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The Religious Nationalist Attack on Public Education

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Katherine Stewart’s introduction to religious nationalism came in 2009 when a couple came to her town and insisted that they had the right to set up a Bible club, a “Good News Club”, in her child’s public school.  She, and most others, were startled at how “inappropriate” this was.  Inappropriate it certainly was, and at one time it would have been unconstitutional, but decades of political activism provided a home for religious nationalism in the Republican Party, and installation of justices sympathetic to religious nationalism on the Supreme Court overturned centuries of precedent.  Stewart recounts this experience and her subsequent research in her book The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

“The purpose of the club was to convince children as young as five that they would burn for an eternity if they failed to conform to a strict interpretation of the Christian faith…they insisted on holding the club in the public school because they knew the kids would think the message was coming from the school.  They referred to our public school as their ‘mission field’ and our children as ‘the harvest’.”

“As I researched the group behind these kindergarten missionaries, I saw that they were part of a national network of clubs.  I soon discovered that this network was itself one of many initiatives to insert reactionary religion into public schools across the country.  Then I realized that these initiatives were the fruit of a nationally coordinated effort not merely to convert other people’s children in the classroom but to undermine public education altogether.  Belatedly, I understood that the conflict they provoked in our local community—I was hardly the only parent who found their presence in the public school alarming—was not an unintended consequence of their activity.  It was a piece of their plan to destroy confidence in our system of education and make way for a system of religious education more to their liking.”

The origins of this faith system date back to the era of slavery when religious justification for the practice had to be provided.  It would be in the Old Testament that God’s permission for slavery (and other horrible stuff) would be found.  Slavery and the support of extreme property rights go together, leading to religious beliefs that support capitalism and its accompanying economic inequality: taxation is a form of theft, therefore it is evil; social welfare policies are not found in the Old Testament, therefore they are evil also; environmental regulations are against God’s will; women are to be sexually, socially, politically, and economically submissive to men; nonbelievers are enemies who can and should be punished; democracy is heresy; the Bible provides no place for LGBT people; physical punishment is the best way to obtain obedience from children, even infants; and so on.

Stewart points out that while many of these people consider themselves evangelicals, not all evangelicals are included in this movement, and some would not even agree that these people are actually Christians.  These nationalists have nothing to do with the Jesus Christ described in the New Testament, so they really aren’t Christians in that sense.  They are more like the ancient Hebrews who believed they had a covenant with God.  For the religious nationalists, this old covenant has been replaced by a newer one in which they are God’s chosen people.  Since they are neither ancient Hebrews nor Christians, perhaps religious nationalist is the best descriptor. 

“Most Americans continue to see it as a cultural movement centered on a set of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, preoccupied with symbolic conflicts over monuments and prayers.  But the religious right has become more focused and powerful even as it is arguably less representative.  It is not a social or cultural movement.  It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power.  It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity, answering to what some adherents call a ‘biblical worldview’ that also happens to serve the interests of its political funders and allied political leaders.  The movement is unlikely to realize its most extreme visions, but it has already succeeded in degrading our politics and dividing the nation with religious animus.  This is not a ‘culture war.’  It is a political war over the future of democracy.”

The nationalist movement would be born from pro-slavery theology, switch focus to maintaining segregation, then in the New Deal era begin collaboration with wealthy capitalists to oppose social legislation being pushed by Roosevelt.  This alliance greatly benefited the nationalists, providing them with plenty of money to fund efforts they were already predisposed towards.  The billionaires have been assisting the movement ever since.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is stated simply—perhaps too simply.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The first clause in that statement, the “establishment clause,” prohibits any government action that would support any particular religion with respect to any other.  This had always been interpreted as maintaining a strict separation between religion and state, a “wall” between them.  However, the First Amendment also supports freedom of speech.

Due to establishment clause considerations public schools generally avoided any use of their facilities by religious groups.  In a 2001 ruling, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Supreme Court threw away the establishment clause and claimed the free speech clause ruled above all.  Essentially, it claimed that with regard to supporting religions, public schools could not exclude religious groups from government subsidized use of their facilities because it would hinder their right to free speech on issues with religious leanings.

This was a strategic and financial bonanza for the religious nationalists.  Others noted this as well and tried to take advantage of the ruling, including a group called The Satanic Temple.

“The schools could not slam their doors fast enough, throwing up a variety of procedural and legal hurdles…They weren’t the only other group operating from a ‘religious viewpoint’ effectively shut out from public schools: Wiccans, atheists, Muslims, and other minority religious groups have attempted similar gambits and been excluded from the schools through a variety of means…Public school buildings are not, as it turns out, a ‘viewpoint neutral’ forum, open in practice to all religions, as the Alliance Defending Freedom argues.  ‘Religious liberty’ in America today is largely religious liberty for certain ‘approved’ groups.”

The religious conservatives on the Supreme Court gave the religious nationalists everything they asked for.  Congress is not allowed to pass a law supporting a particular religion, but the Supreme Court can effectively do so.  And now you know why the Republican Party is willing to trash every political or ethical norm to gain control of the nation’s courts.  The court system can change the nature of our country.  And that is exactly what the Christian nationalist movement and its Republican Party wish to do.

To further their objectives, the religious nationalists required a complete rewrite of US history.  They have assembled a number of lies, but the most fundamental is the false assumption that our country was originally formed as a Christian nation, but followers of a “social gospel” wrested it from the Christians.  It is their duty to regain control of this original “Christian nation.”  The second great lie is that the principle of separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution was intended to mean not that the state should be protected from religious incursion, but that religion was to be allowed to go about its business and be protected from any imposition by the state.

When one hears the term “religious freedom” in a political context, it usually refers to the desire for a specific religion to be able to discriminate against a class of people that this religion believes has no right to exist.  Journalists have discovered a lengthy document describing a plan to deepen the incursion of “Biblical” principles into public education, and to attain the right to discriminate against anyone who is offensive to one’s religious principles.  This effort was described as “Project Blitz.”

“The discovery of Project Blitz was a game changer for understanding the movement’s legislative strategy.  It is the playbook for a nationwide assault on state legislatures in all fifty states.  It does indeed describe a ‘blitz,’ for the basic strategy is to flood the zone with coordinated, simultaneous bills in the hopes that they will, eventually, become law.  The stated aim for the project is to advance ‘religious freedom’—in a late 2019 conference call, organizers discussed rebranding the initiative Freedom for All—but this turns out to be the biggest of many deceptions that characterize the enterprise.  Along with the parallel, equally massive, coordinated assault by antiabortion activists on state legislatures, Project Blitz aims to inundate as many states as possible with its bills in order to jam the wheels of the state legislative process.”

The initial phase of Project Blitz would involve efforts to require the inclusion of religious symbols such as the phrase “In God We Trust” in public forums.

“The people who follow these types of legislation across the stats—the lawyers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example—sensed that something strange was afoot.  In all of 2017 there had been three bills proposing the use of ‘In God We Trust’ in various official forums.  Now there were more than that number rolling in every week.”

“By April 2018 state legislatures had been served with more than seventy bills based on Project Blitz models.  Some of them involved the motto ‘In God We Trust’ and other expressions of Christianity in public settings.  Project Blitz had kicked into action.  While many bills were defeated, bills in at least five states were signed into law.”

“The documentation of Project Blitz makes clear that a principal purpose of the ‘In God We Trust’ legislation is to force the opposition to take unpopular stands on seemingly symbolic issues.  In fact, the authors specifically seemed to envision using the bills to catch opposition lawmakers on video saying things that can later be used against them.”

“For many years critics have warned that concessions to the Christian right on ‘symbolic’ issues—erecting religious monuments and emblazoning religious mottos on state property, for example—would set the nation on a course leading to the establishment of a religion.  We now know that the critics were right…”

This effort has not been in vain.

“In multiple states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida, prominently placed ‘In God We Trust’ signs in every public school building are now mandatory.”

These are just the first steps in the long game aimed at converting our society into a religiously guided one.

“The point of phase I is just to clear the path for phase II, which consists of bills that propose to inject Christian nationalist ideas more directly into schools and other government entities.  Some phase II bills are intended to promote the teaching and celebration of Christianity in public schools, including support for sectarian ‘Bible literacy’ curricula, particularly those that include hefty servings of Christian nationalist history and a declaration of a ‘Christian Heritage Week.’  They are the means of spreading the message, among children especially, that conservative Christians are the real Americans and everybody else is here by invitation only.”

“The point of phase II, of course, is to make room for phase III, which legalizes discrimination against those whose actions (or very being) offends the sensibilities of conservative Christians.”

In case one might think of this post as a hyperbolic response, it should be noted that the model for phase III legislation already exists. 

“For the blitzers, the dream bill is something participants in a conference call referred to in awed tones as the ‘Mississippi Missile.’  The ‘missile’ is the state’s HB 1523, a 2016 law that allows individuals, nonprofits, private businesses, and government agencies to discriminate against target groups with impunity (and above all, without losing their tax-advantaged status), provided they do so in accordance with ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’.”

The religious nationalists have a long list of people they are anxious to begin discriminating against.

The religious right viewed Donald Trump as someone sent by God (or at least they told him so) to lead them along their path to domination, and a person worthy of the status of king over the coming dominion.  Nothing could better indicate his acceptance of the religious nationalists’ game plan better than the selection of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education. 

Nowhere does the union of right-wing wealth and right-wing Christianity become more operative than in the war declared on public education.  Leaders in these activities were the DeVos and Prince families in Michigan.  Betsy would marry from the latter into the former.

“In financial terms, in fact, the Christian right today is to a substantial extent the creation of the Michigan wing of the American plutocracy.  Since the 1970s the late Richard DeVos Sr. and his wife and children, including Dick and Betsy, have been major funders of leading national groups on the religious right.”

“The family,’ as the Devos clan was often known, viewed education as the path to creation of a Christian nation, and public, secular, education was standing in the way.

“The DeVos/Prince-supported Family Research Council rather awkwardly advocated the abolition of the department that Betsy would one day come to lead.  ‘The Department [of Education] is unconstitutional, ineffective, and wasteful.  In short, it should be abolished…Aim carefully and slay the dragon once and for all,’ wrote Rob Schwartzwalder, then senior vice president of the Family Research Council, in 2010.  However, it was not until the late 1990s, when discussions about school voucher and education reform began to take traction across the country that the heirs to the fortune—and in particular, Betsy DeVos—likely realized that the best way by far to advance their radical vision for America would be to mount a devastating assault on the nation’s system of public schools,”

And Betsy DeVos had no intention of hiding her true agenda.

“In 2001, speaking at ‘The Gathering,’ an annual meeting of prosperous Christian philanthropists that has been associated with The Fellowship Foundation or ‘The Family,’ Betsy DeVos singled out education reform as a way to ‘advance God’s kingdom.’  In an interview, she and her husband lamented that public schools had ‘displaced’ churches as centers of the community, and said that school choice would lead to ‘greater kingdom gain’.”

The initial focus of the assault was on vouchers as a way of introducing school choice into the system—a ploy to supposedly improve educational outcomes, but mainly aimed at eventually feeding public education funds and students into religious schools.  Unfortunately for them, promises of better educational results were never delivered, and there was an unfavorable response from the public because it viewed vouchers as what they were, an attempt to privatize public education.  The next initiative would be to switch to the advocation of charter schools as a means to their end.

“In a speech to the Heritage Foundation in 2002, Dick DeVos outlined new strategies for the movement, emphasizing the need to spend available funding on a system of ‘rewards and consequences’ for state legislators.”

“In public confusion about the nature of charters, the DeVos family and their allies saw opportunity.  A lightly regulated charter school industry, they realized, could achieve many of the same goals as voucher programs.  They could drain funding from traditional public schools, deregulate the education sector, and promote ideological or even religious curricula—all without provoking the kind of resistance that vouchers received.  Democrats, centrists, and secular education reformers who opposed voucher schemes were often favorably disposed to charters, which they saw as one of many tools available to public school systems.”

Responsible charter schools dedicated to improving secular public education would help sell the notion of charter schools.  The focus of the DeVos clan and their collaborators would then need to be on eliminating oversight of how charters operated.  For this task they would receive considerable support from the wealthy, both the greedy and the religious nationalists.  There is a lot of money in public education, and many wished to siphon some of that into their pockets.

“With DeVos money flooding the arteries of the state’s political system, Michigan soon became a paradise for for-profit charter operators, most of them concentrated in urban areas.  More than half of Detroit’s children now attend charters…and 80 percent of those are for-profit.  The charter lobby not only secured rights to massive expansion but also scored some lucrative tax breaks.  Charter operators who own the property they lease to their own schools demanded—and received—a tax exemption on that property, an arrangement that has become increasingly common around the country.”

“The key to the charter boom was deregulation on a scale that would have made any devotee of Milton Friedman proud.  ‘Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses or poor academics,’ concluded a 2014 article, the culmination of a yearlong investigation into Michigan charters, which was published in the Detroit Free Press.  ‘Taxpayers and parents are left clueless about how charter schools spend the public’s money, and lawmakers have resisted measures to close schools down for poor academic performance year after year’.”

Poor academic performance is not an issue for DeVos.  Rather, it serves her goal of bringing disrepute to the existing public education system.  Meanwhile, lack of regulation of charters in some states has presented opportunities to insert Christian notions into curricula and further erode the separation between church and state.

The fact that Donald Trump selected Betsy DeVos and the Republican Party approved her nomination to head the Department of Education, indicates their approval of her assault on public education and of her intention to “advance God’s kingdom” through religious education imposed on our children.

Public education still exists, luckily perhaps.  But the education system is still under continual attack by DeVos and her well-funded allies, and she still has the support of the Republican Party.  Consider this evaluation by a leader of the religious nationalists of the political position in which the Republicans find themselves.

“If you take the Evangelicals who are 27 percent of the electorate and you add to them 11 percent of the electorate that are frequent Mass-attending Catholics, folks, its 38 percent of the electorate, and 56 percent of the Republican vote nationwide.  If that vote goes away, the Republican Party ceases to exist as a reliable political party.”


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