. When it comes to schools in twentieth-century America, if I had to pick one word (okay, two) to capture the heart and soul of conservatism, I’d pick “common sense” over “decline.”

cotlar tweet conservatismProf. Cotlar wondered,

According to every conservative since Burke, has ‘the west’ ever not been declining?

The question and several answers made me wonder about the specific tradition of educational conservatism. By and large, my research convinces me to side with Prof. Corey Robin, who pointed out that there has also been

An optimism, if you will, at the heart of the right.

When it comes to education and schools, certainly, the educational conservatives I studied were extremely optimistic or at least hopeful that they could reassert sensible control over their local public schools. Failing that, educational conservatives have generally been confident that they could open and operate their own schools, schools in which the terrible trends of progressive education and politics could be removed.cotlar tweet conservatism Corey Robin

Over and over, conservatives have built their campaigns on a deep and abiding optimism that their beliefs were merely common sense. Yes, conservative activists have often asserted, duped or devious progressives may have taken schools in terrible directions, but by and large conservatives insisted that their ideas were the true middle, the obvious common-sense educational program.

In the 1970s, for example, in the textbook controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservative pundit Elmer Fike didn’t quote Spengler or Burke or Burnham. Rather, he insisted that conservatism was the side of mainstream common sense. It was overreaching progressive bullies who had abandoned the center. For proof, Fike turned to the National Education Association’s 1918 Cardinal Principles report. In a full-page ad in a Charleston newspaper, Fike made the following claims:

We believe that the legitimate purpose of education is to promote the widely accepted Seven Cardinal Principles—command of fundamental processes (the three R’s), health, worthy home membership, vocational preparation, civic education, leisure time activities, and ethical character.  We believe that many of the controversial texts fail to promote these principles.  Rather, they tend to undermine the ethical character and social values of home and community accepted by a large majority of the people.

We believe that the continued use of these controversial books will result in antisocial behavior, further deterioration of social standards, increase in crime, and delinquency.

We believe that these books do not promote, in fact, are an attack on, the American system that has made this country the envy of the world.

While we abhor violence and shun demonstrations, we believe that the affect of these books is of sufficient consequence to warrant the use of any and all available legal means to have them removed.

Or consider the plans and prophecies of California’s Max Rafferty. Rafferty was a one-time State Superintendent of California’s public schools and a popular syndicated columnist.

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…he didn’t win.

He wrote in 1970 that his “California philosophy . . . has Deweyism in nationwide retreat.” It could be so successful, Rafferty insisted time and time again, because it was built on common sense about the true nature of education. Progressives simply misunderstood humans. It was conservatives who knew what to do. As Rafferty wrote in 1964,

Too many instructors, fresh from college and still pretty Dewey-eyed about things, compromise themselves and their careers in a hopeless attempt to convince some freckled-faced [sic] urchin with devilment coming out visibly all over him that he must discipline himself when all he really needs is a session after school with the ruler.

In the 1980s, too, Reagan’s second ed secretary William Bennett pushed his reforms as mere common sense. Though voters may think that education is controversial, Bennett liked to say, there was in fact “an American consensus” about what school should look like. Bennett specifically rejected pessimistic thinking, or, at least, he tried to stick progressives with the Chicken-Little label. As Bennett wrote in 1988,

Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of ‘unteachable’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves—and the attitudes they reveal—belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education. [Emphasis in original.]

For Bennett, as for Fike, Rafferty, and a host of other conservative educational activists in the twentieth century, hope sprang eternal. Yes, schools may be in bad shape, ideologically.  But in every decade, conservative pundits and parents rallied around the notion that their ideas represented beleaguered common sense.

How bout it? If you had to pick one word (or phrase) to capture the essence of conservative thinking, what would you use?

Bad News for Lefties?

I’ll plead guilty. As a teacher, I have a deep faith that I can help students be better citizens. I can help them understand how power works in society. Ultimately, their engagement can transform society, can make things fairer and more just. But is my faith in local democracy just another of my lefty biases? As recent studies show, are the scales so tipped in local elections that richer, whiter, GOP-er people have extra power?

Here’s what we know: The74 looked at new research about local school boards. It’s not really much of a surprise, but the authors concluded that school board elections tend to favor people with more money. Those people tend to be richer, whiter, and more often members of the Republican Party.

74 school board elections

More money, more representation…

The researchers looked at 610 school districts in Ohio for two election cycles. They looked closely at the winners of school-board election. Where did they live? How much money did they make? How did they tend to vote? Their conclusions weren’t too shocking:

We find that more citizens from affluent areas run for school board, and because a large proportion of school board elections feature minimal competition, these higher propensities to run explain disparities in representation.

What are the implications for school politics? And here’s the dilemma for my fellow lefties: Is there any way to address this election trend without trashing the basic function of local democracy?

The O Word Punctures this Dream of a Conservative University

Why can’t they have their own anti-progressive university? That’s the question Rick Hess and Brendan Bell of the conservative American Enterprise Institute asked recently. The problem runs deeper than they want to acknowledge. It’s not only about funding or hiring; it is rooted in the O word, a central but unexamined assumption of conservative higher-ed thinking over the past hundred years.

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It wasn’t ORTHODOXY that make Falwell successful…

In short, Hess and Bell propose a new $3-billion-dollar elite university, free from the oppressive “academic monoculture” of today’s top schools. They hope to reform American and global culture by creating an incubator for ideas that challenge progressive assumptions, an academic launching pad for scholars

inclined to critique feminist tropes, study the benefits of traditional marriage, or pursue other lines of inquiry that don’t comport with regnant mores.

As sharp-eyed critics such as Sarah Jones have pointed out, Hess and Bell don’t adequately acknowledge the fact that there is already plenty of conservative money flooding academia. And, as Jones notes, in the end

Hess and Bell sound markedly like the campus liberals they seek to escape – an ivory tower of their own is nothing if not a plea for a safe space.

Jones doesn’t mention it, but there is a bigger nuts-and-bolts problem with Hess and Bell’s plan, too. Founding a university might be easy, given enough money. But starting an elite institution from scratch is not, no matter how deep one’s pockets. Hess and Bell list examples of success, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins in the past to my alma mater Wash U recently. But they don’t note the many failures, such as Clark University a century ago. Nor do they seem aware of unsuccessful plans from the twentieth century, such as Hudson Armerding’s detailed scheme to establish an elite multi-campus evangelical university, as I describe in Fundamentalist U.

Even those challenges might be overcome, though, if Hess and Bell’s plan weren’t doomed by a deeper structural flaw. Like many conservative higher-ed dreamers before them, Hess and Bell do not adequately grapple with the O-word. That is, they do not understand the deeper implications of the concept of orthodoxy in the world of higher education.

As have other conservative intellectuals, Hess and Bell use the O-word a lot. They identify their primary bugbear, for instance, as

the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

They also explain that their new elite institute will be one that “challenges the prevailing orthodoxies of the campus monoculture.”

And there’s the rub. As I argue in Fundamentalist U, in spite of generations of talk about orthodoxy in conservative institutions, real orthodoxies are few and far between.

Why does it matter? If Hess and Bell, like their conservative forebears, truly hope to open a new school “oriented by a clear mission,” they need to define clearly their guiding ideas. It is not enough to target “progressive orthodoxy,” precisely because there is no such thing.

We might agree with Hess and Bell that elite American institutions are guided by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions” that conservatives don’t like. But there is a world of difference between mores, conventions, and real orthodoxies. An orthodoxy is precisely something that even Hess and Bell admit doesn’t exist in this case, “a concerted, organized effort” to define truth and falsehood.

An orthodoxy is relatively easy to both attack and defend. If there really were a progressive orthodoxy in American elite higher education, Hess and Bell’s plan might stand a chance of success. And because so many higher-ed pundits tend to throw around the O-word so loosely, it is not surprising that Hess and Bell don’t notice the problem.

Maybe the case of conservative evangelical higher education will help clarify the O-word dilemma. As I recount in Fundamentalist U, starting in the 1920s most conservative-evangelical colleges promised that they were founded on evangelical orthodoxy. The problem is, they weren’t. They were founded to be conservative safe spaces for religious students and faculty. They also had to remain broadly conservative and broadly evangelical in order to remain attractive to a wide range of fundamentalist families. As a result, they never were able to establish a true orthodoxy. That is, they never established a clear list of religious tenets by which every challenge and crisis could be decided.

There were exceptions of course. Especially at denominational schools, leaders were able to clear some of the fog of American conservatism by following the path of specific orthodoxies. In the 1920s, for example, Princeton’s J. Gresham Machen opened a rare school that actually adhered to Machen’s vision of Presbyterian orthodoxy. As a result, Machen earned the scorn of other evangelical school leaders by allowing his students to drink alcohol. Booze wasn’t forbidden by any actual theological rule, Machen reasoned, but rather only by the “regnant mores” of American evangelicals.

The results of the absence of true orthodoxy in conservative-evangelical higher education may seem odd to readers who don’t grasp the implications of the O-word. Historically, we saw cases such as that of Clifton Fowler in Denver in the 1930s, when a school leader charged with sexual and theological peccadillos was allowed to continue his depredations by a blue-ribbon panel of evangelical college leaders.

We see it today as well, with the befuddling statements of Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr. If, as we might tend to think, Liberty were a school guided by evangelical orthodoxy, Falwell himself might be less inclined to make outlandish statements in support of Trump. As it is, Christine Emba argued recently, the best word for Falwell’s Trumpism is not “orthodoxy.” As Emba wrote in the Washington Post, Falwell’s

statements are in total contradiction to Christian truth. This isn’t just benign confusion: This is heresy.

Yet Falwell continues to attract adherents and funding for his conservative-evangelical institution. It is not because he is redefining evangelical orthodoxy. It is not because evangelical orthodoxy has room for Trumpism. He isn’t and it doesn’t. Rather, Falwell is able to veer so far from traditional evangelical doctrine because interdenominational American evangelicalism has not been guided by true orthodoxy. Rather, it has felt its way in the cultural dark guided only by “regnant mores” and “regnant conventions.”

In the case of Hess and Bell’s dreams, making policy about those mores and conventions is far more difficult than challenging real orthodoxies. Mores and conventions are plastic, fluid, flexible, and nearly infinitely defensible. Orthodoxies are rigid, clearly defined, and easily subject to dispute.

The false assumption of orthodoxy has punctured the dreams of generations of conservative higher-ed thinkers. Hess and Bell shouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing the problem, because writers from both left and right tend to see orthodoxy when there isn’t any.

Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century falsely assumed an evangelical orthodoxy that couldn’t exist. Hess and Bell flail against a progressive orthodoxy that doesn’t.