Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.


I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.


In the News: Atheist Hate Crime

Three people are dead, shot in the head by a murderous thug. That thug was an outspoken atheist, and the victims were publicly identified as members of a religious group. Does this count as an atheist hate crime?

To be fair, many of the facts are still up in the air, but it does not seem disputed that Craig Stephen Hicks shot three of his neighbors dead. The neighbors were all Muslim, and Hicks was an outspoken atheist.

According to a story on Yahoo News, Hicks had posted the following rant on his Facebook page:

There’s nothing complicated about it, and I have every right to insult a religion that goes out of its way to insult, to judge, and to condemn me as an inadequate human being — which your religion does with self-righteous gusto, . . . the moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend.

Is this an escalation of culture-war polemics to real-war violence? ILYBYGTH readers will recall the episode from August, 2012, when Floyd Lee Corkins shot a security guard in the office of the conservative Family Research Council. Is this another example of anti-religious terrorism?

For their part, leading atheists are scrambling to make sense of these charges. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has issued a statement blaming mental instability, not atheism, for the atrocity. Yet as Hemant Mehta (my personal favorite atheist pundit) has charged, if this shooter had been a member of any religion, leaders of that religion would be called onto the carpet to separate themselves publicly from the act.

Is it fair to ask if militant atheism somehow contributed to this heinous murder?

Heavy Hitters Take on the Common Core, Sort of…

What is a conservative to think? Are the Common Core Learning Standards a threat? A blessing? As we’ve discussed recently in these pages, some conservative intellectuals have argued that the standards are a triumph of conservative activism. But tonight, the Family Research Council hosts a star-studded slamfest to explain all the reasons why conservatives should fight the standards. Yet it seems to me that this group will conspicuously leave out some of the most obvious reasons for conservatives to oppose the new standards.

They Are Coming for Conservatives' Children...

They Are Coming for Conservatives’ Children…

What’s the FRC’s beef with the standards? The name of tonight’s event says it all: “Common Core: The Government’s Classroom.” As have other leading conservatives including Phyllis Schlafly, Glenn Beck, conservative Catholics, and libertarians such as JD Tuccille, the heavyweights at tonight’s event will likely condemn the standards as another example of leftist government overreach.

For tonight’s roundtable, the FRC has assembled folks such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and University of Arkansas scholar Sandra Stotsky. Governor Jindal has taken the lead among conservative state leaders with his endless legal wrangling over the new standards. Professor Stotsky has become the academic leader of the antis. Her work with the standards’ development left her convinced that the Common Core was rotten. As Stotsky argued in a video jeremiad produced by the anti-Core Home School Legal Defense Association, the intellectual weakness of the standards presents as much of a threat as does the sneaky way they were introduced.

What is a conservative to think about the Common Core? Tonight’s video roundtable apparently hopes to convince more conservatives to fight it.

It will raise key questions about conservatism and educational politics. For example, from time to time, the anti-Core fight is tied to anti-evolution. As we noted a while back, Ohio’s now-defunct House Bill 597 pushed IN creationism as it pushed OUT the Common Core.

To this observer, it seems natural for conservatives to use the political muscle of creationism to fight against the Common Core. In some cases, conservatives have done just that, since the Next Generation Science Standards would likely push for more evolution and less creationism in America’s classrooms.

But this FRC event doesn’t mention evolution or creation. It doesn’t mention literature, history, or math, either, for that matter. Instead, the focus of tonight’s event seems to be on the federal-izing dangers inherent in the new standards.

But why not? Why wouldn’t the Family Research Council want to use every intellectual weapon at its disposal to discredit the standards in conservatives’ eyes? Maybe they will, of course.  The different panelists might emphasize different aspects of the standards.  One or some certainly might note the connection between evolution education and centralized power.  I’d love to watch and find out.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to. If anyone has the time tonight to spend with this all-star conservative panel, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Obamacore = Ku Klux Klan

We’ve seen this before, warns Robert Morrison of the Family Research Council.

The Common Core State Standards, which Morrison calls “Obamacore,” represent just another misguided and dangerous attempt to centralize America’s schools.

Centralization has long been a goal of education reformers.  Morrison correctly points out that the Ku Klux Klan successfully banned all private education in Oregon during the 1920s.  Though the Oregon law was blocked by the US Supreme Court, the goal was clear.  The Klan wanted to centralize school, to force all children to go through a government-directed educational program.

Back then, Morrison writes, the US Supreme Court had a better sense of the dangers of educational centralization.  These days, the bureaucratizers and centralizers have a freer hand.  It is up to religious conservatives such as those at the Family Research Council to resist.

“Under ObamaCore,” Morrison warns,

the elites in Washington shall direct the destinies of our children.

This is unwarranted. It will ultimately fail, just as the fifty-year record of federal usurpation of state and local authority in education has failed.

It necessarily involves indoctrination of all our children in federally-mandated curricula. We know what this means.

Strong stuff.  As we’ve noted before, conservatives as a whole are not united in their opposition to the Common Core State Standards.  Perhaps potent rhetoric like this will tip the scales.


War for the Core: Conservatives vs. Conservatives

Do conservatives like the new Common Core State Standards?

Yes and no.

And that tension has caused some consternation among conservative educational thinkers recently.

Writing in the Christian Post, Napp Nazworth has taken “several large international corporations” and “many Republican governors” to task for supporting the new educational standards.  At a panel discussion hosted by the Family Research Council, religious conservatives blasted GOP stalwarts such as Governors Chris Christie (NJ), Bill Haslam (TN), Rick Scott (FL), and others for “aligning their interests with those of international corporations.”

The article describes the lament of another faction of conservatives.  The Common Core Standards, conservative Glenn Jacobs worries, focus too much on “churn[ing] out young people who will be educated enough to work, consume, and pay taxes, but who are not encouraged to be creative, or to use critical thinking, or to develop anything remotely characteristic of those who possess superior minds and the ability to achieve great things.”

So what is a conservative to do?  Big-business types might embrace the promise of the new standards.  Traditionalists and religious conservatives, on the other hand, might lead the opposition.

Could inter-conservative squabbling lead to a real division in the decades-old conservative alliance?


Who’s the Victim Here?

Is Craig James a bigot?  Or a victim of religious persecution?  Or both?

Can we liberals allow discrimination against bigots?  Or must we fight against discrimination in all its forms?

James has been in the news lately.  He was fired from his job as a Fox News sportscaster.  The reason?  In his run for the US Senate in 2012, James insisted that he would not support same-sex marriage.  Such marriages, James explained, were against his religion.

The Family Research Council, an organization of conservative religious activists, called the firing an example of religious persecution.  “What Fox Sports did,” the FRC warned,

is much worse than censorship. What Fox Sports is doing is demanding conformity on issues that aren’t even relevant to James’s job — then threatening his livelihood when he refuses. That’s not your garden variety viewpoint discrimination; it’s ideological terrorism. And it has to stop.

From the other side of the issue, the Texas Freedom Network defended the firing.  Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree, the TFN argued, if this is a case of religious discrimination.  But whatever we call it, the TFN blogged, it tells us something about the changing cultural climate.  “it’s worth considering,” the TFN pointed out,

that Fox Sports didn’t fire James because of his religious beliefs. They fired him because they thought his intolerant public statements about gay people would hurt their company.

I generally agree with the folks at the TFN.  However, this seems to me to be a very sketchy argument.  Would we defend a restaurant owner who refused service to ethnic minorities because he or she worried having them in the restaurant would hurt business?


We’re All a Bunch of Losers

Both sides in our continuing culture wars assume they are losing.  Why?

We can see some recent examples from smart people on either side of the creation/evolution controversy right here on ILYBYGTH.

Recently, I argued that evolution was winning.  Winning big.

Some of the responses to that argument show that both sides are reluctant to admit they might not be losers in this fight.

For example, Tim, a self-identified homeschooling creationist, agreed that evolution was winning.  As he put it,

Creationists do not want creationism in public schools because it would taught incorrectly. Most pastors do not know how to accurately teach creationism, how in the world would we expect the average person to be able to? Does this in some sense prove evolution is winning? Sure, I could give you that. But we already know it will.

On the other hand, Bunto Skiffler took me to task for dangerously naïve optimism.  As he argued,

I believe General Westmoreland said something similar about our involvement in Vietnam before the start of 1968.

a person who lives in the fiefdom of Texas right now

Why doesn’t anyone want to admit they might be on the winning side?

I think the answer may lie with our very different definitions of winning and losing.

For evolution-promoters like me, creationists seem to be winning when they can impose any sort of non-evolutionary science in public-school classrooms.  Or even in private-school classrooms.  The fact that nearly half of American adults seem to agree with a strongly creationist idea about the origins of humanity makes it seem to folks like me that creationism is winning.

On the other hand, creationists might hearken back to a time when America’s public schools evinced a recognizably Protestant religiosity.  Back when kids in public schools read the Bible—the Protestant Bible, that is—prayed with their teachers, and generally learned that God wanted them to be better students.  Seen from that perspective, today’s public schools with their goals of pluralism and secularism might make it look as if evolution has won the field.

We must also consider the fact that pundits on both sides emphasize their own victimhood.  Reading the produce of Americans United or the Freedom from Religion Foundation makes American public schools seem under siege by powerful religious zealots.  On the other side, browsers of literature from the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Family Research Council might be forgiven for concluding that fire-breathing secularists crush any attempt at including healthy religion in public schools.

In other words, being a loser is attractive.

Each side emphasizes their own loser status in order to mobilize followers.  Evolution activists won’t be motivated to get off the couch if they are told that evolution is winning.  Creationist activists, similarly, might relax if they are told they need only be patient.

We’re all a bunch of losers in this fight.  Except, of course, we’re not.

I’ll say it again: Seen from an historical perspective, evolution education is winning.  If you don’t believe it, read my book.  Creation/evolution struggles have only deadlocked in the past thirty years or so.  In the 1920s, evolution barely made a dent.  Now evolution promoters feel put out if creationists have any influence at all.

Evolution is winning.  I’m not afraid to say it: I’m a winner.


Why School Choice?

As National School Choice Week moved into the history books, we have to ask: Is school choice a “conservative” issue?

There is no doubt that conservatives support choice.  Stalwart conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation make choice a centerpiece of their education policy platforms.

But the arguments conservatives usually make in favor of school choice often sound more traditionally “progressive” than anything else.  Is this mere political strategy?  Or a more profound commitment to social justice for those without economic resources?

The stereotypically “conservative” reasons for school choice are fairly simple.  First, opening up a variety of schools that receive tax dollars will enshrine the principles of free-marketism into public education.  Second, a thriving choice system will send more tax dollars to religious schools.

And we do occasionally see such arguments by conservative intellectuals.  The Friedman Foundation, for instance, legacy of free-market guru Milton Friedman, argues that choice will fix America’s public-education system.  According to Milton and Rose Friedman, that system has too often been “deprived of the benefits of competition.”

Similarly, Notre Dame’s Richard Garnett recently argued that school choice could help save struggling Catholic schools like the one that educated US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

More often, however, conservative activists argue for school choice using different themes.  Most commonly, choice is presented as the best hope of low-income families in neighborhoods with sub-par public schools.  During National School Choice Week, we saw an outpouring of such rhetoric.
For instance, the Heritage Foundation publicized a speech in favor of choice by former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis.  Choice, Davis argued, could give options to a seventh-grader who submitted the following barely literate argument:

“[Y]ou can make the school gooder by getting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.”

According to Davis, this student from Highland Park, Michigan was passed into eighth grade despite his struggles with basic writing.  Choice, Davis argued, could help.  It could offer parents, teachers, and students better schools now.  According to the Heritage Foundation article, Davis believed that school choice offered “the education [children] need right now, instead of simply pouring more money into the program or waiting for some new reform plan.”

Similarly, a writer at the social-conservative Family Research Council insisted that the main reason to support school choice was that “School choice gives students an opportunity to achieve a quality education and helps them not to fall through the cracks. We should all be in favor of helping children reach their fullest potential.”

Perhaps the most compelling statement of this conservative argument for the progressive virtues of school choice came over twenty years ago in an essay by Berkeley Law School’s Professor Emeritus John Coons.  As Coons argued in his 1992 essay, school choice advocates too often focus only on choice as a free-market device.  Instead, Coons insisted, such choice must be seen as “Simple Justice.”  Despite efforts to desegregate schools and make schools less imposingly Protestant, Coons wrote,

“we still arrange education so that children of the wealthy can cluster in chosen government enclaves or in private schools; the rest get whatever school goes with the residence the family can afford. This socialism for the rich we blithely call ‘public,’ though no other public service entails such financial exclusivity. Whether the library, the swimming pool, the highway, or the hospital—if it is ‘public,’ it is accessible. But admission to the government school comes only with the price of the house. If the school is in Beverly Hills or Scarsdale, the poor need not apply.

Choice is the obvious remedy for such maldistribution and discrimination.”  

Coons argued that non-elite parents deserved the right to send their children to schools that matched parents’ religious and cultural beliefs.  Such parents did not write op-eds in the New York Times.  Such parents did not have the option to influence the greater culture by making award-winning films or prize-winning books.  “Children,” Coons wrote, “are the books written by the poor.”

Yet despite such protestations among conservative intellectuals and pundits, school choice remains its reputation as a conservative issue.  As one angry commenter noted on the Family Research Council website,

“you see, school choice is really about getting as many students to pray to God each day. And, how many of these school choice advocates would have pressed for integration back in the 50’s? Very few. It’s about supporting religious schools through taxpayer dollars.”

Similarly, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has protested,

“It’s about funding religious and other private schools with taxpayer dollars and ultimately destroying the public school system.

“If you think the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and Betsy DeVos are in this just to help to some poor kid in the inner city, they’ve got a privatized bridge in Brooklyn they want to sell you.”

We ask again: Why school choice?  Do conservatives support school choice because choice will crush teachers’ unions?  Because choice will promote a freer free market?  Because choice will get more students praying in schools?

Or do conservatives support choice in order to help more children faster?  Because choice offers a way to deliver better education to low-income students?

My hunch is that, for many conservatives, the best answer is all of the above.  No doubt many conservatives want freer markets and a more Christian public square.  And school choice promises to deliver those things.  But choice might also be attractive because it gives better schools to more people faster than any other measure. 

Fundamentalists Against CATCH

The headlines say it all.  Concerned Women for America’s article announces, “New York City Schools: Reading, Writing, and Morning-After Pills.”  The Family Research Council denounces “New York’s Deadliest CATCH.”

The Family Research Council’s Take on “the Deadliest CATCH”

Sifting through the arguments from these prominent conservative organizations will give us some insight into what religious conservatives dislike about New York City’s Connecting Adolescents to Comprehensive Health (CATCH) program.  As the CWA headline suggests, the program expands the district’s free-condom program to include birth control pills and “morning-after” pills.  As ILYBYGTH has reported, the NY Board of Health has insisted that a very low rate of parent opt-out suggests that most parents find the program inoffensive.

Fundamentalists beg to differ.

Both CWA and FRC point out the absurdity of a school system in which parents must provide copious paperwork in order for schools to provide basic medicine for schoolchildren, yet those same schools will administer Plan B pills without parental notification.  As the FRC briefing notes, “The same nurse’s office that demands a parents’ note for aspirin will be in the position to administer high (and potentially dangerous) doses of hormones to children as young as 14 without so much as a permission slip.”

Such contradictions, both groups insist, indicate the plan is both dangerous and insidious.  “Suppose [a student] has severe side effects from the pill but is afraid to tell her parents?”  CWA’s Brenda Zurita asks.  “It’s late at night or perhaps a weekend, what will she do? Who will she call?. . . Let’s pray that no young girl will die due to complications she was afraid to tell her parents about after she was encouraged at school to hide her sexual activity from her parents.”

Also worrisome, according to both reports, are the results of increased sexual behavior among teen-age girls.  The FRC report cites a 2010 study that finds such birth-control medications increase STIs among young women.

According to the FRC, the root of this problem is an inverted understanding of the proper role between parents, children, and government.  The FRC describes the “Nanny State” ideology at play: “If moms and dads can’t be trusted to ensure that their kids are eating well, then they certainly can’t be trusted with decisions about sex and abortion. So the government takes away chocolate milk because it’s too fattening–only to turn around and give kids the morning-after pill, which can really kill.”

Concerned Women for America’s Zurita agrees.  This program, Zurita insists, is yet another example of an “out-of-control bureaucracy.” “It is frightening and tragic,” Zurita warns, “that there are parents who do not care what their children are doing, and with each example of government intruding between parents and children, this story is fast becoming the norm.”

Finally, CWA’s Zurita raises a powerful point.  The NYC Board of Health has claimed that a low parental opt-out rate means this program is not upsetting parents.  But as Zurita notes, many parents could simply be unaware of the program.  Since when do schools assume that every announcement sent home with students has been dutifully delivered to parents?  With non-controversial notices such as bad report cards, students are required to return parent signatures to prove that parents actually saw the notice.  But with a more profoundly morally complex notice such as this, the school district simply assumes that students shared the information with parents?

In the eyes of these fundamentalist activist organizations, something stinks with New York’s CATCH.

In the News: Anti-Fundamentalist Hate Crime?

FRC President Tony Perkins.

According to a story from Religion News Service, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of inciting a hate crime against them on Wednesday.  The irony is beyond painful.  The SPLC has long been a leading voice identifying and condemning right-wing hate violence.  Is Perkins’ accusation a mere stunt? Or does the SPLC have to acknowledge its role in this crime?

On Wednesday, Floyd Lee Corkins II allegedly entered an FRC office in Washington DC and shot unarmed security guard Leo Johnson in the arm.

FRC President Perkins blamed the SPLC for inciting this violent act.  Perkins claimed,

“Corkins was given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been reckless in labeling organizations as hate groups because they disagree with them on public policy.”

The SPLC has, in fact, accused the FRC of some despicable actions.  According to the SPLC, the FRC demonizes homosexuality.  FRC leaders, according to the SPLC, have publicly advocated the expulsion of all homosexuals from the USA.  The FRC, according to the SPLC, has also equated homosexuality with pedophilia.  These are not insignificant claims.

As Chris Lisee reported for Religion News Service, the alleged shooter had been an activist at some local gay-rights organizations.  Even more curious, he had been carrying a large bag of Chick-fil-A sandwiches.  The symbolism seems unmistakeable.  After all, given the recent culture-war dust-up over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, a gay activist might not usually purchase fifteen sandwiches from the chain.  Fox News claims that just before opening fire,  Corkins said, “I don’t like your politics.”

So was this an anti-fundamentalist hate-crime?  Can the SPLC be held accountable?  The SPLC’s Mark Potok called the FRC claim “outrageous.”   Other gay-rights organizations quickly condemned the shooting.  Potok’s defense makes an important point.  The FRC shooting was a tragedy, Potok claimed, but Perkins was cynically taking advantage of this event to claim a “false equivalency” between the FRC and other victims of hate crimes.

Nevertheless, Perkins’ accusation raises important questions.  As we’ve seen with other recent culture-war violence, such as the deadly shootings at the Sikh temple near Milwaukee, the dangers of escalating America’s culture war are real.  Language that demonizes the opposition hurts us all.  The solution must be more along the lines of Matthew Lee Anderson’s and John Corvino’s response to the Chick-fil-A affair: we must talk to one another.  Openly, honestly, and even painfully and awkwardly, if necessary.  We don’t need to agree, and we must avoid the false solution of merely papering over our disagreements.  But we must also all agree–as most groups do in this case–that violence is not part of these discussions.