Reading, Writing & Reconstructionism:
The Christian Right and the Politics of Public Education.
What Christians have got to do is to take back this country one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time and one state at a time. – Ralph Reed, 1990. (Bennett, 1995, p. 418)
Within the United States, local school boards, state educational agencies, and the federal government have all been challenged by Christian Right activists on a host of educational issues (Diamond, 1998; McCarthy, 1996; Sorenson, 1996; see also Heinz, 1983). With the rise of groups such as Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education who are committed to "stealth politics" (Clarkson, 1995, 1997; Boston, 1996; Edwards, 1998) the composition of local school boards, city councils and state legislatures have been radically transformed in some instances to reflect the political agenda of one specific religious doctrine, Christian Reconstructionism (Bennett, 1995; Gaddy, Hall & Marzano, 1996; Planned Parenthood Association of Pennsylvania [PPAP], 1996). Drawing upon the methodology of political historiography (Tuck, 1991; Gillon, 1997), the author explores the political emergence of the Christian Right, its involvement with public school politics and governance, and implications for teachers and teachers’ unions. This monograph concludes with specific recommendations for public school supporters regarding Christian Right activities.
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Fundamentalist Christianity and the Contemporary Christian Right
Many ground troops of the contemporary Christian Right adhere to some version of fundamentalist Christianity, be they strict fundamentalists, pentecostals, charismatics, or evangelicals. Fundamentalist Christianity is an uniquely U.S. variant of Protestant Christianity, emerging in reaction to the "theological liberalism and the passing of Puritan moralism," of the late nineteenth century (Ahlstrom, 1972, p. 806). While the changing social mores presented by massive immigration, industrialization, and urbanization were vexing, the cultural ascendancy of science and the explosion of scientific innovation and explanation were far more problematic (Ammerman, 1998; Wilcox, 1996, Noll, 1994). Protestant Christians, particularly those living in the South (Oldfield, 1996), were distressed by the possible theological implications wrought by the work of Charles Darwin and the Origin of the Species (Livingstone, 1987; Ammerman, 1998). The foundations of a biblically inspired faith were open to question. If Darwin’s conclusions were correct and human nature was the result of biological evolution rather than of specific divine creation, or natural happenstance rather than of grand design (or designer), those strains of Protestant Christianity that held the biblical story of creation as historical and scientific fact faced an enormous theological and cultural challenge (Wilcox, 1996; Lugg, 1996; Ammerman, 1998).
In response, a series of tracts entitled The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915, established the articles of faith for the newly named fundamentalist Christians. The writers stressed the necessity of being "born again," biblical infallibility (i.e., the bible is free from error–everything happened exactly as written), missionary work, rejected the scientific method, and attacked both Roman Catholicism and Mormonism as heretical (Ammerman, 1998; Wilcox, 1996; Lugg, 1996; Ahlstrom, 1972). Finally, the newly named "fundamentalists" were to be apolitical. As one tract author, the Rev. Charles R. Erdman, wrote, "It should be recognized that the Church is not to invade the field of political economy, nor is it allied with any political or social order or propaganda" (ca. 1915, p. 111). Rev. Erdman was specifically rebuking Christian Socialists who viewed the Christian Gospel as legitimating political involvement – particularly to improve the lot of the poor – but his injunction also was construed as a broad warning against worldliness. Modernity was considered to be the realm of Satan, therefore, contact with the secular world (and the secular state) was to be minimized (Ammerman, 1998; Snowball, 1991; Lugg, 1996; Wilcox, 1996).
With the exception of events surrounding the 1920s Scoppes trial (and the politics of evolution), most fundamentalists shunned political involvement (Livingstone, 1987; Noll, 1994; Wilcox, 1996; Ammerman, 1998), and many refrained from even voting (Diamond, 1995; 1998). But fundamentalists were prompted to shed their self-imposed political isolation and cultural separatism during the 1970s. A number of events, including the desegregation of public schools and the banning of state-sponsored religious practices, triggered a reevaluation of the theological doctrine of political non-involvement. White fundamentalists had historically supported both school segregation (Howard, 1992; Diamond, 1995; 1998) and school prayer, so long as the latter was suitably Protestant (Lugg, 1996). While the issue of school prayer remained largely rhetorical until the late 1980s (Diamond, 1995), maintaining segregated schooling was and remains a core political issue (Lind, 1996; Lugg, 1996).
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Southern states funded the emergence of "segregation academies," private, non-sectarian, elementary and secondary schools that only accepted white students, as a means of circumventing court-ordered desegregation of the public schools (Hafter & Hoffman, 1973; Hershkoff & Cohen, 1992). The federal government attempted to stanch the flow of Southern white pupils into the segregation academies. In July 1970, the IRS began to crack down on the non-sectarian "segs" by revoking their tax-exempt status on the grounds they were violating federal non-discrimination statues and therefore non entitled to federal tax-exemptions. The IRS’s actions were upheld in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, Runyon v. McCrary. The court ruled those non-sectarian academies which discriminated upon the basis of race were not entitled to a federal tax exemption. Yet, the court inadvertently provided segregationists with a legal loophole, thanks to the term non-sectarian (Howard, 1992). As a result, formally non-sectarian white flight schools were turned over to various white Protestant churches. The fundamentalist academy movement was born (Howard, 1992; Oldfield, 1996; Lind, 1996; Diamond, 1998).
In the midst of the school desegregation turmoil, fundamentalists were courted by the Nixon administration who saw them as a politically sympathetic constituency (Martin, 1997). Yet, many Fundamentalists were suspicious of the administration’s overtures and were unwilling to violate a basic tenet of faith (i.e., political involvement), although the Reverend Billy Graham was an early and enthusiastic supporter of President Nixon. The subsequent fallout from the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation in disgrace somewhat curtailed fundamentalists’ early forays into politics (Martin, 1997).
What eventually ignited their sustained interest in the political arena was the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion (Blanchard, 1994; Noll, 1994; Martin, 1996; Oldfield, 1996; Diamond, 1998). Conservative Catholics were the first to mobilize to try to overturn Roe (Diamond, 1995), but by the mid to late 1970s a number of fundamentalists were seeking common ground with like minded Catholics, although profound theological divisions remained (and still do–see Ammerman, 1998; Oldfield, 1996; Blanchard, 1994). There was also explosive growth in fundamentalist church membership and increased interest by the general public (Ammerman, 1998). By 1976, fundamentalists gained further political legitimacy when evangelical Jimmy Carter was elected president (Ammerman, 1998; Lugg, 1996). Carter’s election enabled other fundamentalist Christians to enter the political arena, especially when Carter’s political decisions came into conflict with those of his religions brethren (Zwier, 1984; Diamond, 1998).
By the 1980 election, a Christian Right was born, complete with an explicit political agenda which included electing suitably "conservative" politicians to public office, overturning Roe, preventing the IRS from stripping segregation academies of their federal tax-exemptions, providing federally funded vouchers for parents who sent their children to private (and religious) schools, and the restoration of state-sponsored religious practices within public schools (Ammerman, 1998; Diamond, 1995, 1998; Lind, 1996; Lugg, 1996). The emerging movement claimed to be ecumenical; yet the social survey research revealed that it was, and remains, largely a white, Protestant, and fundamentalist phenomenon (Shupe & Stacy, 1984; Wilcox, 1996). Additionally, the movement remains highly controversial within fundamentalist circles, as it represents a repudiation of an original tenet of faith: political non-involvement. This is why during the 1980s Fundamentalist Baptist preacher Bob Jones, II, called Fundamentalist Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell, "the most dangerous man in America," as the latter mixed religion and politics with the founding of the "Moral Majority" (Guth, 1983, p. 41). Nevertheless, the politicization of fundamentalists represents a significant and lasting shift within U.S. politics (Diamond, 1998).
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The Influence of Christian Reconstructionism
A major influence upon the contemporary Christian Right has been a new interpretation of Christian political involvement, Christian Reconstructionism (Blanchard, 1994; Clarkson, 1995, 1997; Diamond, 1995, 1996; PPAP, 1996; Martin, 1996; Ammerman, 1998). Fundamentalists have long been cultural and political separatists, with their theological concerns focused clearly upon Christ’s second coming, not political action. Reconstructionists differ from fundamentalists in that they believe Christ will not return until his kingdom is established on earth. Consequently, they are dedicated to establishing an actual government based upon Christian tenets. Reconstructionism holds that America was originally a Christian nation (blithely ignoring both the Treaty of Tripoli and Article VI of the U.S. Constitution), but had fallen into error as witnessed by the country’s seemingly intractable social ills (for example, see Barton, 1993, 1997). Adherents state that the founding fathers were all Christians and that the evil power of secular humanism has completely eroded the nation’s moral underpinnings. Subsequently, it is now a moral imperative that Christians not only vote, but to lead (Clarkson, 1995, 1997; Diamond, 1996, 1998). As sociologist Sara Diamond notes, "the only answer to rampant social problems was for Christians alone to run for elected office" (1995, p. 248).
A major concern regarding Reconstructionism is that it is explicitly hostile to democratic precepts. In particular, R. J. Rushdoony – a leading theorist, has called for the establishment of a theocracy within the United States based on biblical law. Additionally, Rushdoony claims that Christianity and democracy are antithetical (Blanchard, 1994; Diamond, 1995; Wilcox, 1996; Martin, 1996; PPAP, 1996). In his reconstructed America, every aspect of society would be subject to scriptural tests. Those found in violation, such as heretics, abortionists, astrologers, blasphemers, homosexuals and even disobedient children, would be subject to death (Clarkson, 1995, 1997; Diamond, 1995, 1996, 1998; Wilcox, 1996; Martin, 1996; Ammerman, 1998). Not without supporters, Rushdoony has been instrumental in establishing both Chalcedon, his religious think-tank, and the Rutherford Institute (both are tax-deductible charities). The latter has played a highly visible role in various court cases involving issues of church and state, and public schools (Diamond, 1995; Layton, 1996; McCarthy, 1996).
For all of it’s harshness and theocratic posturing, Reconstructionism does offer a way for politically-minded fundamentalists to legitimize their political involvement. As such, it represents a major intellectual development (Clarkson, 1995; 1997). Various Christian Right leaders have acknowledged the importance of Reconstructionism and occasionally they have given it a platform (Clarkson, 1995; Clarkson, 1997; Martin, 1996). For example, Rushdoony has appeared on Pat Robertson’s television show, "The 700 Club" and both the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. D. James Kennedy have endorsed various Reconstructionist books (see Martin, 1996, p. 354). Yet, most of the leaders within various Christian Right organizations have taken pains to distance themselves from Reconstructionism when it has proved to be politically problematic (for example, see Reed, 1996).
Nevertheless, Reconstructionism exerts a powerful influence over the Christian Right (Blanchard, 1994; Clarkson, 1995; 1997; PPAP, 1996). It also has provided Christian Right activists with two practical (if highly controversial) electoral strategies. This first and most infamous is that of stealth (Clarkson, 1995; 1997). According to researcher Frederick Clarkson, the stealth strategy was developed nearly 20 years ago, by Gary North in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. North advocated that activists "infiltrate" government to facilitate a
smooth transition to Christian political leadership….Christians must begin to organize politically within the present party structure, and they must begin to infiltrate the existing institutional order. (as cited by Clarkson, 1995, p. 79)
Such a strategy has been embraced by the Christian Coalition and the Citizens for Excellence in Education, particularly in school board elections (Wald, 1995; Martin, 1996; Edwards, 1998; Galst, 1995; Clarkson, 1995; 1997; Boston, 1996). School board candidates would run on vague platforms, such as teaching "the basics" and restoring student discipline, while failing to mention any organizational or ideological alliances (Edwards, 1998; Bennett, 1995). As former executive director for the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed explained in 1991, stealth has been a key tactic for Christian Right activists.
I want to be invisible. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night. (in Bennett, 1995, p. 417)
Of course, such maneuvers have been highly controversial and politically damaging when uncovered (Martin, 1996; Bennett, 1995; Wilcox, 1996). Typically, when "stealth" candidates have been exposed by the media, opposition political organizations, or even by other political conservatives, a voter backlash has ensued (Wilcox, 1996).
The second strategy, known as the "15 percent solution," was devised by Christian Right activist George Grant (Clarkson, 1997). As researcher Liz Galst explains:
only 60 percent of eligible voters are registered. Of those, only half vote (30 percent). Therefore, elections are decided by a mere 15 percent of the electorate. In local elections, where turn-out is often significantly smaller and name recognition significantly lower, the percentage of voters needed to win, say a school board seat, may be as low as six percent or seven percent. (Galst, 1995, pp. 53–54)
While the Christian Right has had some successes when employing these two political tactics, success depends upon a high degree of media and citizen apathy prior to the election and a low voter turnout (Clarkson, 1995; Wilcox, 1996; Boston, 1996). Additionally, implementing a theocratic agenda in locations such as Cobb County, Georgia, and Vista, California, has proved extremely difficult, given the numerous checks and balances built into the American policy system. These attempts have also garnered national media exposure, much of it highly unfavorable. In the case of Cobb County, the "Reconstructed" County Commission’s viruently anti-gay policy agenda triggered a national boycott of the county, and eliminated Cobb from hosting any Olympic events during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta (Clarkson, 1997).
Maintaining electoral success has also been problematic. Once achieving political office, Christian Right candidates have found holding on to it to be elusive (Diamond, 1995; Wilcox, 1996). It is one thing to call for a return to America’s "Christian" roots, it is quite another to implement public policies based upon such a theocratic vision. So far, few hard-core Reconstructionists have been re-elected to public office, as a local school board member, a Cobb County Commissioner, or a U.S. Congressmen (i.e. Randy Tate and Steve Stockman – see Diamond, 1998).
Nevertheless, for all of its seeming drawbacks, Reconstructionism represents a major intellectual and political development for politically-minded fundamentalists. Not only does it provide theological justifications for political involvement, thus breaking a basic fundamentalist tenet, but it has given the Christian Right some fairly successful short-term political strategies and a long-term vision of establishing a "Christian Nation." As Reconstructionist writer Gary North observed:
Our ideas are now in wide circulation. …They no longer depend on the skills or integrity of any one person…. We are a decentralized movement. We cannot be taken out a by a successful attack on any one of our institutional strongholds or any one of our spokesman. Our authors may come and go (and have), but our basic worldview is now complete. We have laid down the foundations of a paradigm shift. (Clarkson, 1997, p. 100)
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Implications for Public Education
A central theme of the Christian Right is that the United States has fallen into national sin, as witnessed by the seemingly intractable social ills: unwed motherhood, substance abuse, and the like (Lugg, 1996). One institution viewed by the Christian Right as contributing to this alleged social and cultural decline is the public school. Since the 1970s, the Christian Right has repeatedly attacked public schools for being bastions of "state-sponsored" sin (Lugg & Boyd, 1996), where prayer is forbidden, yet condoms are freely distributed (Lugg, in-press). Whether the schools are supposedly promoting the religion of secular humanism or an NEA-inspired version of the "gay agenda," public education is portrayed by adherents as a menace to the moral fiber of society. Public school educators (both teachers and administrators) are routinely depicted as hopelessly corrupted by the communist forces of the National Education Association and John Dewey, the latter who must be haunting education schools from the grave (Lugg, in-press, see also Bennett, 1995; Martin, 1996; Diamond, 1996, 1998; Eakman, 1998).
The public schools are increasingly viewed as hostile institutions by Christian Right activists (see Eakman, 1998; Barton, 1997, 1993; Baer, 1996; Mars, 1989). Barred from sponsoring official religious practices, subject to civil rights strictures, and having the final "say" in what literature and facts to which children are exposed, (information that may very well contradict religious tenets–per Mozert v. Hawkins Co.), public schools are seen as menacing the spiritual welfare of "Christian" children (Eakman, 1998; Murchison, 1994; Barton, 1993, 1997; Mars, 1989). In response, the Christian Right supports reinstating compulsory school-prayer, monitors and occasionally attacks school curricula for "satanic influences" and the "religion of secular humanism," wishes to greatly restrict or eliminate teacher unions, pushes for school choice proposals including voucher schemes that include sectarian schools, and strongly supports homeschooling (Bennett, 1995; Martin, 1996; Diamond, 1996, 1998; Edwards, 1998; Lugg in-press).
These attacks on public education generally fall into two categories. The first category can be viewed as attempts to "re-Christianize" the schools, be it through state-sponsored religious practices, the inclusion of "Creationism" into the science curriculum, the posting of the ten commandments in every classroom, the deletion or watering down of sex education, and removing any mention of multiculturalism (Gaddy et al., 1996; Diamond, 1996, 1998; Edwards, 1998). The goal is to remake the public school into "a subcultural ally" for fundamentalists (Oldfield, 1996). There are numerous institutions (Heritage Foundation, American Center for Law and Justice, The Rutherford Institute, Christian Coalition, Citizens for Excellence in Education, etc.) and individuals who routinely challenge school districts, states and the federal government over all manner of educational materials, practices and policies (Gaddy et al., 1996; Edwards, 1998; Diamond, 1998).
The second category is "de-institutionalization," or attempts that are calculated to eventually disestablished public education. School choice, particularly in the form of unrestricted vouchers, as well as charter schools, and the homeschooling movement all fall into this category. While there are others who also favor school choice (libertarians in particular), Christian Right activists view vouchers, charter schools and homeschooling as good and corrosive developments that will eventually wither away support for public schools (Clarkson, 1997, Layton, 1995). A critical portion of the trend towards de-institutionalization is rooted in Reconstructionist theology, although racial politics is also a long-standing issue (Lugg, 1996; Lind, 1996). The public schools are viewed by Reconstructionsts as the major impediment to their theocratic agenda. According to Gary North, "Until the vast majority of Christians pull their children out of the public schools…there will be no possibility of creating a theocratic republic" (Clarkson, 1997, p. 119). Some go writers go further. Robert Thoburn, who heads the Fairfax Christian School in Fairfax, Virginia, has urged "Christians to pull their children out of public schools, run for school board," and then cut off funding (Clarkson, 1997, p. 119). Not surprisingly, Thoburn counsels candidates not to mention their agenda (Clarkson, 1997, p. 120).
Stealth has been part of the strategy in attacking public schools (Galst, 1995; Wilcox, 1996; Boston, 1996; Diamond, 1998; Edwards, 1998), be the goal either de-institutionalization or re-Christianization. For example, in the early 1990s, the state of Pennsylvania exploded over the state’s attempt to mandate it’s version of OBE (Outcome-Based Education) in public schools. The Christian Right led the political attack and activists had a fairly extensive and coordinated strategy which relied heavily on national organizations for support and resources. However, the leadership maintained their organizations were comprised solely grass-roots "folks," as media exposure of the sophisticated linkages would have been politically damaging (Boyd, Lugg & Zahorchak, 1996; PPAP, 1996). While the Christian Right lost the battle over OBE in Pennsylvania (it is now part of the school regulations), it was so successful in mischaracterizing the reform that it has yet to be implemented (Boyd, et al, 1996).
Similarly, across the country there have been cases of curious appointees to state boards of education (particularly in South Carolina), various attorney generals, as well as state and federal jurists, all who have surrealistic understandings regarding the separation of church and state (Diamond, 1989; Wald, 1995). The Christian Right has targeted the state and federal judiciaries (under the rubric of eliminating an "activist judiciary"), as well as executive appointments, hoping to achieve re-interpretations of various Supreme Court decisions affecting the public schools (Wilcox, 1996; Sullivan, 1998). Put more simply, such strategic targeting of the political system marks an attempted "end-run" around long-decided constitutional matters.
Teachers’ unions are typically viewed as annoying and dangerous political impediments by many Christian Right adherents (Luksik & Hoffecker, 1995; Eakman, 1998). Since the 1980s, the NEA in particular, has been a favorite target (Lugg, 1996). The movement itself is hostile toward organized labor, and given NEA’s progressive political stance on numerous issues such as public school desegregation and its long-standing criticism of school-choice schemes, it is unlikely the Christian Right would have anything positive to say. Needless to say, the attacks upon the NEA tend to be more than a tad hyperventilated. For example, in article appearing in Christian America, the Christian Coalition’s defunct monthly magazine, professional homophobe Peter LaBarbera claimed that the "NEA Pushes Homosexual Agenda." The article depicts the heroic, yet failed attempts of local "moms" to curtail such evil machinations by union activists. It concludes, "Emboldened by a recent school board vote to accept the homosexuality lessons with only minor changes, school administrators began discussing proposals that would introduce the topics of masturbation and homosexuality to fifth- and sixth-grade students…" (1997).
The Christian Right views the public school in rather stark terms: It is either promoting salvation or it is promoting sin. Consequently, the Christian Right’s attacks upon public education at times have more than a "whiff of paranoid politics" (Lugg, 1998; Hofstadter, 1963). Schools are frequently portrayed part of some conspiracy to lure Christian children away from their parents (Marrs, 1989; Eakman, 1998). Yet, the incendiary conspiracy rhetoric can rally the grassroots for yet another crusade against the godless public schools (Gaddy et. al, 1996). And while much of the rhetoric is rooted hyperbole, the "godless" public schools theme has been a staple of the broader political culture since the presidency of Ronald Reagan (Lugg, 1996).
There are immediate implications for educational policy, as reflected by local school board elections and the on-going debates in both the U.S. Congress and state legislatures (Diamond, 1998). Like any good political advocates, the Christian Right has focused on getting its candidates elected to ensure their agenda is reflected in policy. Yet, such a politicized theology woven into public education policy would violate the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. Additionally, educational reform proposals that the Christian Right finds objectionable can be distorted as promoting "sin" (Lugg & Boyd, 1996). These developments have led to an "Alice in Wonderland" scenario. At best, public school teachers, administrators, legislators, jurists, and other policymakers are forced to fend off charges that they are hostile to religious faith, or even actively engaging in religion oppression, by taking pains to ensure the rights of people of differing faiths or those without religious belief, are upheld. Refusing to allow public schools to become instruments of sectarian proselytization is now portrayed as an act of religious bigotry by the Christian Right.
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Conclusion: Challenging the Christian Right
It’s time to say we must take back the schools. We’ve got to do something in America and take away the school system from the left-wing labor unions and their left-wing cohorts that are destroying the moral fiber of the youth of America. –Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, January 22, 1995 (Boston, 1996, p. 169).
The contemporary Christian Right has been fairly consistent in attacking the public schools, whether the goal is "re-Christianization" or de-institutionalization. It has attracted powerful support from more mainstream conservatives, as well as occasional sympathetic nods from political moderates and even erstwhile liberals (for example, see Carter, 1994). As a political movement, the Christian Right has been extremely effective in tapping into the anxiety Americans have regarding the shape and mission of U.S. public education. These concerns are real enough. Some schools do fail children, as do some teachers, some administrators, some parents, and some communities. On the surface, at least, there appears to be some common ground between Christian Right activists and the broader general public regarding public education and the impact it has on the future of U.S. children. Nevertheless, it is critical for those involved with public education to understand that much of this supposed common ground over real educational issues may be illusory. If the ultimate "solution" is to have public schools or public educational monies serve narrow sectarian interests, seeking common ground may very well be political capitulation, undermining both the Constitutional protections and educational opportunities of most U.S. students.
There are some fairly practical measures in rebutting attacks launched by the Christian Right on public education. Drawing on the work by Frederick Clarkson (1997), they include, 1) reclaiming American history, 2) registering and mobilizing voters, 3) researching regarding the policy positions of all political candidates as well as various Christian Right organizations, and 4) practicing democratic values.
Many of the attacks on public education are historicized in nature, that is, there are claims to a golden educational past in which children were well-behaved and were eager to received the traditional values of their communities via public education. It is only recently that public schools have failed in their educational mission. Of course, such claims do not withstand any close historical scrutiny (Lugg, 1996), as do claims of a similarly golden American social and political age (Clarkson, 1997; Lind, 1996; Coontz, 1992). Nostalgia and sheer propaganda frequently get substituted for actual U.S. history, and can and should be rebutted. We should not minimize the current dilemmas facing public education, but rather, note that historically, educational reform has been an incremental process, with some schools do a better job of educating children than others, for a multitude of reasons (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Labaree, 1997).
Registering and mobilizing voters also can be highly effective, as the Christian Right is a politically strategic minority. If the majority of the electorate consistently votes, in many instances, the Christian Right will consistently lose. The success of Christian Right candidates and ballot initiatives depends upon low voter turnout and/or apathy. Those who are committed to a public education system should network with potential allies in securing electoral and policy support. From teachers unions and administrative associations, to religious and civil liberties groups, Americans have consistently supported public education. There is, of course, considerable disagreement over public education’s means and goals (see Labaree, 1997). Yet, it has been heartening to witness various community and professional groups, and individuals from across the political spectrum, finding common ground in defending public education when it is undergoing a sustained and highly publicized, political attack.
The Christian Right also depends upon a measure of voter ignorance regarding candidates and policy proposals. Information regarding all political candidates and their policy ideas, from the school board to the White House, is critical. This is not as easy as it seems. Too often the mainstream media gives the Christian Right a "free ride," as witnessed by a recent Newsweek article on homeschooling which cited Chris Klicka as an "educational expert," while failing to mention his long-standing theocratic ideals. At times it takes a bit of digging, but the links between activists, their political track records, local organizations and the national organizations can be found, and should be publicized to minimize the potential success of "stealth" candidates and policy agendas (PPAP, 1996).
Finally, a word about the politics of demonization. Like many adherents of the Christian Right, those who defend public education can slid quickly demagoguery and vilification. This is a particularly egregious mistake for those committed to democratic education to make (Gaddy et al, 1996; Diamond, 1998). As Frederick Clarkson notes:
Members of the Christian Right will continue to also be members of our communities–regardless of the outcome of the political struggles of the day. They may be people we see at the supermarket, the Little League game or just around the neighborhood. Most people on all sides are sincere and honestly–motivated people who have much more in common with one another than the divisive demagogic rhetoric of Christian Right leaders would suggest. (Clarkson, 1997, p. 214)
It is the ideology and political tactics of the Christian Right which are problematic, not that individuals are expressing their constitutionally protected views or engaging in political action. It is, however, more than fair to challenge anyone’s ideology and tactics. Such challenges do not constitute "anti-Christian" bigotry, as some Christian Right activists are wont to allege (Boston, 1996; Diamond, 1998). Nevertheless, name-calling and similarly hyperventilated rhetoric do fall into such a category.
With the current political strength of the Christian Right, public educators can expect to face numerous challenges regarding both the shape and direction of public education policy. As Louise Adler has observed regarding the political fights over curriculum in California, "Wishing, even prayerful wishing, will not end religious based curriculum challenges" (1996, p. 343). Public school educators are faced with an acute dilemma regarding our commitment to democratic ideals in the face of more theoretically oriented opponents who believe that the public schools have a moral duty to promote "salvation," or if they fail in that redemptive mission, cease to exist. Given the recent history and level of activism by members of the Christian Right, it is incumbent upon those committed to a democratic public education to rebut the political agenda and theocratic blather, while striving for the common good of all children within a Constitutionally secular society.
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