Before You Blame Fundamentalism, Read This

I can understand why some conservative evangelical intellectuals wouldn’t like my book. In chapter after chapter, I look at some of the most uncomfortable tensions in the world of evangelical higher education, the often-poisonous legacy of decades of fundamentalist anger and vitriol. But why should we single out religious schools for this sort of criticism? Public schools, after all, have their own legacies of racism and pandering, as the news from Colorado attests.

ColoradoState

It’s not only fundamentalist colleges that have to deal with their ugly racist legacies…

At Colorado State, as IHE reports, two high school students were singled out for their appearance, racial and fashion-wise. The students were of Native American background and had driven seven hours to take the campus tour. They joined the tour late, apparently, and didn’t answer the tour guide’s questions adequately.

So another tour member called 911. The two kids, she reported, “really stand out.” Their t-shirts, she complained, featured “weird symbolism.” (They look to this headbanger like pretty standard heavy-metal logos.)

Campus cops came and talked with the teenagers. The two were polite and the cops agreed the high-schoolers had done nothing wrong. The teens told the cops they were shy and didn’t know how to respond to the tour guide’s question. They were invited to rejoin the tour, but unsurprisingly they didn’t feel like it and drove home.

What does any of this have to do with fundamentalism and evangelical colleges? It proves that ALL colleges are in a similar bind. ALL colleges need to pander to the lowest common denominator in the families they are trying to attract. If an ignorant and apparently racist mom decides two other teenagers “really stand out,” the college administration needs to address those concerns, even if the mom in question goes far beyond daffy.

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Clarence Taylor on Purging Racist Teachers

[Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome comments today from eminent historian Clarence Taylor. Taylor is the author, among other things, of Reds at the Blackboard. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH recall, last week we wondered if Florida’s firing of a racist teacher was similar to Cold-war-era firings of socialist teachers. Instead of flapping our gums more, we asked the expert. Here is Professor Taylor’s perspective:]

The decision to remove Dayanna Volitich, a 25 year old social studies teacher at a middle school in Florida, from the classroom, after it was discovered that she hosted a white nationalist podcast raised the question of the right to free speech. Was Volitich denied freedom of speech?  She expressed horrendous beliefs on her podcast, including agreeing with a guest who maintained that an African child has a lower IQ than a child born in Sweden.  On her February 26, 2018 podcast, Volitich, who went by the pseudonym Tiana Dalichov, maintained that there is scientific evidence that some races are more intelligent than others.  But should she have been removed from the classroom because she expressed racist views on a podcast?

voliltich tweet

Grounds for dismissal?

There is a long history of targeting teachers for their political beliefs.   By the First World War teachers were forced to sign loyalty oaths to assure that they would not take part in what those in power deemed as unpatriotic activities.  As scholars Charles Howlett and Audrey Cohan note, “there was a time in United States history when loyalty oaths struck fear in the hearts and minds of those who encouraged free inquiry and open discussion on controversial issues.”

During the Cold War teachers, college professors and others were targeted for their political beliefs.   Hundreds of New York City public school teachers were forced to resign, retire, or were fired because they were members of the Communist Party.  Not one of the teachers fired, forced to retire or forced to resign because of their political affiliation were ever found to be derelict in the classroom.  None were found guilty of spreading Communist propaganda to their students.  They simply lost their positions because of their membership in the Communist Party.

No matter how appalling Volitich’s views are she has the constitutional right to express those views.  I am sure that a vast majority of Americans think that Volitich’s ideas are distasteful.  But the views of Communist teachers were distasteful to many.  Because views are seen as repugnant to a large number of people does not mean that those expressing those views should have their constitutional rights revoked.

taylor reds at the blackboard

A different world? Or just a different context?

One may argue that unlike the victims of the Cold War, where they were purged for just Communist Party membership and taking part in communist led activities outside of the classroom, it is claimed that Volitich eagerly touted her white supremacist views to her students.  She even confessed on her podcast, that she shared her white supremacist ideas in the classroom.  According to Volitich when parents complained to the principal that she was espousing her racial ideology to her students, she admitted that she lied to the principal by denying she was attempting to spread her racist views.

But even with her claim on her podcast and a few parents complaining that she advocated her Nazi doctrine in class, at this point there is no hard evidence that Volitich was advocating white supremacy in the classroom.  Nowhere is it mentioned that school officials, including those who must observe her in the classroom, ever complained that she was spreading white supremacist doctrine to her students.    Moreover none of her colleagues ever complained of her views.  Is what someone claimed on a podcast grounds for dismissing her from her position as a teacher? Shouldn’t a teacher be judged for what she does in her classroom and for service to her school?

One may argue that the ideas Volitich expressed are dangerous to the larger society therefore she should be fired. But that was the same argument that was used to purge teachers and professors from their position.  Those who were responsible for the dismissal of teachers during the Cold War maintained that their membership in the Communist Party deemed them as dangerous to the country.  There was no need to prove that they were indoctrinating students.  Cold War crusaders argued that the mere fact that they were communists and communist sympathizers disqualified them from the classroom.

Today many recognize that the New York City teachers were simply victims of overzealous anti-Communist warriors.  Let’s not make the same mistake with those on the extreme right.

Required Reading: Our American Dilemma

Is America a racist place? Like, fundamentally and deeply racist? When historians look around, they tend to say yes. But as a terrific new book about the 1920s Ku Klux Klan makes clear, saying that white racism has always been a central part of American culture is only the beginning. If we really want to understand white racism in America, we need to be prepared to wrestle with some complicated and uncomfortable facts.

harcourt ku klux kulture

Required reading…

We can see the dilemma everywhere we look these days. White nationalism seems to be thriving, as we saw in the 2016 presidential elections. We also see it all over today’s college campuses. And—as I argued recently in Religion Dispatches—we find it in places we might not expect, such as evangelical colleges and universities.

But white nationalism is only part of the story. These days, every triumph of Trumpishness is also a catalyst for anti-Trump activism.

This paradox at the heart of American identity is made disturbingly clear in a wonderful new book by Felix Harcourt. Harcourt examines the impact of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan on the wider American culture of the 1920s. I’ve spent my share of time studying the 1920s Klan—it was a big part of my book about the history of educational conservatism.

Harcourt’s book raises new and intriguing ways to understand the everyday bigotry associated with the Klan of the 1920s. When most of us imagine the Ku Klux Klan, we think of the much smaller, much different Civil-Rights-era group. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan had been reduced to small clusters of southern hillbillies lashing together dynamite bombs and informing for the FBI.

The 1920s Klan wasn’t like that. Some of the symbols were the same, such as the fiery cross, the infamous hood, and the night-rider imagery. In the 1920s, though, membership in the Klan boomed into the millions. Instead of hunkering down in barns and basements, the 1920s Klan seized Main Street with lavish parades and open celebrations of “100% Americanism.” The organizations briefly ran the government of states such as Indiana and Oregon. Its main bugbear was not voting rights for African Americans, but rather infiltration by Catholics and other sorts of immigrants.

Not that the 1920s Klan wasn’t fiercely controversial. It was. Even as it attracted endless criticism, however, it also attracted millions of members, each coughing up ten dollars for required accoutrements and registration forms.

Professor Harcourt does the best job any historian has done yet of capturing this American paradox. He examines the way the Klan presented itself in newspapers, books, and other media. He also looks at the ways outsiders unwittingly helped drive membership by attacking the Klan. As Harcourt makes abundantly clear, the real lesson of the 1920s Klan lies in its everyday radicalism, in the way its members thought of the Klan as a muscle-bound Rotary Club, another expression of their Main-Street claim to white Protestant supremacy.

For example, journalists in Columbus, Georgia took great personal and professional risks to confront their local Klan. They went undercover to expose their governor as a Klan stooge. The upshot? Their newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for brave investigative journalism but the outed governor won a landslide re-election.

Beyond electoral politics, the 1920s Klan made a huge impact on popular culture. As Harcourt recounts, publishers generally were more interested in exploiting the Klan’s controversial reputation than in supporting or denouncing it. Maybe the best example of this was the June, 1923 special edition of the pulp magazine Black Mask.

black mask kkk june 1 1923

“Rip-snorting” racism.

In a masterpiece of blather, the editor told readers of the Klan issue that the hooded empire was

the most picturesque element that has appeared in American life since the war, regardless of whether or not we condemn its aims—whatever they may be—or not.

This same editor told one author to provide a “rip-snorting dramatic tale” about the Klan, but to leave out any sort of controversy. In the story, “Call Out the Klan,” a WWI veteran investigates the Virginia Klan who has kidnaped his love interest. Turns out it was fake news—a non-Klansman put on robes and hood and kidnaped the southern belle in order to discredit the Klan. In the end, the true Klan saved the day, in particularly dramatic fashion. The story includes no mention of racism, anti-Semitism, or anti-Catholicism.

The 1920s Klan was at once frightening and fascinating; lauded as a tough answer for tough times and excoriated for anti-democratic thuggery; hailed as America’s salvation and cursed as its damnation.

In our popular memory, the Klan is usually conveniently dismissed as a nutty group of thugs and crazies. In fact, as Harcourt reminds us, “the men and women of the Klan were far from aberrant and far from marginal.”

Those of us who were shocked by President Trump’s surprise electoral victory in 2016 should heed these historical lessons. White nationalism has always been able to mobilize Americans. Many of us get off the couch to fight against it, but equally large numbers will fight in favor.

And though no one says President Trump is a latter-day Clifford Walker, it’s difficult not to get spooked by some of the parallels. As one Klansman told reporters, the Klan’s strategy was always to attract attention, no matter what. As he put it, “the Klan organization dealt very deliberately in provocative statements, knowing they would garner front-page headlines.”

Whites at the Blackboard

I get it. I wouldn’t want a middle-school social-studies teacher who hosts a white-supremacist podcast teaching my kid. I wouldn’t want her in my local school at all. But does everyone–even a teacher–have a right to free speech? Does our history of teacher purges have a lesson to teach us here?

voliltich tweet

Grounds for dismissal?

You’ve probably heard the story by now. Florida’s Dayanna Volitich has admitted she hosted a white supremacist podcast and twitter account. As her alter ego “Tiana Dalichov” Volitich noted that preferring one’s own race was not a bad thing. She wondered about the “Jewish Question.” She noted that some “races . . . have higher IQs than others.”

Does all this make her unfit for service as a public-school teacher? How about the fact that she bragged about disguising her views when her supervisor came around, but did her best to secretly promote them among her students?

In her own defense, Volitich has insisted that her online persona was nothing more than “political satire and exaggeration.”

Should she be fired? IMHO, if Volitich really did engage in this sort of racist diatribe, she’s not worthy of the role of social-studies teacher. Moreover, if she knowingly and intentionally taught her ideas to her students subversively, she should be out on her ear.

taylor reds at the blackboard

A different world? Or just a different context?

But the historian in me can’t help but ask: Is this situation different from Local 5? As Clarence Taylor has demonstrated, socialist teachers in New York City were purged for their political views. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, left-wing teachers were fired for their socialist ideas. They weren’t accused of bad teaching, but only of bad politics.

It can be difficult to remember the heat and fury of America’s anti-socialism movement. For long decades, though, as I argue in my book about educational conservatism, socialism was viewed as nothing less than intellectual poison. Teaching it to students–or even harboring a teacher who harbored socialist ideals–was seen by many Americans as an outrageous abdication of educational justice.

I feel the same way about this case. I can’t imagine allowing a white-supremacist teacher to sneakily insert her horrible views into a middle-school classroom. But when I call for her dismissal, am I repeating the travesties of the twentieth century, only from the other side?

What do you think?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading: Charlottesville Edition

We’re still reeling from the events in Charlottesville. Here are some related stories that caught our eye:

Racist Fundamentalists…It’s Complicated

Sometimes the archives can make things too complicated. White fundamentalists have always been accused of racism—a charge they’ve vehemently denied. But what do we do when an African American fundamentalist agrees with the racism of his white fellow fundamentalists?

First, a quick historical sketch: Since the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, fundamentalism got tangled up with ideas about Southern Pride. Conservative religion has often become part and parcel of a broader cultural conservatism, one that included support for racial segregation and white supremacy.

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

By the 1970s, leading white fundamentalists became some of the most public supporters of racial segregation. Most famously, Bob Jones University steadfastly clung to its whites-only policy long after many white Southerners and white fundamentalists had grudgingly moved on. Some historians, such as Randall Balmer, have insisted that white racism among fundamentalists was the real root of the so-called New Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s.

I disagree. There is no doubt that white fundamentalism—especially in the South—has long had close ties to white racism. There is more to the story, however, than quick condemnations of conservative religion as a front for white supremacy.

In my recent work at the archive of the Moody Bible Institute, I came across a document that reminds us how messy history is. In 1970, the leaders of Moody dis-invited prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice from Moody’s big annual Founder’s Week event. Why? Because Rice had come out in support of the segregationist policies of Bob Jones University.

As President William Culbertson informed members of the Moody community,

Moody Bible Institute has for 85 years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible. Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ. We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture. We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships. We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation. We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Moody Bible Institute, Culbertson told anyone who would listen, still agreed wholeheartedly with John R. Rice’s fundamentalist theology. Moody refused to compromise with those who would modernize the Bible or water down fundamentalist religion. But Moody could not be seen as part of a racist, segregationist movement.

Naturally, John R. Rice and his supporters blasted this decision. More evidence, one Rice supporter charged, that Moody had

moved one more step away from the great revival that is blazing across this land into the camp of lukewarm churches that make God sick. I do not suppose that anything that I have said will make any difference to you or Moody Bible Institute’s position. Years will come and go and Moody will ‘go the way of all flesh,’ while the Moody Memorial Church continues to dry-up on the vine.

Among the fat stack of angry letters supporting John R. Rice, one stands out. It came from William H. Dinkins of Selma, Alabama. Dinkins was an African American fundamentalist and, in his words, someone who “stand[s] with Dr. Rice for fundamentalism and the old-time religion and all that goes with it.” Too often, Dinkins charged, “We Negroes [sic] . . . try to inject Civil Rights into every circumstance, without sensing the effect of what we are doing.” When it comes to religion and the Word of God, Dinkins continued, “Civil Rights is an extraneous issue, and ought not to be in question, and I feel that responsible people ought not to be effected by such pleas.”

The view from Selma, 1971

The view from Selma, 1971

Dinkins’s letter raises difficult questions about race and religion. First of all, we wonder if this letter was legitimate. Could someone have faked it in order to create an impression of biracial support for racial segregation? If not, we wonder how common such sentiments have been. As historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white fundamentalists have long tended to ignore their African American co-religionists, at best. And, as John Dittmer and others have showed, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement many African American leaders in the Deep South supported segregation, at least temporarily and pragmatically.

In the early 1970s, was there really any support for racial segregation among African American conservatives? Did fundamentalism trump race?

Christian Terrorism and the Milwaukee Shootings

Fundamentalist America scares people.  As ex-fundamentalists such as Jonny Scaramanga have argued, the small-f sort of separatist Protestant fundamentalism can easily be imagined to encourage violence.

A few days ago, Mark Juergensmeyer argued on Religion Dispatches that the temple atrocity in suburban Milwaukee should be considered an act of Christian terrorism.  Juergensmeyer argued,

“It is fair to call [shooter Wade Michael] Page a Christian terrorist since the evidence indicates that he thought he was defending the purity of white Christian society against the evils of multiculturalism that allow non-white non-Christians an equal role in America society. Like the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the Norwegian militant, Anders Breivik, Page thought he was killing to save white Christian society.”

As well it might, Juergensmeyer’s claim ignited a storm of ferocious discussion about the nature of the killings and their relationship to Christianity.  Some commentators argued that the killer’s brand of white supremacy bore little relation to even nominal Christianity.  Others insisted that conservative Christianity promotes exactly this sort of violence.

ILYBYGTH readers will want to read through these comments.  The heat and anger of some of the writers shows how difficult it can be for outsiders to discuss Fundamentalist America calmly and sympathetically.  For instance, as one commenter argued,

“You guys – I’m referring to the giant festering mass known as Evangelicals/Teavangelicals/Fundamentalists – are abject subhumans, by
your own doing. Your blatant disrespect and disregard for the truth, science,
and intellectualism have made you, imo, the most dangerous demographic to
modern civilization on the planet.”

That’s strong language.  And while I think it would be denounced by many anti-fundamentalists, it still represents the kind of emotion lurking in the background of these kind of culture-war discussions.

The main point here is that people have been killed.  Our sympathies must start with them and their families.  But we must also resist the urge to use this horrifying act of violence to unleash even more hate.  As with other outbreaks of culture-war violence, such as the shootings of doctors who provide abortions or the murder of people due to their sexual orientation, this kind of murder sends a frightening signal.  In other places and times, as we’ve noted here before, “culture war” slides all too easily into regular, bloody war.

It is the job of all of us to contain and limit that violence, not encourage it.  When we live in a gunpowder factory, we must all watch out for anyone who drops lit matches.