Could It Work?

Conservatives love to threaten it. But could they pull it off? Business Insider looked recently at the nuts and bolts of what it would take for a conservative president to make good on his threat to eliminate the Education Department.

Rand Paul is the most recent candidate to threaten. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are aware, my historical look at this question ran recently in the pages of Time Magazine. Conservative candidates since Reagan have pledged to eliminate Education. No president ever has.

What’s their beef? As Rand Paul explained in this 2010 speech, many conservatives assume that federal control increases the left’s culture-war power in schools.

The assumption—for electoral purposes at least—is that federal power means less local ability to say no. As Paul put it in 2010,

I would rather the local schools decide things. I don’t like the idea of somebody in Washington deciding that Susie has two mommies is an appropriate family situation and should be taught to my kindergartner at school. That’s what happens when we let things get to a federal level.

Business Insider asked law guru Laurence Tribe to explain the president’s power to make good on this threat. Obviously, Tribe explained, no president can simply eliminate a federal government department by fiat. But there are things presidents can do. They can encourage legislators to push legislation to that effect. And they can strangle government agencies by cutting funding.

In a 2012 budget proposal, Senator Paul suggested an 83% cut to the Education Department. Only the popular Pell Grant program would remain. Indeed, in that proposal to save $500 billion, Education took the biggest hit at $78 billion. The National Science Foundation would face big cuts, too, along with huge cuts (78%) to the Interior Department and the utter elimination of the Departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development.

Paul’s bluster raises a new question, one I didn’t consider in my historical commentary. If so many conservatives threaten the Education Department, why don’t any of them actually get rid of it? As Catherine Lugg described in her history of Reagan’s early efforts, it is easier to malign the Education Department than it is to eliminate it.

Part of the reason might be seen in Senator Paul’s 2012 budget proposal. The Education Department hosts several extremely popular programs, including the Pell Grant program. Even conservatives like to win elections, and it is difficult to win when you take money away from voters. This is why we still have Social Security and Medicaid, in spite of conservative ideological disgust.

In any case, be ready for more. As the 2016 GOP contest gets rolling, the Education Department will be threatened, insulted, and demonized. The one thing it won’t be, it seems, is actually eliminated.

A Strange Poll Question for Conservatives

What would “Christian America” look like? No one really knows, but plenty of Republicans want to make it official. At least according to a new poll from the Public Policy Polling firm, significant majorities of likely GOP primary voters—57%–want to make Christianity the official religion of the USA. This brings us to a tough question: Do today’s religious conservatives intend to make a break with conservative tradition? Or are they just unaware of their own history?

The PPP poll gives some intriguing breakdowns. For those GOP voters who prefer Governor Mike Huckabee, a whopping 94% support the notion. Even those who support the more secular Rand Paul like the idea, by a margin of almost two to one.

Younger GOP voters are MORE likely to back the proposal. Among 18-45-year-olds, 63% say they support the idea. Only 51% of those over 65 do.

There are other intriguing aspects to this poll. For example, among supporters of Huckabee and of Paul, we see a neat flip-flop when it comes to evolution. Only a tiny margin (7%) of Huckabee backers say they “believe” in evolution, while a whopping 85% of Paul supporters do. Clearly, there’s a lot of daylight between the notions of “conservatism” and “creationism” these days.

But that’s not nearly as compelling, IMHO, as this weird question of establishing Christianity as the national religion. What would that mean? Would public schools nationwide all look a lot more like the ones in Greenwood, Indiana? Would other religions have to pay some sort of tax?

Perhaps most interesting from an historical perspective, do these likely GOP voters know that conservative Protestants—especially Baptists—have always been the leaders in making sure that the government was kept entirely separate from religion?

My hunch is that most of these respondents think of “Christian America” as a conservative concept, something along the lines of David Barton’s Wallbuilders and Representative Fisher’s Black Robe Regiment. In short, this strain of conservative thought emphasizes that the United States was founded by Christians, for Christians. The Founding Fathers, that is, were guided explicitly by Christian ideas and they never intended for any sort of wall of separation to be built. Judges should be free to have the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in their courtrooms. Town meetings and football games should be free to start with a prayer. Currency should continue to Trust in God. And so on.

Was America founded as a Christian nation?  Should we make it official?

Was America founded as a Christian nation? Should we make it official?

As I argue in my new book, this kind of Christian patriotism has had a long and strong pull on the conservative imagination. In the 1930s, for example, big-business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers trumpeted the connection between religiosity, democracy, and free enterprise.

Traditionally, however, conservative Christians have always taken the lead on maintaining a strict separation between government and religion. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, for example, many conservatives jeered, but conservative evangelicals cheered. Secular conservatives like Herbert Hoover declared that the Court had just killed public education. But religious conservatives like William Culbertson of the Moody Bible Institute thanked the Supreme Court for its “protection in this important area.”

In that decision, of course, SCOTUS ruled that state governments could not impose a prayer on public schools. For some conservatives, that meant that the Court had kicked God out of the public square. For religious conservatives, it meant that religious belief and practice could never be dictated by a government body.

Which brings us back to this curious recent poll. Among the front runners for the GOP nomination, Governor Huckabee leads, along with Dr. Ben Carson, as the most religious of the conservatives. One might think that Huckabee’s supporters would be horrified at the idea of establishing a national religion. ANY national religion. But that is clearly not the case. As the demographics suggest, younger conservatives seem more comfortable with the idea of establishing Christianity as the national religion.

Maybe they know something we don’t. My guess, though, is that these young conservatives have a new understanding of “Christian America.” Unlike their grandparents and great-grandparents, conservative Baptists today do not seem convinced that their first job is to keep the government at arm’s distance.

Are Conservatives Secretly Racist?

No matter how much they may deny it, conservative intellectuals and activists these days are often accused of being secretly racist.  Influential African American conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson are accused of being suckers and “Uncle Toms.”  As an article in the New York Times argues, perhaps the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri will give conservatives a chance to prove their anti-racist claims.

Is this the "conservative" side? ...

Is this the “conservative” side? …

As I argue in my upcoming book, racial thinking among white conservatives as a whole has changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.  In the 1920s, school battles did not pit conservatives as the “racist” side against “anti-racist” progressives.  Indeed, in fights about evolution in the 1920s, mainstream scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn often supported the white-supremacist notions of writers such as Madison Grant.  White conservatives in the 1920s were mostly guilty of what we would call racism, but then again, so were white non-conservatives back then.

By the 1950s, mainstream conservatives had changed their thinking on racial issues dramatically.  First of all, the tumult over school desegregation led some conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. to support “states’ rights” over racial desegregation.  And in the massively resisting South, white resistance to desegregation often became coupled with a conservative anti-communism.

But outside the South, white conservatives often tried to insist that their opposition to school desegregation was not due to racism.  In Pasadena, for example, a progressive superintendent’s plan to desegregate the district met with ferocious opposition from conservatives.  But those conservatives insisted that they were not racist.  They insisted that their opposition to desegregation did not mean that they thought non-whites were inferior.

...Or is THIS the "conservative" side?

…Or is THIS the “conservative” side?

Similarly, in the school controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia in 1974, white conservative activists insisted that they were not racist.  They opposed new textbooks that included passages from racial firebrands such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  But, as conservative leader Elmer Fike put it,

The protesters do not object to authors because they are black, but they do believe convicted criminals and revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver should not be recognized.

Since then, mainstream white conservatives have worked hard to prove that their conservatism does not make them racist.  Does this new racial firestorm in Missouri give them a new chance to prove their sincerity?

In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Jeremy W. Peters suggests it might.  Peters cites the nervousness of conservative leaders such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Erick Erickson.  All three conservatives, Peters notes, have spoken out against the massively militarized police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.  Peters says that this sort of conservatism marks a shift.  Since the late 1960s, conservatives have traditionally been the side of law and order.  These days, Peters wonders, conservatism might find itself embracing instead a renewed emphasis on limiting the power of government.  What conservative, Senator Paul might ask, wants to see a militarized police force bearing down on protesting citizens?

But the Missouri conflagration suggests another important question as well.  If conservatives really are the anti-racists many of them claim to be, this Ferguson situation might offer white conservatives a chance to side with African American conservatives as a united anti-racist conservative voice.  Legitimate protests against overweening government power could certainly rally conservative support, white and black.

And if conservative activists want to prove that they are not secretly racist, what better way to do so than to side with the protesting citizens of Ferguson, Missouri?