In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Bible in America: Bible Evangelism to the Crabgrass Frontier

A few years back I stumbled across a remarkable Bible campaign.  Beginning in 1921 and continuing throughout the twentieth century, Bible evangelists based at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute delivered Bibles, New Testaments, and tracts to underserved regions.  This campaign, which began as part of the Bible Institute Colportage Association and eventually became part of the Moody Literature Mission, delivered millions of Bibles and religious literature to the Southern Appalachian region, as well as the Ozarks, western logging camps, Louisianan Catholic schools, prisons, hospitals, and other venues in which missionaries thought people were hungry for the Word. 

            At the time, I focused my study on the missionaries’ use of Appalachian public schools as a distribution network for this religious literature.  I published some of my findings in an academic journal [“The Quiet Crusade: The Moody Bible Institute’s Outreach to Public Schools and the Mainstreaming of Appalachia, 1921-1966,” Church History 75:3 (September 2006): 565-593.] 

            Looking over my notes as I thought about the meanings of the Bible in Fundamentalist America, I came across my collection from this research.  As usual, there was a lot more material than what I could use in the article. 

            For the next couple-few posts, I’ll pull up various pamphlets, brochures, and other materials from this archival collection.  Most of the material is available at the Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago.  The people there were very accommodating and friendly on my visits, and the archive is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area. 

            I won’t argue that these materials somehow capture any single essence of fundamentalist attitudes about the power of the Bible.  That would be far too simplistic.  But I do believe that the attitudes toward the Bible expressed in these materials give a window into a commonly held fundamentalist vision of the nature of Holy Scripture.  As we’ll see, the Bible missionaries from Chicago believed the Word had a unique power.  The Gospels, to them—and, I argue, to many fundamentalists in the 1920s and since—meant more than just a collection of edifying religious messages.  As we’ll see, many of these Bible missionaries held a fundamentalist belief in the saving power of this powerful text. 

For many fundamentalist evangelists, the merest exposure to the words of the Gospel can have a saving power.  It can serve as an inoculant to sinful doctrines and sinful ignorance.  For example, one post-World War II brochure trumpeted its success in exposing students in public schools to the Word.  These students were described as “otherwise unreached boys and girls.”  By giving them Bibles, these missionaries proclaimed they had been “introduced to the way of salvation for the first time, with many of them accepting Christ as their personal savior.”

In the view of these fundamentalist missionaries, the dangers to these students—depicted as white, fairly affluent suburbanites—came from both ignorance and false doctrine.  This brochure warned of other missionaries: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists,” all of whom were “making devastating inroads among these gospel-hungry communities.”  In the view of these Bible missionaries, young people did not need anything beyond the Bible to be protected from this threat.  If these students could simply be exposed to the “true message of eternal life” from the Bible, missionaries would be able to “capture them for the Lord Jesus before they are ensnared by the evil one.”

There is a good deal here of interest for those who hope to understand Fundamentalist America.  As I write, the 2012 Republican presidential primaries are slogging along, with (Catholic) Rick Santorum fighting (Mormon) Mitt Romney and (Converted Catholic) Newt Gingrich for the vote of the Fundamentalist Faithful.  Romney’s Mormonism sometimes comes up as an issue for conservative Protestant voters.  We don’t see as much, though, about the threat of Santorum’s Catholicism.  We have wondered here about this “Fundamentalist Mystery.”  This brochure from sixty-odd years ago paints a very different picture of the relationship between fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Christians of other groups.  The relationship between the two has long been tense.  Some historians have argued that it was only the “pro-life” movement that emerged in the 1970s that brought the two together.  But there had been other rapprochements, with prominent Catholics such as William F. Buckley Jr. leading a broader conservative movement in the years after World War II that attracted many Protestants as well as Catholics.

In this Protestant brochure, written around the same time that Buckley began his long career as the intellectual darling of Fundamentalist America, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not seen as part of a broad conservative coalition, but rather as deadly, aggressive threats to the health of America’s unreached masses.

For those outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, another interesting lesson from this brochure is the perceived power of the Gospel among these literature missionaries.  This point is so central to this tradition that it usually went unremarked, but if we want to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to explore the meanings of this Biblicism in a little more detail.  First of all, we need to note that this tradition is strongest only in this segment of today’s broad Fundamentalist coalition.  Conservative Catholics, for example, don’t historically place the same emphasis on the miraculous power of Bible text.  For these Chicago book missionaries, however, the assumption was that the words of the Bible, especially those of the four Gospels, had the power to effect soul-saving conversions on anyone who read them.  The challenge, then, for the missionaries was only to get the Word out there.  If these white suburban schoolkids could somehow be persuaded or cajoled into looking at the Gospels, their souls would be saved.  Again, this assumption is so powerful among a segment of today’s Fundamentalist Americans that it usually goes without comment.  But it explains a good deal that is puzzling to non-fundamentalists.  So, for example, when people at sporting events hold up signs with Biblical chapter and verse—either as Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow or just as a guy in the bleachers—the hope is the same.  If they can simply convince people to look at John 3:16, the tradition goes, sinful or ignorant people will be eternally saved.  This is the impulse behind much of the fundamentalist effort to Biblicize public space.  If students in public schools can be exposed to the words of the Bible, they will be saved.  If billboards can proclaim the words of the Gospel, readers will be saved.  If court sessions can start with a Bible reading, sinners will be saved.  All of these goals only make sense once we understand the enormous power some Fundamentalists grant to the words of the Gospel.  The merest exposure is presumed to have eternal power.

Another interesting point about Fundamentalist America that this brochure reveals is its presumption about its readers.  This is a fundraising brochure that trades on its readers’ sense of duty.  The duty is to save as many souls as possible.  The public schools, in this brochure, present an “opportunity” to reach many imperiled young souls with only a small effort and expense.  The central point of this public-school campaign is that students in schools are likely to be reading.  Why not help make that reading material Biblical?  At least among this particular postwar Fundamentalist community, the missionaries did not need to explain that their readers should want to save souls.  Instead, the assumption was that Fundamentalists worked in contest with other spiritual missionaries—Mormons, Catholics, Seventh day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—to capture as many souls as possible.

This Fundamentalist requirement to save souls helps explain some of the puzzle of Fundamentalism.  Many non-fundamentalists have complained about the aggressive nature of Fundamentalist America.  In the 1920s, for instance, famous atheist Clarence Darrow put it something like this, “I don’t mind them going to heaven their way, but I don’t want them to stop me going to hell my way.”  Other non-fundamentalists, these days, say they don’t understand why fundamentalists care if other people do things like marry same-sex partners.  Once we see the centrality of soul-saving outreach to the Fundamentalist tradition, we can get a better sense of the reason for this aggressive insistence on the morality of everyone, not only the Fundamentalist community itself.

Finally, this brochure shows us the ways some Fundamentalists starting seeing whitebread suburban America as the newest “mission field” for their outreach work.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a lot of this outreach was directed away from mainstream middle-class American life.  Earlier fundamentalists assumed that the core of American middle-class culture was safely aware of the Gospels, safely educated and inoculated from the spiritual dangers of life.  Of course, some of those folks might still choose a life of sin, but at least they knew the saving message of the Gospels.  After World War II, some fundamentalists—like these Bible missionaries—began to see their role in American culture differently.  Their missionary outreach no longer had to be only to “outsider” groups, whether that be in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Asia, among immigrant communities in big American cities or among isolated mountain families in places like the Southern Appalachians.

Instead, some fundamentalists started to see themselves as surrounded by a vast mission field.  Even in affluent white communities they began to see their role as one of outreach and salvation.  Much as later fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell would complain that they were a minority group, so these postwar evangelists saw themselves as one missionary enterprise among others, competing for the souls of middle-class white kids in suburban public schools.

 

The Bible in Early America

Was early America Fundamentalist?  Fundamentalists like to say that it was.  Fundamentalists argue that America was always meant to be a Christian nation.  To pick just one recent example, Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum took some heat a couple of days ago for his presence at a fiery fundamentalist sermon in Baton Rouge.  According to the Huffington Post, Pastor Dennis Terry hit this theme pretty hard.  He told his audience,

“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

This understanding of the Christian roots of American society is an article of faith among most fundamentalist Americans.  Among fundamentalists, no one has more credibility in this argument than David Barton.  Barton has built a career out of his historic vision.  For example, in a 2008 article Barton listed voluminous examples of religious quotations from leading founders.  Barton’s point here, as in most of his work, is that the roots of American society are profoundly Biblical.  Barton argues tirelessly that twentieth-century US Supreme Court rulings have erroneously erected an unconstitutional “wall of separation” between Christianity and public life.  Barton has attracted a large an influential audience in Fundamentalist America.  Journalists have oohed and aahed at the extent to which Barton’s work has drawn adoring praise among conservatives.  For example, one New York Times article noted that leading Republican presidential candidates such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann all extolled Barton’s work.  Huckabee called Barton “maybe the greatest living historian on the spiritual nature of America’s early days.”

Predictably, liberal criticsatheist activists,  and academic historians have vehemently disputed Barton’s work.

But careful historians agree that the influence of the Bible in early American public life was overwhelming, even if they qualify the meaning of “overwhelming” somewhat.  One of the most prominent twentieth-century historians of early America, Perry Miller, claimed in 1939 that “New England was founded as a Puritan commonwealth and was intended to be a holy and unique corner of the world.”  Later in his long career, Miller argued that this intense public religiosity lasted well into the nineteenth century.  In a 1955 article, Miller noted the rationalism of Jefferson and Franklin, but he said those beliefs were swamped in the late 1700s by intense Biblicism “among the masses.”  Even in the first years of the nineteenth century, Miller believed, the overwhelming majority of Americans understood their world through Biblical lenses.  “The Old Testament,” Miller noted, “is truly so omnipresent in the American culture of 1800 or 1820 that historians have as much difficulty taking cognizance of it as of the air people breathed.”

Since the time Miller wrote, new generations of academic historians have explored the religiosity of early New England and found room for a less strictly Biblical culture.  David Hall, for instance, wrote about the common phenomenon of “horse-shed” Christians.  Such folk, in the words of one early minister, were nominally Christian, but they preferred to spend their time on Sundays “between the [religious] Exercises . . . [to] Discourse of their Corn and Hay, and the prices of Commodities, of almost any thing that they discourse of on Working dayes.”  In other words, these horse-shedders were intensely religious in everything except theology.  They went to church, made the socially acceptable mumblings, but they didn’t take their religion very seriously.  I doubt any fundamentalist, whether in 1620 or 2020, would want to claim such folk as a basis for a truly Christian society.

According to Hall, even in these early decades of British settlement in New England—the period and locale in which the best case can be made for a thoroughly Biblical American culture—we need to understand the extent to which early Americans discounted the importance of the Bible in their daily lives.  Simply counting the percentage of people who went to church, then reading the sermons they listened to, can’t tell us if and how they really embraced that faith.  Just as important, Hall argued, was the great number of early New Englanders who focused their lives on commerce, and thought more of horse-sheds than of altars.

Even more compelling, as Hall notes, are the ways that early New Englanders used the Bible as one of the many religious influences in their lives.  For evidence, Hall analyzes the fascinating diary of Samuel Sewall.  Sewall had come to Boston as a child in 1661.  As an adult, he kept a careful record of his daily activities as well as his deeply religious mental world.  By today’s standards, Sewall would certainly qualify as a fundamentalist.  He and his family held daily Bible readings; Sewall sang psalms and prayed in his bedroom closet; and Sewall met with a small group of like-minded Christians for prayer sessions.  He attended church regularly and took careful notes of the sermons he heard.  According to Hall, the adult Sewall knew the Bible almost by heart, and he arranged his life by its precepts.  Nevertheless, Sewall’s religiosity was also formed by a vast array of less Christian portents.  He carefully noted lightning, rainbows, the birth of deformed children, eclipses, conjoined twins, and other omens from the natural world.  For Sewall, these were not rival religious events.  Rather, they formed part of his Puritan sacramental nature.  The Bible played a central role in his faith, but so did wonders and portents with roots in the nature religions of earlier European history.

To return to our question: Was Samuel Sewall part of a deeply Christian America?  Can we take his example as proof that early New Englanders understood their world Biblically?  And, if so, can we insist on more Bible in our current public life?  Among academic historians, the most careful recent exploration of these issues is John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?  In this book, Fea tries to overcome the simple yes-or-no answers that dominate public debate about the issue.  Fea, himself an evangelical Protestant who teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, argues that in some senses, early America truly was a Christian nation.  For example, in its self-understanding compared to the Barbary States, the people of the United States tended to think of themselves as part of a Christian nation.  It was “Christian” as opposed to “Islamic” or “Buddhist.”  However, Fea notes that in some sections of the colonies and early united States, especially Virginia, Christian doctrine did not play a dominant role.  Furthermore, many of the most prominent Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, could hardly be called Christian.

In the end, Fea offers a careful answer to his question.  “Many inhabitants of the early American Republic,” he writes, “but not all of them, lived in political communities where Christianity, and in most cases Protestantism, was such an important part of the culture that the framers of government thought it was necessary to sustain that culture by privileging Christianity.”  Like most academic historians, Fea insists that the most important part of any answer might be: It Depends.

So let’s return to our main question.  Are fundamentalists right?  Was America always meant to be an explicitly Christian society?  Did early European settlers and the Founding Fathers all agree on the importance of Biblical precepts in public life?  Finally, do secular folks today who object to public Christianity simply misunderstand American history?

Is it true?

First of all, it is important in these discussions to recognize the vast sweep of time that sometimes gets bundled together as “early America.”  Perry Miller (at least in part) and David Hall were writing about New England settlers in the early 1600s.  Fea generally focuses on the generation of the Founding Fathers, over a hundred years later and much more geographically diverse.  It is tempting to mix up the many “early” regions and time periods into an argument that early Americans were uniformly Biblical, or that early American culture was Biblical.  It is more accurate, however, to note the vast differences in time and place between Boston in 1620 and Philadelphia in 1780.

If we really want to understand the power and influence of the Bible in “early” American culture, we must repeat John Fea’s line: It Depends.  In some senses, early America really was founded on Biblical belief.  The dominant ideology of the generation that settled British New England in the early 1600s really was a Biblical theology.  We cannot hope to understand much about that culture without grounding it in an aggressively Biblical worldview.  Perhaps more important for understanding today’s Fundamentalist America, the cultural influence of that early settler culture in New England has punched above its weight for centuries.  Americans since at least the mid-nineteenth century have given a privileged place in historical memory to the first generations of “Pilgrims.”  Fundamentalists did not force this understanding upon an unwilling secular America.  Rather, this understanding is shared widely among Americans of all cultural backgrounds.  No matter where we live in America, young children are usually taught stories about the First Thanksgiving.  Children are taught that the first settlers came to America to escape religious persecution.  This is true even in areas in which a local history might logically trump the Squanto-and-Turkey story.  For example, young Americans in Florida could be taught that the first European Americans built a fort in what is now Florida.  They didn’t wear buckles on their hats and shoes, but rather those big conquistador-style helmets.  In other words, the true diversity of early European settlement in what is now the United States does not get its due in the stories American children learn.  Pride of place still goes to the kind of New England Mind that Perry Miller focused on.  It seems unfair to single out the historical memory of fundamentalists when it is still so widely shared among Americans of all beliefs.

In the end, from one angle, when Fundamentalist America insists that the US of A was founded as a Biblical society, they can make a reasonable claim.  There really was a thoroughly Biblical culture among the leadership in early New England.  And that particular story of the founding of America, no matter how ardently academic historians may try to point out the many other founding stories, still resonates powerfully among most twenty-first century Americans, Fundamentalist or not.

But we must also temper our enthusiasm for this historic vision by some important caveats.  Even among that first generation of New Englanders, the Bible was used in ways that twenty-first century Fundamentalist America would find disturbing.  Christians like Samuel Sewall freely mixed omens, portents, and wonders from the natural world into their Biblical worldview.  Furthermore, even among that particular group of New England “Puritans,” many of the nominal Christians were Christians of the “horse-shed” type, more interested in farming than salvation.

Also important, Puritans in New England made up only one small faction of British settlement in the New World.  Early settlers in Virginia, for example, didn’t care as much about the Bible or God’s vision for a Covenant Society.  Settlers came to Virginia primarily to make money.  As historian Edmund Morgan has argued, most of the backers of Virginia’s Jamestown colony “looked toward legitimate profits.”  They were not interested in establishing a Biblical commonwealth.  Instead, they asked themselves whether they should first look for gold, a water passage to the Pacific, or valuable plants.  The main concern, Morgan argued, was not a lack of Bibles, but a lack of labor.

For those outsiders who hope to understand Fundamentalist America, then, the most important lesson about the roots of a Biblical society is this: a twenty-first century Fundamentalist can state with absolute confidence that one root of today’s United States was thoroughly Biblical.  It’s true.  Academic historians will tell you that this is only true for some of the leaders of one part of British North America.  They will tell you that even among early New Englanders, commitment to the official theology was often lukewarm at best.  That is also true.  For our purposes, however, the fact that there are other roots to the United States complicates the story, but it doesn’t change the fact that Early America—in the way Fundamentalist America wants to understand it—really was a Biblical society.

FURTHER READING: John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (2011); Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975); Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939); Miller, “The Garden of Eden and the Deacon’s Meadow,” American Heritage, December 1955, p. 55-61, 102; David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)

Another Fundamentalist Mystery: Protestants and Rick Santorum

We asked recently why there seems to be so little anguish among conservative Protestants over the fact that there are no Protestants on today’s US Supreme Court.

The 2012 Republican Presidential primaries have raised a similar question: Why do today’s conservative Protestants seem to love the Catholic candidate Rick Santorum?

Political scientist Matthew Franck pondered this question this week.  Franck identifies as a conservative Catholic who has lived and taught for years in a region dominated by conservative evangelical Protestants.  Franck asks:

So what’s up with the victories of Rick Santorum, a western Pennsylvania Italian Catholic, in two states, Alabama and Mississippi, where upwards of four in five voters described themselves in exit polls as evangelical or “born-again” Christians?  Although the New York Times’ Bill Keller famously misidentified Santorum last year as an evangelical, these voters know better.  They knew going to the polls Tuesday that they could choose the LDS Mitt Romney, the Lutheran-turned-Baptist-turned-Catholic Newt Gingrich, or the lifelong Catholic Rick Santorum.

Franck notes the novelty of this situation:

The first observation to make about the role of religion in these two deep-south states, then, is that three non-evangelical candidates all did respectably well in a heavily evangelical (and conservative) electorate.  Each of the candidates topped 30 percent of the vote.  Just a half century ago, John F. Kennedy had to go to Houston to make a case to Baptist ministers that a Catholic deserved a shot at the presidency.  (Some Catholics, then and now, think JFK surrendered too much of his faith to mollify his critics.)  Only four years ago Mitt Romney felt similarly compelled to reassure voters that a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deserved a fair chance as well.  Now in 2012, we seem past all that.

Just as many conservative Protestants care more about the politics of US Supreme Court justices, especially on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the role of religion in the public square, Franck concludes that Protestant fundamentalists are judging the current crop of Republican Presidential contenders more on their positions than their faith backgrounds:

For better or worse, Santorum is widely known as the “social issues” conservative in this race, the consistent defender of life, of marriage and family, and (as he himself put it last night) of the “centrality of faith” in many Americans’ lives.  Look at how strongly he did among voters who think a candidate’s “moral character” matters most, and you get the picture.

If Franck is correct–and his conclusion makes intuitive sense to me–it tells us a lot about the changing nature of Fundamentalist America.  It seems to confirm James Davison Hunter’s 1992 thesis in Culture Wars.  In that book, Hunter argued that creed and denomination had come to mean less than the divide  between orthodoxy and progressivism.  That is, the old divisions between Catholic, Protestant, and Jew had eroded, replaced by a split between conservative and liberal factions within each faith.  Along with the deafening silence among conservative Protestants about the current makeup of the US Supreme Court, the non-issue of Santorum’s Catholic faith among conservative Protestants certainly seems to confirm Hunter’s argument.

IN THE NEWS: Santorum and Satan

We’ve argued here before that anyone who wants to understand Fundamentalist America should keep an eye on Rick Santorum.  During this year’s Republican presidential primaries, Santorum keeps singing in the key of Fundamentalism.

Recently, Santorum attracted criticism for some comments in 2008 about the dangers posed to Americans by none other than Satan himself.  The Drudge Report, for instance, posted a snarky expose of Santorum’s Satan comments.

 

However, as David Kuo and Patton Dodd pointed out in the Washington Post, Santorum’s notion of a literal devil is shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans.  They cite a 2007 Gallup poll in which 70% of respondents agreed that Satan was real.

Once again, as with other Fundamentalist notions such as a young earth, non-Fundamentalist Americans might be shocked and dismayed by this level of popular belief.  But lots of the usual critiques don’t really fit.  Please don’t misunderstand: this is not a defense of Rick Santorum’s politics or even of his Satan speech.  As Kuo and Dodd argue, there is plenty to disagree with in Santorum’s 2008 speech as with his politics in general.  But calling Santorum’s evocation of Satan “out of touch,” “ignorant,” “medieval,” or any of the other standard epithets only reveals the ignorance of the accuser.  The existence of a literal, threatening, scheming, embodied Satan is one that most Americans these days share.  More than that, it is a belief that billions of humans in different cultures and different eras have held.  We certainly don’t need to believe it.  But to dismiss it out of hand reveals an embarrassing ignorance of not only Fundamentalist America, but of the nature of humanity more broadly.

As Kuo and Dodd conclude:

[Santorum’s] acknowledgment of embodied evil—particularly in a room filled with his fellow believers—was completely un-extraordinary. What’s extraordinary is the current fainting couch response from American pundits left and right.

 

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.

 

 

IN THE NEWS: Fea, Worthen, Santorum, and Civil Discourse

Three cheers for John Fea!  Fea is an American historian and blogger.  I’m a big of both his academic writing and his history-themed blog.

Fea recently criticized a piece in the New York Times about Rick Santorum’s mix of religion and politics.  The author, Molly Worthen, marred an otherwise insightful article about Santorum with some unnecessary derogatory comments about Santorum’s religious tradition.

Instead of summarizing any more, I’ll just include a slice of Fea’s conclusion here:

Let me be clear.  This post is not meant as an endorsement or rejection of Santorum’s beliefs or his candidacy. (I voted for Bob Casey Jr. in the 2006 Pennsylvania senatorial race).  It is rather written out of frustration over the way Santorum’s views are so easily dismissed, as if they are not worthy of being engaged in civil discourse or the public square. I wish Worthen would have done one of two things in this piece:
1.  Simply describe, without the gratuitous swipes, the Catholic natural law tradition that informs Santorum’s conservatism.  She is a good historian and a perceptive political reporter.
OR
2.  Directly engage with Santorum’s ideas rather than just assume that he a crazy, prejudiced bigot because his understanding of moral life comes from Thomas Aquinas.

Hear hear!