I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

As we Americans get ready to celebrate our nation’s heritage by blowing up some small portion of it, here are a few stories you might have missed:

A new plea for an old idea: Nobel laureate explains how to improve science education in colleges.

SCOTUS decides in favor of religious schools. Government can be forced to include churches in grant-funding schemes. Blaine Amendments are out.

What could a religious conservative dislike about “worldview” education? Rod Dreher thinks it misses the point of true education.

How can we encourage career-changers without allowed untrained teachers? Curmudgucrat Peter Greene makes his case for high-quality alternative teacher certification.Bart reading bible

Historian Daniel K. Williams explains the “Democrats’ religion problem” in the NYT.

Amy Harmon follows up on her story about teaching climate change. What are real teachers doing?

Historian John Fea blasts the “Christian Nation” rhetoric of Trump’s “Court evangelicals.”

Do “evangelicals” oppose same-sex marriage? Or only old evangelicals? In WaPo, Sarah Pulliam Bailey looks at new survey results.

What does it mean to learn something? Daniel Willingham wrestles with a definition.

Who is protesting on campuses? It’s not “liberals,” Jacques Berlinblau argues.

Peter Berger, RIP. D. Michael Lindsay eulogizes Berger’s influence among evangelical academics.

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What Color Are Your Fundamentalists?

Who are the “fundamentalists” who hope to keep America’s public schools religious?

Some of us may picture a Saddleback-type white suburban evangelical, driving around in a Biblically-sized SUV, worrying in equal measure about sin and soccer.

New!  School Prayer Barbie!

New! School Prayer Barbie!

But as Peter Berger reminds us this morning on The American Interest, that image of conservative evangelicalism might represent the past more than the future.

Berger notes the dramatic effects of immigration on the nature of American Christianity.  New immigrants tend to be Christian, and their Christianity tends to lean conservative.  As Berger concludes,

Both in their theology and religious practice, non-Western Christians are more conservative. Their worldview is strongly supernaturalist: The spiritual world, both benign and sinister, is very close—the Holy Spirit, the Virgin and the saints, miracles of healing—but also the devil and other malevolent spirits. This supernaturalism is strongest in the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, but it is also very visible in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. But non-Western Christians are also more conservative in their moral convictions—very little sympathy here for the feminism, let alone the agenda of the gay movement, that has become so prominent in mainline Protestantism in America—and, I suspect, would be more prominent in American Catholicism, were it not for surveillance and intervention from Rome.

The implication of all this is simple and exceedingly important: Immigration will strengthen the conservative forces in American Christianity.

In the future, the fight over religion in America’s public schools may have a very different tone.  Instead of a ring of white conservative suburbs around every ethnically diverse urban core, we may see a shift to immigrant-led demands for more vibrant religion in schools.  Instead of whitebread traditionalism resisting a multicultural liberalism, we might have an ethnically diverse group of conservatives battling to keep morals pure in public education.

Do Georgians Hate Gay Kids?

About a week ago, an article in the New York Times drew attention to a report about anti-gay discrimination in tax-funded private schools in Georgia.  Though liberal groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State have publicized the findings, responses from conservative America seem more muted.  I wonder if this lack of indignant defenses from conservatives results from the implicit connection between this issue and racial discrimination.

The report from the Southern Education Foundation warned that of the 400+ Georgia private schools that receive tax-funded scholarship money, 115 schools discriminate openly and explicitly against homosexuality.

The report included policy statements from several such schools.  For instance, according to the report, the parent/student handbook at Shiloh Hill Christian School in Kennesaw warned that any student who said, “I am gay,” “I am a homosexual,” or a male saying, “I like boys,” could be expelled.  Another school statement quoted in the report warned,

“In accordance with the Statement of Faith and in recognition of Biblical principles, no ‘immoral act’ or ‘identifying statements’ concerning fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, or pornography, will be tolerated.  Such behavior will constitute grounds for expulsion. . .”

These schools all receive funding from student scholarship organizations (SSOs).  SSOs, active in eleven states, according to the New York Times, allow taxpayers to divert taxes dollar-for-dollar to these scholarship organization.  Instead of paying their money in taxes, in other words, taxpayers can pay for students to attend private schools.

How have conservatives defended the program?  Fairly quietly, it seems to me.  Perhaps my antennae are simply not sensitive enough, but I have not read many endorsements of the Georgia program.  This is surprising, since other school-funding options such as charter schools and school vouchers usually draw vociferous defenses from conservatives.

There have been some arguments in defense of Georgia’s policies.

In a post on First Things’ First Thoughts blog, for example, Joseph Knippenberg made a religious-liberty defense of the Georgia program.  First, Knippenberg argued, taxpayers ought to have control over their tax dollars, to some extent.  Until their money enters the public treasury, it is still private, Knippenberg pointed out.  Therefore, choosing to donate to certain schools must be considered in the same category as choosing to donate to certain churches, or hospitals, or advocacy organizations.

Second, Knippenberg extended this argument to people’s right to practice their religions freely.  “To deny people the opportunity to make a contribution to the faith of their choice,” Knippenberg wrote, “is to deny their religious freedom.”

It seems there are other arguments conservatives could make.  As one commenter on a Christianity Today blurb noted,

“Sexual preference or orientation is not a person. It is not unjust discrimination to discriminate between acts, including sexual acts that respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus acts of authentic Love, and acts, including sexual acts, that do not respect the personal and relational essence of the human person and are thus demeaning.”

These comments from “Kathleen” articulate a deeper possible defense of Georgia’s policies.  Though I personally agree that Georgia’s tax money ought not fund schools that discriminate against homosexual students, let me try to spell out this possible argument a little bit.

Here goes:

The argument against Georgia’s tax-funding scheme implicitly uses the history of racial school discrimination to discredit the current policy of religious school discrimination.  It fudges the difference.  This implied analogy does not hold water.

All schools, all people, all organizations discriminate.  Any school that admits some people and does not admit others discriminates.  In some cases, private schools discriminate openly against people who can’t or won’t pay their tuition.  And this sort of discrimination raises no objections.

The issue, then, is which sorts of discrimination are legitimate.  On the whole, Americans agree that discrimination by race is not legitimate.  Of course, there are plenty of white- and black-supremacist holdouts.  In general, however, in terms of constitutional law and explicit policy practice, America has abjured its white-supremacist past of schools segregated legally by race.

To imply that all school discrimination belongs in the same moral, legal, and Constitutional category as racial discrimination unfairly smears religious dissenters as bigots.

Again, just to ward off misunderstanding, let me be clear: I’m playing devil’s advocate here.  In this case, I personally believe that public money should not fund private schools that discriminate against homosexuality.

But intelligent scholars have pointed out the flaw in the “bigotry” analogy.

In an essay on Public Discourse a few months back, Princeton’s Robert George assailed the tendency to label all forms of discrimination “bigotry.”  Speaking in regard to the definition of marriage, George argued,

“Thus, advocates of redefinition [of marriage] are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would ‘expand the circle of inclusion’—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of ‘animus’—on the other. The ‘excluders’ are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of ‘marriage equality’ and ‘non-discrimination,’ liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.”

Similarly, Peter Berger noted the increasing tendency of homosexual-rights advocates to frame their arguments as matters of rights.  As Berger wrote in The American Interest,

“At the time [the 1950s] homosexual rights were advocated by a discourse of individual freedom, basically freedom to choose one’s values and way of life. In other words, the discourse was in terms of the first amendment to the US constitution. The discourse now is very different: Homosexuality is not a choice, but a destiny—an individual does not, cannot choose to be gay—one is born gay—and society should acknowledge and respect this congenital fate. I think it is very clear why this change in discourse occurred: If homosexuality is destined not chosen, it is analogous to race—and thus the movement for homosexual rights can wrap itself in the mantle of the Civil Rights movement. Let me reiterate: I have identified all along with the insistence on the rights of homosexuals, and I think I understand the rhetorical logic of the changed discourse. Is it based on good scientific evidence? I don’t know.”

In other words, if conservatives hope to maintain schools—even private schools, even religious schools—that discriminate against homosexual students, it will be imperative for conservatives to reframe this issue.  If Americans see Georgia’s funding of anti-homosexual schools as a fair analogy to public funding of anti-African American schools, the writing is on the wall.  Such racial discrimination no longer musters any public support.

Arguing that this is an issue of religious freedom will not be enough.  Conservatives must do more than just argue that discrimination against certain lifestyle choices is a legitimate part of their religious freedom and expression.  After all, religious freedom has been abridged in the quest for racially desegregated schools.  Conservatives, it seems to me, must do what Professor George advocates: break the intellectual connection between discrimination on the basis of race and discrimination on other bases.  Only if discrimination against homosexuals is seen as a legitimate option—even by those who do not agree—will religious institutions manage to maintain such policies.

Berger on Broun and Equal-Opportunity Superstition

Peter Berger recently noted the strange furor over Representative Paul Broun’s evolution comments.  The recently reelected Broun had attracted attention for sermonizing that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory were lies “straight from the pit of hell.”

Berger does not support Broun’s vision of true science.  But Berger makes the more sophisticated point that the uproar over Broun’s scientific vision has a long and unfortunate history.  Why, Berger asks, do such statements attract such vituperative responses on Capitol Hill?

Berger says it best:

“I will speculate that what we have here is an ideologically congenial case that bundles together a set of common left-liberal prejudices—against Republicans, Evangelicals and the South. These are the stereotypical characters in the nightmares of American progressives—a grand conspiracy to take control of Washington and clamp down on their genitalia. H.L. Mencken, in his journalistic coverage of the 1925 ‘monkey trial’ in Dayton, Tennessee was the granddaddy of this particular worldview: Go south and west of Baltimore, and you are in the land of the Yahoos.

“I would not for a moment dispute the characterization of the views expressed by Messrs. Broun and Akin as grossly superstitious. But I believe in equal treatment of all superstitions, on both sides of the aisle. Thus the same individuals who sneer at the beliefs of Bible-thumping Republicans believe that all differences between men and women are social conventions, that an eight-month embryo is as much a part of the mother’s body as her appendix, that racism can be abolished by the government allotting privileges by way of racial quotas, that wealth can be distributed without being produced, that homicidal regimes can be influenced by moral persuasion… Need I go on ?

“Let me suggest a nonpartisan generalization: Superstitions abound all over the political map. It is an interesting question which superstitions are more harmful to society.”

As we’ve argued here before, we don’t have to agree with Broun’s ideas to recognize them as commonly held notions about the nature of science and humanity.  We can fight against those ideas without being disingenuously shocked by them.  Instead of wasting time and effort telling one another that we can’t believe how someone could hold such beliefs in 2012, those like me who want better evolution education would be better off spending our time trying to understand the origins and nature of those beliefs.

Berger on the Pentecostal Elephant in the Room

Peter Berger at American Interest has offered this week a helpful reminder about the importance of understanding Pentecostalism.  Berger’s article reminds us of a few looming intellectual traps that anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America must avoid.  The first is that conservative religion in America is some sort of monolith.  Far from it.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists that I’ve studied vehemently disputed the legitimacy of the Pentecostal style.  One typical fundamentalist writer in the early 1920s dismissed Pentecostalism as a kind of “hysterical fanaticism,” arguing that “Disorderly confusion in the assembly is not of God.”   Another agreed: “Usually people carried away by this movement are of a nervous, mystical, hysterical temperament, such as are considered a bit queer.”

Historian Grant Wacker has called this division the “Travail of a Broken Family.”  As Berger notes, even among the Pentecostal tradition there are a variety of sub-traditions.  As a generalization, though, Pentecostals emphasize an immediate connection with, and a baptism by, the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostal worship can be characterized by distinctive physical manifestations among worshippers, including “jerking,” laughing, or glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”).  The faith has also long been known for its emphasis on divine healing.  But beyond those headline-grabbing outward signs, Pentecostal faiths are also focused on a very “fundamentalist” reading of the Bible.  And although Pentecostals can be less noticably political than their evangelical cousins, they often have equally conservative political and cultural beliefs.

Berger’s article also reminds us of the danger of dismissing any intellectual tradition much different from our own.  As Berger notes,

I think that even today the notion of Pentecostal scholarship, especially if undertaken by scholars who are themselves Pentecostals, must strike many people as an oxymoron. Evangelicals in general are still widely regarded as backwoods provincials, like those described with contempt by H.L. Mencken in his reports on the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee—or, in the profoundly revealing 2008 comment by Barack Obama about folk in small towns (revealing, that is, about him, not about the people he was talking about): “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” These stereotypes were never empirically correct, and now are grossly incorrect. What has been happening in recent decades is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated Evangelical intelligentsia, some of it based in a network of Evangelical academic institutions, publishing houses and journals, some (more interesting) infiltrating secular elite academia. Pentecostals are still lagging behind other Evangelicals in this development, but they have started to move in the same direction in America and elsewhere.

I would add that another disturbing part of this tendency to ignore the intellectual aspect of Pentecostalism is its heavy load of racial and class prejudice.  In the United States, Pentecostal churches have long been popular among low-income folks from ethnic minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans.  If those of us outside of conservative religion dismiss all emotive, traditional worship as mere snake-handling, we risk misunderstanding the cultural experiences of huge numbers of people who don’t have a lot of money or a lot of cultural clout.  This is the sort of misunderstanding that fuels the bitterness of America’s culture wars.  When activists on each side wholly misunderstand one another, the amount of wiggle room for compromise and mutual respect vanishes.  Berger’s article reminds us of the importance of approaching different cultural traditions with a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness.