There’s an important element missing in our national conversation about the flood of legislation attacking critical race theory, banning books, muzzling teachers, and opening public schools to legal liability for teaching about the realities of race in America and American history.
More than half the state legislatures have introduced or passed bans on critical race theory, which the supporters are adamantly against even if they cannot explain the first thing about it. (Please read Robert Jones’ skewering of one such proposal in Florida which makes it illegal for public schools to cause “discomfort” to white men.) We’ve seen the revival of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” proposals, also in Florida. In Tennessee, Pulitzer-prize winning Holocaust novel Maus has been banned, quite a story to break on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These bills are awful and rightly vilified for their anti-equality, anti-reality, anti-education goals. But that last goal is far larger than most people realize.
One anti-education goal is to create such uncertainty about rules and potential lawsuits that it scares teachers and administrators away from the subjects. This is part of an old playbook. Among the many tactics used to undermine the teaching of evolution in our public schools was to make it miserable on science teachers who dared educate children about this fact so that, whatever the Supreme Court might decide (and nowadays there’s little guarantee the court would do the right thing), teachers simply avoided the subject to make their lives easier.
This is also one of the Republican goals for imposing burdensome new requirements on voters—think voter IDs and barring same day registration—people will throw up their hands at the opaque, constantly-shifting bureaucracy and simply stay home.
Some are aware of this tactic but very few seem to understand the larger ambition of these laws and how they fit into a decades-long attack on public schools (my fellow RD writer Chrissy Stroop being one exception). They don’t just want to ban these topics or books, they want to destroy public schools altogether. I explore this in my new book, American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, due out in September.
Under our constitution, public schools must remain secular. To more mature students, they can teach about religion, but not preach religion as objective truth. Public schools may educate, but not indoctrinate. (We learned this the hard way.)
That separation of church and state is seen as a threat, rather than a blessing. With their focus on math, reading, science, music, art, physical education, and every other subject that was not religious education or indoctrination, Christian nationalists and other school choice activists believe that public schools are driving their children away from the church. It’s an old and widespread notion. Tara Westover recounts it in her bestselling memoir, Educated:
Dad said public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. “I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself,” he said, “as send them down the road to that school.”
Instead of seeing public schools as a baseline of education that people of any and no religion can agree on, which parents can supplement with the religion and holy book of their choice, Christian parents have been taught to fear public schools. This has been a decades-long attack, going back to Brown vs. Board of Education at least, and it’s been a central goal of Christian Reconstructionism and its heirs, as scholar Julie Ingersoll has been arguing for quite some time.
Rarely are attackers open about this goal, but occasionally the mask slips. Jerry Falwell wrote in his book America Can Be Saved!, which was published by Sword of the Lord Publishers, that he “hope[d] to see the day when … we don’t have public schools. The churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.” And if they can’t take them over, better to destroy them.
For instance, this week is National School Choice Week. It’s not about championing private education or ending public education, it’s just about giving people a choice, right? After all, conservatives and Republicans are champions of choice (so long as women aren’t making their own reproductive choices). Kyle Olson helped create and chair National School Choice Week through its 2011 birth. As its executive director, Olson wrote, “I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the public education temple and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”
Olson also ran the Education Action Group Foundation in Michigan, partially funded by Betsy Devos’s fortune. Betsy Devos and her family promoted vouchers and school choice “to help advance God’s Kingdom,” as she told “The Gathering,” the annual meeting of the country’s richest Christians. But also because, “The church—which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity.”
It’s not enough that Americans have a right to homeschool their children. Or that a Christian family can send their child to a Christian preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, university, and even law school; school choice and vouchers tax citizens to pay for that Christian education. And even that isn’t enough.
Katherine Stewart, the author and investigative journalist who’s been working in this space for more than a decade summed it up in her latest book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism: “For many supporters, of course, the underlying motive for voucher programs is not to improve education but to eliminate nonsectarian education.”
Whatever the latest bete noir of the Right, be it critical race theory, Common Core, desegregated schools, or evolution, destroying public education is the underlying goal. The methods alter slightly. Gutting public education. Defunding public schools. Imposing financial and legal liability on teachers and staff for teaching. But it’s all meant to “destroy the public education temple” and funnel kids into Christian schools. As I explain in the new book, this Supreme Court has been a willing accomplice in the crusade. We shouldn’t be. Nor should the media covering this biblical deluge of prejudicial, unethical legislation.
My fear is that conservative criticism of the media has done to it what creationists have done to teaching evolution in the public schools and what Republicans have done to so many voters—make it easier for the media to simply stay quiet about the real issue. Or worse, to prize “balance” over truth. There is a war on truth, as these laws show, and we won’t save it by attempting to be fair and balanced.