Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

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Round Peg, Square Hole

What is the proper role for religion in American public schools? That’s the question historian Ben Justice asked us yesterday at the American Educational Research Association meeting. I’m still stumped. I can’t see an easy way to reconcile the fundamental tension between two contrasting goals.

round peg square hole

It ain’t gonna fit.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember the first episode. If you don’t, here’s the catch-up: Historian Ben Justice put together a panel to wrestle with the proper role of religion in public education. Religious studies scholars Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey joined in, as did philosophers Colin MacLeod and Harvey Siegel. And me.

Our panel agreed—public schools need to teach about religion without teaching religion. And public schools need to be inclusive religious spaces. That is, public schools need to welcome people of every faith and none, but they can’t themselves promote or denigrate any specific religion. Sounds simple enough.

But there have always been disagreements and likely always will be. How do we solve them? As Colin and Ben wrote in their recent book, when it comes to questions of majority rule and minority rights, we’re not all going to agree on every problem. Our goal, instead, should be “legitimacy in the face of religious pluralism.”

In other words, people don’t have to agree with various school policies. If they see them as fair, however, as legitimate, then they will go along with them. And that brings us to our dilemma.

For some religious people, the notion of “inclusive” public schools is not a way to talk about the proper role of religion in the public square. Rather, for many Americans, “inclusivity” is itself a religious idea. So instead of having conversations about how we can all be welcomed in our public schools, we end up with a fight between two religions, only one of which admits to being a religion.

Clear as mud.

But it seems a little clearer when we look at examples. We see it everywhere we look. Consider a class in the history of religion, for example. In an inclusive school, a teacher might teach kids about the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She might explain to kids—trying to be neutral, trying not to favor any religion or non-religion over another—about the ways different people at different times believed different things about God and humanity. She might describe the ways Christianity grew out of Judaism, the way different Christians came to disagree with one another. Her goal, she would probably tell you, is not religious. She doesn’t want to preach; she only wants to teach.

For some parents, students, and activists, though, such a curriculum is not neutral at all. They might reasonably want their children to share their belief that their religion is true. For many religious people, the universal claims of their religion are absolutely central. That is, many religious people need to understand their faith as True with a capital T, not only true for them at their specific historical moment.

For religious people like that, a school curriculum that thinks of itself as neutral is not neutral at all. It is teaching, instead, the intensely religious idea that religion is a human invention rather than a divine revelation.

This is more than just an abstract game of what ifs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know well, in the last hundred years American Protestants split on exactly this sort of disagreement. Liberal Protestants often embraced the notion that their religion was a human creation, or, to be more precise, that their own understanding of religion was a human thing. Conservative Protestants, including those that mobilized as “fundamentalists,” disagreed. Vehemently.

For evangelical Protestants, the notion of an inclusive public square has always been the enemy. It has always been the rallying cry of their religious enemies. As I’ve argued in my 1920s book and my book about educational conservatism, religious conservatives—especially but not only conservative evangelicals—have learned for generations that the fight against “inclusion” was a religious fight against a religious enemy.

So how can we get people to think of “inclusion” as a legitimate goal? It will never be seen as legitimate if it is seen as a strategy by a competing religion. What then?

What Should Religion Do in Public Schools?

With apologies to Yogi Berra, I’ll steal his line in this case. I’m heading down to the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio. It’s the big one for education wonks and nerds. And it’s a zoo. Like Yogi said, no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

crowd

Pardon me, sir, you’re stepping on my PhD.

Why would anyone brave such crowds, heat, and academic foolery? In my case, I’m going because we’ll have a chance to wrestle with the most interesting question in the world: What is the proper relationship between religion and public education in the United States?

A panel of experts was put together by one of my all-time favorite ed historians, Ben Justice. He and his co-author Colin MacLeod just published a terrific book about religion and school. They invited me and my recent co-author Harvey Siegel. We rounded up a few more experts, including Stephanie Mitchem and Mark Chancey.

have a little faith

And you got your church all over my school…or did you get your school all over my church?

I’m looking forward to the discussion. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, these are questions that keep me up at night:

  • Is it fair to creationists to force their children to learn an idea that they find religiously objectionable?
  • Do conservative evangelical Protestants have any special rights in public schools? If everyone in a town is the same (evangelical Protestant) religion, is it okay for the schools in town to lean that way, too?
  • Are public schools really hostile to religious belief? Conservatives often howl that schools are cesspools of “secular humanism,” but are they really?

And so on.

Each of us only gets a few minutes to say some things, then we’ll open up the room to a wider discussion. I’ll have a hard time keeping my opening presentation short, but I’ll try.

Watch this space—I’ll be sure to fill you in on how it all goes down.

A Liberal Leader Pushes Religion in Public Schools

They say only Nixon could go to China. Maybe now they’ll say that only de Blasio could get religion back into New York’s public schools. According to the New York Times, Mayor de Blasio has been irking his liberal allies by his repeated efforts to chip away at the wall of separation between church and state. With greater success than many conservative activists, this liberal mayor has been able to push religion in the Big Apple.

Public religion: Texas style

Public-school religion: Texas style

No one doubts de Blasio’s left-of-center politics. The Washington Post called his leadership “a laboratory of sorts for modern progressivism.” Yet this progressive politician has done more to integrate religion and public schools than many of the conservative politicians we’ve studied in these pages.

For example, in his quest to expand pre-kindergarten classes to all of New York’s children, de Blasio has included religious schools. As the New York Times relates, the Mayor has welcomed the participation even of very conservative religious schools, as long as they agree to include children of all religious backgrounds. This plan, of course, would funnel tax dollars directly to religious organizations.

Similarly, Mayor de Blasio has added two Islamic holidays to the New York City public school calendar, precisely because they are religious holidays. Muslim leaders celebrated, but civil libertarians point out that this act violates a long-standing principle of church-state separation.

The Mayor has long supported the use of school buildings by religious groups for services, though conservatives accuse him of reversing himself. One case might soon end up before the Supreme Court. If SCOTUS bans this traditional practice, will de Blasio protest? Will the Mayor take the side of religious groups against a constitutional clarification of the required wall between religious groups and public education?

Public-school religion, New York style

Public school religion, New York-style

New York Times writers Michael M. Grynbaum and Sharon Otterman call New York a “famously secular city.” But we need to be careful when we say such things. As Grynbaum and Otterman note, de Blasio’s success has come partly with support from conservative religious New Yorkers, “a substantial portion of the city.” As we’ve explored in these pages, New York, like many big cities, is not secular, but rather riotously religious.

Indeed, that ferociously diverse religiosity might be the key to Mayor de Blasio’s success. Conservative activists have tried time and again to push evangelical Protestantism in the public schools of places such as Kansas and Kountze, Texas. In New York City, on the other hand, the Mayor can make a good case that he is not pushing any one sort of religion. In his efforts to improve public schooling for all, he has the liberty to open the door to religious groups in ways a more conservative politician might not.

Shout at the Devil

Can religious groups pass out religious literature in public schools? How about if the religion is Satanism, and the literature is The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities?

What's good for the goose...

What’s good for the goose…

Apologies: This news came out about ten days ago, but I’ve been wrapped up in book research and somehow missed it. Better late than never, right?

So here’s the story in a nutshell: In Orange County, Florida, the Satanic Temple has announced plans to distribute its children’s book in public schools. Why? Because evangelical Protestant groups plan to pass out Bibles and Christian literature.

According to the Satanic group’s announcement, the plan hopes to attract attention to the need for secularism. As in other high-profile cases—such as plans for a Black Mass at Harvard—the group insists it does not really worship Satan, but rather wants Americans to shake off their religious blinders.

As the temple’s spokesperson, Lucien Greaves, explained,

if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth.

Indeed, the book uses Satanic imagery to promote notions of pluralism and anti-bullying. The Satanic children are represented as the only ones able to use “patience and open-mindedness” to understand kids who are different. The smiling Satanic children in the book use “inclusive language” and “[spread] knowledge … to dispel fear and ignorance.”

All sounds pretty innocent, right? And, indeed, for secular folks, this publicity stunt might indeed seem to be what one journalist called “a hilarious response to a pro-religion court ruling.”

Spreading knowledge?  Or fueling fundamentalist fears?

Spreading knowledge? Or fueling fundamentalist fears?

Personally, I agree. This effort seems to make a powerful statement about the true possibilities of religious freedom in public schools. In other cases, we’ve seen parents protest against evangelical outreach to public schools. And we’ve wondered if Jesus-loving cheerleaders would really accept similar sorts of religious free speech from other religions. If public schools are really going to work, they don’t need to ban religion. But they can’t support just one sort of religion, either.

In the end, though, I can’t help but wonder if this sort of exposure does more harm than good to the very cause the Satanists claim to espouse. They came to Orange County in an effort to support the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Satanists want to make the point that no religious literature should be permitted in public schools; no religious evangelists should be allowed to target public-school students.

As regular ILYBYGTH readers know, I’m an outsider to the world of conservative evangelical religion. But after having spent some time with conservative evangelicals and “fundamentalists,” I’m now wondering if the Satanists’ tongue-in-cheek deviltry might backfire. With this Florida campaign, the Satanic Temple is literally putting the devil on the side of the atheists. Conservative pundits can and will point to the Satanists’ efforts as evidence of the evil tilt of atheists.

So here’s the question: Is this Satanic Temple effort genius? Or self-destructive?

Does it make the point that “religious freedom” must really mean religious freedom for ALL religions? Or does it simply fuel conservative warnings that secularism is just a front for Satan?