Christian America on the Ropes

You’ve heard about Project Blitz, the MAGA scheme to impose Christianity back on America. More polling evidence from the Harris folks this week shows how desperate such efforts are.

Harris bible classes

…people don’t really care about Christian America.

Here’s what we know: In a survey of just over 1,000 adults, Harris pollsters found that a mere 12% thought public schools should have kids read the Bible and not other religious books. By way of comparison, far more respondents (17%) didn’t have an opinion.

Historically speaking, those numbers are pretty astounding. It wasn’t that long ago that large numbers of public schools included devotional Bible reading as part of every school day. In 1960, just before SCOTUS ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools, 42% of public-school districts nationwide reported incorporating Bible-reading. The highest proportion was in the South (77%) and East (68%). In the Midwest (18%) and West (11%) the numbers were far lower.

So what? People like me might get anxious when we read the theocratic ambitions of regional politicians such as Indiana’s Dennis Kruse. We get nervous for our public institutions when we hear Kruse say things like,

I’m a Christian person and a religious person. . . . I think we need more Christianity and more religion in our society, in our state.

Trump bible tweetWe get even more skeeved when Trump tweets his support for school-Bible laws, as he did a few months back:

Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!

In fact, though, the Blitzers, MAGists, and Trumpies who endorse such notions are not the vanguard of a vast right-wing army. Rather, they are the last snarls of a disappearing vision of the proper role of religion in America’s public square.


Trump Scores Better Than Us on GREs

It wouldn’t work. It’s not even new. But Trump’s tweeted support for school Bible bills shows that he understands what grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) really think.

At the Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt took Trump to task for a nonsensical and self-defeating policy. As Merritt wrote,

If conservative Christians don’t trust public schools to teach their children about sex or science . . . why would they want to outsource instruction about sacred scripture to government employees?

From a theological point of view, Merritt’s absolutely right. Moreover, conservative evangelical intellectuals have always agreed. That’s why so many of them supported SCOTUS’ 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale. In that ruling, SCOTUS decided that a state couldn’t impose a prayer in public schools, even a bland ecumenical prayer that seemed acceptable to people of many faiths.

The National Association of Evangelicals supported Engel, as did fundamentalist activists such as Carl McIntire. Why? Because they agreed with Merritt. They didn’t want public schools telling children how to pray. As William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute wrote,

The public as a whole and Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.

For a long time now, conservative evangelical intellectuals have recognized the distinction Merritt’s making. And, as leading school-Bible scholar Mark Chancey noted at WaPo, there’s really nothing new or constitutionally challenging about teaching the Bible in public schools. There’s no need for new bills or laws, because academic study of the Bible has always been constitutional.

In these pages, too, we’ve looked at the nonsensical curricular plans of these types of school-Bible bills. In Indiana, for instance, Senator Dennis Kruse has slapped together a MAGA stew of Bible, “In God We Trust,” and creation science. It wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. It wouldn’t teach kids their parents’ faiths. It wouldn’t change anything at all.

But for all of our rational superiority, Trump’s Bible tweet still makes sense, on both a religious and a political level. Religiously, grass-roots evangelicals (GREs) have long seen the Bible as a supernatural book, a uniquely magical book that has power to change lives and save souls. For all Merritt’s reasoned counterargument, no one will shake GREs from this bedrock faith. Simply getting the Bible into public schools, many GREs think, will be enough. The Bible can take it from there.


Recipients of MBI’s school outreach, c. 1940.

For instance, a while back I studied the Bible outreach programs of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. Among its other goals, the MBI missionaries tried to get Bibles and tracts into schools in the Appalachian region. To the missionaries, the words of the Bible—even in tract form—had the power to convert people by the merest glance. As head of the program described in 1921,

A man was given a tract by the roadside; simply glancing at it, and coming to a hedge, he stuck the tract into the hedge; but it was too late; his eyes had caught a few words of the tract which led to his conversion.

For many GREs, the Bible maintains this sort of power. Regardless of what wonks like Merritt might say, GREs think the Bible can never do wrong, even in the hands of secular public-school dupes.

Far beyond religious considerations, Trump’s Bible tweet nails once again the angry nostalgia among white GREs. These bills aren’t about making real change in public schools, as Prof. Chancey has made abundantly clear. Instead, they are about—in Trump’s words—“Starting to make a turn back”. Part of the imagined MAGA past of GREs is a world in which their faith ruled America’s public spaces. Not in a theologically pure form, but in a symbolic way.

So we nerds can say what we want. We’re not wrong. Trump’s support for today’s batch of school-Bible bills is nonsensical at best, anti-conservative at worst. None of that really matters, though. Trump is not trying to convince us or actually save children’s souls. He is only trying to placate white GREs who love his hat.

Trump make america great again

GRE’s: About the hat as much as the Bible.

Creationism and the Conservative Vision Board

It was the creationism part that first got my attention. Why would a smart, dynamic politician introduce such an old-fashioned creationism bill for public schools, a bill obviously doomed to failure? As I read the rest of the bill, the answer became obvious. And for anti-creationist campaigners, the lesson is clear.



Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse has a long record of introducing anti-evolution legislation. Twenty years ago, he began pushing bills that would allow for the teaching of creation science in Indiana’s public schools. When those flopped, he began fighting instead for “academic freedom” for Indiana’s teachers, to allow them to teach a “diverse curriculum.”

This month, however, for some reason Senator Kruse went back to an old-school school bill. Kruse is once again campaigning for schools that include “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.”

What gives? Why would a creationist go back to a failed strategy? After all, the inclusion of “creation science” in public schools has been definitively rejected by the Supreme Court. Why would Kruse bother to ask for something (again) when he knows he won’t get it?

The rest of the bill makes the answer painfully obvious. Senator Kruse isn’t really crafting legislation here. He is creating a conservative vision board.


Kruse is asking for a range of educational policies that might or might not be possible. He wants all Indiana public and charters schools to post big “In God We Trust” signs, along with a US and Indiana flag. He wants religious electives, including Bible studies. He wants students to be able to earn public-school credit for religion classes. Creationism—even the outdated “creation science”—is only one of the public-school visions on this Indiana board.

Why does it matter? As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, we will never really understand creationism if we think of it only as a fight about science curriculum. In most cases, creationism is only one aspect of a wide-ranging conservative attitude about education.

Yet too often, science teachers and science advocacy groups are left all alone in their fight against creationism in public schools, when the fight is not really about science. It is a fight over the proper nature of public education. Should schools be aggressively pluralist, ditching their historical Protestant baggage? Or should they be staunchly traditionalist, teaching children to be patriotic and Christian?

Creationist Bogeymen

Say, did you hear what happened to Senator Kruse’s “Truth in Education” bill in Indiana?

Unless you’re a close personal friend of the Senator, I’m guessing you haven’t.  The career of bills like this one can tell us a thing or two about the cultural politics of creationism.

Senator Kruse garnered some headlines six months ago for his plan.  Kruse, the chairman of the Indiana State Senate Education Committee, promised a new law that would guarantee students’ right to challenge their teachers’ pronouncements.  The barely disguised goal was to allow creationist students to confront evolutionary teaching.

At the time, pundits and scribblers announced Kruse’s plan as the latest offensive in a creationist juggernaut.  Reporters noted the connections to Seattle’s Discovery Institute, the leading intelligent-design think tank.  Progressives lamented this latest power play by religious conservatives.  One commenter called the bill the latest effort to “march the education of American children toward the 19th century.”  Another explained Kruse’s new effort as an end run around evolution.

But here’s the problem: Kruse’s bill didn’t do any of those things.  It didn’t do anything.

Kruse’s bill died the quiet death of most legislation.  As House Bill 1283, Truth in Education went nowhere.  But no one reported on that. [**DOUBLE CORRECTION: First, HB 1283 was not introduced by Senator Kruse, but by Kruse’s ally, Representative Jeff Thompson.  Second, the National Center for Science Education, that tireless watchdog of all things creationism, did in fact report on the fate of HB 1283.  Thanks to Glenn Branch of the NCSE for calling our attention to it.]

To be fair, several of the journalists who talked about the looming threat of Indiana’s latest creationist bill wondered if the bill would ever get anywhere.  But a casual news reader could be forgiven for assuming that creationists pass laws like this all the time.  The news media’s hunger for the sensational feeds a skewed perspective on what is and is not legal in America’s schools.

This is not new.  In 1942 Oscar Riddle and his colleagues conducted a survey of high-school science teachers.[1]  They asked teachers if they taught evolution or special creation, and why.  Those answers were illuminating.  Over three thousand teachers responded to the questionnaire.  Those who claimed not to teach evolution gave a wide range of reasons.  One teacher from North Carolina explained that evolution education was “a taboo subject to most people” (73).  A Nebraska teacher said she avoided evolution education mainly due to “Lack of time.”  One California teacher added, “Controversial subjects are dynamite to teachers” (74).  In the stereotype-shattering department, another California teacher from a “large city” explained that he or she didn’t teach evolution because the “Fundamentalist beliefs of majority of our students may not be attacked (negro and Mexican)” [sic] (74).

Most relevant here, lots of teachers incorrectly believed evolution education was illegal in their states.  Since the 1920s, as I detail in my 1920s book, a handful of states really did pass anti-evolution laws or education-department rules.  But a significant percentage of teachers in the 1940s believed incorrectly that their states had also done so.

Why?  My hunch is that anti-evolution bills get much more attention than they deserve.  Any conservative religious lawmaker can earn quick points for introducing a bill destined to go nowhere.  This was the case in the 1920s, the 1940s, and it is the case today.  Senator Kruse’s bill did not change anything for any students in Indiana.  But it did contribute to a widespread notion that creationism is on the march all over the country.

[1] Oscar Riddle, F.L. Fitzpatrick, H.B. Glass, B.C. Gruenberg, D.F. Miller, E.W. Sinnott, eds., The Teaching of Biology in Secondary Schools of the United States: A Report of Results from a Questionnaire (Washington, DC: Union of American Biological Sciences, 1942).

Kruse-ing to Conservative Schools

For those of us who follow conservative education policy and ideology, Dennis Kruse of Indiana has been one to watch lately.  Senator Kruse chairs the state senate committee on education and career development.

In December, Kruse attracted our attention with his promise of a new “truth-in-education” bill.  This bill would allow students to question their teachers on any controversial subject.  Teachers would be legally responsible to provide evidence supporting his or her classroom content.

Recently, we discovered a helpful way to track the legislative ambitions of this conservative leader.  The Indiana State Senate website allows anyone to view legislation introduced or sponsored by any legislator.

A review of Kruse’s 2013 activity shows us the educational vision of this particular conservative, at least.  For example, this busy senator has authored bills to support prayer in charter schools, to declare that parents have supreme rights concerning their children, and even to mandate the teaching of cursive in Indiana public schools.

Of course, many of these bills will never see the light of day; many are simply political discussion starters.  But even as such, the vision of America’s schools demonstrated by Senator Kruse’s ambitions can tell us a great deal about what conservatives want out of education.  If somehow Senator Kruse became Supreme Emperor Kruse, we can imagine an education system in which religion played a leading role.  It might also be a school system where students learned traditional skills such as writing cursive.  Parents might be empowered to insist on curricula friendly to their religious backgrounds.

Kruse’s 2013 legislative record also demonstrates the tight connections—among conservatives like Senator Kruse—between educational conservatism and a broader cultural conservatism.  In addition to his school bills, Senator Kruse has supported bills to have mandatory drug testing for all state assistance recipients and to provide every abortion recipient with explicit information about the dangers and risks of abortion.

This tightly bundled conservatism demonstrates, IMHO, the need to understand conservatism broadly.  Too many commentators focus on high-profile issues such as creationism or school prayer in isolation.  By instituting better science standards, for instance, some progressive types think they can derail conservative policy.  Such one-issue reforms will not have much impact unless they recognize that educational conservatism is bigger than any one issue.

So what do conservatives want out of America’s schools?  In the case of Senator Kruse, at least, outsiders like me can see an explicit legislative program.

Creationists: Sass Your Teachers?!?!

Apparently, that is the new strategy promoted by Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse.

Sometimes, studying cultural battles over America’s schools seems like Yogi Berra’s déjà vu all over again.  But this one sounds new to me.

Thanks to the Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of Kruse’s new strategy.  Apparently, having failed to promote a two-models creation/evolution bill in the last legislative session, Kruse plans to offer a bill that will encourage students in Indiana’s schools to ask teachers to back up ideas with facts.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Kruse defended his plan as a “truth-in-education” measure:  “. . . if a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”

Kruse’s new strategy comes on the heels of new rules in New Hampshire and Missouri that will allow every public school student to recuse himself or herself from curricular materials he or she finds objectionable.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these laws just won’t work.  Ideology and theology and biology aside, the classroom implementation of such regulations seems utterly impossible.

As the Indianapolis Star reports, critics have pointed out similar flaws with Kruse’s plan.  Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, argued that teachers could be asked to supply proof of everything, from evolution to the moon landing.  “It’s not workable,” Schnellenberger concluded.

The intention of such bills is clear: conservatives hope to protect students from indoctrination in ideas they find loathsome.  In Kruse’s case, he takes a weatherbeaten play from the old progressive playbook to make it happen.  If students can direct their own educations—challenging the classroom authority of their teachers on every point—then the chances of swallowing objectionable ideas decreases dramatically.

As in Missouri and New Hampshire, conservatives find themselves fighting for the old progressive dream: an individualized education for every child in public schools.  Will it work in Indiana?