Why Would Conservatives Want to Turn This Into a Religious Thing?

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I’m truly perplexed. During the long long hours I spent yesterday watching Endgame, I couldn’t stop thinking about our recent discussion. David French and other intelligent conservatives want to insist that America’s culture wars are primarily “a religious dispute.” I disagree, but the real question is this: Why do conservatives want to say that they are? The answer seems obvious to me, but maybe I’m missing something.

 

Here’s a little background: In his argument for free campus speech, French made the following assertion:

It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism.

As strategy, I get it. If conservative ideas are a religious imperative, they will get more respect. If culture wars are religious disputes, then both sides should get equal status, at least from the perspective of the government. But as an intellectually coherent way to understand America’s culture wars, I don’t get it. Lots of people share religious ideas yet find themselves on opposite sides of culture-war issues such as race, gender, and sexuality.

One sharp reader offered a better defense than French did. As PH put it,

we are certainly talking about competing ideas and systems of ethical and metaphysical values, beliefs, and commitments concerning the nature of reality, the basis for human flourishing, and ideal social norms. These are ideas based on faith as much as they are on reason or science. Personally, I think “religious” is a pretty good word for that, even if we’re not talking about formal organized religious groups or particular theological traditions.

The way I see it, though, people who share the same religion still disagree about key culture-war issues. For proof, we don’t need to look any further than the Veep’s office. Does Mike Pence represent conservative evangelical Protestantism? The community of Taylor University says both yes and no. And, as I argued recently in WaPo about Karen Pence’s lame defense of her anti-LGBTQ school, there is not a single, undisputed “orthodox” rule about proper social policy for LGBTQ people. Plenty of conservative evangelical Protestants are plenty “orthodox,” yet they disagree with the Pences on these issues.

So to me, it seems achingly obvious why some conservatives might want to redefine political disagreements as religious ones: For at least half a century now, politically conservative people have tried to insist that only their politically conservative version of religion is the true version of religion. They have argued that people who disagree with them cannot possibly be true Christians or Muslims or whatever.

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

If real, “orthodox” Christianity insists on racial segregation, for example, as Bob Jones Sr. famously argued in 1960, then the US government has no right to demur. If real, “orthodox” Christianity requires belief in a literal six-day flood and a recent creation of humanity, for example, as Ken Ham famously argues today, then evangelicals have no business questioning it.

Just like questions of LGBTQ rights, however, neither of those ideas are really as simple as conservatives like to think. Debates about them divide people who share the same religious backgrounds. The cultural battles over racism, creationism, and sexuality are not battles between people who have different religions. They are fiercest between people who SHARE religious ideas but have different ideas about public policy.

So are America’s culture wars “a religious dispute?” Only if we use a tortuous definition of the phrase. To say that conservative positions on sexuality, race, or gender are just being “orthodox” only makes sense as a political strategy. As an actual description of the divides we face on such issues, it doesn’t help at all.

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The Conservative/Christian Coalition Gets Weird…

You scratch my back, I’ll…erm…pretend I didn’t just see that dinosaur on Noah’s Ark. It’s not news that more-secular conservatives have long paired up awkwardly with Christian conservatives. With T-Diddy in the White House, though, things seem to be reaching a crescendo of ultimate weirdness. A couple of recent news stories underline the contortions that both sides have to go through to make America great again.

PRRI-Trump-Favorability-and-white-evangelicals-2015-2018-1-1024x683

Fox n Friends strategist: Who’da Thunk We’d Be Hanging out with Dinosaurs for this…?

First of all, let’s clear the air of a few stubborn misconceptions. As we’ve pointed out over and overSAGLRROILYBYGTH are likely tired of hearing it—there’s absolutely nothing “new” about the idea of conservative evangelicals getting involved in politics. The so-called “New Christian Right” of the 1970s was not the first time that evangelicals decided to jump into the political fray. As historians such as Daniel K. Williams, Matthew Avery Sutton, and yours truly have argued for years, evangelical Protestants have always been politically hyperactive.

As any historian knows—and any savvy evangelical could tell you—the evangelical community has always included political conservatives, political progressives, and a bunch of people in the political middle. The emergence of the “New Christian Right” was not a question of evangelicals getting into politics for the first time, but rather an always-awkward alliance between politically conservative evangelicals and the conservatives within the Republican Party.

Having said that, let’s look at some of the recent unpleasantness. At evangelical Taylor University in Indiana, for example (see our further coverage here), Vice President Mike Pence has caused a furor over his invitation to deliver a commencement address. Politically progressive members of the Taylor community have protested.

Not surprisingly, non-evangelical conservatives have weighed in to support the university’s decision. Non-evangelical conservatives have highlighted the justice of the conservative evangelical side at Taylor. For example, Fox & Friends tracked down a politically conservative alumnus of Taylor, who told them,

The vice president has very orthodox Christian beliefs – very traditional beliefs – that a vast majority of Christians believe. His political views are shared by a large section of America, so it’s not a radical choice, and I think people should be able to engage and disagree with his views and do it in a mature fashion.

The conservative PJ Media concluded,

Sadly, this incident illustrates yet again the trend of liberals demonizing dissent from their ideas. Conservative speech is not violence, and Mike Pence is not “rooted in hate.”

It’s no surprise that secular conservatives would jump in to side with evangelical conservatives at Taylor. After all, secular progressives have done the same thing for the anti-Pence side. Things get a little weirder, though, on a different episode of Fox & Friends.

fox n friends at the ark encounter

just…wow!

One of the F&F hosts, Todd Piro, goes on a tour of Answers In Genesis’ Ark Encounter. With a straight face, so to speak, the F&F segment shows the creationist megalith in all its zombie-science glory. The camera pans over dinosaurs in cages. Piro interviews visitors who sincerely praise the displays. As one earnest youth explains,

Not only did it give you the Biblical side, but it gave you a lot of scientific facts.

In his introduction, Piro says the Ark is just… “Wow!”

Not, ‘Wow, do you really believe that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans?’

Not, ‘Wow, do you really believe that a flood could have actually covered the entire planet?’

But, ‘Wow, this is a neat museum, full of learnin n stuff.’

Now, I’m no conservative, but I can understand perfectly well why non-evangelical conservatives would fall all over themselves to support Taylor’s conservative evangelicals. After all, both evangelical and non-evangelical conservatives can agree on their opposition to LGBTQ rights.

But I’m truly flabbergasted when I see non-evangelical reporters describing the Ark Encounter as if it were just another neat museum. How is it possible for anyone who is not themselves a radical young-earth creationist to see the Flintstones-level scientific displays and not ask about them? How is it possible that any journalist can see dinosaurs in cages and not wonder how they count as “scientific facts”?

Watching Piro sugar-coat the radical science on display at the Ark Encounter, one can almost hear the political calculations going on in the offices of Fox & Friends. We can almost hear the implicit deal non-evangelicals want to cut with evangelical conservatives. “You give us a solid 81% vote for T-Diddy,” we can hear them thinking, “You give us university commencement speeches for Pence, and we’ll give you a cake-walk visit to your kooky Bible-science museum and a stirring defense of your stubborn resistance to LGBTQ rights.”

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?

I sympathize. I’m no evangelical myself, but I truly sympathize with all the caring, thoughtful, engaged evangelicals out there who have a hard time seeing the ugly truth. But all the sympathy in the world doesn’t make the truth less true, or any less ugly.

pence

Love him or hate him, Pence really does represent American evangelical values.

We saw it again this week in the news from Indiana. Writing in the Washington Post, Amy Peterson lamented the choice of Vice President Mike Pence to give the commencement speech at evangelical Taylor University.

Peterson was absolutely right that the choice of Pence serves as a signal to evangelicals of the kind of institution Taylor wants to be. She was definitely correct in suggesting that Pence sides with Taylor’s underground conservatives, evangelicals who want their institution to enforce traditional sexual norms and starchy moral codes.

But Peterson makes a common mistake in her conclusion. She reports that many faculty members and students at Taylor shared her dismay at the choice of Pence. She ends on this hopeful note,

If the uproar at Taylor this week is any indication, white evangelicals may not be such a monolithic voting bloc the next time around.

But that’s just it. The uproar at Taylor is NOT a fair indication of the way white evangelicals think. Or vote.

As Slacktivist Fred Clark calls it, “faculty lounge” evangelicalism is not a fair measure of evangelicalism as a whole. In other words, evangelical intellectuals are, by definition, not average. Their ideas about “real” evangelicalism do not match real American “evangelicalism.” As Clark put it,

the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

We’ve seen it over and over again. Not just in the twentieth century, as I examined in Fundamentalist U, but in the past five years. And not just at the more politically conservative schools such as Liberty—though it has been dominant there—but at “faculty-lounge” strongholds such as Wheaton. Just ask Larycia Hawkins.

This is not only a problem for evangelical academics, of course. I remember a hastily-assembled conference at my (very secular) home institution in November, 2016. A group of historians scrambled to put Trump’s election victory in context. We just couldn’t find any way to make good sense of it. Our vision of American values and American voting just didn’t match reality. But our confusion couldn’t change the fact that large numbers of Americans seemed to prefer Trump’s brand of toxic Americanism.

Evangelical academics are in the same boat. When they encourage their fellow white evangelicals not to put their nationalism before their religion, like Randy Beckum did, they are shocked to find such notions controversial.  Or, as Methodists found out recently, when they assume their ideas about sexuality are the world-wide norm, they get harshly disabused of such notions.

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope—though I don’t pray—that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

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

Defending Kanye at NR.

pence at hillsdale

Do they care that we’re conservatives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaza protest

Signs of the apocalypse?

Apocalypticism, Trump, and Jerusalem:

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

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

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

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

Do They Know?

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

hillsdale pence

…no controversy here…

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

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

hillsdale college reagan statue

Ronnie relaxin on campus…

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

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

Hoosiers, Hate, and Homosexuality

When Charles Barclay, Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton, and Apple all attack Indiana, you know something big is going down. Many liberals have condemned Indiana’s new religious liberty law as a thinly veiled attack on LGBT rights. Not so fast, says Boston University’s Stephen Prothero. He raises a key question for all of us interested in culture-war issues. Who gets to define what is and what isn’t a religious act?

Defending liberty?  Or spreading hate?

Defending liberty? Or spreading hate?

Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been reviled as a sneaky way to impose a kind of cultural segregation on gay couples. If a baker does not want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, for example, or if a photographer refuses to shoot the pictures, this law gives them some legal protection to do so.

With these intentions, it certainly seems like an intolerant stab at the rights and dignity of LGBT people.

Yet liberal scholar Stephen Prothero defends the law. He is a supporter of full equality and rights for LGBT citizens, but he thinks conservative religious types have every right to refuse service to religious ceremonies of which they disapprove.  Not to refuse service in secular affairs, but to refuse service to religious ceremonies.  As he puts it,

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Professor Prothero’s work. I’m looking forward to his upcoming book, Why Liberals Win. In this op-ed, Prothero raises a key question that ranges far beyond the narrow issue of Indiana’s RFRA and discrimination against LGBT couples.

Namely, who decides when and if something is a religious act? If a lesbian couple gets married in a secular ceremony, is that a religious act? Or, to be specific, is it fair for a religious person to define such a ceremony as a religious act, even if the people involved don’t see it as one?

Here’s another real-world example: Is the teaching of evolution a religious act, even if the teacher does not see it as such? That is, if such teaching has religious meaning to a religious student, does that make it a religious act?  Obviously, public-school teachers have no business committing religious acts in their classrooms.  But what if they don’t think it is a religious act?  Who decides?

These cumbersome distinctions matter. As Professor Prothero points out, no one wants to force a Jewish baker to do anything to affirm a Catholic ceremony. But traditionally, legally, and historically, it has been acceptable to force a Jewish baker to do things that are perceived as non-religious, such as following health codes or serving customers of all races.

Defining the boundaries of religious activity thus takes on enormous political heft. If your actions are religious to me, even if they do not feel religious to you, who gets to decide?

In the checkered history of America’s public schools, time and again these disputes have been resolved against the claims of religious minorities. As I argue in my upcoming evolution book with philosopher Harvey Siegel, in the nineteenth century Catholic activists were told by Protestant school leaders that their complaints lacked merit, since the Protestant Bible could never be objectionable. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, Native American students had their religions suppressed in government boarding schools, since their religious objections were not seen by school founders as legitimate. In light of this history, shouldn’t religious minority groups, including creationists, be allowed to define for themselves if certain topics count as religious?

So far, conservative religious folks have not had too much luck in arguing in favor of their rights to discriminate. Perhaps most famously, Bob Jones University lost its Supreme Court case against the Internal Revenue Service. BJU had had its racial segregation challenged. BJU insisted its stance was religious. BJU lost.

If Indiana’s law is intended to protect conservatives’ right to discriminate, will it go the way of racial segregation? Do conservatives have the right to define the nature of religion, even if other people disagree? Is it fair for conservatives (or anyone) to insist that something is a religious act, even if the people engaged in that act don’t think so?