Thoughts on Attorney General William Barr’s Notre Dame Speech

I find myself in agreement with a lot of Barr’s speech. Watch and decide for yourself:

Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. Barr is correct about the founding father’s view of the relationship between religion and the American republic.  They did believe that was religion was essential for a healthy republic.  In the 18th century, Christianity was for the most part the only game in town, but I would argue that many of the founders had the foresight to imagine non-Christian religious people contributing to the good of the republic as well.  Barr fails to think about how the founders’ vision on this front applies to a post-1965 Immigration Act society.  Granted, he is speaking at Notre Dame, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  2. It is unclear whether Barr is saying that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the only way of sustaining a moral republic, or just one way of sustaining a moral republic.  I would guess that he means the former, not the latter.  As a Christian, I do believe that the teachings of Christianity can be an important source of morality in a republic. As a historian I know that Christianity has been an important source of morality in the ever-evolving American experience.  (See the Civil Rights Movement for example).  And as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, when misapplied Christianity has led to some of our history’s darkest moments, including the election of Barr’s boss.  😉
  3. All of Barr’s examples of how religious liberty is threatened in America today are Christian examples.  How does he think about religious liberty for other groups?  And if Barr is correct when he says that “secularism” is a form of religion, then how are we defending the religious liberty of those who adhere to it?
  4. Barr is right when he says that the state is getting too involved in trying to regulate Christian schools and institutions.  This is indeed a religious liberty issue. I wrote a a bit about this in my posts on Beto O’Rourke’s recent remarks on tax-exempt status for churches and other religious institutions.
  5. I agree strongly with Barr about voluntary societies and their contribution to a thriving republic.  But I wondered why Barr ended his speech by saying that he will use the power of the Department of State to enforce his moral agenda for the nation.  Barr is against churches turning to the government for help in the funding of soup kitchens, but he has no problem turning to the government for help in executing his own religious agenda.
  6. Similarly, Barr seems to be speaking here not as a public or moral philosopher, but as the Attorney General of the United States of America.   How should we understand his particular vision for America–an agenda that does not seem to include anyone who is outside of the Judeo-Christian faith as Barr understands it? How does his vision apply to those who do not share the same beliefs about public schools, marriage, religion, abortion or the role of the state? How do we reconcile his speech at Notre Dame with his responsibility to defend the law for all Americans?
  7. Barr says that Judeo-Christian morality no longer has the kind of cultural power in American society that it once did.  I think he is mostly right here.  For some this may be a good thing.  For others it may be a bad thing.  But is it possible to prove that this decline in the cultural power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America has led to a rise in illegitimate births, depression and mental illness, suicide rates, anger in young males, increased drug use and general “suffering and misery?” On this point Barr sounds like David Barton, the GOP activist who irresponsibly invokes the American past to win political battles in the present.  (BTW, Barton adds lower SAT scores to Barr’s list).  By the way, abortions have been declining.  How does Barr fit this fact into his narrative of decline.
  8. I have never bought the “look what they are teaching our kids in public schools” argument that Barr makes here.  Both of my kids went to public schools and they were exposed to a lot of ideas that contradict our faith.  (By the way, in addition to the usual suspects that evangelicals complain about, I would add an unhealthy pursuit of the American Dream that understands happiness in terms of personal ambition, social climbing, a lack of limits, and endless consumerism to the anti-Christian values my kids learn in public schools).  At the end of his talk, Barr calls on families to pass their faith along to their children. He calls on churches to educate young men and women in the moral teachings of the faith.  If we are committed to doing this well, what do we have to fear about public schools?  Some of the best conversations I have ever had with my daughters revolved around the things they were exposed to in public schools that did not conform to the teachings of our Christian faith. These were opportunities to educate them in our Christian beliefs. (I realize, of course, that there will be people who will have honest differences with me here).
  9.  Barr says that real education is something more than just job training.  Amen!
  10.  Finally, this quote from Barr’s talk is rich coming from Donald Trump’s Attorney General: “[The Founders] never thought that the main danger to the republic would come from external foes.  The central question was whether over the long haul ‘we the people’ could handle freedom.  The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.  By and large the founding generations understanding of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition. These practical statesman understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good also had the capacity for great evil.  Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and if unrestrained are capable of riding ruthlessly roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.  No society can exist without some means of restraining individual rapacity.”  I think the House of Representatives (or at least the Democrats within it, seem to understand this better than most right now).

The Bible Never Left Public Schools

Trump and Bible

No one knows more about Bible courses in public schools than Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey.  Today Chancey weighed-in on the recent Donald Trump tweet about the Bible.  (Some of you may recall that we posted on this yesterday).

Here is a taste of Mark’s piece at The Washington Post:

I can’t heartily endorse Trump’s tweet because its words reflect a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school.

In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact. What American public (or private) schoolchildren in 2019 desperately need is broad religious literacy. The backstory of the measures Trump cites, unfortunately, instead makes clear that our youth are sometimes being subjected more to culture war than cultural literacy.

A little history: Courses like the one Trump mentioned, focused on teaching the Christian and Jewish Bibles, have been around for a century, and in most states, at least some schools teach them. But even in their heyday, they were never omnipresent. The president’s expression of nostalgic longing (“Starting to turn back? Great!”) reflects misconceptions of the Bible’s historical role in the schoolhouse.

But perhaps that’s not a coincidence. The idea that a certain Christian-centric view of the Bible was always taught to American public schoolchildren until very recently feeds into a narrative of loss and restoration popular with his base.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Gross

 

GrossRobert Gross is a United States History Teacher and Assistant Academic Dean at Sidwell Friends School. This interview is based on his new book Public v. Private: The Early History of School Choice in America (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Public v. Private?

RG: I have always been deeply invested in educational policy debates about school choice, charter schools, and private schools. As a historian I wanted to look to the past to understand the origins of what I consider to be modern school choice and what we can learn from that history. I ultimately found that this was a 19th- and early 20th-century story, when public systems arose to eliminate the private, market-based schools that had existed earlier, and when Catholic school systems then emerged to challenge public schooling. It was in this period that, after significant conflict, Americans agreed to the existence of systematic alternatives to public schooling. Understanding how that happened, what it tells us about broader American legal ideas about public and private, and what it might mean to the present is what I wanted to write about.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Public v. Private?

RG: That we owe the existence of school choice in the United States much less to market forces than to public regulation—Americans have consented to private schools precisely because states have regulated them substantially, and, in return, given them significant public subsidies. I also argue that broader American legal battles over the scope of public power over private enterprise have been centered on, and determined by, state regulation of private schools.

JF: Why do we need to read Public v. Private?

RG: As I indicate above, American historians have missed the central role that private schools have played as sites of contestations over the extent to which states can regulate private enterprise. I don’t think we can understand just how powerful state regulation has been in this country without looking at schools, and private schools in particular. Secondly, this story has important lessons for our contemporary discussions over charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice more broadly. Too often we frame our debates about school choice over whether one is “pro” or “anti” charter schools, to cite the most prominent example. Public vs. Private argues that the more important question, perhaps, is how we will regulate school choice. What should be the standards for a school to receive a charter today? How should we hold these schools accountable? What do we collectively owe parents to help them navigate educational markets? These kinds of questions became essential to working out the relationship between public and private schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we would do well to return to them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RG: I suppose I’ve always been searching for the answer to the question that David Byrne of the Talking Heads posed: “How did I get here”? I think my particular path to becoming primarily a historian of American education emerged from my own schooling. I’ve always sought to know why our schools look the way we do, why private schools exist, and how Americans have thought about education in the past.

JF: What is your next project?

RG: Nothing is imminent at the moment. I currently live in DC and am fascinated by the history of the city and what it tells us about so many important areas of American life, from race to urban planning to the role of the federal government.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Founding Fathers Rejected School Choice

Montville

My alma mater

Earlier today University of Western Washington history professor Johann Neem visited The Author’s Corner.  Yesterday he visited the pages of the Washington Post to talk more about public education.  As Neem correctly notes, the founding fathers believed that public schools were the foundation of a virtuous republic:

Here is a taste of his piece “Early America had school choice. The Founding Fathers rejected it.”

During the Colonial era and into the early American republic, most Americans shared DeVos’s notion that education was a family responsibility. Parents who could afford it taught their children at home, hired itinerant men or women who “kept” school for a fee, or sent older children to charter schools called academies. Most Americans had little formal schooling.

The revolution transformed how some Americans thought about education. These Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike. Many state constitutions included clauses like Georgia’s in 1777: “Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State.” But how to execute this directive? The best way, American leaders ultimately concluded, was to encourage local public schools and to limit the growth of academies.

As early as the 1780s, Massachusetts Gov. Samuel Adams asserted that academies increased inequality because well-off families chose them over local district schools. Citizens, Adams argued, “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.” Others shared his concern. New York Gov. George Clinton argued in 1795 that academies served “the opulent” and that all children deserved access to “common schools throughout the state.”

Read more here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

9781421423210-2
Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

The Bible in Kentucky Schools

BevinMatt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, just signed a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  Here is the text of HB 128:

AN ACT relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.
     Create a new section of KRS Chapter 156 to require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible; require that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; permit students to use various translations of the Bible for the course; amend KRS 158.197 to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.

A few thoughts:

First, this is nothing new.  Several states have passed similar laws.  See Mark Chancey’s essay “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses in Public Schools.”  Chancey, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, is the nation’s leading scholar on such public school Bible courses. Check out his website for more resources.

Second, having a Bible course in a public school is constitutional.  Perhaps someone can help me out here, but I don’t understand why special laws are needed to teach the Bible in schools. It seems as if the only reason for passing such legislation is to make a political statement. The Government of Kentucky, or at least those men and women who have power in the government of Kentucky, want to let their constituency know which side they are taking in the culture wars and the fight to make the United States a Christian nation.

Here’s some history:

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional. But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools.  Here is a taste of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities.  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 consistent with the First Amendment.

As I argued in my book The Bible Cause, The American Bible Society (ABS), the largest distributor of Bibles in the world, actually supported the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963. The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about the case from disgruntled supporters by putting a positive spin on the decision.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor’s response to a writer from Reseda, California was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as another ABS Secretary, Homer Ogle, wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools.” He added that the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures.  The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision.  Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading in schools, the ABS saw it as an opportunity to promote Biblical literacy.

Third, parts of Kentucky HB 128 should raise red flags.  The bill says that a proposed course on the Bible must “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.” This suggests that the course can and should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events.  And what does the term “prerequisite” mean here?  Are the lawmakers suggesting that the Bible is the only prerequisite for understanding these various dimensions of “contemporary society and culture?” The bill does not seem to realize that there is no scholarly consensus on the degree to which the Bible and its teachings influenced the American founding.

The architect of the bill, Representative D.J. Johnson, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when it says that the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary life and culture.” In a recent interview he said: “[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our founding fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights…All those came from principles in the bible.”  This quote comes straight out of the David Barton Christian nation playbook.

In April 2017, during the debate over HB 128 in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country–whether some people want to believe it or not–wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Jari Krishna nation.  It was founded as a Christian nation.”  He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done.  Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.”  It doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Like D.J. Johnson, Lee is channeling Barton.  He is also, I might add, coming very close to violating Abington v. Schempp.

And then there is Dan Johnson (not to be confused with D.J.).  In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville.  In his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House he came under fire for defending Southern secession, “white pride,” and posting a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape.  When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that.  I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.” My history’s good there?  Oh, by the way, Johnson won his election. He now sponsors HB 128.

Representative Tim Moore is also a sponsor of the bill.  He co-chairs the Kentucky Prayer Caucus.  According to its website, the members of the Kentucky Prayer Caucus are “state legislators committed to advancing policies and initiatives that promote religious freedom, America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and prayer.  It is part of a larger “Prayer Caucus” movement in state legislatures around the country. There is nothing on the Caucus’s website that explains how it reconciles its support for religious freedom with its promotion of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.  David Barton promotes the Prayer Caucus Movement on his Wallbuilders website.

David Barton peddles really bad history about the American founding, but more importantly his faulty understanding of the American past has influenced public policy in places such as Kentucky.  (Barton has made it abundantly clear that he is a big fan of Governor Bevin).  In the end, it appears that HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp.  If they cannot bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, they can at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.

Watchdog groups have a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools.  Kate Miller of the ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”

Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this class for devotional purposes or Christian preaching.  But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools.  On the later point, the defenders of the bill will ward off criticism by arguing that this is an issue about competing historical interpretations (David Barton and the Christian nationalist view of history versus mainstream historical scholarship written by real historians) and not a violation of Abington v. Schempp.

In closing, it is important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an Revisedelective course, so I imagine only a small groups of students will take it.). I hope many of these teachers turn to the resources page on Mark Chancey’s website to get a sense of what is permissible and what is not.  I also hope that they are responsible when they attempt to connect the Bible to “contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

As some of you know, I wrote a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  In that book I talk a lot about the Bible’s influence on the American founding.  I also spend a lot of time, both at Messiah College (an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania) and around the country, working with history and social studies teachers. I am happy to help Kentucky teachers think about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.

Mark Chancey on How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

I met Mark Chancey a few years ago in Durham, NC.  I was speaking at a conference he helped organize at Duke University on the Bible in the public square.  Since then I have turned to his work for help in making sense of the thorny issue of religion in public schools.

Over at Religion & Politics, Mark has a helpful essay entitled “How Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?”  Here is a taste:

The issue of how public schools teach about religion is relatively under-studied, but it is clear that confusion abounds on the question of how to meet the Court’s benchmark of objective, secular presentation. For these reasons, I welcomed an invitation to study public school Bible courses for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog group. Using open records requests, TFN obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts. 

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas. 

The syllabus for one course, for example, identified its objective as “to consider the teachings of the New Testament through the lens of faith,” and students read books on Christian apologetics. Many courses depicted the Bible as straightforward, unproblematic history—even the miracle stories. A PowerPoint slide from one district illustrates this approach, instructing students that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16)” [sic]. Many courses presented traditional Christian theological interpretations of scripture as normative readings, going so far as to teach students that the Tanakh/Old Testament supernaturally predicted the coming of Jesus. (When a New York Times reporter questioned this approach, pointing out to one teacher that Jews do not believe that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies, the teacher curiously countered, “In New York, they don’t.”) Pseudoscience made its way into some courses, such as those that advocated creationism or the belief that racial origins can be traced to Noah.  

The good news is that other Texas courses succeeded admirably in treating the biblical material in ways that respected constitutional limits and diverse religious sensibilities. How did they do it? 

Read the rest here, including some suggested readings on the topic.

What Texas Students Are Learning in Public School Bible Courses

Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University is one of the leading authorities on the role of the Bible and religion in public schools.  In his recent report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses, Chancey examines the content of Bible courses in Texas schools.  Here are some of his findings:

  • 57 Texas school districts taught courses on the Bible in 2011-2012.  (Double the number of courses taught in 2006-2007).
  • Many public school Bible courses have ignored guidelines passed by the Texas Legislature in 2007.
  • Most teachers who teach these courses are not adequately trained.
  • Bible courses often reflect the religious views of the instructor. When courses are biased, they tend to favor conservative Protestant views of the Bible.
  • Anti-Jewish bias “is not uncommon,” although sometimes it is unintentional.
  • Some courses claim that the Bible “provides scientific proof of a 6,000 year earth.”
  • Some courses on the Bible teach students that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
  • A “number” of school districts complied with legislative requirements for teaching the Bible in public schools.
  • “Successful” Bible courses could be found in urban, suburban, and rural school districts.