A False “Idol?”

I admit it. I’ve never watched it. But bajillions of Americans have loved American Idol for the past fourteen years. It has been one of the most influential TV programs in our recent past. And it has proven particularly friendly to conservative evangelical Protestant singers. To this reporter, the life and death of American Idol seems to typify the paradox at the heart of American religious culture. Is America sexier and more secular now than it has ever been? Yes. And is America dominated now by fiercely traditional evangelical Protestantism? Also yes!

adam lambert

Would Adam Lambert have made it on the Ed Sullivan Show?

The face of conservative Christianity has changed a lot in the past century, but one thing has remained constant: Christian thinkers and pundits have consistently lamented the supposed fact that America has just kicked God out of its public life. As I’ve argued in academic publications here and there, evangelical Protestants, especially, have continually lamented the fact that their generation—whether that was the 1920s generation or the 1960s one—has witnessed the final prophesized turn of America away from its Christian roots.

There is no doubt that mainstream American culture has changed over time. Mainstream America was ferociously, even murderously hostile to homosexuals as recently as the 1950s. Public norms of dress and behavior have certainly loosened up in the past century. And public pronouncements have shed over time much of their explicitly Christian language. Some of them, at least.

Even granting all those major changes, it still seems remarkable to me that smart conservatives still lament the “loss” of America. Crunchy thinkers such as Rod Dreher call for conservative retreat, for a “Benedict Option.” And conservatives of all sorts recently howled over a perceived “War on Christmas.”

In each case, conservative Christians have insisted that the last straw had finally been laid, that American culture had finally transformed from a city on a hill to Babylon.

Now, it’s not my place to tell conservative Christians or anyone what to think. Anyone who reads their history, though, can’t help but be struck by the complicated truth. There has never been a single event or Supreme Court decision that finally kicked God out of the public square, but there has always been an outcry among conservatives that they were witnessing precisely such an event.

Today’s news about American Idol serves as a good illustration of this weird legacy. On one hand, we can see in the blockbuster show just how much America has changed. The stars wear intoxicatingly low-cut dresses. There is no defense of old-fashioned gender or racial hierarchies. Famous contestants such as Adam Lambert have been proudly gay. None of this would have happened on a TV show from the 1950s.

On the other hand, as the Christian Post reported recently, the show has also launched the careers of some of today’s top evangelical Christian performers. Singers such as Mandisa, Colton Dixon, Jeremy Rosado, and Danny Gokey all got their starts on the show.

Now, I admit it proudly: I have no idea who any of those people are. According to the Christian Post, however, they seem to have made a splash in the world of Christian pop music.

We might say, then, that as American Idol goes, so go America’s idols. The show is certainly not explicitly Christian or even religious. Its norms for dress, language, and behavior would certainly shock mainstream Americans from the 1920s or 1950s. Yet among all the hedonism, anything-goes morality, and sexiness, conservative Christianity still claims an enormous place.

Life Sucks. College Should, Too.

Want to get a conservative intellectual hoppin mad? Tell them (yes, I can use the plural to refer to just one person now) that college students have a right to complain.

back to school thornton melon

College protesters get no respect…

A recent comment about the harshness of real life by a new Haverford student has a few conservative commenters cheering. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m no conservative myself. But I wonder if erudite pundits such as R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher really want to start down the anti-intellectual path they seem to be taking.

In the pages of the social platform Odyssey, Haverford student Olivia Legaspi explains that working at McDonald’s taught her more about life than did her elite college sensitivity seminars. As she put it,

I have PTSD — because of this, the environment at work was anxiety-producing much of the time. Yet there was no “trigger warning” for when a customer was about to start yelling, when the restaurant would get so busy that I had no time to breathe between orders and the noise would make me feel faint, when a group of men in the drive-thru would whistle and catcall me as they pulled away. The sexual harassment I experienced there is another story entirely — the point is, at work, my mental illness and I were irrelevant. And from that, I grew; I learned to take care of myself in ways that didn’t inconvenience anyone, draw unnecessary attention to myself, or interfere with the structures in place and the work which had to be done. McDonald’s was not a “safe space” for me, and that was how it should be; I was a small part of a big picture, and my feelings had no business influencing said big picture.

At First Things and The American Conservative, respectively, R.R. Reno and Rod Dreher cheer Legaspi’s real-world education. McDonald’s, Dreher cheers, taught her the value of “hard work and humility.” Her essay, Reno notes, shows that excessive college “luxury isn’t helpful.”

I can’t believe they really mean it. And, to be fair, Reno explicitly points out that the goal of college should be to create “communities of care that uplift rather than run down.” However, to say that college students should not be complaining about unsafe spaces because the real world is not safe misses the point entirely.

This is the same tired anti-intellectual argument that we’ve seen for generations. Why study Plato, or postmodernism, or piano, when such things are not valued in the real world?  I don’t believe thoughtful commentators really hope to diminish the value of non-real-world higher education.

What should we do instead? All of us—progressive, conservative, and either/or—should be celebrating the fact that a few college students are a little over-eager in their moral activism. We don’t want to castigate schools for helping create a safe space. Rather, we should be encouraging students to take their campus activism out to the streets and the fast-food counters.

Legaspi points out that her McDonald’s manager would have simply fired her if she tried to complain about working conditions. To her mind—and to Reno’s and Dreher’s—that real-world lesson was worth more than any sensitivity-raising workshop at Haverford. But they seem to come to the morally opposite conclusion. Instead of pushing Haverford to loosen up and get more like McDonald’s, we should all be figuring out ways to make McDonald’s more like Haverford.

The REAL Reason It Doesn’t Matter that Ben Carson is a Creationist

Have you seen it yet? Commentators such as Rod Dreher and Jeff Jacoby have opined that Ben Carson’s creationist Seventh-day Adventist faith doesn’t matter. All sorts of leaders, they write, hold kooky religious ideas. But that’s not why Dr. Carson’s faith doesn’t disqualify him. There’s a more complicated reason.

It's always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man...

It’s always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man…

Jacoby argues that Carson would be a perfect surgeon general. He could follow other creationist surgeon generals such as C. Everett Koop. When liberals comment that Carson’s creationist beliefs mean he’s anti-science, Jacoby points out that all sorts of religious people have all sorts of anti-scientific beliefs. Such theology does not mean they can’t perform their scientific duties.

As Jacoby concludes,

Can you regard someone’s religious creed as preposterous, yet entrust the person who is faithful to that creed with public office? Of course; Americans do it all the time. I can’t see Carson as president, but what I really can’t see is why his religion or his doubts about evolution (neither of which I share) should even enter the conversation.

There’s a simpler reason why Dr. Carson’s creationism doesn’t really matter. Like other humans, Carson is not a simple religious robot. We cannot read his denomination’s creed and assume we know everything he believes on every issue.  More important, we cannot read his creed and assume we know much about his lived faith.

As critics have pointed out, Dr. Carson has ranged far afield from his SDA roots in his effort to win votes. Traditionally, for example, Adventists decry the use of violence. Traditionally, too, Adventists insist on a rigid separation of church and state. Recent campaigning seems to have pushed Dr. Carson to put his conservative American identity in front of his SDA denominational identity on these issues. He has argued for more weapons in the hands of everyday Americans and more religion in everyday government.

I disagree with Dr. Carson’s positions on all these issues (for that matter, I also disagree with SDA orthodoxy on all these issues), but I’m glad he is not simply a creature of his denominational beliefs. After all, if someone had only their religious beliefs to guide them, he or she would be a terrifying leader.

What if a surgeon general believed only in faith healing, so he or she canceled government health programs? What if a leader of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed only that non-Christians were evil, so he or she indulged in missionary warfare?

Luckily, that sort of religious extremism is atypical. Most of us have official beliefs that don’t really impact the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are Americans first, and then we are Catholic, or Muslim, or Hindu.

Indeed, it is not only religious people who do this but also anti-religious people. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan personifies in Brothers Karamazov, there are atheists who fail to follow their anti-religious beliefs to their logical conclusions.

And thank goodness they do.

In short, Dr. Carson’s creationist beliefs don’t disqualify him for high office because he seems willing to back-burner them when necessary.

Conservatives against Kim Davis

Which side are you on?

That’s the question that fuels most of our culture-war animosity. Instead, the question we should all be asking is this: What’s the right thing to do? In the case of same-sex refusenik Kim Davis, some conservative intellectuals and pundits are willing to break ranks and see the bigger picture.

In case you’ve been milking the last warm days of summer and haven’t seen this story, Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk who has been jailed and released for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Opportunistic conservative politicians such as Mike Huckabee have promoted Davis as a conservative Christian hero, stage-managing Davis’s release as an American triumph, equal parts Christianity Triumphant and Rocky III.

Governor Huckabee’s shameful pandering to frustrated Christian voters should be an embarrassment for every conservative out there. But progressives also could stay a little classier in this case. For those like me on the progressive side of things, the furor and venom over the Kim Davis case burst onto our Facebook feeds like a sweaty middle-school pimple. I don’t agree with Davis’s refusal to do her job, but I also think it is counter-productive and petty to attack Davis’s hairstyle.

Missing the point...

Missing the point…

We could all learn a lesson from a few conservatives who refuse to conform to their culture-war scripts. Fox News anchor Shep Smith, for example, earned the ire of conservative viewers for pointing out the obvious hypocrisy in the case. Critiquing the Huckabee rally, Smith commented,

They set this up as a religious play again. This is the same crowd that says, ‘We don’t want Sharia law, don’t let them tell us what to do, keep their religion out of our lives and out of our government.’

Predictably, conservative Fox News viewers reacted furiously, calling Smith a “puke” and accusing him of “anti-Christian bias.”

But Smith was not alone. Conservative intellectuals also took issue with Davis’s brand of publicity-hogging culture-warriorism. Writing in the pages of The American Conservative, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher warned that Davis had ignored the central point of civil disobedience. Dreher argues,

It’s clear that there are many Christians who support Kim Davis because she’s doing something, even if that something is arguably counterproductive. This is unwise. . . . If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously. Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant.

Writing from the conservative bastion of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker made a similar point. While Moore and Walker bemoaned the “judicial overstep” and “government inaction” that led to this situation, they did not excuse Davis’s reckless behavior. “We must recognize,” they note,

the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancing test is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

For these brave conservative commentators, agreement with Davis’s opinion of same-sex marriage did not mean an automatic endorsement of Davis’s actions. All of us could learn from their example.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressives should commit to examine every case with the same gimlet eye. Just because we agree with someone’s position in general does not mean we must agree with their actions in every case.

Conservatives should be reminded to differentiate between today’s headlines and the big picture. Civil disobedience is a right and duty of us all, at times. But not every act of civil disobedience is equal, and civil disobedience has never meant simply flouting the laws we don’t like.

More important, we must all be willing to speak up against our own “side” when it is in the wrong. The first question should not be “Which side are you on?” but always “What is the right thing to do?”

Why The Donald?

There’s not much that conservative and progressive intellectuals can agree on. But one thing unites thinkers across the culture-war divide these days: Why do so many people like Donald Trump? Fred Barnes at the conservative Weekly Standard visited a focus group of Trump fans to find out. Maybe the answer lies deep in the heart of American culture and history.

What's to like?

What’s to like?

For those of you who are just emerging from under your summer rocks, Trump has grabbed everyone’s attention with his successes in recent presidential polls. He has uttered outlandish statements, calling Mexicans rapists, implying that women reporters can’t handle the job, and ridiculing John McCain’s war record.

Conservative pundits have scrambled to distance themselves—and conservatism itself—from Trump’s brand of schlock.  Erick Erickson disinvited The Donald from a GOP debate.  George Will has denounced “[e]very sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon.”  Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher has scratched his head in bemusement as he’s watched the emergence of “Trumpenstein Monster.”  As Barnes asks, what is it about Trump that attracts people?

The twenty-nine assembled fans like more than Trump’s policies. They like Trump. As Barnes puts it,

Their tie to him is almost mystical. He’s a kind of political savior, someone who says what they think.

Will such Trumpies stick with the Donald all the way? Of the assembled group, most said they’d stick with Trump if he ran for president as head of a third party. They viewed Trump as a non-politician, someone who tells it like it is regardless of the consequences.

Maybe it isn’t so difficult to understand Trump’s attraction. People on both sides of the political spectrum have always rooted for brash, in-your-face candidates. Those who know their history can’t help but think of Huey Long, the governor, senator, and sometime presidential candidate from Louisiana. Long’s antics put The Donald’s to shame. Has Trump ever gotten beat-up in the bathroom of a bar for attempting to urinate between the legs of another gentleman? Has Trump ever greeted a foreign ambassador wearing nothing but silk pajamas?

Trumping Trump

Trumping Trump

The more outlandish the behavior, the more people like it. The more offensive the ideas, the more people respect them.

Does Trump stand a chance at becoming president? I’ll say it: No. This sort of behavior plays well in primaries, but in the end, Americans still prefer boring presidents.

Does Your School Smell of BO?

Conservative intellectuals these days are talking a lot about the “Benedict Option.” The idea is to create intentional communities that preserve traditional values as mainstream culture hurtles ever-faster toward anti-Christian values. In the wake of Supreme Court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage, will such ideas catch on?

Short answer: No. If history is any guide, conservative evangelicals, at least, will continue to feel quite at home in their local mainstream communities. A quick burst of community-founding might happen, but it will likely ebb once conservatives realize how un-alienated they are from the mainstream.

Blogger Rod Dreher seems to have sparked the recent discussion of a “Benedict Option.” Dreher profiled intentional lay communities in Clear Creek, Oklahoma and Eagle River, Alaska. He asked if more conservative Christians would follow suit:

Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

As Dreher has developed the idea, it has naturally come to focus on educational goals. Even in staunchly Christian communities, Dreher has argued, the public schools lack any sense of guiding values. Kids in fifth grade share porn; they have no beef with same-sex marriage. Even in such apparent Christian havens as small-town Louisiana, Dreher believes, kids and their parents have embraced a bland, therapeutic religiosity. The Benedict Option, Dreher thinks, offers conservatives their only hope. As he put it,

There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive.

Dreher has taken some heat from fellow conservatives for culture-war pessimism. Not every conservative wants to turn inward. But as Dreher recently noted, many prominent evangelical thinkers such as Russell Moore seem to be adopting a BO approach to mainstream culture.

Similarly, Thomas Kidd of Baylor University has recently endorsed a BO attitude. Earlier this week, Kidd wrote,

for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

As Dreher and other BO-friendly conservatives repeat, BO does not mean Amish. It does not mean turning away entirely from mainstream culture. In some BO communities, for instance, families make their money from internet telecommuting. They insist on remaining engaged in mainstream politics and local affairs, even as they insist on retaining more control over their children’s upbringing.

Will the Benedict Option attract more and more support from conservative Christians? If history is any guide, the likely answer is no. As Dreher, Kidd, and Moore all realize, the tension among conservative Christians between engagement and withdrawal is as old as Christianity itself. In recent American history, as I’ve argued in academic articles about Christian schools and school prayer, evangelical Protestants have tended to wax and wane in their enthusiasm for BO approaches to schooling.

In 1963, SCOTUS decided that the Lord’s Prayer could not be recited in public schools, nor could the Bible be read devotionally. This decision caused some conservative evangelicals to conclude that they had been kicked out of public school and American society.

In the pages of leading evangelical magazine Christianity Today, for example, the editors intoned that the decision reduced Christian America to only a tiny “believing remnant.” No longer did the United States respect its traditional evangelical forms, they worried. Rather, only a tiny fraction of Americans remained true to the faith, and they had better get used to being persecuted.

Similarly, fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire insisted that the 1963 school-prayer decision meant the death of Christian America. In the pages of his popular magazine Christian Beacon, one writer warned that the Supreme Court decision meant a wave of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

From the West Coast, Samuel Sutherland of Biola University agreed. The 1963 decision, Sutherland wrote, proved that the United States had become an “atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

These attitudes helped fuel a burst of new Christian schools in the 1970s. But as Christian-school leaders are painfully aware, many of those new schools couldn’t survive. Why? At least in part, because not enough conservatives feel alienated from their local mainstream communities. Why should they?

As I argue in my new book, public schools are far more conservative places than most pundits acknowledge. There is a lot of talk among both progressives and conservatives about the progressive takeover of public education, but for most Americans, their local schools remain fairly conservative places.

At the very top, leaders such as Arne Duncan embrace free-market approaches to education reform. In places such as Texas, creationist homeschoolers—folks who might fairly call themselves BO activists—have risen to the top of the state public educational hierarchy.

Why would conservatives think that they no longer had any pull in public schools? As Dreher is fully aware, many conservatives do not object to mainstream culture; they feel no yearning to give their children a radically different upbringing. If that’s the case, talk of BO in schools will not be a more than a minority sentiment.

Just as relatively few progressives abandon public schools for purer options, so too only a handful of conservatives will make the sacrifices necessary to give their children a BO education.

A School Plan to Cure Racism

It can be depressing. Just over fifty years ago, Thurgood Marshall announced the civil-rights victory of Brown v. Board of Education. In no more than five years, Marshall predicted, the nation’s schools would be racially integrated. Looking at America’s schools today, scholars see more and more racial segregation in schools, not less. One fancy school in New York City has embarked on a more aggressive plan to cure racism. Both liberal and conservative commentators are aghast. But can it work?

In New York Magazine, Lisa Miller reports on the new anti-racism plan of Fieldston School. At this private progressive school, the administration planned to separate kids out into racial groups. The goal was to allow kids to talk about race and ask potentially “impolite” questions without feeling subtle pressure.

As the head of the school told Miller,

We don’t want to replicate what has happened traditionally. The education that many of us have received about race has not been adequate. Hence, where are we as a nation? We are trying to pioneer, to be at the vanguard of this opportunity, to see if we can get it right.

How do the kids feel? One student in the “black” group told Miller that he liked it:

I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. . . . We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are — I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.

Other students weren’t so sure. A student in the “Asian” group reported, “It’s so fricking boring.”

The idea, in general, is to help students of all races talk about race and racism. Too many white liberals, the thinking goes, are trapped by their own progressive prejudices. They see themselves as enlightened and post-racial, yet they are unable to recognize the ways race and racism function. Programs like this will help make visible the ways white privilege works.

Some parents objected. How is segregating kids by race a good way to fight racial segregation? And what categories would the school use? A Jewish parent objected that his family had been persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan. Did that make him something other than “white?”

One group of progressive parents started a protest petition. The school’s plan, they insisted, would cause “irreparable harm” to their kids.

Conservatives, too, balk at such racial programs. Rod Dreher, for example, called the program a “grievance-building fun house.”

But is it the best way to teach kids about race? To help kids understand from a young age that racism is a real thing? Or does this sort of thing only promulgate racial stereotypes?

University Apocalypse

Are conservative religious academics forced these days to live “deeply closeted” lives? Have elite universities become so hostile to conservative religious thought that openly acknowledging their religion would be career suicide for academics? In the aftermath of the recent debate over gay rights and religious freedom in Indiana, one elite academic shares his worries in the pages of The American Conservative.

We have to ask: Are things really so dire for conservative academics?

Private?  or Closeted?

Private? or Closeted?

First, though, some context. Readers may remember Jonathan Zimmerman’s (liberal) plea to include more conservatives on campus. And leading schools such as Colorado University have adopted programs to bring conservative thinking to liberal colleges. Both conservatives and non-conservatives agree: Good universities need to recruit actively among a wide diversity of intellectual types.

New voices say it’s not happening.

Crunchy conservative Rod Dreher recently shared his conversation on these issues with an anonymous professor at an elite law school. This professor worried that the “overculture” had reacted with frightening intellectual totalitarianism to the recent Indiana case. At leading colleges, “Prof. Kingsfield” warned, religious conservatives are no longer welcome.

“A college professor who is already tenured is probably safe,” Dreher tells us, summing up “Kingsfield’s” story.

Those who aren’t tenured, are in danger. Those who are believed to be religious, or at least religious in ways the legal overculture believes constitutes bigotry, will likely never be hired. For example, the professor said, he was privy to the debate within a faculty hiring meeting in which the candidacy of a liberal Christian was discussed. Though the candidate appeared in every sense to be quite liberal in her views, the fact that she was an open Christian prompted discussion as to whether or not the university would be hiring a “fundamentalist.”

“Kingsfield” also argues that conservative schools will likely face increasing pressure from accrediting bodies. He cites the recent experience of Gordon College. In that case, a re-articulation of a long-standing school policy against sexual activity among students—including homosexual students—created a firestorm of controversy.

Rod Dreher included as a follow-up several emails from academics claiming to have been discriminated against in higher ed.

Do you buy it?

There are a few caveats we need to keep in mind. First, Professor “Kingsfield” seems to be talking about trends at elite colleges. I’ve been told many times by the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) that their experiences in non-elite colleges have been very different. One correspondent, for instance, told me that his colleagues in a large second-tier state school explicitly taught their students to teach in a conservative religious way.

Also, we need to remember that we’re only talking about one conservative tradition here. Generally, non-religious conservatives have had a very easy time fitting into the culture at elite universities. Folks such as the late Milton Friedman, surely, have not faced any sort of career danger for their conservative ideas.

In my experience, my fellow progressive academic folks really do often combine a shocking ignorance of conservative religious culture with a casual contempt for conservative religious ideas. One of the reasons I started this blog, in fact, was due to the fact that so many of my fellow progressives seemed utterly hostile to and uninformed about American conservatism.

On the other hand, my beloved medium-sized public university seems fairly welcoming to religious conservatives. Perhaps because I talk too much about conservatism and fundamentalism, more than one of my faculty colleagues have shared their religious beliefs and background. They don’t trumpet their beliefs, but they don’t hide them either.

My colleagues keep their beliefs private. That’s not the same thing as keeping them “deeply closeted,” though. Are things really so bad for conservative religious academics?

Alert: Public Schools Teach Nihilism!

In the pages of the New York Times, philosopher Justin P. McBrayer repeated an age-old conservative fallacy: Our Public Schools Are Turning Our Children into Moral Monsters. Conservative intellectuals have seized upon McBrayer’s essay as more proof that they need their own conservative school refuges. But here’s the kicker: It’s just not true.

First, let’s clarify. Professor McBrayer is not writing as a conservative activist, it seems, but as a concerned citizen, parent, and philosopher. He notes that many of the college students he deals with seem to have little concept of moral facts. Why? Because, he concludes, “our public schools [are] teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests.”

Scary! But not true. Let’s take a closer look at McBrayer’s argument. He admits that there is not any real evidence that college students these days are moral relativists. However, he asserts, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken” have assured him it’s true. How does he know what’s going on in America’s public school classrooms? He took one (1) trip to his second-grade son’s classroom. He also looked at the Common Core standards.

From this scanty evidence, McBrayer makes sweeping claims about what’s going on in classrooms nationwide. He also uses this dog’s breakfast to insist that the moral attitudes of college students can be traced directly to this K-12 curricular problem. Why aren’t Americans more moral? Because The Public Schools Have Abandoned Moral Education.

Clearly, Professor McBrayer isn’t the first to make this sort of strained claim. As I argue in my new book, conservative educational activists have said similar things for nearly a century. The pattern is always the same. Texas textbook gadflies Mel and Norma Gabler, for example, claimed to have been minding their own business in 1961, when their son asked them to look at his textbooks. What they read, the Gablers later recalled, “set Mel on fire.” The textbooks, the Gablers concluded, were proof of “progressive education’s grand scheme to change America.”

In Pasadena in 1951, conservative activists became alarmed when one parent found a pamphlet under her daughter’s pillow: “How to Re-Educate your Parents.” Where did she get it? At school!

In 1938, American Legion activist Augustin Rudd found “to his utter astonishment” that his daughters’ textbooks mocked American values.

The problem with each of these claims, as with McBrayer’s, is that the goings-on in any school are not limited to readings and standards. What actually goes on in most classrooms is far more humdrum and traditional. Instead of making alarmist claims based on scanty evidence, it is important to dig deeper into the real practices of schooling.

That’s not easy to do, but scholars have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Perhaps the most relevant recent study might be Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s look at teacher education in Pennsylvania. Berkman and Plutzer are well-known political scientists who have devoted a lot of attention to the ways evolution and creationism are taught in real schools. In their recent study, they found that most teachers-in-training are not activists; they are not classroom scientists. Rather, they are job-seekers who hope mostly to avoid controversy and prove their classroom competence.

In short, most public schools tend to reflect local values. They tend not to embrace bold challenges to the status quo. If people in any given school district seem to like evangelical Christianity, as we’ve seen recently, public schools will teach it, regardless of the Supreme Court or the opinions of academics.

Regardless of what standards say, teachers will tend to engage in what they see as common sense. Is it wrong to cheat on a test? Yes! Are there such things as right and wrong? Definitely.

Nevertheless, smart people like Professor McBrayer will likely continue to attribute America’s moral mayhem to K-12 classrooms, based on slim evidence. And conservatives will embrace those charges. In this case, conservative intellectual Rod Dreher has seized upon McBrayer’s charges. McBrayer’s indictment of public education, Dreher insists, proves the necessity of private schools. Only at conservative schools can real education take place.

Of course, I think there are plenty of problems with much of today’s public education, moral and otherwise. And I’m also mad because the New York Times won’t return my calls, even as it publishes flawed commentaries like this one. But in spite of all that, it is important to remember that schools are complicated places. It is not fair to blame our society’s moral morass on today’s curricular choices. Schools reflect our society’s values, they do not simply impose them on hapless children.

Christian College Leader Admits Wrongdoing

Dinesh D’Souza broke the law.  He recently admitted it.  Some conservative pundits insist that his prosecution is politically motivated.  Is this the end for a spectacular conservative career?

Wunderkind Admits It

Wunderkind Admits It

The conservative Christian writer and celebrity has always had something of a tin ear when it comes to conservative evangelical culture.  A couple of years ago, for instance, he was ousted from his post as president of The King’s College when he appeared in public with a woman who was not his wife.

Nevertheless, D’Souza’s brand of high-sounding punditry has made him hugely popular among American conservatives.  His books and films, such as What’s So Great About Christianity and 2016: Obama’s America, have secured D’Souza’s place as a top name among conservative activists.

This week, D’Souza pleaded guilty to illegal campaign contributions.  In order to help the ailing fortunes of Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long, D’Souza set up “straw donors” in order to exceed legal limits on campaign donations.  In his plea, D’Souza agreed that this action was “wrong” and “stupid.”  He admitted that he knew his actions were illegal.  But he also complained that he was the victim of selective prosecution.

Other conservative pundits agree.  An editorial in the Washington Times lamented,

Whether guilty or not, the fact that Mr. D’Souza has been singled out for prosecution while others skate past freely reveals President Obama’s thumb on the famous lady’s scale.

Some conservative writers take a different line.  Writing in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher insisted that D’Souza must take his lumps.  As Dreher argued,

I have no trouble believing that D’Souza may have been selectively prosecuted. But even if he was, that does not justify his knowingly breaking the law. Does this really have to be explained to conservatives, of all people?  We can’t call for law and order, but carve out special exemptions for our political allies.

Does this spell the end for D’Souza’s career?  As a non-conservative, I would be surprised if any conservative institution were to clamor to be associated with D’Souza after this.  But I’ve been surprised before.