Have Conservatives Already Won the Culture War?

No. No, no, and no. The argument in today’s Washington Post that American conservatives have a “huge, long-term advantage” in our long-simmering culture wars can only work if we water down our definition of “conservatism” to be entirely meaningless. I’m no conservative, but if I were, I would horrified not encouraged by the implications.

is segregation scriptural

Are conservatives winning? No. They often don’t even want to remember what they used to fight for.

David Byler doesn’t want conservatives to panic. He admits conservatives have lost the long-term battles over the definition of marriage, gender, and proper sexuality. But he thinks that conservatives have a huge—ahem—trump card up their sleeves, one that too many of them don’t recognize. As Byler puts it,

Despite the perception that institutions that conservatives hold in high regard — the military, police, the two-parent nuclear family and religion — have taken hits, the public has a high level of trust and attachment to them. And that faith gives conservatives a huge, long-term advantage.

It doesn’t take much of an expert in the history of American conservatism to see the big problem in this argument. Namely, if conservatism today means only a defense of the military, the police, the family in general and religion in general, then it has become a wispy half-memory of what conservatism meant in the recent past.

After all, not very long ago, American conservatives fought for things (and lost) that might seem to today’s conservatives either a fanciful dream or an embarrassing reminder of their real past.

To pull just a few examples from my research into twentieth-century conservatism, twentieth-century conservatives fought for nothing less than evangelical dominance of the public square, forcible racial hierarchy, and total male dominance of political life.

Example #1: In 1922, Kentucky’s legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill. The bill would have done far more than ban the teaching of evolution from the state’s public schools and universities. A Senate amendment would have forbidden any public library in the state from owning any book that would

directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.

Example #2: In 1928, the conservative leader of the Daughters of the American Revolution explained her vision of the proper role of women in public life. As she put it without apparent irony,

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.

Example #3: Jumping to 1960, fundamentalist stalwart Bob Jones Sr. published his thoughts on race and religion. His sermon, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” offered his thoughts on the dilemma of racism among white conservative evangelicals. Did Jones think segregation was a Christian necessity? Short answer, yes. Why? It was not because non-white people were inferior. It was not because they were any less Christian. Nevertheless, Jones insisted,

Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble. . . . God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations.

What’s the point? The point is NOT that today’s conservatives secretly want to bring back racial segregation, male-only politics, or evangelical control of public institutions. Some of them might think that such things would Make America Great Again, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that many conservatives really want to return America to those old inequities.

The point, rather, is that conservatives have always fought a rear-guard action against cultural change in the United States. In 1960, some religious conservatives wanted to maintain racial segregation as a God-given right. In 1928, some patriotic conservatives wanted to keep women on the side lines, limited to cheering for good political ideas. In 1922, some conservatives hoped to impose a frank theocratic law on their state, banning any books that might challenge evangelical Protestant ideas.

Today’s conservatives are generally fighting for other things, such as reducing abortion rights, restricting LGBTQ rights, and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Even on those limited aims, conservatives are losing, just as their predecessors in the twentieth century lost their fights to keep public institutions Christian, to keep politics male, and to keep the races separate.

In order to make a claim that conservatives are winning, David Byler needs to water down conservatism so much that it becomes an awkward stand-in for society as a whole. Yes, conservatives tend to be fonder of the traditional family and of religion in general, but those things are not the province of conservatives alone. Plenty of people who consider themselves progressive also hold family and religion dear. And to say that conservatives are dominant because lots of Americans respect the army and police is almost beyond the need for refutation. Yes, lots of Americans—of all political opinions—respect the army and police. That is not a strength of conservatism but a strength of our society as a whole.

Byler concludes by insisting that “Conservatives have the winning hand. They just don’t know it—and that’s why they might lose.” It’s just not true. Conservatives have always had a losing hand, but they have managed to eke out temporary victories when they have played it well. Long-term conservative victories have come from conservatives’ impressive ability to reshape and reform what it means to be “conservative.”


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.

Our Children: Evil & Successful

What have we done?  By giving our children everything, we’ve made them into self-centered, grasping monsters.  At the Imaginative Conservative, Bruce Frohnen accuses our culture of eating its own children.  As the perfect terrifying example, Frohnen uses the life and rapacious career of the late Steve Jobs.  Perhaps unconsciously, Frohnen dips into one of the strongest traditions of educational conservatism.

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Spoiled Children, Spoiled Society

Frohnen, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University, castigates Jobs as the exemplar of all things rotten in our culture.  Jobs, Frohnen writes, lived as

a mean-spirited narcissist who translated a certain aesthetic sensitivity and capacity for bullying and hucksterism into a colossal waste of money and collective time, further separating Americans from one another in pursuit of a false control over their environment. As bad, his personality and corporate ethos furthered highly damaging political and economic structures of a kind best described as libertarian socialism, in which corporations and rich individuals behave without conscience, expecting the social programs they vote for but seek to escape funding to pick up the pieces from their own “creative” destruction. I also see him as in many ways a sad character, emotionally and spiritually stunted in part because of the failings of the infantilizing environment in which he grew up.

Frohnen’s arch analysis of Jobs’ character serves as more than a brutal post-mortem on a unique American life.  Frohnen wants us to see Jobs as typical, the predictable result of American culture gone off the tracks.

Why was Jobs such a grasping bully?  Because he came out of the 1960s American culture that had wilfully abandoned its own traditions of child-raising.  Jobs, like so many of his generation, was relentlessly coddled, given everything and asked for nothing.

This was more than just a question of parenting.  Frohnen examines the college education on offer at Reed College in Oregon, where Jobs briefly took classes and where Frohnen briefly taught.  The faculty at Reed, Frohnen argues, deliberately discarded educational tradition and encouraged students to wallow in self-love.  As Frohnen remembers it,

Reed College in Portland, Oregon is one of those places where students dress in black to show how depressing it is to be young and well-off; lots of Volvos in the parking lot when I was there. And the drug culture remained. By my second semester at Reed several students had overdosed on illegal drugs. When the President, a “good” leftie from Oberlin, decided to take the minimal action of proposing a faculty resolution decrying the self-destructive behavior he was in for a surprise. At first I thought the principal opposition speaker was a bag lady. It turned out she was just some English professor in a poncho. She was nearly in tears as she argued that “we” could not hope to engage productively with students if we began with such a “superior attitude.” The resolution failed by an overwhelming margin.

Though Frohnen ties his bitter eulogy to a specific time and place—the 1960s lax parenting and education of the San Francisco era—conservative intellectuals and activists have made similar arguments throughout the twentieth century. As I argue in my upcoming book, at least since the 1920s conservatives have lamented the tendency of political liberals and educational progressives to coddle children. Parents and educators make a mistake, conservatives have insisted, when they offer too much to children.

Consider, for example, the educational vision of Grace Brosseau in 1929. At the time, Minor served as the President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She insisted, as Frohnen does, that parents and teachers must not abandon their duty to impose on children. “Flagrant cases of un-American tendencies have been brought to light and exposed,” Brosseau warned. America had gone to hell in a handbasket. And why? Too many teachers believed in the “decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions. This may be the proper system for the seasoned adult,” Brosseau warned, but

With the young, the chances are too great, for there a dangerous inequality exists.  One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.  Why then apply the very opposite theory when dealing with the delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind?

Writing in the 1980s, conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler repeated this warning that too much choice spoils a child.  “The only absolute truth in modern humanistic education,” the Gablers warned,

is that there are no absolute values.  All values must be questions—especially home- or church-acquired values.  Discard the experience gained from thousands of years of Western civilization.  Instead, treat the students as primitive savages in the area of values.  Let them select their own from slanted, inadequate information.

By giving everything to our children, these conservative writers have insisted for generations, we’ve taken everything from them.  In the case of Steve Jobs, Frohnen argues, we see the perverted results that ensue from too much too soon.


Sit Down, Shut Up: Old School Teaching for New School Results

What’s the best way to teach children?

Get them to suffer.  Get them to fear.  Get them to obey.

That’s the message, anyway, of a recent essay by Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal.

Lipman, of course, might put in another way.  In her words, she wants us to “revive old-fashioned education. . . . with strict discipline and unyielding demands.”

How should we do this?  Lipman offers eight guidelines.

We should understand that the highest levels of performance are helped, not hurt, by “a little pain.”  We need to get back to memorization.  Kids need to be allowed to fail, to understand that failure is a necessary aspect of improvement.  Plus, “strict” teachers do better than “nice” ones.  Also, creativity can be achieved through hard work.  Not by coddling, but by teaching “grit.”  Teachers need to get out of the habit of fulsome, unearned praise.  Last but not least, children need to experience stress in order to maximize their improvement.

Lipman claims scientific support for her platform, even though some of her cited studies don’t sound rock-solid.  Some have small sample sizes.  Just because something worked for a couple dozen students doesn’t mean it will be generally true.  Others have unconvincing methodologies.  One study, for instance, asked undergraduates about the stresses they had experienced in their lives.  Then the researchers dunked the students’ hands in ice water.  Those who had experienced stress, the study concluded, did not feel as much discomfort.

Such dubious science does not make me clamor to expose my daughter to more yelling at school.  But whether or not we accept the scientific rigor of Lipman’s sources, we cannot deny the political and cultural clout her argument for more traditional teaching has had over the decades.

In the 1920s, one leader of the influential Daughters of the American Revolution denounced innovations in classroom teaching.  Too many ‘modern’ teachers, President General Grace Brosseau lamented in 1929, thought that teaching consisted of presenting students with options.  Balderdash, Brosseau insisted.  Teachers must continue to deliver information to students in an authoritative way.  “One does not place before a delicate child,” Brosseau argued,

a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.  Instead, one carefully supplies only what will make for the development of the young body and assure its normal growth.

Schools, Brosseau insisted, must return to authoritative teaching.  Teachers must insist on hard work and dedication.  They must decide, instead of foisting all decisions off on immature children.

This traditionalist theme was taken up in the 1960s by the influential education pundit Max Rafferty.  Rafferty insisted that the only way to improve education was to return to traditional methods and content.  Young people need to memorize, to compete, to work hard, Rafferty claimed.

In his 1964 book What Are They Doing to Your Children, Rafferty offered a vision of “Education-In-Depth” that might delight Lipman and other contemporary traditionalists.  Children, Rafferty argued, must submit to sometimes-unpleasant processes.  “Before a child can learn to write creatively and imaginatively,” Raffferty believed, “he must submit to the discipline of learning the writing trade—the metaphor, the syntax, the verb conjugations, and above all the spelling.”

Schools must stress “subject matter,” not feelings.  They must give lots of homework.  They must teach the basics, such as multiplication tables.  Perhaps most of all, they must reverse the “progressive” poison by teaching children to “not be afraid of hard work.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Rafferty’s model still has influential admirers today.  Lipman does not seem to be one of them, at least not consciously.  She does not seem aware of the tradition of traditionalism in education.  My hunch is that she’d like to dissociate her call for “old-fashioned” education with some of the views of Rafferty or Brosseau.  Lipman might prefer to have her vision of traditionalism associated with rigorous social science than with the flag-waving patriotism and anti-communism of earlier traditionalists.

Nevertheless, Lipman and other fans of traditional discipline and memorization might be well advised to study their own history.




I PROMISE Not to Pervert or Subvert

Good news: I just got a promotion!

But to do so, I had to promise not to subvert the constitution of the United States.


The answer can tell us something about the history of conservative educational activism in the US of A.

As part of my move to the rank of Associate Professor at the august Binghamton University, State University of New York, I had to reaffirm my pledge to support the constitution of the USA and of the State of New York.  I also had to promise to “faithfully discharge the duties” of my new position.

As I discuss in my current book, The Other School Reformers, conservative school activists throughout the twentieth century insisted on this sort of loyalty oath as an iron-clad requirement for all teachers in public schools.  It seems quaint these days to think of asking enemy agents to solemnly promise not to undermine the American way of life, but from the 1930s through the 1950s and beyond, many leading conservatives considered such oaths a primary means of combating alien influence in American society.

In 1950, for example, conservatives in Pasadena, California, fretted that their award-winning school superintendent had aligned himself too closely with communist-friendly “progressives.”  One of the fixes the conservatives insisted on was to put the Daughters of the American Revolution in charge of administering new teacher loyalty oaths.

The move made sense at the time.  Throughout the 1930s, the DAR had led the fight to pass mandatory loyalty-oath laws in several states.  By the 1950s, the DAR had established itself as the leading proponent of teacher loyalty oaths.  Therefore, it makes sense to think that if we want to understand the reasoning behind such oaths, we should start with the DAR.

At the tail end of the 1920s, for example, Grace Brosseau, national leader of the DAR, told the annual meeting that teachers’ loyalty oaths made up a key component of the DAR’s strategy to improve American education.  Such oaths, Brosseau insisted, could help America’s mothers be confident that “instructors in your communities are of the right calibre and are teaching sound Americanism instead of instilling pernicious doctrines into the minds of their pupils.”[1]

At that same national meeting, the assembled DAR representatives passed a resolution in favor of such teacher loyalty oaths.  Why?  Because, in their words, “anti-American elements are incessantly working to overthrow our constitutional form of government.”  Teacher loyalty oaths could help, they thought, along with “greater care in the selection of instructors for our schools, more widespread interest in curriculum and textbooks and a deeper understanding of methods of instruction.”[2]

In the mid-1930s, a successor to Grace Brosseau agreed that teacher loyalty oaths constituted a key element of right-thinking conservative school reform.  As President General Florence Becker argued in 1935,

A Teachers’ Oath of Allegiance law is but a tardy recognition of the fact that of all public servants holding positions of trust and receiving pay from public funds, the teacher holds the key position of importance.  The education system should be kept free from government control, and the American people should not commit suicide by failure to provide teachers who have faith in America.[3]

One DAR activist in Michigan thought that a teacher oath would at least give parents some legal recourse if they found a subversive teacher in their local school, “spreading his un-American doctrines among our children.”[4]

In sum, it seems that teacher loyalty oaths resulted from anti-communist political pressure in the 1930s and 1950s.  Even at the time, other anti-communists wondered if such oaths mattered.  Would a foreign agent dedicated to subversion be deterred by such an oath?

These days, the United States does not face the threat of a large body of communist agents.  Does it make any sense to continue these loyalty oaths?

[1] Grace L.H. Brosseau, “Annual Message of the President General,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, National Society of the DAR (1929), page 11.


[2] “Resolution No. 16, Teachers’ Oath,” Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Continental Congress, NSDAR (1929), 681-682.


[3] Mrs. William A. Becker, Tapestry Weavers: an Address of Mrs. William A. Becker, President General, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution at Fall State Conferences, 1935 (no publisher, no date, [likely DAR published, likely 1935.  Copy in the NSDAR archives, Washington, DC]), pages 6-7.


[4] Vivian Lyon Moore, “Michigan’s ‘Oath of Allegiance’ Bill,” DAR Magazine Volume 65 (July 1931), page 404.


The Trauma of Evolution

Can we educate by banning ideas?  For one group of conservative Christian homeschoolers, proper education means banishing lots of ideas.  How can progressive educators like me understand this impulse to put up intellectual walls around young people’s minds?  I wonder if some creationists view exposure to evolutionary ideas as a form of trauma, an entirely harmful experience.

The Finish Well homeschooling conference, in the words of its organizers, “is designed to equip homeschooling families to confidently homeschool the high school years for the glory of God!”

One of the ways the conference promises to help attendees is by purging the atmosphere of any hint of evolution.  In order to secure a table at the conference, vendors are required to agree to the following statements:

“1) Scripture teaches a literal 6 day creation week, a young earth of approximately 6,000 years, and a literal understanding of Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the world-wide Flood of Noah’s day. 2) The Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. It is inerrant and our ultimate authority in what we believe and how we live. Any speakers who contradict these two truths during their speaking session will be immediately asked to leave.”

Clearly, the goal of Finish Well is not only to keep out evolution.  Any other explanation about humanity’s origins will be verboten as well, including the evolutionary creationism of folks such as Darrel Falk or the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement.

This notion of proper education is one of the hardest intellectual nuts for progressive educators like me to crack.  How are we to understand this idea that good education means hiding important ideas away from young people?  My first reaction, my gut reaction, is that this is precisely the sort of totalitarian impulse that kills any real education.  This sort of intellectual protectionism smacks of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  To me, and to lots of people, one of the first rules of true liberal education means opening intellectual doors, not bricking them up.  Real education, in my opinion, means allowing young people to explore a variety of ideas, to make up their own minds.

But in the conservative tradition, an important aspect of improving education has long consisted of the effort to remove “dangerous” ideas from the educational mix.  For generations, various types of conservative activists have insisted that simple exposure to certain ideas represented a danger—something from which young people had to be protected.

This idea played a big part in the first “creationist” controversies in the 1920s, as I explored in my 1920s book.  One of the public leaders of the anti-evolution movement of that decade was populist politician and former US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan condemned the notion that good education meant a willy-nilly exposure to perfidious ideas.  In a battle with the University of Wisconsin over the teaching of evolution on campus, Bryan offered this sarcastic advertisement for the college:

“Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.”  [SOURCE: William Jennings Bryan, “The Modern Arena,” The Commoner (June, 1921): 3.]

For my current book, I’m exploring the longer history of conservative educational activism.  This notion of proper-education-as-protection echoed throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, Grace Brosseau, President General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, argued that young children ought not be harmed by “the decrepit theory that both sides of the question should be presented to permit the forming of unbiased opinions.”  Such modern theories of education, Brosseau insisted, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of childhood and the responsibilities of education.  As she explained in 1929,

“One does not place before a delicate child a cup of strong black coffee and a glass of milk; or a big cigar and a stick of barley candy; or a narcotic and an orange, and in the name of progress and freedom insist that both must be tested in order that the child be given the right of choice.”

Instead, parents and teachers must give students only what students need to develop the “delicate and impressionable fabric of the mind.” [SOURCE: “The 38th Continental Congress, N.S.D.A.R.,” DAR Magazine 63 (May 1929): 261-271.]

More recently, the late Mel and Norma Gabler echoed this notion that proper education meant protecting young people from dangerous ideas.  In their 1985 book What Are They Teaching Our Children, the Gablers compared modern teaching to letting young children float in dangerous seas in flimsy lifeboats.  Modern teachers, the Gablers argued, too often allowed children to drift near sharp reefs and crashing waves, without offering any sort of guidance.  The teachers knew the rocks were there, the Gablers argued, yet these ‘progressive’ teachers did not see fit to warn the students.  Better for the students to ‘discover’ such dangers for themselves.  The Gablers asked, “Has the instructor gone mad?” (pg. 99).

For the Gablers, as for Bryan, Brosseau, and the organizers of the Finish Well conference, the notion that some ideas must be hidden from children made perfect sense.  For those like me who don’t agree, perhaps one key to understanding might come from the school controversies of the 1920s.  During that decade, many state lawmakers proposed bills that promised to keep certain ideas out of children’s paths.  One 1927 bill in Florida would have banned “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter” [Florida House Bill 87, 1927].

To the authors of this bill, evolution and atheism could be treated the same way as “obscene” material.  To those 1920s legislators, it made sense to keep obscene materials out of the hands of school children.

I agree that young people ought not be exposed to “obscene” materials.  And maybe this is the way for folks like me to understand the conservative impulse to keep some ideas out of schools.  After all, all of us—not just conservatives or fundamentalists—agree that some things must be kept from children.  No one wants young people to view a lot of hard-core porn at school, for instance.  Nor do we think that children should see graphic violence.  Exposure to such things seems traumatic.

Is this the key to understanding the conservative insistence on keeping certain ideas out?  For some young-earth creationists, mere exposure to evolutionary ideas represents a danger to their young children.  It might be that such conservatives view exposure to evolutionary ideas as an intellectual trauma, a theological trauma.  Such ideas might be ‘out there’ in the world, just like genocide, rape, and lynching might be ‘out there,’ but that does not imply that education must include graphic exposure to them.

Is this the way to understand Finish Well’s prohibition of any hint of evolution?  I’d love to hear from those who believe that young people should be protected from such ideas.