Higher Ed: The Conservative Crisis that Isn’t

Beware college! That’s the old cry today’s conservative intellectuals are pretending they invented. But they don’t mean it. The best evidence for conservatives’ real affection for American higher ed is the political campaign we haven’t seen recently.

Here’s what we know: Benedictophile Rod Dreher has grown fond of fanning the flames of crisis among his fellow conservative intellectuals. Recently for example, Dreher shared an exposé of the lamentable practices at one elite university. As Dreher’s correspondent concluded,

the balance has been tipped in higher education. It’s not just useless anymore, but it’s now actually doing harm. Not many normal people will be willing to accept that reality — i.e. that their children (and our culture) will be better served by their NOT going to (most) colleges and universities.

Tough talk! We might be tempted to conclude that conservative intellectuals are moving toward a new antipathy toward higher education, but we’d be wrong in two big ways. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing new about this conservative “crisis” in higher education. Furthermore, conservatives don’t really dislike college as a whole.

Let’s start with the history. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, conservatives have been noticing the “new” crisis in American higher education for well over a century. In a three-part expose in 1909, journalist Harold Bolce warned readers of the absolutely shocking decline in the state of America’s elite colleges.

bolce page image

Beware! c. 1909

For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and breathlessly reported Earp’s shocking refusal to honor traditional ideas:

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

By the 1920s, some conservatives liked to reprint a purported letter home from a pathetic college student. As the student supposedly fretted to his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water . . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

We might remind Dreher and his correspondents, then, that their sudden crisis has been percolating for a long time now.

But perhaps something has suddenly changed? After all, we have been told by journalists recently that conservatives have recently begun to distrust American higher education. Last summer, poll results seemed to suggest as much.

pew college gone to the dogsIn fact, though, as we’ve argued before in these pages, it is not college itself that conservatives have come to distrust. Dreher and his associates will surely lose their campaign to warn people away from college as a whole.

How do we know? In this case, we can borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes and listen to the dog that didn’t bark.

True, conservative intellectuals might feel chagrined at their loss of influence in elite universities. Also true, the American public is very willing to believe that silly, leftist things go on in elite colleges. But Americans still want to go. They want their kids to go. And they think people who do go are smart and competent.

Exhibit A: The 2016 presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. As journalists noted at the time, Walker was a college drop out. If there really were a widespread, popular disaffection with American higher education, we would have heard him brag about that.

We didn’t. A couple of conservative voices tried to defend Walker’s lack of a degree, but they didn’t say Walker hated college. Rather, they said he had learned from the school of hard knocks instead.

Walker himself bragged that he was a “fighter” who learned from experience instead of in a classroom, but he didn’t pooh-pooh the idea of college as a whole.

What does that tell us?

If nothing else, Governor Walker is a savvy and successful politician. If he thought he could derive political advantage from his drop-out status, he surely would. But Walker is too savvy for that. He knows—even if Rod Dreher doesn’t—that Americans still love higher education. Americans—even conservative Americans—haven’t turned their back on elite colleges. Americans still dream of sending their kids to Yale or Brown or Oberlin, even if they fret about the ideological goings-on.

The “crisis” hasn’t suddenly boiled over in the past year or so. Rather, it is a steady simmering state and has been for a long time now. Even conservatives love and cherish elite universities. If they didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t spend so much time anguishing over them.

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Blue State Blues? Kavanaugh Is Nothing New…

HT: LC

Feeling blue about the Kavanaugh confirmation? Me, too. But let’s not join the goofs who keep saying that this is some sort of unprecedented act of naked partisanship. Let’s not listen to writers like this who call Justice Kavanaugh “patient zero” spreading “virulent political fevers” to a once-staid SCOTUS. We don’t have to dip far into SCOTUS history—we don’t even have to mention the words “Warren” or “Watergate”—to notice that Kavanaugh’s brand of bare-knuckled political judgeship has a long and ugly backstory.

impeach earl warren

The cars were different, but the anger was the same…

As I found over and over again in the research for my book about twentieth-century conservatism, SCOTUS debates have never been polite or gentlemanly. Just ask Earl Warren, a perennial punching bag for the Birchers and their conservative friends.

Chief Justice Warren might have been the most prominent, but he was far from the only lightning-rod of controversy in recent SCOTUS history. Fewer people these days might remember the trials and tribulations of Justice William O. “Wild Bill” Douglas.

Were the attacks on Justice Douglas temperate? Polite? Bi-partisan?

Consider the following: On the floor of the US House of Representatives, for example, future President Gerald Ford initiated impeachment proceedings against Justice Douglas on April 15, 1970. According to the New York Times, Representative Ford accused Douglas of writing “hard-core pornography,” of pushing “hippie-yippie style revolution.” Douglas, Ford charged, was connected to organized crime and deserved to be kicked to the curb due to Douglas’s connections “with some of the most unsavory and notorious elements in American society.”

Douglas impeachment

Porn, gangsters, and hippie-yippies…

Not polite. Not bi-partisan. And, like more famous elements of the Nixon era, not at all disinterested. The New York Times speculated that the real reason for the impeachment proceedings against Justice Douglas was payback for Congressional rejections of other Nixon judicial appointees.

So I, for one, will continue to be bummed by the rancor and contumely expressed during the Kavanaugh hearings. I continue to feel dismayed by Mitch McConnell’s naked power-grab in the non-confirmation of Merrick Garland. I am outraged by the thought of a stolen SCOTUS majority and I will work to elect anti-Trump, anti-Kavanaugh representatives and senators.

But I can’t pretend that this sort of ugliness has not been part and parcel of SCOTUS politics for a long time.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Our weekly news ‘n’ views roundup:

Remembering 9/11:

Peter Greene: What Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are doing in schools is something, but it’s not “philanthropy.”

Modern fauxlanthropy is not about helping people; it’s about buying control, about hiring people to promote your own program and ideas. It’s about doing an end run around the entire democratic process, even creating positions that never existed, like Curriculum Director of the United States, and then using sheer force of money to appoint yourself to that position. It’s about buying compliance.

Is American higher education addicted to opportunism? DG Hart reviews a new book about Wendell Berry and the university, at FPR.

How do they do it over there? A new UK report recommends adding atheism to the list of religions studied in publicly funded schools, at the Guardian.

conservative

Does anyone understand American conservatism?

Does anyone understand the history of American conservatism?

At Harvard and Yale, more freshman identify as LGBTQ+ than as conservative, at NBC.

Creationist victories in public schools, at AU.

Can an evangelical candidate get Florida to vote Democrat? At NR.

CHris king

Can King pull evangelicals to the Blue side?

Gay’s not OK in PA: conservative evangelical college turns away a homosexual student, at IHE.

University of Nebraska surveys itself: Do conservatives feel welcome? At CHE.

But What Do Conservative Students Think?

The headline caught my eye, but the actual survey sidestepped the main question. From what I can tell, we still don’t know the most important data of all.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students doing their thing…

At Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Kolowich followed up on the political poopstorm that enveloped the University of Nebraska recently. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the story. A conservative student activist felt berated by a progressive grad student and faculty member. The story caught the imagination of both local conservative politicians and the national culture-war paparazzi. The university was called to political account. Did they mistreat and abuse conservative students?

Apparently, as part of the process, the university teamed up with Gallup to conduct a campus climate survey. They wanted to know if students, faculty, staff, and alumni valued free speech. They wanted to know if conservatives felt free to speak their minds on campus. From what I can tell, however, it seems like they avoided the main question.

gallup u nebraska

Conservative students SHOULD feel free to talk…but DO they?

Most respondents thought that liberals were definitely able to “freely and openly express their views.” A large majority—though not quite so large as for liberals—thought that conservatives were too.

Maybe I’m reading the results wrong, but from what I can tell the survey avoided the main point. It asked respondents to identify as students, staff, faculty, or alumni. It asked respondents to identify by race, gender, and sexuality. But it didn’t ask students to identify by ideology. In other words, we might know how 4,403 student respondents felt, but we have no idea how conservative students felt, compared to liberal students.

To my mind, the survey missed the main point. We don’t only want to know how ALL students thought conservative students should feel. We really want to know how the conservative students themselves felt, and, importantly, if there was a meaningful distinction between how conservative students felt and how other students thought conservative students felt.

In other words, I’m not interested in what the campus as a whole thinks about conservative students. I want to find out what conservative students themselves think.

Who Owns 9/11 on Campus?

Memory is a slippery thing. On college campuses, left-wing protesters pull down memorial statues and right-wingers put up memorial shrines. Should a college allow conservative students to “remember” 9/11 the way they want to? Or do colleges have an obligation to a higher kind of memorial?

Here’s what we know: Ripon College in Wisconsin attracted a lot of negative attention from conservative commentators. The school’s administration was accused of banning its local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom from putting up memorial posters for 9/11. The school replied that it had not banned anything; in fact the school had celebrated earlier YAF 9/11 memorials.

In this case, the memorial at issue was not the standard display of 2,997 American flags to memorialize the people murdered on 9/11. Instead, YAF wanted to put up a graphic “Never Forget” poster. The school charged that the posters targeted Islam unfairly and would make Muslim students feel unwelcome and attacked.

Never-Forget-Poster-2016-10-inch-wide

Too much? Ripon thinks so…

The parent Young America’s Foundation complained that the posters “merely depict history.” The school’s attitude against the posters, YAF’s Spencer Brown wrote, clearly shows “anti-conservative bias” at the school.

One Ripon College professor objected that history is never merely depicted. As Professor Steven A. Miller put it,

Most campuses don’t hold special ceremonies for Pearl Harbor Day, Emmett Till’s lynching, the Oklahoma City bombing, or Benedict Arnold’s switching teams.

What do you think? Should a college ban violent posters as memorials? Or do students have every right to free speech as long as they are not making threats?

My heart’s with Prof. Miller. As he concludes,

When we say we want students to remember 9/11, or the Civil War, or any of the many other tragedies that dot American history, we must accept that worthwhile remembering takes work. Colleges are one place where that work takes place, in the form of historical research, critical writing, and, above all, teaching new generations to think carefully through history in its full context. Students engage with difficult questions that challenge conventional wisdom and undermine the kinds of easy answers that lead amateur critics of academia to tweet about rip-offs. It may sometimes be uncomfortable, but that’s a necessary element of confronting, considering, rethinking, and growing.

Every day in class, I see my students struggle with the past, with all its uncertainty and all its consequences. This does not happen only once a year, and it is not easy, but that’s what it means to never forget 9/11.

Is THIS What Keeps Conservatives Out of Academia?

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not even a hiring bias. According to experts like Neil Gross, the reason we don’t have more conservative professors in the liberal arts is mainly self-selection. And in the goofy higher-ed headlines this week we see gossipy confirmation.

gross

Could conservatives make it in this environment?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, there really is a tilt to most liberal-arts college faculties, at least at the more selective schools. Neil Gross argued, however, that conservative conspiracy theories don’t hold water. It’s not that universities consciously—or even unconsciously—discriminate against conservative intellectuals. Rather, people who think of themselves as conservatives tend not to go into certain academic fields.

One of the most striking parts of a depressingly ugly higher-ed news item this week is the way it seems to offer anecdotal confirmation of this trend.

Here’s what happened: A former graduate student is suing New York University for harassment and abuse during his time there. He had studied with the prominent scholar Avital Ronell. He complains that she wrote him endless creepy emails, kept him from leaving town, and generally over-controlled his life.

In her own defense, Prof. Ronell described their communications this way:

Our communications — which Reitman now claims constituted sexual harassment — were between two adults, a gay man and a queer woman, who share an Israeli heritage, as well as a penchant for florid and campy communications arising from our common academic backgrounds and sensibilities.

For example, at one point she sent her student this email:

I am a bit weepy and confused, a normal aftermath I suppose, and also a response to the separation from you … But I will try to gain some ground with a visit to shrinky-winky and see if I can’t develop another kind of report for you! … So many kisses for my guardian angel.

And at one point he responded like this:

Mon Avital, beloved and special one, I only now relieved [sic] your beautiful and exquisite message … I thank you for your infinite understanding and sensitivities which are always beyond measure, all of which I reciprocate with tenderness and love. I thank you so much for walking me through this catabasis. I don’t know how I would have survived without you. You are the best !!! I love you so much. You are the best, my joy, my miracle. Kisses and devotion always. Yours – n

Regardless of the legal outcome of this harassment suit, this sort of “florid and campy” style of endless email back-and-forth would be very difficult for most people to keep up with. Why did the student endure these sort of over-the-top emotional expectations? According to all concerned, Professor Ronell was a superstar in her field. She had—and repeatedly reminded her student she had—the power to make or break his career.

And to my eye, that’s where we find the culture-war rub. Very few people of any sort of ideological background would be willing or able to maintain this sort of intense, intimate relationship with a professor. If I were a conservative intellectual with academic ambitions, though (and I’m not), I think I would be discouraged from even applying to the NYU program, especially if I thought Prof. Ronell would not see me as sharing her “florid and campy” cultural style. In this one elite grad program, then, we can see how fewer conservatives might end up applying to a top program and fewer therefore might end up in top tenure-track academic jobs.

Is this case the norm? Not at all. Indeed, it has only attracted so much morbid curiosity because it is an outlier. But it IS the norm for elite graduate programs in the humanities to serve as the only gatekeepers to top academic careers. And if this sad story can tell us anything, it is that only a very specific sort of person could possibly survive, much less flourish, in some of the those graduate programs.

Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I spent the week buried in the Philadelphia archives, but somehow the world kept on turnin. Here are a couple of stories this week that have nothing to do with Joseph Lancaster.

Defending Kanye at NR.

pence at hillsdale

Do they care that we’re conservatives?

Pence at Hillsdale commencement—the conservative collegiate long game, at Politico.

A Canadian university wonders: Can only Indigenous professors teach about First-Nations history? At CBC.

Peter Greene tees off on Florida’s standardized tests for five-year-olds. At Curmudgucation.

Should fans of Wendell Berry forsake social media? Matt Stewart makes the case at FPR.

  • “We can rest assured, bonded by our faith in each other’s commitment to at least forsaking Twitter, that we are closer to being localists than to being hipster localists. The distinction is simple: a localist does not have to keep the Big Ether informed of one’s commitment to localism at all times and in all places.”

Get em young: Sarah Pulliam Bailey rides along on a Christian-nationalist kids’ tour of DC. At WaPo.

Gaza protest

Signs of the apocalypse?

Apocalypticism, Trump, and Jerusalem:

School revolts hold the key to stopping Trumpism: Henry Giroux at BR.

Standardized tests…what could go wrong? The fallout from glitchy tests in Tennessee, at Chalkbeat.

Arizona tried to edit evolution out of its science standards, at KNAU.

Asking uncomfortable questions at SMU—“Why are Black people so loud?”—“What is the difference between white trash and white people?” At CHE.

Do They Know?

You’ve heard all about it by now. Vice President Pence traveled to Hillsdale College in Michigan over the weekend to cheer on the conservative college’s commencement. So here’s our question: Why don’t the locals mention Hillsdale’s peculiarities?

hillsdale pence

…no controversy here…

After all, neither Hillsdale nor Pence seemed reticent about the conservative particulars of the school. Pence called Hillsdale a “beacon of liberty and American ideals.” He praised the college’s aggressive leader, Larry Arnn, for grounding students “in the traditions and teachings that are our greatest inheritance in America.”

Hillsdale, too, regularly brags about its conservative stances on curriculum and funding. All students enroll in a great-books curriculum and no students receive any federal funding. In case anyone misses it, the campus includes statues of conservative icons such as Ronald Reagan.

hillsdale college reagan statue

Ronnie relaxin on campus…

So why don’t the locals seem to care? On the local news about Pence’s address, absolutely no mention was made of the conservative nature of the college. Pence’s speech was stripped of any ideological meaning. Graduates talked about their jobs and their hopes for the future, a future pointedly stripped of any mention of taking over Washington DC with a new, Hillsdale-inspired conservative vision.

Is this simply Midwestern politeness? Local-news inoffensiveness? Or do they just not care about the central mission of their local university?

Don’t Read This

It keeps showing up. Even the smartest, best-informed people still make a huge mistake when it comes to understanding the history of white American evangelicals.

reagan at BJU 1980

The Gipper greets BJU students, 1980.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, we’ve been obsessed these days about white evangelicals’ love affair with Trump. In talks and article after article after article, we’ve wondered why white evangelicals support a seemingly amoral leader.

We’re not the only ones. Evangelicals themselves such as John Fea and Michael Gerson have wondered about it. And recently John Ehrenreich took another stab at the question. Ehrenreich makes some great points, but he miscategorizes twentieth-century evangelical history.

I’m 100% on board with Ehrenreich’s central theme. As he puts it,

behind the apparent disparity, there exists a psychological kinship between Trumpism and evangelical thought—at least, for white evangelicals. . . . The similarities in their approaches to the world run so deep that I believe that white evangelicals would continue to support Trump even if Roe v. Wade weren’t in the picture.

Right.

It seems obvious: there is an intense and powerful tradition of Make-America-Great-Again thinking among white evangelicals, a tradition to which Trump makes an intense and powerful (if surprising) appeal. If we really want to understand white evangelicalism in America, it does not help to start and finish with theological notions, IMHO. We need to include the mish-mash of history, memory, nostalgia, and politics that leads many white Americans—including white evangelicals—to yearn for the good old days.

Bibb-Graves hall bju til 2011

It didn’t start with Reagan. Bibb Graves was the Governor of Alabama and close political friend of Bob Jones College in the 1920s…

Trump appeals to something deep, something beyond tax policy or even abortion policy. Now, I don’t buy Prof. Ehrenreich’s explanation of this evangelical-Trump affinity. He wants to tie the Trump connection to white-evangelical psychology, which seems a little simplistic.

But that’s not my main beef. This morning I’m objecting to Prof. Ehrenreich’s quick sketch of twentieth-century evangelical history. He repeats the tired myth that white evangelicals only really became political and conservative in the 1970s. He argues that white evangelicals had been split, politically, between progressive and conservative wings. Only in the late 1970s, he thinks, did the bulk of white evangelicalism embrace political conservatism. As he puts it,

by the end of the ’70s, things began to change. The percent of the American population adhering to evangelical beliefs grew rapidly. Right-wing fundamentalist preachers took over organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a rapid rise of separatist Baptist churches, proclaiming a fundamentalist theology, denouncing the moral ills of society and communism, and often promoting segregationist views. In 1979, Jerry Falwell joined hard-line conservative activists such as Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council co-founder Paul Weyrich to form the Moral Majority, a political action group focused on mobilizing Christians against “secular humanism” and moral decay. Evangelical pastors threw themselves into the political arena and worked for 1980s conservative electoral victories. Simultaneously, largely evangelical white voters in the South shifted rapidly from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and American politics as a whole moved sharply to the right.

I thought we were beyond this. The facts of Ehrenreich’s historical sketch are basically correct, but taken together they don’t prove that conservative evangelicals got political only in the 1970s.

As our leading historians such Daniel K. Williams and Matthew Avery Sutton have demonstrated, white evangelicals ALWAYS were political. Yes, there were progressive and conservative wings, but there was never a “retreat” from politics. As Williams showed, something big really did happen in the 1970s, but it was not that white evangelicals got into politics. They had always been into politics. Instead, what happened was that white conservative evangelicals embraced the GOP as their single political vehicle.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to think that white evangelicals retreated from mainstream politics in the 1930s, only to reemerge with a flourish in the Reagan years. After all, it is a story that white evangelicals have told themselves and the rest of us for many years. As I point out in my recent book about evangelical higher ed, fundamentalist college leaders often insisted that they and their schools were above politics.

Consider the example of Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones University in the era of the so-called “New Christian Right.” In 1969, Junior told a friend that he was “opposed to party politics . . . on principle.” In the very same 1969 letter, though, he gave a glimpse of what he meant by that. Was BJU above political activism? Not at all. As Junior explained, BJU was always “urging our students to remember how their senators voted when the next election comes up in their state.”

In other words, white conservative evangelical leaders such as Bob Jones Jr. SAID they were above politics, but what they meant was that they were not wedded to one major party or the other. By 1976, Jones had begun to change his tune. As he put it in 1976, evangelical leaders

should denounce what’s spiritually and morally wrong, and if that means getting into politics, so be it.

When Jones said he was “getting into politics,” what he meant was that he was embracing the GOP alone. He might have sincerely thought that he and his school were above politics before that, but it just wasn’t true. Way back to the 1950s and into the 1980s, Junior continued to talk about getting “into” or “out of” politics, but he never meant that he wouldn’t be throwing his political weight around.

And he certainly never meant that he was somehow split between progressive and conservative political ideas. For fundamentalists like Jones, going all the way back to the 1910s, Christian politics were always conservative politics.

When the Reagan administration angered Jones Jr., for example, Junior threatened in 1982 to take his followers “out” of politics. As he put it, he might just urge BJU voters to

stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.

Now, clearly, withholding votes from the GOP is just as political an act as giving votes is. When white evangelicals in the twentieth century talked about staying out of politics, they didn’t really mean it. They didn’t really mean they wouldn’t vote for conservative candidates or mobilize for conservative issues.

All they meant was that they weren’t married to one party or the other.

When will we stop reading the misleading myth that white evangelicals retreated from politics until Falwell and Reagan?