Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.

Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

exit

A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?

Protesting Trump’s Back Door to White Power

racistMatthewHeimbach

Racist Matthew Heimbach shoves a black woman.

A recent video shows what we now know are members of a white supremacist “white nationalist” group called the Traditionalist Workers Party physically shoving a young African American protester. They are not simply shoving her out of the arena, they are seen giving her extra shots even as others in the mob audience join in. That should evoke our collective ire and disgust. When any man lays his hands on a woman, we should take notice and interrogate what is happening. When it is white men laying hands on a black woman, we need to look closer and demand answers. When it is white supremacists shoving a young black woman, we should demand justice without question. There is no space in a civil society to accept this kind of behavior or to offer any platform in which such beliefs are legitimate.

But this is not how all of the many incidents of people being escorted out of Trump rallies have worked. While some cases looked like this, it is not actually what was happening. The moment Donald Trump got a Secret Service detail as a candidate, his role within our population changed. Where he goes becomes federally restricted ground and that means different rules apply.

Some of the footage of protestors being escorted out is not about about race, but about what happens on “federal restricted buildings or grounds.” According to the H.R. 347, disrupting an event like this can carry fines and/or jail time of up to 10 years. This was a rewrite of a 1971 trespass law in order to give Secret Service a little more freedom to determine what constitutes a trespass. There are a few criteria for those who can be penalized under the law. For example, it is one who:

knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;

Certainly, we can argue how effective this law is and how well these trespass laws are applied. This includes people who were allowed to protest Barack Obama, the President of the United States, while brandishing weapons. Nonetheless, it means that what we see in a 15 second clip of someone being escorted out of a Trump event by an official, especially the Secret Service, should be measured by what authorities are doing when they are escorting people out of the room. People have been arrested for protesting in these very conditions for decades. Not everyone has an unfettered right to any protected speech at a Trump event, or a Clinton event, or a Sanders event. This is the same when the President is in a designated area or other officials who are federally protected.

I am far less concerned about what Trump has to say on the stage. He is a showman telling people what he believes they want to hear. He says these things to get media coverage, to stay fresh in the news cycle he has mastered over the years, and to convert that spin into votes. His business acumen is up for debate, but his marketing talent is second to none. He is a master of that craft.

My concern is that he does not care who he is fueling with his rhetoric. At this point his failure to immediately disavow any legitimacy towards the support of KKK or David Duke and the significant presence and support he has gathered from the underbelly of American society in its white supremacist and neo-fascist organizations is disturbing. He knows that those votes matter to his campaign. He speaks to angry white men who fear that the minorities and the people of color will steal their property and their power for which there is a significant overlap with white supremacist organizations. Their sole purpose is to reclaim absolute power for the white race and reestablish white power to rule the USA as it did effectively up until 1964. Trump’s protectionism and isolationism support those goals like no other candidate does and as no other candidate has for a long time. When Trump declares “Make America Great Again” they are hearing “Make America White Again.” To give him power gives them power and that is the most dangerous open door to terrorism that might face us if he is in the Oval Office.

Trump is Not Real

Trump has one policy and that is immigration

Trump’s lone policy

So many people are taking Trump seriously that I went to his site to review his policies. I wanted to see how he worked out policy such as how to deal with the complex relationships between the Sunni and Shia Muslim groups at odds in the Iran/Syria/Turkey/Iraq cluster. Perhaps something on the Islamic State, business with China given its recent shift in economic policy, or how to handle the volatility of the EU economy and its currency issues with Greece. Or maybe even how he will work out infrastructure issues, student debt, or corporate taxes. No. The image you see is it. His sole policy is a sparse idea with how to deal with people coming over the US/Mexico border. The damn wall is all he’s got.

Trump is what cultural philosophers might call a simulacrum. He is a symbol, but he is not a representation of anything real. Trump points to nothing.

He talks about loving the bible, blowing up IS and stealing their oil, and persists in his drumbeat of America’s lost greatness. But he never grounds any of what he says in reality. He has no ideas for how to fix these issues or strategies to work through the enormous complexities of the world. He does not even have bad policy ideas. In fact, he has no policy at all. If this “Great America” is something that Trump will bring us to, what is he really talking about? Nothing.

As philosopher Jean Baudrillard defines simulacrum, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” Trump is a brand, but has no product.

The only reality that Trump represents is emotion. He’s dyspeptic and ornery and he is touching the emotional nerves of people who are likewise dyspeptic and ornery. But a bad attitude is not a core competency for public office. He made his riches through calculated risk and large safety nets in wealth he had already inherited and the government bankruptcy system. His deals were just too big for banks to let fail. It was better for him to be bailed out than fail because he would be pulling a lot of capital away from his lenders. He is the spitting image of “too big to fail.” Perhaps that should be his campaign slogan.

The Trump we see visibly repulsed at state fairs, eating fried chicken, and having to mix with all of the people of the world that are beneath his social magnitude is a brand without a product. He is like the hundreds of “dot com” businesses of the late 20th century that sucked up venture capital on an idea only to fail as quickly as they absorbed cash. They failed because they had no product. They had a brand and an emotion but little else. In the tech industry products like these are called “vaporware.” They are sketches with slick sales pitches that will never come to fruition. In Trump’s words they are miserable failures probably run by losers with not really a whole lot of talent.

Here is the danger with Trump. He has fooled enough people into believing he has a real product that they will follow him to the edge of a cliff. If he can stick around for the next 7 months or so, he will gather people like the Blob and they will feel great tucked in by the bedtime stories of his ill-fitting baseball cap brandishing America’s lost greatness. The question is whether they will be willing to jump for him while he flies away in his helicopter having finally fooled everyone.

Obama: The New Eisenhower

Obama Doctrine, the articulation of a new mode of “smart power” that seeks to manipulate the existing propensities of power politics in the region without overcommitting US military force on the ground, with the full assurance that the threat of power is far more effective that the delivery of power. – Hamid Dabashi

Dabashi criticizes the Iran deal from an opposite angle to the war hawkish version of the US Republicans. For the latter, anything short of hard-core sanctions and total abandonment of any nuclear capability – peaceful or otherwise – is opening a door for terrorists to do bad things and drop a bomb on the US. Despite no evidence that Iran would even have the military capability to do this, the trope continues among candidates for the GOP nomination.

An outcome that it opens that various summaries fail to report is that opening economic relations with Iran allows the US to manipulate Shia militias in order to combat ISIS on their turf. This alone shows why the GOP opposition is wrong-headed and near-sighted. Those criticisms dumb down a very complex deal into fear-laden talking points to appeal to a specific type of voter that buys the proposal that the devil is at the US door step and all of us must arm ourselves against it.

Reading that last line, the Obama Doctrine sounds far more like the Eisenhower doctrine especially with respect to Korea and China. He avoided war with China there – barely – and opened up avenues for diplomatic and economic relations. Eisenhower used the threat of overwhelming power to avoid military conflict and American casualties under his watch. He had seen enough.

This is Obama doing the same in Iran – a place where, ironically, Eisenhower made his greatest failure which set the stage for the crisis in 1979 and today. This began with the joint MI6 and CIA operations to instigate the overthrow Mosaddeq in 1953 and arguably continued with the Atoms for Peace idea in 1957. The former event was largely over oil given that Mosaddeq was planning a nationalization of the Iranian oil market which would have driven out British corporate interests in the religion.

These events set the stage for continued conflict and instability leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the current nuclear capabilities of Iran. It also shows us, again, that oil is at the center of everything the US has to do with the Middle East. Both of these political and economic structures are in play with Obama’s deal – a deal that seeks to mitigate their effects not by further isolating Iran from Western intervention, but by opening it up.

As it sits, the deal gives the Security Council 15 years to work on continued negotiations. That is a lot of time. Obama plays a long game which the GOP takes a “score on this play or else” approach. That approach, as recent history suggests, leads US interests directly into the teeth of war. Perhaps that is the intent. But that outcome is bad for US policy overall, does nothing to help combat ISIS, and would further strengthen the current tension the US has with Russia. The long game is to open a diplomatic path to work out all of the issues at once. This deal does that and since 1979 opens a path to work out the instability Eisenhower’s miscalculation created 62 years ago.

It might be a new form of imperialism. But in 20 years Iranians might also be trading in their Saiba Tibas for Ford Fusions running on American petroleum.

Palin Pisses on Baptism

“Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

Suggesting or pronouncing that baptism is a form of torture sounds absurd at best and down right heretical from most theological positions among Christians. In fact, I am not sure if it has been said in the modern age.

Sarah Palin has now used baptism as a metaphor for torture amidst cheers at a recent NRA rally.

Let’s give her some slack; she was trying to make a joke. We all make bad jokes. If this came out of the mouth of Bill Maher, Louis Black, or Louis C.K. we might be offended, but expect to be offended since these are comedians. The difference is that she made this leap not as a comedian, and at an NRA rally. She engaged the audience and they lapped it up like parched dogs. I give her credit for that. But she also revealed utter theological ignorance and an ironic lack of conviction for her faith.

I haven’t spoken to or heard from any Christian who thought she was clever or amusing. The reaction has been quite the opposite. Pundits all over the map are registering really bad reviews for her near sadistic rant.

Here’s the snippet of what she said:

“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

This statement should alienate her from any Christian who takes sacraments seriously. Baptism is perhaps the most universally revered of the holy mysteries of Christianity as it marks the initiation of one’s life with God and the Christian community.

Baptism was certainly important in her own religious upbringing. Ms. Palin became a Christian as a member of the The First Assembly of God in Wasilla, AK. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, believes that one is baptized after the initiate declares a pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ, and encourages a Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a sign of which is speaking in tongues.

Ms. Palin has never been shy about her faith, offering often loud and convicted statements. Baptism played an important role in her own life as told in Charisma Magazine in 2009.

“It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley … my whole family getting baptized,” she told the congregation, just two months before her vice presidential nomination.

With these pronouncements, her language at the NRA rally takes a rhetoric of fear, violence, and hatred up many notches. Her faith preached from the pulpit of the gun is now scarcely recognizable from what it may have been.

Here is another comparison. The above image is an infamous photograph called Piss Christ (1987) taken by Andres Serrano. Here a Crucifix is submerged into a beautifully colored container of urine. Lovely. This work of art drew the ire of many, but the loudest voice was from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States; a conservative Catholic organization. The Crucifix Serrano used in the photo is distinctly Roman Catholic.

“I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don’t go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith,” (Bill) Donohue told the Guardian. “I don’t care whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or whatever you might be.”

Whether it’s pissing on a Crucifix or telling us that a method of torture is like being baptized, Christianity was just mocked by one of its supposed champions.