Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International Offices are back up and running after a short vacation. Here are some of the stories that swirled while we sang our vacation theme song:

From the Archives: Mildred Crabtree does her thing, at National Archives.

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Rockin the library, Crabtree-style.

Larry Cuban remembers creepy Channel One.

Non-white evangelicals in era of Trump: “When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under a bus.” At R&P.

Conservative Ben Shapiro challenges Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, at Fox. Does it count as sexual harassment?

In the belly of the beast: the American Humanist Association continues its fight against graduation prayers in the hometown of Bob Jones University.

The state of civics education in the USA, at Brookings.

Trumpism abroad: Evangelicals rally around a thug in Brazil, at The Conversation.

Peter Greene: Why heartwarming school stories don’t warm his heart.

No school should ever need a celebrity’s help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

The other Benedict Option, at CT.

The oxymoronic quest of academics to build their brands, at CHE.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

August already! Instead of reading those stupid back-to-school ads, read some of these ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the past week:

Which comes first, God or politics? Michele Margoulis’s new book says people choose their party first, then their pew, at RNS.

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Islam rants miss the point. At The Conversation.

The changing face of private education—the rich get richer. At Atlantic.

Dawkins call to prayer

Are some calls to prayer more violent than others?

Helpful locals donate eight assault rifles to their local Texas school along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in other weaponry. At AP.

Collusion confusion: Is Trump really in cahoots with Nancy Pelosi? At The Hill.

Milwaukee sheriff in hot water for touting toilet-paper doctorate from unaccredited fundamentalist colleges, at JS. HT: NS.

An atheist’s case for religion at RNS.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week in the books. Here are some of the ILYBYGTH-themed stories that swirled around the interwebs this week:

Forget Nixon, forget Mussolini: A better historic parallel to Trump, at HNN.

TRUMP CHARLES

The closer parallel?

Why did school-based Catholic priests commit more abuse? At HP.

The ugly truth from Alabama: Evangelicals, racism, and Trump, at WaPo.

Are low-income students being squeezed out of elite universities? Nope. But another group is. At AEI.

Is there a “socialist surge” among Democrats?

Did you see this one? Eighteen Oklahoma teachers explain why they’re quitting, at VICE.

How do elite schools stay so white? At NYT.

Historians wonder what to do in an era of “fake news” at CHE.

There’s One Word Missing from this Essay about Trump’s Christian Nationalism

Sorry for the long title, but it’s all true. I read with great interest Gene Zubovich’s recent article in Religion & Politics about Trump’s appeal to Christian Nationalism. It’s a great argument, but Zubovich leaves out one crucial word.

Nationalism-GettyImages-809665350_780x508

For Jesus AND America…

Zubovich hits the nail squarely on the head when he argues that Trump’s shameless appeals to God and Country are a big part of Trump’s appeal among conservative evangelicals. As Zubovich puts it,

Trump has repeatedly argued that when America remains true to its faith and traditional values, God will bless the country with the might to defeat its foes. And his words resonate with Christian nationalists—those who believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation and must continue to be one—because they tie together so many of the Christian Right’s beliefs and instincts. We have good reason to believe that Christian nationalism is one of the reasons evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump.

Moreover, Zubovich recognizes the other side of this coin. Though big majorities of conservative evangelicals love Trump’s Christian-nationalist spiel, evangelicals also provide its most trenchant critics. For example, as Zubovich explains,

In May, American clergy issued the “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto, which rejected Trump’s nationalist slogan of America First “as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” . . . [They] reminded Americans: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries.” They went on to say, “We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.”

So far, so good. But Zubovich leaves out a vital bit. This debate over the relationship between nationalism and globalism among American evangelicals has always really only been a debate among WHITE American evangelicals. For other groups, most notably African American conservative evangelicals, the temptation to lump religion in with government has never been an issue.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not that there aren’t a lot of patriotic African American conservative evangelicals in the USA. There certainly are. The urge to equate the government with the church, though, has only been a curse among white evangelicals. For obvious historical reasons, African Americans have always tended to keep their church strictly separate from other social institutions, institutions that all too often embraced slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-black racism.

Insisting on this one word, then, is more than just academic nitpicking. If we want to understand Trump’s appeal among conservative evangelicals—and we DO want to understand it—we need to be very careful to remember that only one segment of American conservative evangelicals has suffered from a muddling of religious zeal with patriotic fervor.

Red Hen Creationism

I’ll bet we don’t agree about this one. As you’re sick of hearing by now, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely kicked out of a DC-area restaurant. Sanders complained about the fundamental incivility of her political foes. Whatever we think about defenestrating Sanders, we need to consider the implications of this dust-up for our creation/evolution discussions.

sarah-sanders-tweet-red-hen

Kicked out for Trumpism…

You’ve likely read them all by now: Progressive types have argued that it was okay to be rude to Sanders, because Sanders was personally responsible for defending a horrific, hateful public policy. Conservative pundits call this episode an “appalling” example of the totalitarian mindset of the left. My favorite analysis came from someone I don’t usually agree with who laments the dangerous situation we are all in.

What does any of this have to do with creationism?

Like Sanders, a lot of creationists feel “kicked out” of public schools. They insist that schools teaching mainstream evolutionary science without any creationist science are not welcome places for their creationist kids.

So here’s the question: Do creationists have a right to feel welcome in public schools?

The ILYBYBTH answer: Yes, absolutely. But there’s a ‘but.’ As savvy creationists should want just as much as the rest of us, public schools need to avoid teaching any religious ideas in a devotional way. That is, public schools need to teach kids about religion, but they should never preach any particular religion.

Creationists have never been ejected from public schools. What WAS ejected—and very properly—was the idea that any religiously inspired science should have an equal voice in science classes.

As I’m arguing in my new book, the biggest disagreement in our continuing creation/evolution battles is not actually about creation or evolution. Rather, the problem is a breakdown of trust. If we hope to teach mainstream science in a way that welcomes all people to our public schools, we need to be much clearer about the things that we do and don’t disagree about.

For example, we should all agree on this: All creationists are always welcome in public schools. If they feel otherwise, we need to fix that. But creationism itself is not welcome, at least not as part of the official curriculum. If anyone feels otherwise, we need to fix that, too.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

What a week–everything from spy toilets to “coming out” to your parents that you love Trump. Here are a few stories that caught our ILYBYGTH eye this week:

Conservative women “come out” as Trumpists, at NYT.

Trump women NYT

Young, female, and Trumpist.

Cakeshops and civil rights. CT talks to African American evangelicals about same-sex marriage and refusing service.

What killed Alexander the Great? At AO.

The death of college: At The Atlantic, Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of American higher ed.

Dora the Cop: Adjusting Miranda warnings for kids in Baltimore, at BSun.

Why does Kim Jong Un travel with a personal toilet? At LiveScience.

AD Sessions weighs in on microaggressions. HT: MM.

Teachers get mad about the new, shorter AP World History curriculum. At Politico.

NKOREA-POLITICS-KIM

Spy-proof port-a-john in the background…

Conservatives loving Hollywood: A gushy review of First Reformed at American Conservative.

Remember Dorothy Sayers? A new look at her legacy at CT.

Australian students dress in Klan robes and blackface for “politically incorrect”-themed party. At The Guardian.

The case against Harvard: Students accuse it of racist admissions policies, at BBC.

From the Archives III: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Close your eyes and it might be difficult to guess the decade, much less the century. Fears of a brash, vulgar populist President, a traumatic sense of rapid decline in our public institutions, and a desperate dream that stability might be right around the corner. Sound familiar?Inked1831 house report 1 political convulsions_LI

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m down in the Philadelphia archives these days researching my new book. I keep stumbling across head-scratchers that are too good not to share. This bit is from an 1831 report on education from the Pennsylvania house of representatives. They were worried that politics had gotten out of hand. They hoped that high-quality public schools could offer some hope for the future. As they put it,

when the age in which we live is so strongly marked by political convulsion—when all old institutions appear heaving from their base, and all new ones seem unsettled, if we would be preserved from that change for the worse that has been the fate of all who have preceded us, provision must be made for general education.

Clearly, the sorts of political upheaval we’re living through now have a long history.

Should we be reassured or depressed?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week, another round-up of the weekly news from all around the interwebs:

Larry Cuban on insider and outsider superintendents.

Life after fundamentalism: A red-letter story from Cedarville University, at RACM.

Trump & White Racism:

Evangelical college students don’t know about evangelical religion. And they don’t care. At FT.

Does evangelical political activism drive people away from religion? At PS.Bart reading bible

Changing charters: LA teachers organize unions, at TI.

Why do white evangelicals love Trump? It’s not their fault; it’s their psychology, at Slate.

Don’t Read This

It keeps showing up. Even the smartest, best-informed people still make a huge mistake when it comes to understanding the history of white American evangelicals.

reagan at BJU 1980

The Gipper greets BJU students, 1980.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, we’ve been obsessed these days about white evangelicals’ love affair with Trump. In talks and article after article after article, we’ve wondered why white evangelicals support a seemingly amoral leader.

We’re not the only ones. Evangelicals themselves such as John Fea and Michael Gerson have wondered about it. And recently John Ehrenreich took another stab at the question. Ehrenreich makes some great points, but he miscategorizes twentieth-century evangelical history.

I’m 100% on board with Ehrenreich’s central theme. As he puts it,

behind the apparent disparity, there exists a psychological kinship between Trumpism and evangelical thought—at least, for white evangelicals. . . . The similarities in their approaches to the world run so deep that I believe that white evangelicals would continue to support Trump even if Roe v. Wade weren’t in the picture.

Right.

It seems obvious: there is an intense and powerful tradition of Make-America-Great-Again thinking among white evangelicals, a tradition to which Trump makes an intense and powerful (if surprising) appeal. If we really want to understand white evangelicalism in America, it does not help to start and finish with theological notions, IMHO. We need to include the mish-mash of history, memory, nostalgia, and politics that leads many white Americans—including white evangelicals—to yearn for the good old days.

Bibb-Graves hall bju til 2011

It didn’t start with Reagan. Bibb Graves was the Governor of Alabama and close political friend of Bob Jones College in the 1920s…

Trump appeals to something deep, something beyond tax policy or even abortion policy. Now, I don’t buy Prof. Ehrenreich’s explanation of this evangelical-Trump affinity. He wants to tie the Trump connection to white-evangelical psychology, which seems a little simplistic.

But that’s not my main beef. This morning I’m objecting to Prof. Ehrenreich’s quick sketch of twentieth-century evangelical history. He repeats the tired myth that white evangelicals only really became political and conservative in the 1970s. He argues that white evangelicals had been split, politically, between progressive and conservative wings. Only in the late 1970s, he thinks, did the bulk of white evangelicalism embrace political conservatism. As he puts it,

by the end of the ’70s, things began to change. The percent of the American population adhering to evangelical beliefs grew rapidly. Right-wing fundamentalist preachers took over organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. There was a rapid rise of separatist Baptist churches, proclaiming a fundamentalist theology, denouncing the moral ills of society and communism, and often promoting segregationist views. In 1979, Jerry Falwell joined hard-line conservative activists such as Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council co-founder Paul Weyrich to form the Moral Majority, a political action group focused on mobilizing Christians against “secular humanism” and moral decay. Evangelical pastors threw themselves into the political arena and worked for 1980s conservative electoral victories. Simultaneously, largely evangelical white voters in the South shifted rapidly from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and American politics as a whole moved sharply to the right.

I thought we were beyond this. The facts of Ehrenreich’s historical sketch are basically correct, but taken together they don’t prove that conservative evangelicals got political only in the 1970s.

As our leading historians such Daniel K. Williams and Matthew Avery Sutton have demonstrated, white evangelicals ALWAYS were political. Yes, there were progressive and conservative wings, but there was never a “retreat” from politics. As Williams showed, something big really did happen in the 1970s, but it was not that white evangelicals got into politics. They had always been into politics. Instead, what happened was that white conservative evangelicals embraced the GOP as their single political vehicle.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to think that white evangelicals retreated from mainstream politics in the 1930s, only to reemerge with a flourish in the Reagan years. After all, it is a story that white evangelicals have told themselves and the rest of us for many years. As I point out in my recent book about evangelical higher ed, fundamentalist college leaders often insisted that they and their schools were above politics.

Consider the example of Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones University in the era of the so-called “New Christian Right.” In 1969, Junior told a friend that he was “opposed to party politics . . . on principle.” In the very same 1969 letter, though, he gave a glimpse of what he meant by that. Was BJU above political activism? Not at all. As Junior explained, BJU was always “urging our students to remember how their senators voted when the next election comes up in their state.”

In other words, white conservative evangelical leaders such as Bob Jones Jr. SAID they were above politics, but what they meant was that they were not wedded to one major party or the other. By 1976, Jones had begun to change his tune. As he put it in 1976, evangelical leaders

should denounce what’s spiritually and morally wrong, and if that means getting into politics, so be it.

When Jones said he was “getting into politics,” what he meant was that he was embracing the GOP alone. He might have sincerely thought that he and his school were above politics before that, but it just wasn’t true. Way back to the 1950s and into the 1980s, Junior continued to talk about getting “into” or “out of” politics, but he never meant that he wouldn’t be throwing his political weight around.

And he certainly never meant that he was somehow split between progressive and conservative political ideas. For fundamentalists like Jones, going all the way back to the 1910s, Christian politics were always conservative politics.

When the Reagan administration angered Jones Jr., for example, Junior threatened in 1982 to take his followers “out” of politics. As he put it, he might just urge BJU voters to

stay away from the polls and let their ship sink.

Now, clearly, withholding votes from the GOP is just as political an act as giving votes is. When white evangelicals in the twentieth century talked about staying out of politics, they didn’t really mean it. They didn’t really mean they wouldn’t vote for conservative candidates or mobilize for conservative issues.

All they meant was that they weren’t married to one party or the other.

When will we stop reading the misleading myth that white evangelicals retreated from politics until Falwell and Reagan?