Can the Accidental Rich Speak for the Unhappy Poor?

Bad news for Bernie: The New York Times just outed him as a closet millionaire. Will it kill his presidential hopes? Nope. If history is any guide, low-income Americans don’t really mind if rich people make their case for them. But Bernie shouldn’t celebrate too soon.

bryans-hobby-illustration-shows-william-jennings-bryan-as-a-horse-ER9571

Attack the rich? Why?

Here’s what we know: Back in the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan faced similar accusations. Though Bryan had leapt to political prominence as the voice of the people, in the early 1920s he made a huge pile in the Florida land boom.

His opponents didn’t let him forget it. They lambasted him as a hypocrite, the millionaire voice of the poor, back when being a millionaire meant something.

It didn’t do much to derail Bryan’s 1920s anti-evolution campaigns. Though Americans listened when Clarence Darrow accused Bryan of being an ignoramus, they didn’t really seem to care that Bryan was a rich ignoramus.

In short, Americans have never really seethed in anger against rich people. Especially not if the rich people can explain how they got rich.

Bernie gets it. As he likes to say,

I wrote a best-selling book. . . . If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.

He’s right, but Bernie should recognize that this same political logic spells his own long-term doom. Because, as John Steinbeck put it so well in 1960, America doesn’t really have a lot of self-admitted proletarians. Everyone [in 1930] was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

So why shouldn’t Bernie celebrate? For the same reason that Americans respect his riches, they won’t listen to his socialist pitch. Not enough of them, anyway. To most American voters, rich people aren’t robbers. They’re talented, lucky, or some combination thereof. And most American voters don’t want to tax away their millions, they just want those millions for themselves.

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College Really IS Bad for Jesus

A century ago, conservative evangelicals rallied around William Jennings Bryan and his warnings that college was bad for students’ evangelical faith. One of the results was the network of evangelical universities I studied in Fundamentalist U. A new poll suggests that Bryan was right all along.

pew college graduates belief in god

Was Bryan right?

In his anti-evolution stump speeches in the early 1920s, Bryan liked to cite the work of Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. According to Leuba, 85% of college freshman believed in god, but only 70% of juniors did, and only 60-65% of graduates did. The evidence seemed clear, Bryan reported: College kills religion.

Bryan also liked to tell personal anecdotes about the deleterious spiritual effects of college attendance. As he put it in 1921,

There is a professor in Yale of whom it is said that no one leaves his class a believer in God. . . . A father (a Congressman) tells me that a daughter on her return from Wellesley told him that nobody believed in the Bible stories now.  Another father (a Congressman) tells me of a son whose faith was undermined by this doctrine in a Divinity School.

Was it true? Who knows. Bryan was famous for rhetorical excellence and factual carelessness. A new Pew survey, though, finds that college graduates, as a group, tend to be less literal about their religious beliefs than the rest of America.

As the Pewsters report, about two-thirds of respondents with a high-school diploma or less believe in the God of the Bible. Among college graduates, that number drops to 45%. College graduates are still plenty religious, with 84% of them saying they believe in God or some sort of higher spiritual power, compared to 94% of high-school grads.

Still, the difference is notable. And we have to ask: Were Bryan and the 1920s fundamentalists right all along? Is college—at least, in its mainstream and elite forms—bad for faith in Jesus?

When Did Conservatives Get so Angry at Higher Ed?

When I saw the headline, my nerd spidey-sense tingled. I was excited to read about the history of conservative anti-college feelings. But when I read the whole article, I was struck once again by the half-baked nature of the claim. Once again, a smart, well-informed pundit who claims to be examining culture-war history stops half-way. When will we start looking beyond the 1960s?

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An earlier generation also worried…

Here’s the dilemma: at The Atlantic, Jason Blakely recently promised to explain the history of recent GOP ire against higher education. Looking at the current proposed tax plan, for example, it seems as if some members of Congress are out to punish elite universities.

Blakely argues that this conservative resentment of higher education has historical roots. In his analysis, he makes some vital points. Most powerfully, he notices that conservatives seem to mistake a very small segment of higher education for the higher-educational landscape as a whole. As he wisely puts it,

conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left.

That’s a vital point that is too often ignored. “College” as a whole is not particularly leftish…or even particularly anything. The crazy-quilt patchwork of colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions is wildly disparate. It is an absolutely vital notion that people just don’t seem to want to notice. Kudos to Blakely for emphasizing it. But when he proposes to analyze the history of this conservative anger toward elite universities, he puzzlingly only scratches the historical surface. After a nod to the “deep and complex historical roots” of anti-intellectualism in American culture, he argues that

the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He looks at the work of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom regarding “what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture.”

Fair enough. And interesting, as far as it goes. But what Blakely and other writers miss is the longer relevant history of this specific trend in culture-war thinking.

As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, if we hope to make any sense of today’s conservative anger at elite higher ed, we can’t start with the 1970s. We need to begin in the 1920s, when conservative intellectuals had their first experience of exile, when the tropes exploited so powerfully by Kristol and Bloom were first developed.

It was not in the 1970s, but in the 1920s that conservatives developed their deep abiding anxiety about trends in elite higher education. Consider a couple of examples.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When we talk about our culture-war history, we can’t short out these voices from the 1920s and the 1930s.

Why not? If you are purporting to explain the history of an idea, you can’t only focus on the most recent articulation. It implies that these questions began to rankle only in the past fifty years, instead of slow-cooking for about a century now. The radicalism of the 1960s, and the reaction of the 1970s, were not new. They did not create new terms of culture-war angst, but rather only perpetuated existing themes.

This is not only a nerdy quibble but a fundamental part of culture-war politics. Think of it this way: When Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom made their arguments in the 1970s—the ones Blakely thinks inaugurated conservative anger at elite universities—they did not need to convince their conservative audiences of their central point. Conservatives had a vague but powerful sense that elite intellectual institutions had long since turned against truth, goodness, and beauty. Convincing someone of something they already believe to be true is a much easier task.

I don’t mean to single Blakely out. He’s not the only writer to woefully misrepresent America’s culture-war history. Plus, I’m not saying that historians can’t cut off their arguments at some reasonable point. We don’t all need to always write about everything. I get that. In a case like this, however, ignoring the vital and intensely relevant precursors to the 1970s history is not okay. We end up with a misleading notion of the genealogy of conservative outrage. We end up thinking we understand something we haven’t really even begun to understand.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Your humble editor has been doubly distracted this week. My book about evangelical colleges is entering its final stages and I’ve been poring over copy-edits. Plus, we got to spend time with some long-lost family members. In the meantime, the interwebs kept spitting out stories. Here are some we might have missed, with extra history added in so you can follow along at home…

More trouble at troubled Bryan College. Long-time faculty member fired, anti-administration petition makes the rounds.

What’s wrong with Frances FitzGerald’s new book? Neil Young says it misses the real point of being evangelical.Bart reading bible

Peter Greene: Don’t believe the talk about a “teacher shortage.”

Is evangelical support for Trump a good thing for progressivism? John Fea wonders if Trumpist evangelicals are making their “Pickett’s Charge.”

From the archives: What did progressives think of William Jennings Bryan in 1945?

  • A taste: “The man who had never been a bigot associated himself with the most narrow-minded religious fanatics. The man who had been the apostle of democratic freedom and of public education had become an advocate of governmental restrictions on the freedom of learning. . . . And it’s high time some serious study was given to the social applications of Bryanism rather than of Darwinism.”

Teaching religion in Chicago’s public schools. Is the answer “religious literacy?” I’m still skeptical.

What’s the latest scheme for predatory faux-profit colleges? Fake Latin names.

From the archives: Glenn Branch gets his hands on a rare 1925 anti-evolution pamphlet.

What’s so “classical” about Classical Schools? At National Review, John Miller gives a short history and endorsement.

Why Aren’t Evangelicals More Embarrassed by This?

Watch out! Sending your evangelical children to non-evangelical colleges puts them in harm’s way. For the past hundred years—as I’m arguing in my new book—that has been the consistent message among conservative evangelicals. We see it again in living color this morning in the pages of the Christian Post. And it puzzles us. Here’s why: Why aren’t evangelical pundits more embarrassed about it? That is, why do so many evangelicals seem unfazed by the notion that their faith is so darn fragile that the merest exposure to mainstream ideas will shatter it?

In its latest incarnation, Christian Post columnist Greg Stier offers four “super effective” ways to keep students’ faith safe in those “tricky college years.” Stier’s suggestions make sense to this non-evangelical reader. If students are involved in evangelical organizations, if they are coached in advance, and if they see their college years as a Christian mission, they will be more likely to remain steadfast in their faith.

Stier also advocates praying for those college students. As a heathen, I can’t see how this will really help. However, if a college student belongs to a home community and knows that his faith is of interest to the folks at home, I agree that it might encourage the student to remain true to his or her childhood faith.

For our purposes, however, the most intriguing part of Stier’s column is not his advice itself. Rather, the most important fact is that Stier takes for granted that a “majority” of high-school graduates will walk away from their religion in college. Once they find out about beer or hear “the Philosophy 101 professor of their secular university,” they will ditch their family faith.

I don’t know if that’s really true, but I do know that it is an assumption shared by conservative evangelicals for the past century.

Back in the 1920s, for example, evangelical celebrity William Jennings Bryan popularized a 1916 study of college religion by Bryn Mawr psychologist James Leuba. Leuba found that 85% of college freshman called themselves Christians, but only 50-55% of graduates did. The upshot? College must be doing something to discourage religious belief.

leuba study

College: Bad for Christianity

Similarly, in 1948, Clarence Mason of the Philadelphia School of the Bible exhorted evangelicals to send their kids to Bible institutes before college. Why? Bible institutes would provide the spiritual armor students needed to protect their faith in the sensitive college years.

In every case, in every decade, the assumption has been the same. Without extraordinary precautions, evangelical youth could be expected to lose their faith in college. This leads us to our difficult question this morning: Why aren’t evangelicals more embarrassed by this? I’m not trying to start a fight or poke fun at evangelical culture. I’m really asking.

To put it another way, why don’t evangelicals assume that their faith has the power to convince children on its own? .  . . that its Truth would be enough to punch holes in the worldly temptations of college life or the cynical ponderings of a secular Philosophy 101 professor?

I have a couple of ideas and I welcome corrections and counterarguments from the SAGLRROILYBYGTH.

Guess #1: Evangelicals like to exaggerate the dangers of non-evangelical higher education in order to energize their listeners. If preachers and pundits said that children were likely to do fine on their own in college, no one would pay attention. In order to mobilize their evangelical public, that is, activists tend to talk in catastrophic terms.

Guess #2: Lots of the people I’m studying were trying to woo students and parents to their evangelical schools. Obviously, such folks would want to tell people that non-evangelical schools were very dangerous. Clarence Mason of the Philly Bible School, for instance, was pleading with parents to send kids to his school. They wouldn’t be likely to do so unless they thought it was absolutely necessary.

Are there other reasons? Reasons why evangelicals would play up the fragility of their faith? To this non-evangelical reader, it seems like such arguments belittle the power of evangelical belief.

Forget Evolution, Sex Ed, and “Christian History.” Here Is the REAL Culture-War Issue in Schools

We Americans can’t stop fighting over our schools. Should we teach evolution? Can we teach kids about sex? Can students read literature that includes “mature” themes? Do schools need to teach kids to be patriots? For at least a century, these questions have roiled our culture-war waters. There is a better way to think about these fights. As we see in a sad recent news story, a profound AGREEMENT about schooling lurks beneath all of our culture-war battles.

The news itself is grim: As reported by the Associated Press, over four years, America’s public K-12 schools logged 17,000 official reports of sexual assault among students. Not only are students targeted by other students, according to the AP story, but schools often downplay the seriousness of the dangers. Legally, schools are required to intervene to protect students. If sexual assaults took place among students, schools could legally be held accountable.

sexual assault at school

A dangerous place…

The story is troubling, but it points to the underlying fact about schooling that undergirds many of our culture-war battles. It is not only in the disturbing field of sexual assault, but in every area. No matter what our ideological or religious beliefs, we all tend to agree on one thing: Schools need to keep students safe. This assumption—often so widely shared that we don’t even need to mention it—has always played an influential role in our educational culture-war fights.

In the sexual-assault story, we see this often-implicit function of schooling come to the surface. As one academic expert said,

Schools are required to keep students safe. . . . It is part of their mission. It is part of their legal responsibility. It isn’t happening. Why don’t we know more about it, and why isn’t it being stopped?

I agree. But for a moment, let’s try to put our strong feelings about sexual assault to one side to consider the implications of this notion. If schools have an absolute mandate to keep children safe, how does that drive our discussions about common culture-war topics such as evolution, racism, and religion?

As I saw during the research for my book about educational conservatism, deeper arguments about student safety often drive the surface arguments about other topics. So, for example, when conservative activists oppose evolution education, they often do so on the grounds that evolution is a dangerous idea for kids. And, when progressives argue in favor, they say that students will be dangerously ignorant if they don’t learn real science.

Consider a couple of examples from 1920s battles over evolution education.

The fight in the 1920s began in earnest on the campus of my alma mater. Anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan wanted to clamp down on evolution education at the University of Wisconsin. Ever the sensitive populist, Bryan articulated one anti-evolution argument that played on this notion of student safety. If Wisconsin continued to teach evolution, Bryan noted sardonically, it should attach warning signs to each of its classrooms. What would they say?

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to watch the spectacle.

Pish-posh, evolution advocates responded. Savvy progressive politicians attacked the notion that learning evolution was somehow unsafe. As Fiorello LaGuardia argued in 1924, the only way to make sure that students were “safe in schools” was to make sure they were “learning to think.” Banning evolution, LaGuardia argued, was only “hysteria” that would hurt children.

The same assumptions about student safety energized school battles throughout the twentieth century. In the explosive school fight in Kanahwa County, West Virginia in the 1970s, for example, both sides assumed that schools must keep students safe. They disagreed about what that meant. Conservatives often argued that a new set of textbooks put students in danger, since the new books mocked traditional religion and threatened students’ souls. Progressives insisted that the new books kept students safe by helping them see different perspectives and encouraging them to think critically about religion.

At one turbulent school-board meeting in Charleston in 1974, activists made familiar arguments about student safety. The meeting was crowded. Speakers had to sign up in advance. The crowd booed progressives and cheered conservatives. Conservatives often suggested that multicultural textbooks threatened students by deriding their religious beliefs and eroding their faith. Progressives countered that students could only be kept safe by learning about people different from themselves.

Figure 5.1

Conservative leader Alice Moore at the packed 1974 school-board meeting.

For example, from the conservative side, PTA member Rory Petrie warned that the new books were “very objectionable” because they were “very subtly . . . undermining the religious beliefs of our children.” Similarly, concerned parent Robert Steckert warned that the books threatened his kids when they “cast doubt and skepticism upon my child.”

Progressives agreed on the goal of student safety. But they came to the opposite conclusion. Real student safety meant more, not less, cultural diversity. In order to keep students safe, the school board needed to make sure every student encountered different cultural perspectives. As one progressive parent and former teacher put it, the world was a complicated place. If students didn’t learn about the true diversity out there, they would be in danger. Yes, the real world could be a scary place, but the solution was not to be found in telling students that it was not. School needed to teach students about reality. As this parent put it, “we cannot hide it from our children.”

Another progressive activist from the West Virginia ACLU agreed. Students would be in danger unless they learned about the real world. Students needed to learn that different people saw things differently; students would only be safe if they acquired an “understanding of why people and groups of people are different.”

In all these school fights, whatever the apparent topic, the notion of student safety was paramount. All sides agree that students must be kept safe. All sides used the notion of danger to mobilize support for their positions.

And it continues today. When you hear rumblings of a culture-war battle in school, listen for it. Whether activists are ranting about sex ed or school prayer, evolution or Christian history, someone is sure to say it: Only my side will keep students safe.

Teachers, Tests, and Gay Marriage

Quick: What do high-stakes tests have to do with gay marriage? Michael Petrilli argues that teachers who discourage students from taking the tests are like government officials who refuse to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Whether you like his argument or not, Petrilli is drawing on a long but ambivalent American tradition.

By now you’ve heard of Kim Davis. She is the county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. She has attracted national attention with her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Heroically flouting the Constitution?

Petrilli, in many ways the leading public voice of market conservatism in education, implies that progressives might not want to be so quick to condemn Davis’s pugnacious policy. After all, Petrilli writes, many progressive teachers these days encourage parents to opt-out of high-stakes tests. Are those teachers similar to Davis? Petrilli asks,

Here the question isn’t whether parents have a right to excuse their children from taking the state assessment. (They almost certainly do.) The issue is whether educators can face sanctions for encouraging parents to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Is that akin to refusing to give the test (which surely is reason for dismissal)? What if they merely inform parents of their rights?

As I argued in my recent book, this argument about the role of teachers has long roots. When it comes to educational culture wars, the winds have blown both ways. When conservatives felt that school law enforced their side, they insisted teachers must obey. When they felt otherwise, they lauded brave teachers who resisted.

Back in the 1920s, for example, William Jennings Bryan knew he had popular opinion on his side. He refused to allow teachers to teach evolution against the wishes of their local communities. As Jennings famously argued back then, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.”

Similarly, when left-leaning teachers from the 1930s through the 1950s were thought to be too friendly to communism, conservative activists insisted on teacher obedience. In 1950s Pasadena, for instance, conservative leader Louise Padelford blasted progressive teachers who sought to drill suggestible students in the need for “social change,” rather than simply teaching “reading, writing, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, history, etc.”

When the shoe is on the other foot, of course, conservatives have praised teachers for bravely resisting the dictates of educational higher-ups. Writing from the Pacific Justice Institute, for instance, Brad and Susanne Dacus have offered teachers a handy guide for safely and legally evangelizing in public schools. Too many teachers, the Dacuses warn, cower before the seemingly invincible might of secularism. “Would you be willing,” they ask,

to take a stand for the sake of the young, innocent children who are bombarded by a pro-homosexual agenda? As a parent, would you be willing to stand up for your child’s right to express his religious views? Many are timid about standing by the Word of God when it has the potential to create a ruckus. Reading through the Gospels reminds us that Christ was not afraid to make a ruckus in the name of truth. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, focuses on the apostles’ goal to take a stand for the Gospel, regardless of the circumstances. We are not alone in this challenge. Be reminded of the verse in Joshua, which says,

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go.”

To be fair, Petrilli will have none of this argument. He specifically notes, for instance, that public-school science teachers have a responsibility to teach evolution—and only evolution—as science. If they don’t like it, they can resign.

Petrilli’s argument, like those of other conservative activists going back a hundred years, relies on the fact that we Americans aren’t quite sure of what we want teachers to do.

Do we expect teachers to be brave rule-flouters, a la Dead Poets Society?

Or instead to we insist that teachers embody “the rules,” a la Principal Skinner?

The correct answer, of course, is “Yes.” We Americans expect the impossible of our teachers. We count on them to be both daring iconoclasts and sober rule-followers. We depend on them to encourage students to wonder and to inhibit students from wiggling.

So is Michael Petrilli right? Are dissenting teachers like dissenting county clerks? Only half. In the American tradition, teachers do indeed have to embody the rules and respect for the rules. But teachers also have to embody the right moral decisions, even when those decisions go against the rules.

Burning Bibles at Public Schools

Can a public school have Christian books in its library? Are religious books coming under fire? The latest story comes from Temecula, California. But religious activists have worried for generations that public schools have become aggressive book-burners.

In the current case, the Pacific Justice Institute has accused Temecula’s River Springs Charter School—apparently one of three schools in the Springs Charter School network—of anti-Christian bias. A parent complained to PJI that the school library had purged any book with a Christian bent. According to a report in Christian News, the parent told PJI that the librarian had been told to get rid of religious books. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes tells the story, the school librarian was instructed to remove “all books with a Christian message, authored by Christians, or published by a Christian publishing company.”

As Starnes concluded darkly,

The way I see it – book banning is just one step away from book burning. And I don’t mean to pour gasoline on the fire, but we all know what regime did that.

When the conservative activist group complained, the superintendent, Kathleen Hermsmeyer, responded that the school did not permit “sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

This episode reminds me of an extraordinary rumor I stumbled across in my research for my upcoming book on conservatism in twentieth-century American education. Investigating the 1974 school blow-up in Kanawha County, West Virginia, I found one conservative activist who insisted that the school district had recently removed all the Bibles from the schools. Even more shocking, this conservative reported that the secularizing zealots in charge of the public schools had dumped the Bibles unceremoniously in a dumpster. When pressed, this activist could not provide details or evidence for his story. He said he had heard it from another conservative leader.

But most important, the story seemed true and likely to him. As a religious conservative, he thought it was believable that a public school leader would purge the school of Bibles. And other conservatives at the time agreed.

We could take it even further back. In the 1925 Scopes Trial, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan argued that public schools must ban evolution, since they already banned the Bible. That kind of argument has a good amount of gut political appeal. But it has one glaring problem: It just wasn’t true. In fact, as I noted in my 1920s book, Tennessee had actually passed a mandatory Bible-reading law in 1915. But as far as I could tell, no defender of evolution ever called Bryan on his mistake. On both sides, school activists in the past have believed that religious books had been kicked out of public schools.

Today’s story from California is more credible. In this case, the school leader admitted that the policy had been put into effect. Nevertheless, to this observer, it seems the case from Temecula will be another tempest in a teapot. The Pacific Justice Institute likely sniffed an easy win, since of course public schools are not under any legal compulsion to remove all Christian reading materials from their libraries. Indeed, the US Supreme Court has been very clear that public schools can and should teach about religions.

As Justice Tom Clark wrote in the landmark 1963 Abington v. Schempp decision, “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Indeed, Clark had just specified that public schools must not exclude religion from public schools, “in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.”

So it seems to me that Superintendent Hermsmeyer has indeed blundered. In a publicly funded school, there is absolutely no constitutional mandate to remove sectarian reading materials. The school itself must not preach any religion, but the library can and should be a place where students may encounter religious ideas.

Fundamentalist Parents Can’t Relax

Rich parents can relax.  At least according to an article in this week’s Economist.  But fundamentalist parents never can.  They have to worry about more than their kids’ careers.  They have to fret about eternal damnation.  And they have to worry that Satan lurks in every textbook, every TV show, and every mainstream school.

The Economist article is worth reading in its entirety.  As it explains,

Well-to-do parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard.

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven...

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven…

Both fears lead to exaggerated and ultimately counterproductive lifestyles.  In terms of safety, the article notes, an American child under five years of age in 1950 was five times as likely to die of disease or accident as that same kid would be today.  And though it is difficult to get into Harvard, most kids of affluent families will have fine careers without an Ivy-League transcript.

But fundamentalist parents have more to worry about.  Since the birth of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative evangelicals have fretted about the influence of mainstream culture on their offspring.  Even if their kids don’t get polio, and even if their kids do get into Harvard, fundamentalist parents have to worry that success in life will lead to terrible punishment after death.  For fundamentalists, even Harvard itself can be more of a threat than an achievement.

As historian Randall Balmer put it in his blockbuster book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,

the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents is that their children will not follow in their footsteps, that they will not sustain the same level of piety as their parents—stated baldly, that they are headed for hell rather than heaven.

As I argued in my 1920s book, historically this fear for the children has fueled fundamentalism’s public campaigns.  Fundamentalist leaders and parents worried that no level of affluence and economic privilege could protect their children from a culture sliding nonchalantly straight to hell.

As conservative leader William Jennings Bryan explained in 1922, even the rich and powerful had lost the ability to protect the faith of their children.  As a former Secretary of State, Bryan knew many of these families personally.  He wrote about one acquaintance, a US Congressman, whose daughter came home from college only to tell the family that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”

It was not only conservative Congressmen who worried.  Fundamentalist evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell the story of a less powerful family who had a similar experience.  This family, Jones explained in one of his most popular 1920s sermons, scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her mother and father.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her. It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Even when fundamentalist families did not experience that sort of cataclysm, we must keep their anxiety in mind when we try to understand fundamentalism from the outside.  Why do conservative evangelicals fight against evolution?  Why do they insist on school prayer?  Why do they worry about rights for homosexuals?

In all these cases, conservative evangelicals’ public activism is made more desperate by their intense worry about their children.  In this, there is no difference between conservative evangelicals and mainstream Americans of any background.  As the Economist article points out, almost all parents love their children and make sacrifices for them.  In the case of mainstream affluent parents, it might even help if they relaxed a little bit.  As Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues,

Middle-class parents should relax a bit, cancel a violin class or two and let their kids play outside.

Easy enough.  But fundamentalists face a very different situation.  If we want to understand the mind of fundamentalists, we can try a mental experiment.  Non-fundamentalist parents have a hard enough time relaxing about their kids, even though they feel at home in mainstream culture.  Non-fundamentalist parents fret too much about their kids’ futures, even if they don’t feel alienated by their local public schools and elite universities.

Let’s try to translate the anxiety experienced by fundamentalist parents into mainstream terms.  Imagine, for example, the sorts of public outcry there would be if public schools began promoting ideas or practices that affluent secular parents found dangerous.  For instance, what do you think would happen if a public school somewhere began promoting smoking as a fun and healthy activity?

 

The Left Seizes Science

You’ve heard the howls from creationists over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos series.  But did you know non-creationist conservatives also get cheeved at Tyson’s science punditry?

Science Snob?

Science Snob?

The creationist complaints make sense.  The hugely popular new science series pointedly called out young-earthers for their belief in a newish universe.  The series also insisted on the creation of species through evolution.

But the complaints of non-creationist conservatives might not seem so obvious.  In the pages of National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke took Tyson to task for his leftism, not just for his love of evolution.  Cooke accuses Tyson and others of his ilk of a puffed-up condescension, of glibly associating liberal politics with superior intellect.

Too many of these self-righteous faux-nerds, Cooke writes, wrap their insouciance in the mantle of science.  For these Tyson fans and wanna-bes, being smart does not mean doing actual intellectual work, but rather simply adopting a pre-packaged list of things to dislike.  As Cooke puts it, that list includes anything

southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.

This sort of prejudice against anything recognizably conservative likes to call itself the side of “science,” Cooke argues.  Yet among progressives, real science often takes a beating.  “Progressives . . . ,” Cooke says,

believe all sorts of unscientific things — that Medicaid, the VA, and Head Start work; that school choice does not; that abortion carries with it few important medical questions; that GM crops make the world worse; that one can attribute every hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave to “climate change”; that it’s feasible that renewable energy will take over from fossil fuels anytime soon . . .

Yet in spite of this demonstrably unscientific attitude, Cooke laments, the Left insists on calling itself the “reality-based” party.

Cooke is not the first to complain about such things.  In the first generation of creation/evolution controversies, anti-evolution activists worked hard—and failed—to claim “science” for their side.  As I noted in my 1920s book, leading anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan maintained his membership in the staunchly pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He refused to allow that leading science group to be wholly taken over by fans of evolution.

Similarly, prominent 1920s fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley fought hard to keep his generation of Neil deGrasse Tysons from pushing conservatives out of the world of science.  As Riley put it in a 1927 speech, the creation/evolution debate was not a debate between

Experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Like Bryan in the 1920s and Cooke in 2014, the conservative Riley was loath to cede the scientific and intellectual high ground to evolution-lovers.

One of the results of that first decade of evolution controversies was the formation of durable cultural associations, the associations about which Cooke complains.  Since the 1920s, “science” has become indelibly associated in the public mind with progress, with social experiment, with iconoclasm.  Politically, if not logically, all of those things are part of the broad package of cultural leftism.  And, like it or not, conservatism has been associated time and again with obstructionism and heedless obscurantism.

For conservative pundits like Cooke, trying to fight that tradition will be an uphill battle.