Creationists’ REAL Long Game

Let me be clear: I’m against pushing religious ideas into public schools. If they were wise, creationists should ALSO be against it. The real long game for American creationists—even radical young-earth creationists—should be to secularize schools, not jam more religion in there.

Here’s what we know: Writing for Americans United recently, Rob Boston warned secular folks like me,

The Creationists Are Playing The Long Game. You Should Too.

From my perspective, it appears Boston is preaching to the wrong choir. Instead of warning secular people about creationist schemes, Boston and his allies should be helping creationists recognize their own long-game interests.

Yes, Boston acknowledged, for the past fifty years radical creationists have experienced a series of crushing courtroom defeats. Nevertheless, creationist activists haven’t given up. As Boston pointed out, creationist and their political allies are trying to water down evolution education or cram creationism-friendly materials into public schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, and two counties (1, 2) in Florida.

As Boston warned,

Mind you, this is just a sampling of stories from within the past few years. If you put words like “evolution” and “creationism” into AU’s web search engine, you’ll pull up many more stories going back years. I guarantee that some of the stuff you read will curl your hair.

It’s great that we win in court (although I worry that even that may start to slip if Brett Kavanaugh ends up on the Supreme Court), but the creationists are obviously not daunted by their legal losses. They aren’t going away, so you should not either.

I’m in full agreement with Boston in terms of public-school policy. There is no legitimate reason to squeeze devotional material into public schools, whether it is in the form of teacher-led prayer or religiously inspired science. However, I have two beefs with this warning:

1.) The recent activities of creationists in public school don’t represent a “long game,” but rather a disconnected set of hail-mary scrambles by local religious radicals. And

2.) The folks who try to jam creationism into public schools are not aware of their own best interests. They don’t seem to be aware of the advice of young-earth creationist leaders such as Ken Ham or Don McLeroy.

Again, I’m no creationist, much less a partisan of radical young-earth thinking. But if I were, I would advise my compadres to follow the thoughtful advice of young-earth leaders.


Creationists warn creationists: The kids are not alright.

Ken Ham, for example, has made very clear his position that young-earth creationism is a dwindling, minority viewpoint. As Ham wrote in a 2009 book, for example,

six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone.

Too many creationist churches and Sunday-schools, Ham warns, are not actively teaching children an intellectually and spiritually substantial young-earth doctrine. As a result, when young people get the chance, they abandon young-earth thinking. Far from pushing creationist ideas into public-school science classes, Ham would recommend that ardent creationists focus on building their own churches. As Ham put it elsewhere, his job is to serve as a “Nehemiah,” building walls to protect young-earth creationist churches from moral and theological compromise. As Ham expressed the idea,

We at [young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis] are busy “rebuilding a wall.” We are equipping God’s people to defend the Christian faith, and I believe we are doing a great work for God. We are busy being “watchmen”—warning people of those who undermine the authority of the Word of God.

Far from plotting to take over public-school science classrooms, Ken Ham hopes his young-earth friends will build walls to protect the few remaining churches that still teach unadulterated young-earth beliefs. As Ken Ham eagerly tells anyone who will listen, young-earth creationism is a besieged minority position. Time after time (see here, here, or here for examples), Ham and his organization have protested against unfair discrimination against young-earth creationists.

So what? If any creationist stopped for a minute to think about it, he or she would recognize the obvious implications. If their religious ideas represent a minority position; if they are discriminated against by the wider society; if they are besieged wall-builders; if they are losing adherents . . . then their real long game in public education should be to promote a rigorous and unyielding secularism.

Just as other religious minorities throughout American history have been the most ardent adherents of secular public schools, so too should young-earth creationists adopt the long-game strategy of keeping all religion—including their own—out of public schools.

It just makes sense. If creationism is now a minority position, it stands only to lose if religion is imposed in public schools. In our society, majority decisions about school policy will win the day. Yes, in some places creationists can muster up a temporary, short-term, local majority to cram through their religion. That will fade, however. Over time, establishing the precedent of pushing religion into public schools will hurt creationists more than anyone else.


What is the REAL creationist long game, Dr. McLeroy?

I don’t ask creationists to take my word for it. As former Texas state school board chairman and young-earth creationist Don McLeroy told me recently, no intelligent, strategic creationists want public schools to teach creationism. As Dr. McLeroy put it,

All, and I mean all of my creationist friends welcome the mandated teaching of evolution and always have. . . . The number one misrepresentation of creationists is that we want to teach creationism in the public schools. You can search all my public comments and you will never find a statement advocating the teaching of creationism.

When it comes right down to it, the people who should MOST want religion out of public schools are religious minorities. These days, young-earth creationists are precisely that. If they were playing in their own best interests, creationists would hop on the secularism train.


What Is the REAL Deal with Fundamentalists and the Big Eclipse?

As Bart Simpson put it best, “The ironing is delicious.” Secular folks like me blast kooky fundamentalists for their wacky ignorance of science, while we ourselves show a curiously stubborn ignorance about what fundamentalists really believe. Tomorrow’s big eclipse gives us another example of the way most outsiders don’t understand conservative evangelical culture.

What are fundamentalists thinking about tomorrow’s eclipse? It might be tempting to agree with the right-wing watchers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU folks stumbled across a blog post from Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz. Lotz worried that the eclipse is meant as a warning of God’s impending judgment on the USA. Foolish Americans, Lotz warned, are blithely

preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites. The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  While Belshazzar and his friends partied, they were oblivious to the impending danger.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed.

At Americans United, Rob Boston warned that this sort of blather proved the sad truth about “fundamentalist Christians these days.” Folks like Lotz, Boston wrote, wallow in their

utter repudiation of science. It’s not that they can’t understand it – they choose not to try. Furthermore, they often heap disdain upon it.

Now, I’m no fundamentalist and I’m not worried that the eclipse is a fulfillment of Joel 2:31 or Ezekiel 33:1-6. In fact, I don’t really care what the Bible says about eclipses or anything else. But as I work on my new book about American creationism and my soon-to-be-released book about the history of evangelical higher ed, I can’t help but protest that Boston’s viewpoint is astoundingly ironic. Secular anti-fundamentalists like Boston (and me) need to do more to understand the real relationship between conservative evangelical religion and mainstream science. Too often, it’s not that we can’t understand it, it’s that we choose not to try. And then we often heap disdain upon it.

…oh, the ironing!

In fact, even the most conservative radical creationist institutions in these United States are acting remarkably similar to mainstream institutions in their embrace of tomorrow’s eclipse as a way to bring science to the masses. To be sure, it’s a very different sort of science, what ILYBYGTH calls “zombie science,” but it is nearly the opposite of an “utter repudiation” of science. Radical creationists LOVE science; they engage in endless missionary outreach to bring their vision of real Biblical science to the benighted secular and moderate-evangelical multitudes.

At Answers In Genesis, for example, radical creationist missionaries are falling all over themselves to help curious people view the eclipse and draw the correct scientific lessons from it.

At fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, administrators are pulling out all the stops to use the eclipse to spread the word. Located right in the path of totality, BJU is hosting a huge party, with speakers explaining the proper way to understand the relationship between the Bible and science.

bju eclipse

Belshazzar at BJU?

Bryan College, too, another creationist stalwart, is throwing a viewing party on campus, with faculty experts offering lectures on the proper fundamentalist way to understand eclipses.

Are these radical-creationist institutions saying the same thing as secular institutions about the eclipse? Of course not. No secular scientific experts care much about the Bible’s explanation of eclipses. But just as secular scientific organizations are using eclipse mania to attract attention to their programs, so too are these creationist groups crowing about their scientific expertise and their many scientific resources.

So, even though some conservative evangelicals are warning people away from viewing parties and eclipse-related hubbubbery, many more are using the eclipse as a way to explain their vision of the proper relationship between God and science.

Does Wal-Mart Want More Jesus in Public Schools?

The Walton Family loves school vouchers.

For years, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have pumped money into plans to privatize schooling in the US of A.  Most recently, we read that the Walton Family Foundation has donated six million bucks to the Alliance for School Choice.  Why?

The ASC has a track record of supporting vouchers.  Its enemies accuse it of being nothing but a front organization for “fundamentalist” schemes to re-religiousize public education.

Do the mega-rich Waltons hope to get more Jesus into America’s schools?

Readers of Bethany Moreton’s relatively recent book To Serve God and WalMart won’t be surprised to hear of the connection between conservative evangelical Protestantism and big-box retailing.  But even the most scathing critics of the Waltons’ educational policies have sometimes left out the religious angle.  Diane Ravitch, for example, blasted the Waltons for copying in education what Wal-Mart had achieved in retailing.  As she put it,

The foundation supports charters and vouchers, though it prefers vouchers. It seeks to create schools that are non-union and that are able to skim off students from the local public schools. In time, the local public schools will die, just as the Main Street stores died.

Other critics of the Waltons’ beneficence have focused more closely on the religious angle.  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for example, has long targeted both the Waltons and the Alliance for School Choice as leaders in the drive to sneak religion back into public schools through the back door of vouchers.  Rob Boston of Americans United, for instance, called ASC leader Betsy DeVos the “Four-Star General” leading a “Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation.”

According to Boston, Devos is a “fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist” with a sneaky goal: “nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.”

Here at ILYBYGTH, we have to ask the tricky question: what’s the relationship between free-marketism and Jesus?  Groups such as the ASC and the Walton Family Foundation seem committed to both.  In the realm of schooling, that means vouchers.  For many conservatives, vouchers seem to contain a triple promise.  They can weaken the grip of teachers’ unions by diverting tax money away from union-dominated public school systems.  They can bring more ol’-time religion into schooling by funding religious schools.  And they can give parents and families the magic wand of consumer choice.

It doesn’t seem as if there’s a logical or theological connection between these policy ideas.  That is, from my scanty understanding of Christianity, free-market principles don’t seem to be a central part of traditional evangelical theology.  Yet in school policy as in other areas, it seems Americans have historically connected capitalism with Christian virtue.

And there’s one other puzzle we need to suss out.  If these privatization campaigns are about both Jesus and capitalism, why don’t promoters mention either?  When the Alliance for School Choice tells us about itself, it does not mention religion or the panacea of the marketplace.  Why not?

For critics, this is all part of the ASC’s “sneak attack” on secular public schools.  The ASC wants more Jesus and more Milton Friedman, this line of argument goes, but wraps those goals in anodyne calls for more school choice for low-income families.  But why would conservatives try to hide their love for public religion or for capitalism?  Most conservatives make no secret of their goals.  Why would they hide their love for public religiosity or market-ism in this case?


Teen Rebels, Creationism, and the Real History of Kicking God Out of the Public Schools

The Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) case is not usually remembered as a case of teenage rebellion or creationist science.  But as the man at the center of the case recalled recently in the pages of Church & State, we can’t separate out such issues from the Bible, school prayer, or “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

As I’ve written in these pages and in the pages of the Journal of Religious History, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this case for American schooling, religion, and culture.  In its decision, the US Supreme Court decided that public schools must not mandate the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the reading of the Bible.  Among many religious conservatives, this decision has taken on enormous symbolic significance as the moment that the United States “kicked God out of the public schools.”  In reality, the decision specified that religion still belonged in public schools.  It was only teacher-led devotional religion to which the Court objected.

Ellery Schempp, who went on to a highly successful career as a physicist, remembered his teenage decision to contact the American Civil Liberties Union to protest his treatment in his Pennsylvania public high school.

As Schempp recalled, his protest came partly from principle, and partly from “teen rebellion.”  The sixteen-year-old Ellery resented being squeezed into a conformist mold.  Schempp recalled his lightbulb moment:

“It was one day when some kid read Genesis in 10th grade,” Schempp continued. “I thought, ‘This is nonsense; this does not fit with the science that I know.’ I began to pay more attention.

For those like me who hope to understand the meanings of conservatism and conservative religion in American education, Schempp’s memories offer two important reminders.

First, we must keep in mind that we cannot easily separate out issues such as Bible reading, prayer, evolution, sex ed, or progressive pedagogy.  For activists and pundits on both sides of these culture-war divides, there is no bright line dividing them.  In this case, we see that the young Schempp was offended both by the Christian heavy-handedness of his school’s policy and by the anti-science of Biblical creationism.

Second, we must never forget the hidden vector of school issues: youth.  In most cases, protagonists such as the young Schempp are not only activists, they are young activists.  In his memories, at any rate, Schempp protested against the implied coercion to become another cog in the soulless wheel of American corporate governance.  As Schempp recalled, “There was enormous pressure to conform as the greatest goal in life – to be ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.’”  Fighting against this conformist compulsion was just as important a motivator as any civil-liberties principle.

Of course, folks like me sometimes assume that all teen rebellion must push against revealed religion and social traditions.  But we must remember that teenage pushback often pushes back in a variety of directions.  As we’ve noted before, in some cases conservative young Christians rebel by embracing a much more radical young-earth creationism than do their moderate Christian parents.

In whatever direction young people rebel, the youthfulness of that protest must be part of our analysis.  We can’t forget that schools are full of a specific type of people—young people.  As such, they may have very different attitudes and perspectives than the rest of their families.  They may be more likely to protest against traditional religion, OR more likely to fight for more traditional religion.

Required Viewing: In God We Teach

As we’ve noted recently, the controversy over religion in public schools did not go away in 1963 when the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored devotions violated the First Amendment. 

A new documentary probes a recent case from New Jersey.  As reviewed by Rob Boston on Wall of Separation, the film In God We Teach examines what can happen when an activist teacher meets an activist student.  In this 2006 case, teacher David Paszkiewicz was accused of preaching conservative evangelical Protestantism in class. 

As Boston describes,

David Paszkiewicz told students, “If you reject [Jesus’] gift of salvation, then you know where you belong” and “[Jesus] did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

Paszkiewicz had also promoted creationism in class, telling students that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark.

A student in the classroom, Matthew LaClair, knew this was inappropriate. He also suspected that school officials would not believe him without evidence, so LaClair began recording portions of the classes. Soon he had solid evidence of Paszkiewicz’s in-class proselytizing.

For ILYBYGTH readers, the most interesting part of the film sounds like the parts in which Paskiewicz is allowed to explain his rationale.  Boston excoriates the teacher.  In Boston’s words,

I was struck by the teacher’s complete and utter inability to engage in any serious form of self-reflection. [Filmmaker Vic] Losick’s technique is to simply let the characters in this drama tell their stories. He doesn’t take a side. But only a theological ally of Paszkiewicz could see him as anything other than a typical smug and arrogant fundamentalist who believes that he has all of the answers – and that this gives him the right to spread his views in public school classrooms.

Paszkiewicz also comes off as disingenuous. At first, he tried to deny having made the “you belong in hell” statement. But LaClair had it on tape, so that failed. Paszkiewicz then fell back on blaming the students. They asked him about religion, you see, so had to talk to them about it. In the documentary, AU’s Lynn handily explains why this is nonsense.

I’m planning to take an hour and four minutes to see for myself.  Losick’s film is available online.  I’ll be interested to see if ILYBYGTH readers agree with Boston’s indictment of Paszkiewicz.