Shotgun Wedding: Notes on Public Education's Encounter with the New Christian Right

Article excerpt

"They feel the hand of God moving them within, and the impulses of the Spirit, and cannot be mistaken in what they feel."

-- John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

THE REJUVENATED Christian Right is the self-appointed conscience of American society. Without its unique brand of divinely inspired goading, its leaders believe, the nation is destined to sink into the compost heaps of atheism and secular humanism.[1] Armed with Biblical virtue and an unwavering certainty that they are right, the legions of the Christian Right are displaying unforeseen clout and sophistication in the public square of education.

The Christian/Religious/New/Evangelical/Protestant Right is old wine in new bottles bearing a variety of labels.[2] Whatever it is called, its current version is making tall waves, nowhere more visibly than in the vulnerable dominions of educational curriculum and governance. After a series of misadventures and miscalculations by its leaders in the mid- and late 1980s, the Religious Right was dismissed by political pundits and mainline religious spokespersons as a collection of buffoonish has-beens. Yet it has reemerged better organized, more sharply focused, and much wiser in the ways of postmodern secular society. Its all-out assaults on abortion, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, and our "godless" schools have elicited support across otherwise wide cultural chasms.

Where the schools are concerned, the Christian Right may be on a roll. The attitudes of the larger culture and its opinion shapers are showing signs of merging with some of the Christian Right's longtime pre-occupations with clean living, solid academic grounding, and respect for the family. Nothing obsesses the Religious Right more than getting children off to a strong moral start -- a troublesome task under normal conditions and even more so at a time of disintegrating values, order, and social institutions. If, as so many religious conservatives and extremists believe, children are the "inheritors of original sin" and are thus susceptible to indecent temptations, then exposing them to the evils of today's morally declining schools is risky and possibly calamitous.[3] Sara Diamond, a leading analayst of the Religious Right, puts it bluntly: "The right to determine how and by whom the minds of children are molded is the most valued prize in the tug of war between the Christian Right and secular society."[4]

IN EXAMINING the new Christian Right's designs for the mindset with regard to education, it is useful to acknowledge that nearly all of us have strains of fundamentalism or absolutism in our makeup, if not in a religious sense then as a matter of personal or intellectual style. Whether we pattern ourselves after Khomeini ("Islam contains everything; Islam includes everything; Islam is everything") or after Lombardi ("Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing") or after anyone else, most of us are convinced that we possess some special truth or uniquely unchallengeable knowledge about something of consequence. Nations, cultures, and leaders of all ideological colorations are equally susceptible to the appeal of fundamentalism. Indeed, its religious variety may prove to be "the last great ideological upsurge of the 20th century."[5]

From Operation Rescue to the turmoil in the former Soviet republics, fundamentalists of one persuasion or another seem bent on countering the forces of secularism and modernity. They divide the world into "embattled camps of good and evil -- in which [they] see themselves as a divinely called group, set apart from others, bound to a strict code of behavior and frequently subject to a charismatic leader."[6]

Thus it is that the Rev. Marion "Pat" Robertson, still the leading light of the Evangelical Protestant Right,[7] can say (and appear to believe profoundly) that the U.S. Constitution "is a marvelous document for self-government by a Christian people. …