Racist Fundamentalists…It’s Complicated

Sometimes the archives can make things too complicated. White fundamentalists have always been accused of racism—a charge they’ve vehemently denied. But what do we do when an African American fundamentalist agrees with the racism of his white fellow fundamentalists?

First, a quick historical sketch: Since the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, fundamentalism got tangled up with ideas about Southern Pride. Conservative religion has often become part and parcel of a broader cultural conservatism, one that included support for racial segregation and white supremacy.

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

By the 1970s, leading white fundamentalists became some of the most public supporters of racial segregation. Most famously, Bob Jones University steadfastly clung to its whites-only policy long after many white Southerners and white fundamentalists had grudgingly moved on. Some historians, such as Randall Balmer, have insisted that white racism among fundamentalists was the real root of the so-called New Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s.

I disagree. There is no doubt that white fundamentalism—especially in the South—has long had close ties to white racism. There is more to the story, however, than quick condemnations of conservative religion as a front for white supremacy.

In my recent work at the archive of the Moody Bible Institute, I came across a document that reminds us how messy history is. In 1970, the leaders of Moody dis-invited prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice from Moody’s big annual Founder’s Week event. Why? Because Rice had come out in support of the segregationist policies of Bob Jones University.

As President William Culbertson informed members of the Moody community,

Moody Bible Institute has for 85 years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible. Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ. We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture. We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships. We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation. We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Moody Bible Institute, Culbertson told anyone who would listen, still agreed wholeheartedly with John R. Rice’s fundamentalist theology. Moody refused to compromise with those who would modernize the Bible or water down fundamentalist religion. But Moody could not be seen as part of a racist, segregationist movement.

Naturally, John R. Rice and his supporters blasted this decision. More evidence, one Rice supporter charged, that Moody had

moved one more step away from the great revival that is blazing across this land into the camp of lukewarm churches that make God sick. I do not suppose that anything that I have said will make any difference to you or Moody Bible Institute’s position. Years will come and go and Moody will ‘go the way of all flesh,’ while the Moody Memorial Church continues to dry-up on the vine.

Among the fat stack of angry letters supporting John R. Rice, one stands out. It came from William H. Dinkins of Selma, Alabama. Dinkins was an African American fundamentalist and, in his words, someone who “stand[s] with Dr. Rice for fundamentalism and the old-time religion and all that goes with it.” Too often, Dinkins charged, “We Negroes [sic] . . . try to inject Civil Rights into every circumstance, without sensing the effect of what we are doing.” When it comes to religion and the Word of God, Dinkins continued, “Civil Rights is an extraneous issue, and ought not to be in question, and I feel that responsible people ought not to be effected by such pleas.”

The view from Selma, 1971

The view from Selma, 1971

Dinkins’s letter raises difficult questions about race and religion. First of all, we wonder if this letter was legitimate. Could someone have faked it in order to create an impression of biracial support for racial segregation? If not, we wonder how common such sentiments have been. As historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white fundamentalists have long tended to ignore their African American co-religionists, at best. And, as John Dittmer and others have showed, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement many African American leaders in the Deep South supported segregation, at least temporarily and pragmatically.

In the early 1970s, was there really any support for racial segregation among African American conservatives? Did fundamentalism trump race?


The Ink Is Dry!

I’m tickled pink to announce I’ve signed a deal with Harvard University Press to publish my next book.  The subject?  No surprise to ILYBYGTH readers: the book takes a historical look at educational conservatism in America’s twentieth century.  What did conservatives want out of schools?  How did they work to make that happen?

I’m extremely pleased to have the book join HUP’s top roster of educational histories.  All my favorite books are on that list: David Tyack & Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia, Jon Zimmerman’s Whose America?, Jeffrey Moran’s Teaching Sex, and now Bill Reese’s Testing Wars.

I’m honored to join this all-star lineup.  My book—which at this point I’m calling The Other School Reformers: The Conservative Tradition in American Education—takes a look at the four most explosive school controversies of the twentieth century.  My approach has been to examine these four culture-war fights to see what sorts of educational reform conservatives wanted in each case.  At first, I thought I’d pile up histories of leading conservative organizations and individuals: the American Legion, Max Rafferty, the Gablers, etc.  But I couldn’t find a way to decide whom to include and whom to leave out.  Did the White Citizens’ Councils count as educational conservatives?  Did the Institute for Creation Research?  Did Arthur Bestor?

Instead of imposing my own definitions on the outlines of educational conservatism, I took more of a naturalist’s approach.  I set up my blind, so to speak, at the four most tumultuous fights over the content of American schools and watched to see what kinds of conservative activists showed up.

The school controversies were all very different.  First I examine the Scopes Trial of 1925.  Then the Rugg textbook controversy of 1939-1940.  After that, the firing of Pasadena’s progressive superintendent in 1950.  Finally, the literally explosive fight over schools and textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974 and 1975.

What did I dig up?  In short, I argue that there is a coherent tradition linking conservative school reform across the twentieth century.  Not that these different activists had any sort of conscious organization or program.  Conservatives differed—often differed widely—about key issues such as public religion, race, and the role of government and experts.  More than that, the consensus among conservatives changed over time, as American culture and society changed.  For example, racial attitudes among white conservatives changed enormously between 1925 and 1975.  But in spite of all this change and difference, a recognizable tradition of educational conservatism linked these disparate school reformers.  Conservatives usually agreed with progressive school reformers that good schools were the key to a good society.  But unlike progressives, conservatives wanted schools to emphasize traditional knowledge and beliefs: patriotism, religion, and the benefits of capitalism, for example.

In addition, my book makes the case for the importance of understanding these conservative activists as school reformers in their own right.  Too often, the history of American education is told as the heroic tale of progressive activists fighting bravely against a powerful but vague traditionalism.  My book argues instead that educational conservatism is more than just a vague cultural impulse; conservatism has always been a raft of specific policy ideas for specific historical contexts, fought for by specific individuals and organizations.

So be sure to save some space in your holiday gift list for next year.  The book is slated to appear just in time for Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus 2014.


The Age of Pedophilia

Are we all Jerry Sanduskys?

That’s the accusation made recently by Anthony Esolen.

Pedophilia, Esolen charges, is not limited to the horrifying cases of the Sanduskys of the world.  Rather, we engage in pedophilia whenever we subordinate the welfare of children to the sexual gratification of adults.

In this logic, divorce is nothing but a socially acceptable form of pedophilia.  Having children outside of wedlock is pedophilia.  Worst of all are the “creeps” at Planned Parenthood (Esolen calls them “Planned Predators”) who teach young children a debased vision of sex.  These “pedophiles of the soul,” Esolen accuses, cruelly introduce

children to the delights of meaningless sex, with cartoons of talking penises and vaginas, of a girl bending over with a mirror to inspect her anus, or a boy in his bedroom abusing himself.

What is that, Esolen asks, if not pedophilia of the worst sort?  Indeed, such “credentialed spiritual pederasts” use the same strategy as old-fashioned child rapists.  They work to separate children from the influence of their parents.  In their sexually aggressive ideology, Esolen writes,

Parents are the enemy. The parents are kept in the dark. The parents are too benighted to know what is best. The parents—even such sporadically responsible parents as our generation has produced—wouldn’t know about how happy it is to be sexually free.

As Esolen must have intended, such accusations are profoundly disturbing.  There is nothing more heinous than real child molesters.  It seems to me to breach the bounds of public civility to accuse the sex-educators at Planned Parenthood of acting like nothing more than “the old man down the street, wheezing and giggling, who likes to show little kids pictures of people masturbating[.]”

But if Esolen’s extreme anger represents the feelings of a broad body of the American public, it certainly helps us understand why sex education has had such a troubled career in America’s public schools.  Indeed, as historians such as Jeffrey Moran have argued, sex ed has often been received with the violence and outrage that Esolen’s essay predicts.

Such outrage makes more sense if we understand the way Esolen hopes to redefine pedophilia.


An Age of Denial—of History

Attention, fellow followers of the evolution/creationism controversies!  Want to read

  • Hysterical exaggerations?
  • Misleading claims?
  • Willful ignorance?

Then look no further than the pages of the New York Times.

These aren’t the ravings of a fringe Bible-thumping creationist, nor are they the feverish exhalations of a Dawkins wannabe.
Rather, the New York Times recently ran a sadly mistaken opinion piece by physicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.

Professor Frank and I are on the same side of these debates.  We both want better evolution education in America’s schools at every level.
But Professor Frank engaged in some terrible punditry that even his allies must protest.  Frank made the tortuous claim that

Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Creationism is not Professor Frank’s only concern.  He also blasted America’s growing—or at least durable—disdain for climate-change science and vaccination science.  For those notions, Frank may have a point.  But his claims about creationism don’t pass the smell test.

Even on his own terms, Professor Frank muddles things.  He opens by acknowledging the fairly flat lines of American creationism illustrated by Gallup polls.  Since the 1980s, about 42-44% of respondents have agreed that God created humanity in pretty much its present form at some point in the last 10,000 years.

How, then, does it make any sense for Frank to conclude that his “professors’ generation [in the 1980s] could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement”?  Creationism in the 1980s was a roaring lion, pushing “two-theory” laws onto the books in states such as Arkansas.  Indeed, President Reagan swept into the White House based, in part, on his ardent support for creationism.

Frank’s personal experience with self-satisfied academic scientists in the 1980s who looked at creationism with “head-scratching bemusement” demonstrates the surprising cultural isolation of academic scientists more than it does any weakness of creationism in the 1980s.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, many scientists in elite academic settings these days show a surprising ignorance about conservative religion in America.  That may have been true of Frank’s teachers in the 1980s as well.  If they thought 1980s creationism posed no threat to mainstream science and science education, they certainly misunderstood the nature of American culture and politics.

More startling is Frank’s bizarre claim that creationism was a “minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century.”  Such a statement reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the career of American creationism, indeed about American culture in general.

I don’t suggest that physicists such as Professor Frank need to take the time to read the excellent academic literature out there, such as Ron Numbers The Creationists, Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, or Jeffrey Moran’s American Genesis.  Though it wouldn’t hurt, especially if one is planning to spout off about the history of creationism in the pages of the New York Times.

But even if Frank only scanned through the Wikipedia entry on the Creation-Evolution Controversy, he would see that creationism has never been a “minor current.”  Creationism has always been embraced by leading figures; creationism has always had powerful political support.

So what could the good professor have been thinking?  How could an intelligent, informed commentator really believe that creationism has grown from inconsequential to insuperable between 1982 and today?

Perhaps Professor Frank believes that his claims are true if we look only at creationism “narrowly defined.”  That is, one could make the case that today’s sort of creationism did not exist for most of the 20th century.  This could hold some water.  After all, the sort of creationism we’re used to today is very different from that of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The 1961 publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood heralded a new sort of creationist thought and belief.

If this is what Professor Frank meant, good for him.  But I don’t think it is.

After all, Frank does not claim that creationism has become powerful since the 1960s.  He seems to believe that creationism has escalated in political intensity since 1982.

Also, if he hopes to argue that creationism’s political power is stronger now than it has ever been, he can’t hide behind his faulty “narrow” definition of creationism.  In the first half of the 20th century, creationism—not the same creationism as today, but recognizably the same cultural and political impulse—ruled the ballot box in states across the country.  It did so far more powerfully than it has done since.

The claims of “early” creationism were far more strident than the claims of latter-day “creation scientists.”  Since the 1960s, most creationists have fought to include creationism alongside evolution in public-school science classes.  Earlier activists had much greater ambitions, hoping to ban evolution entirely.

So what can we make of Professor Frank’s anxious tut-tutting?

Frank’s misleading conclusions, I believe, result from a disturbing willingness to ignore the historical record and rely on flawed personal experience to make sweeping charges about the way America has changed over time.  The goal is to create a sense of hysteria, a sense that we are now approaching a crisis worse than any we have seen.

Such antics may make for good politics.  But they make for very bad policy-making.  Our thinking about creationism, education, and culture should be based on clear-heading thinking, not on false claims.

So, to set the record straight, let’s look at a few simple facts:

  • Is America in 2013 ferociously creationist?  Yes.
  • Do politicians truckle to creationists?  Yes.
  • Has America become more ferociously creationist since Professor Frank began his college career in 1982?  No.

It may be politically expedient to skew the history this way, but it doesn’t do justice to the facts.  In the end, this kind of misrepresentation hurts the cause of evolution education.  It depends on a false sense of crisis; it gives readers a misleading depiction of our current cultural situation.

America is not facing the strongest creationist surge in our history.  Education policy should not be based on hysterically misleading claims.  Rather, creationism today is powerful, just as it has been since before America landed on the moon, just as it has been since before America landed on Omaha Beach.

American creationism, in short, is not a sudden new challenge to mainstream science, but rather a durable tradition.  Science pundits such as Professor Frank must recognize this.


Sex Ed: Letting Molesters Have Their Way with Our Kids

Sex ed means giving over our children to theories oozed out of the warped minds of pedophiles and child molesters.

That’s the accusation made recently in the pages of Public Discourse by Miriam Grossman.

It’s no secret that conservatives have long opposed sex ed.  As historians such as Jeffrey Moran and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela have explored, sex and children have always been a touchy combination for Americans.

It’s not surprising.  Sex is a touchy subject for anyone.  Talking about sex with young people has always been fraught with awkwardness, at best.  Even more so when the decisions about what to say and how to say it have become political footballs in educational culture wars.

Grossman’s essay pulls no punches.  She identifies the roots of sex ed in the perverted sexuality of early leaders of the movement.

She calls Alfred Kinsey, for instance, “afflicted at his core. . . . a depraved human being.”

John Money, according to Grossman, formed part of the “incest lobby.”  His career followed a path dictated by the fact that he was “troubled, and he molested young boys.”

What can we expect, Grossman argues, from a field pioneered by such sexual deviants and predatory perverts?  It is no surprise, she says, that sex ed has become a moral horror show.

Talk of using sex ed, or “health” education, to fight disease and reduce teen pregnancy, Grossman believes, is a red herring.  In fact, she insists,

Sex ed is not about preventing disease, it’s about sexual freedom, or better—sexual license. It’s about changing society, one child at a time.

For those of us hoping to understand conservative attitudes about sex education, Grossman’s essay is worth reading in its entirety.  Certainly, she does not speak for all conservatives on this issue, nor does she claim to.  But her vision of the roots of sex ed offers conservatives an understanding of sex ed as a sinister and malicious entity, one that must be opposed root and branch.

After all, if conservatives understand sex ed as a ploy to lure young people into the embrace of leering sexual predators, they will be are understandably reluctant to compromise on the issue.


Nothing New? Not Quite, Mr. Perlstein

Is Toni Morrison bad for young people?  How about porn and graphic violence?

In yesterday’s Nation, Rick Perlstein offered an insightful article into the nature of these sorts of school debates over books.  As usual, Perlstein writes with clarity and perspective.  But his argument would be better if he had included a longer historical perspective.

The specific issue that attracted Perlstein’s attention was a recent flap in Fairfax County, Virginia, over the reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  As Perlstein reported, parents complained about gruesome depictions of bestiality and rape.

Beyond just reporting another such dust-up, Perlstein made some great points about the predictable pattern of such cultural controversies.

First, he noted from his historical research into the 1970s how common it has been for conservative activists to claim to be merely shocked and offended parents, taken by surprise by the filth brought home in student backpacks.

Second, he decried the too-easy sanctimony of some liberals.  It is too easy to take the Kevin-Bacon-in-Footloose position, Perlstein wrote.

“Liberals get in the biggest political trouble, . . .” Perlstein argued in his 2008 book Nixonland, “when they presume a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress.”

Perlstein’s argument is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  But it would be even stronger if he had stretched his timeline beyond the wall of 1968.  As I argued in my 1920s book, and as I’m developing in my current book, in order to understand conservative educational activism we have to go back at least to the 1920s.

For instance, the tradition of objecting to textbook content has long been a central conservative educational tactic.  Anti-evolution firebrand T.T. Martin tried this strategy in 1923.  The textbook at issue, Harold Fairbanks’ Home Geography for Primary Grades, contained a few basic evolutionary concepts.  Children reading such things, Martin charged, would soon abandon their Christian faith.  In typically colorful prose, Martin warned, “that child’s faith in the Saviour is gone forever, and her soul is doomed for Hell; and with your taxes, you paid to have it done.”

Image Source: JacketFlap

Image Source: JacketFlap

Similarly, an examination of the 1940 campaign to eliminate the social-studies textbooks of Harold Rugg could add a great deal to this conversation.  Before they came under attack from conservative activists in the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers, these books sold in the millions.  Critics charged, however, that the books would pervert young people’s minds and morals.  As one influential American Legion critic put it in 1940, children reading Rugg’s books would soon be

“convinced that our ‘capitalistic system’ is the fault of selfish fellows like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who wanted to save their property; that the poor man wasn’t given proper consideration, that in Russia the youth are engaged in creating a beautiful, new democratic order, that modern business is for the benefit of the profit-makers, that advertising in an economic waste, that morality is a relative value, and that family life will soon be radically changed by state control.”    

Or consider this gem from the 1950s...

Or consider this gem from the 1950s…

Including the longer history of these sorts of controversies offers more than a chance for historians to sell a few more books.

In cases like this, a longer perspective helps us see that there are indeed ways in which each new book controversy offers “nothing new,” as Perlstein’s title suggested.  But there are other aspects of this long history that show us how things have changed dramatically.

Most compellingly, Perlstein comments that activists in 2013 seem to be reading from a conservative script in some ways.  In every case—whether from 2013 or 1974—activists claim to be mere surprised parents, frightened and disgusted by the literature imposed on their students.

Perlstein compares this to similar stories from the 1970s.  But there are equally familiar stories from much further back.  The wildly popular evangelist Bob Jones Sr. used to warn his audiences in the 1920s about the surprises in store for conservative parents at many modern schools.  One family had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy college.  The parents had no idea what kind of teaching went on there.  After one year, Jones preached,

“she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.”

In the 1920s, as in the 1930s, ’40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, these claims of parent shock and surprise at the influence of schooling have resonated powerfully among American conservatives.

In other ways, the longer view can give us hope that this culture war is not simply and eternally deadlocked.  Since the 1970s, for instance, conservatives like the ones Perlstein mentioned have all argued that their opposition to books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved did not make them racist.  Perlstein cites 1970s activist Alice Moore, who argued that her policies echoed those of the NAACP.  (Listen to this clip from a 1974 school board meeting in which Moore makes her case: Kanawha Board 4 – 11-74 – 3.

Such conservative efforts to fight an image of racism go back beyond the 1970s.  In a school fight in Pasadena in the late 1940s and early 1950s, conservatives insisted they did not fight against new zoning rules because they were racist.  In one telling comment, a conservative activist insisted that she could not have been racist, since her school petition had been signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors” as well as whites.  She could not be a racist, she said, because she had quickly become friends with one of her new neighbors, a “Negro physician.”

However, before World War II, conservative activists made no such efforts to combat an image of racism.  As historian Jeffrey Moran has long argued (see here and here) white religious conservatives in the 1920s often paid little attention to their African American co-religionists.

Does it matter?  Can a longer historical perspective give us better understanding of the battle over Beloved in Fairfax County?

If we don’t see the ways conservative school activism has changed over the decades, we might be tempted to conclude too quickly, as Perlstein seems to do, that nothing ever changes.  That would be misleading.

Instead, the longer lens shows us that school battles have indeed changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  For those of us who agree with Perlstein that schools should force students to “think and question, to blow apart settled ways of looking at the world, and, yes, force them into mental worlds that disturb,” the historical perspective offers a more profound reason for optimism.

Required Reading: Moran’s American Genesis

From time to time people ask me for a place to start.  For those who don’t want to dedicate their entire lives to understanding the creation/evolution controversies, they ask, what is one smart, short book that offers a useful introduction?

I am very happy to suggest a new book by Jeffrey Moran of the University of Kansas: American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science.  In the newest edition of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, I offer a brief review of this terrific book.

Moran was already the author of two essential books on my shelf, Teaching Sex and The Scopes Trial.  In American Genesis Moran does more than just hash over the history of controversy.  As I write in my NCSE review,

“Moran examines the history of antievolutionism as more than just religion, more than just science. As Moran explains, ideas about evolution offer a unique “mirror, however distorted, of [American] culture itself” (p 24). The most intriguing sections of American Genesis, accordingly, offer readers more than just a clear and compelling brief history of the American antievolution “impulse” (p x). Moran demonstrates the ways that anti-evolutionism has been both a bellwether and an influence on broader trends in American culture. In the first three chapters, Moran’s book approaches antievolutionism as a question not only of religion and science, but also of gender, region, and race.”

In just under 200 pages Moran crafts an argument that connects anti-evolutionism to the bigger pictures of American history and culture.  His book is consistently readable and wonderfully worthwhile for both experts and the general public.

Those interested in creation/evolution will find other items of interest in the most recent Reports of the NCSE.  The editors include a review of David Long’s ethnographic study of creationism among college students and Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists.

Worth checking out!


“If You’re Planning to Have Sex…”

What should schools be teaching America’s young people about sex?  This is a question that has snarled culture-war arguments about public education for decades.  Sex ed proponents often insist that they can teach a morally neutral approach—just the facts.  This attitude is ridiculously oversimplified.  There is and can be no morally neutral approach to a subject that is so intimately wrapped up in religion and ethics.

Let me be clear at the outset: I personally believe public schools should teach a comprehensive curriculum in sexuality that includes discussions about both the mechanics and morals of sex.  But the common argument that sex ed can be done in a morally neutral fashion relies on a woefully naïve self-understanding.

This liberal tradition begins with a powerful argument in favor of public-school sex ed.  Many sex ed proponents make the strong case that sex is a potentially deadly game.  Since kids are going to do it, they need information to stay safe and avoid unintentional pregnancies.  With the prevalence of HIV and possible pregnancy, the argument goes, this is literally a life-or-death situation.  Refusing to educate young people about sex in a frank and open manner would be a nearly criminal malfeasance on the part of responsible public-school educators.  Yet due to dunderheaded conservative opposition, many sex educators feel, this vital information is often censored.

Perhaps the most famous example of this position was the beleaguered Mary Calderone.  As historian Jeff Moran described in Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, Calderone headed SIECUS, the Sex (later Sexuality) Information and Education Council of the United States beginning in 1963.  The stated goal of the organization, in gendered 1960s language, was “to establish man’s sexuality as a health entity.”  Calderone wanted sex to be understood as a positive thing.  “We must block our habit of considering sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘controlled’,” she wrote in 1963.  Rather, Calderone argued, “Emphasis must be on sex as a vital life force to be utilized.”  In spite of the reputation Calderone gained as a wild-eyed sex maniac, Calderone remained relatively old fashioned.  She believed sex ed should encourage the ultimate goal of healthy marriages, for instance.  The SIECUS plan insisted it took a “moral-neutrality” approach.  It promised to deluge students with information, not preaching, about sex and sexuality.

Like that of SIECUS in the 1960s, the rationale of sex-ed advocates in subsequent decades has often gone as follows: sex educators in public schools do not encourage young people to have sex.  They merely suggest that if students are going to have sex, they must have the knowledge to do it safely.

For instance, as Laura Sessions Stepp has argued in recent days about a New York City program to provide the “morning after” pill to public-school students without parental consent, merely making information and even contraception available to young people does not encourage sex.

Whatever scientific evidence may suggest, however, proponents of sex ed in public schools often utterly misunderstand the thinking of religious conservatives.  It is difficult for those of us who support public-school sex ed to wrap our minds around the conservative position.  But if we are going to have respectful, productive discussions about sex ed, we must make the effort.

In short, for many religious conservatives, sex ed can never be a neutral message.  Having an adult, perhaps a teacher, stand in front of a group of young people and say, “If you’re going to have sex, here are some ways to do it safely,” suggests that having sex is a legitimate and respectable option for young people.  It encourages young people, some religious conservatives think, to think of themselves as people who might be having sex.

How can we make sense of this conservative position?  We might start with a few analogies.
For example, imagine a parallel situation in Family and Consumer Science, the class formerly known as Home Ec.  Imagine a teacher planned to inform students about the importance of kitchen hygiene.  “If you’re planning on making a ham-and-cheese sandwich,” the teacher might say, “here are some ways to do it safely.”

It is not difficult for us to imagine that a student from a Jewish background might not want to make a ham-and-cheese.  And, with our understanding of the goals and nature of public education, we can agree that such a student should never be forced to make a sandwich that breaks his or her religious rules.  Such a student could make something else.  Or he could be exempted from the class.  No big deal.  Simply because we do not share the student’s understanding of what may be offensive, we do not force the student to abandon that understanding.

In cases such as this, we should remember the words of former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren Burger.  In Thomas v. Review Board (1981), Chief Justice Burger argued that those who are not compelled by religious rules are not the ones who should decide whether or not those rules are reasonable.  “It is not for us to say,” Burger argued, “that the line [Thomas] drew was an unreasonable one.”

Granted, the case was not about public schools, or sex ed, but the principle remains important.  It is not the role of those who are not offended to declare whether or not certain ideas are offensive.

Perhaps another way to understand this case might be to imagine some permutations.  Consider, for example, how we would feel if a teacher told a class, “Now class, if you’re thinking about killing someone, here are some ways to do it safely.”  Clearly, when we agree that behaviors are beyond the bounds of morality, we agree that public-school teachers ought not be suggesting safe ways for students to engage in them.

That may be the position of religious conservatives.  If an action is entirely beyond the bounds of morality, the notion that young people need to be taught how to do it safely makes utterly no sense.  Simply broaching the topic implies that sex would be a legitimate choice for young people, a position their religion explicitly forbids.

So how can public schools provide information without offending conservative religious families?  It will make a start to understand the complaints of conservative parents as legitimate.  Just as we would not question a Jewish student’s aversion to making a ham-and-cheese, so we should not attack a religious student’s aversion to hearing about safer ways to have sex.  For many sex-ed liberals, myself included, this is a difficult pill to swallow.  It feels as if we are allowing some families to stick their heads in the sand, to restrict their children from hearing vitally important safety information.  Nevertheless, if we honestly respect the home cultures of students from conservative homes, we must allow them to draw the lines between offensive and acceptable.  We can never insist that our understanding of “morally neutral” must be accepted by those who disagree.