Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Thu, 16 Apr 2015 21:35:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Past Imperfect of Barack Obama Tue, 14 Apr 2015 14:03:47 +0000 (AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

(AP Photo/Bill Frakes)

Speaking at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches last month, President Obama posed a question that captured why many continue to view him as hope personified, while others seem to see him as an existential threat. “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished?” he asked.

“Not yet finished”: That’s the line that separates worship of the founders from belief in the unrealized potential of what they began; it divides those who are nostalgic for freedoms supposedly lost which now must be restored, from those who recognize that the freedoms enjoyed by some have always been partial, while the struggle continues to guarantee them for all.

In case anyone missed that first “not yet,” Obama offered it four more times before the Selma speech was done: “We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won … Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.”

More than merely a well-crafted string of phrases on a significant occasion, the notion that the United States is “not yet perfect” may be the single most enduring theme of Obama’s political life.

The speech largely credited with saving his candidacy in 2008—itself called “A More Perfect Union”—relied on the rhetorical interplay of “perfect” as an adjective and “perfect” as a verb. “This union may never be perfect,” he said, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

Given in response to the controversy surrounding his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, the speech addressed race especially as “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”

This was for him not only an assessment of history, but a profession of faith. “I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people,” he said, “that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”

Many commentators have proposed that the president’s “A More Perfect Union” speech and his recent remarks in Selma are companion pieces. But they might be seen instead as reframings of the same simple yet subtly subversive idea that has repeatedly emerged for Obama at moments of crisis or reflection: While at no point in its history could the United States be described as perfect, he insists, it remains the responsibility of its citizens to attempt to perfect it. Hints that the word matters more to him as an act than a description were there even in his 2007 announcement that he would seek the presidency: “I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.”

Given the number of times he has said the words, and all that those words say about his understanding of what the country has been and could be, there’s a case to be made that “Not Yet Perfect” might prove to be Obama’s “Shining City Upon a Hill.”

Of course, it is also the antithesis of everything Ronald Reagan intended whenever he used that more famous phrase. For Reagan, the biblical “city upon a hill,” which Governor John Winthrop entreated the settlers of Massachusetts to build, presented a scriptural vision of history as something to be emulated rather than overcome. And while the promise of “not yet perfect” is for Obama ultimately a matter of faith, Reagan’s “city” suggests a very different religious interpretation of the past. As he explained a moment before he first used the phrase, at Conservative Political Action Conference in 1974:

You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage … Call it chauvinistic, but our heritage does set us apart.

Reagan would go on to use his version of the “city upon a hill” at every major juncture in his public life, including three campaigns for the presidency, two administrations, and most significantly in the farewell address that marked his departure from the national stage. Describing his last week in the White House in January 1989, he closed his final remarks as president with an elaboration of his understanding of what Winthrop might have had in mind three and a half centuries before:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

Had PolitiFact been around in 1989, someone might have noted that Winthrop’s city was never “shining,” nor was it as well established as the thriving and cinematic cityscape Reagan described. It is also a remarkable feat of revisionism to praise the governor who exiled iconic figures of early American religious dissent like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams as a “freedom man.”

Yet the most interesting departure from history in this American creation myth may be that though Reagan spoke often of the courage it took to reach this city, his city upon a hill, “built on rocks stronger than oceans,” was divinely guaranteed success in a way Winthrop’s was not. The past was not only prologue, it was an ideal to which he hoped the nation might return.

In the forty years since Reagan successfully repainted the origins of the United States with this broad brush, nearly every national candidate has repeated some version of “city upon a hill” as creed and shibboleth. Even Obama made use of this well-worn phrase—and perhaps inevitably he did so through the filter of “not yet perfect.” Invoking Winthrop while speaking in Massachusetts as the junior senator from Illinois, he delivered a 2006 commencement address that at once echoed and questioned earlier allusions:

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a city upon a hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.

For over two hundred years, it has. Not because our dream has progressed perfectly. It hasn’t. It has been scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, wounded by racism, shaken by war and depression. Yet, the true test of our union is not whether it’s perfect, but whether we work to perfect it.

Obama’s “city upon a hill” did not depart as far from Reagan’s interpretation as it at first might seem. After all, he still insisted that it was with a Puritan dream that the “American experiment began.” He would not embrace this dream, however, without acknowledging how it had been “scarred”—a mixed metaphor, but an arresting one: a wounded city upon a wounded hill.

Taking into account as it does the many ways the country it describes has not lived up to its ideals, this revised sense of the “city upon a hill,” has not yet supplanted the 40th president’s “shining” notion, and it is unlikely to do so. But in any case, since Obama first spoke the words nearly a decade ago, the limits and the potential of the nation’s perfectability have set the tone for much of the campaign and presidential rhetoric that followed.

Heard by some as an apology or admonishment, and by others as a stirring call to action, recognition of the nation’s flaws is risky political theater. Yet after overwhelming victories in two elections, Obama’s past imperfect has mostly paid off— certainly in terms of his own astonishing rise, and perhaps also as a catalyst for increased willingness to consider the light and the dark of the nation’s history.

Only the coming campaign season will tell if this kind of retrospection has had lasting effect. When asked to choose between directions for the future, voters in 2016 may also face a choice between visions of the past.

Peter Manseau is the author most recently of One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, from which this essay is adapted. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.

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What Can Be Done about Segregation in Churches? Tue, 07 Apr 2015 17:04:38 +0000

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Pictured is the Rev. Russell Moore, director of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In the wake of police violence that led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the protests that followed, religious leaders are again confronting the challenges racism continues to pose for them and their communities. This is nothing new for African American clergy, who have long been active in combating racism. But there is also growing evidence that white Christian leaders are taking these issues more seriously. A December 2014 poll by Lifeway Research found that “9 in 10 (91 percent) white pastors say racial reconciliation is mandated by the Gospel.”

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), was especially unequivocal: “A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.” In late March, the SBC hosted “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation Summit” in Nashville, to discuss and plan for greater interracial unity in its churches. “There is a biblical command and a national command that we hold all people equal,” said John M. Perkins, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. He added that the best way to overcome racism “is to develop multi-cultural churches.”

Of course, the SBC event was only one prominent effort out of many that religious communities have organized this past year to confront racism and diversity issues. In January, the United Church of Christ released a pastoral letter on racism as part of conversations it hosts “to confront the sin of racism in our desire to see the Church live and be as one.” Earlier this month, the United Methodist Church’s Wesley Theological Seminary hosted a panel of white and black church leaders on how faith communities can address the U.S. racial divide. The bishops of the Episcopal Church met on March 17 and announced they will write their most far-reaching pastoral letter on the “pervasive sin” of racism. The letter, according to Bishop Todd Ousley, will discuss the legacy of slavery and the “contemporary experience of the results of racism and divisions in this country and elsewhere around race.”

Although racial reconciliation has become a buzzword, its meaning in today’s social and political landscape eludes easy definition. The old adage, that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, still rings true today. According to Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, churches are 10 times more segregated than the neighborhoods they inhabit and 20 times more segregated than nearby public schools. One sociological study, to which Emerson contributed, notes that all Christian traditions—Catholic, Mainline, and Evangelical—are “hypersegregated.”

To ministers who are sensitive to the religious injunction to overcome racism but who understand their institutional reality, the tremendous challenge posed by racism weighs heavily upon their minds. Amid this confusion, many church leaders wonder what is to be done. Yet too often another equally important question gets ignored: What has been tried already?


IN 1946, THE AGING scholar and pioneering civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois observed a church on the West Coast, which he noted was doing what some might deem “strange and unpleasant things.” What he meant was that this church, to his astonishment, was bringing people of different races together. “I noted in my recent visit a movement which has no parallel so far as I know in other parts of the United States; and that is an attempt at interracial churches; at actually welcoming into a Christian church representatives of various races of people and carrying on the services and activities with reference to the well-being of these people.”

Du Bois was speaking of the interracial Church of Christian Fellowship of Los Angeles, a church planted in 1946 by Harold M. Kingsley. But he could have said much the same thing about three other California faith communities: the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, the South Berkeley Community Church, and the Albany Fellowship Church. These were experimental churches, which self-consciously brought together clergy and laity across racial lines.

As one congregation put it in WWII-era language, “Some people call us a ‘mixed’ congregation, for we are of many races: Negro, Oriental, Caucasian. We come from many economic backgrounds. But we do not think of ourselves as ‘mixed.’ We are a homogeneous people, liking each other as people, and knit together in the belief that God’s wisdom does not tolerate the words, ‘minority’ and ‘prejudice.’”

These congregations started small but grew quickly. A newspaper reported that the South Berkeley Community Church had grown to 175 within a year of its founding in 1943 and “attendance at Sunday services averages 55% Negro, 40% white and a few Chinese, church records reveal.” In a few years it would reach a peak of about 300 members. Du Bois observed that the Los Angeles church’s chief pastor was black, one assistant pastor was a white Quaker, and another was of Japanese descent. They were integrated in both pew and pulpit.

These churches developed a multiculturalism that would become common later in the century. The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, for example, organized a choir that was “a United Nations in miniature, is demonstrating harmony—both musically and racially,” according to the church’s newsletter. The quintet, four men and one woman, went professional and organized a singing tour and put out a record. They were even invited to the United Nations cultural meetings as a model of racial harmony.

California’s interracial churches traced their roots to Philadelphia and to clergy who created the Philadelphia Fellowship in 1936 as a means to gather people from established churches, mostly black and white, to meet each other. It was modeled on the “Interracial Sunday” meetings, which began in the 1920s as a once-a-year gathering of congregations of different races. Its guiding assumption was that bringing people together would undo harmful stereotypes and reduce prejudice. Fellowships based on the Philadelphia model were also organized in Baltimore, New York, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. In the 1940s, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all boasted full-fledged interracial churches as well.

But California played a pioneering role. In the 1940s, racial tensions in California were mounting as African Americans migrated from the South in search of work in defense industries. The black population of Berkeley, for example, rose by more than 400 percent, while Oakland’s black population rose by more than 500 percent in the 1940s. During WWII, race riots in Detroit and New York left dozens dead and hundreds injured. In addition, virtually all people of Japanese descent—the vast majority of them American citizens—had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into internment camps. These events were on the minds of the founders of the interracial churches.

Alfred Fisk, a white philosophy professor, proposed founding an interracial church to the local Presbyterian board as a way to alleviate mounting racial tensions in San Francisco. Fisk, an ordained Presbyterian minister, convinced the famous African-American theologian Howard Thurman to serve as co-pastor at the Fellowship of All Peoples. In Berkeley, Buell Gallagher and Roy Nichols served as co-pastors at the South Berkeley Community Church, which opened its doors in 1943. The South Berkeley Community Church was self-consciously placed in a “transitioning” neighborhood—one that was once predominantly white but was experiencing an influx of African Americans—in order to keep the neighborhood integrated by first creating an integrated church.

Looking beyond their neighborhoods, interracial churches weaved themselves into a national network of activists. At the San Francisco Fellowship of All Peoples, Thurman boasted, “There are nearly 2500 associate members and friends scattered throughout the United States and several in foreign lands.” These churches served as meeting places for anti-racist political organizations, they became active in local politics, they plugged into the nationwide struggle against segregation, and they became part of the movement that helped end Jim Crow in America.


ON A SUNDAY MORNING in February, I sat in the pews of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. About 20 people attended the service. Many of them had graying heads, like the Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake, who was a captivating and sincere speaker. The church has retained a diverse membership and the co-pastor system. The Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton led the congregation in a meditation session. Despite its diminished stature, the Fellowship is doing better than its peer institutions from the 1940s in the Bay Area. The South Berkeley Community Church is defunct, with a small group of well-wishers working to save the empty building by declaring it an architectural landmark. The Albany church has entirely vanished.

Interracial churches met the same fate as the mainline denominations that sponsored them, which lost many of their young members beginning in the 1960s and have been shrinking and aging ever since. But that is only part of the story. Beginning in the 1950s, tensions in these congregations increased between its black and white members. At the South Berkeley Church disagreements developed over worship style and control of resources that ripped the congregation apart. The old idea of bringing people together to dispel prejudice had run its course and congregants began asking more enduring and intractable questions about power and control over resources. People of different races had been brought together, but now, what was to be done when prejudice did not seem to melt away?

Howard Thurman’s answer to these tensions was interracial worship: through mystical experiences achieved during joint worship, an underlying spiritual unity would be achieved without sacrificing the distinctiveness of each individual’s cultural background. He implemented a ministerial internship program, designed to train young pastors to be more sensitive to the problems of racism and segregation. He hoped interracial worship would spread like wildfire throughout the country.

Others took an opposite stance, insisting on black power and autonomy. One such pastor, Albert Cleage, had trained at the Fellowship of All Peoples with Thurman in the 1940s. The ultimate barometer for Cleage was not how many blacks and whites worshiped in the same church but how vibrant and dynamic the black church was. Disillusioned with the trappings of Thurman’s church, Cleage went on to found the Shrine of the Black Madonna, where he preached black self-determination and became an important political figure in Detroit. Cleage reminds us that the goal of blacks and whites worshipping together is always in tension with questions of power and control, especially when it comes to worship style and church governance.

The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century also remind us about the limits of what used to be called “social engineering.” Today many African Americans argue that they have a thriving religious tradition that they see no reason to give up in order to create integrated churches, especially if the burden is placed on them to join white churches. There is also good reason to believe that church leaders value increasing diversity in their congregations much more than most churchgoers.

Much like today, the enthusiasm for interracial worship spaces in the 1940s was much more prevalent among denomination leaders and among the more liberal members of the clergy than it was among the laity. The interracial churches attracted mostly upwardly mobile African Americans and Asian Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods and white members were mostly racial liberals who came from faraway places. As projects to create organic communities that drew a broad swath of area residents, these churches were a failure from the beginning.

Where the interracial churches achieved lasting influence was in their political advocacy. Roy Nichols headed the local chapter of the NAACP in the 1950s and was the first African American elected to the district school board. Howard Thurman moved on to Boston University, where he mentored the young Martin Luther King Jr. Buell Gallagher joined the Harry Truman administration, and later became president of City College of New York, where he was known as an outspoken opponent of racism. William Rumford, the first black assembly member to join the California legislature, held organizing meetings at the Berkeley Community Church.

As importantly, interracial churches helped transform their denominations’ position on racism. Nichols, for example, helped integrate the United Methodist Church’s bureaucracy. Likewise, Gallagher pushed for the Congregationalists, and later the United Church of Christ, to combat racism. Protestant leaders like them had not lost sight of church integration as their major goal but they refused to wait for integration to happen at the grassroots before tackling injustice at the local and national level.

As predominantly white denominations make plans for racial reconciliation over the coming years, it is worth remembering that African Americans might have good reasons for not going along with their agenda. If mostly white churches are asked to become more inclusive, some might wonder why African Americans are being asked to join white churches and not the other way around. It is imperative to keep these power dynamics at the forefront and to ask, forthrightly, who is being asked to bear the burden.

There’s very little in this country’s history to suggest that most churches will integrate or that the process will be easy. But other tasks are available to church leaders that do not rely on the vagaries of volunteerism. In addressing racial discrepancies in denominational institutions or in political action, clergy could lead the way. Should Southern Baptists decide to use their political influence to push for legislation designed to monitor local police or alleviate urban poverty, for example, such action could have a far-reaching impact.

The interracial churches of the mid-twentieth century were, indeed, transformative but not in the way their leaders expected. The churches struggled to overcome the difficulties of bridging the racial divides of their era but 11 a.m. hour remained largely segregated across the country. It’s what they did with the other 167 hours of the week that constitutes their most important legacy. Today’s leadership would be wise to learn from their example.

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.” Follow him on Twitter.

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Why Law Professor Douglas Laycock Supports Same-Sex Marriage and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Wed, 01 Apr 2015 15:19:29 +0000 (University of Virginia)

(Courtesy of the University of Virginia)

Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law SB101, the state’s religious freedom bill, which prompted a sharp and vocal backlash. Critics say the bill will allow discrimination against the LGBT community on religious grounds. Amid the furor, law professor Douglas Laycock, himself a supporter of same-sex marriage, has come to the law’s defense. Religion & Politics corresponded with him over email about his views.

Laycock is a leading scholar on religious liberty issues. He had a role in crafting the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act on which state laws like Indiana’s are based. He has also argued a number of important religious liberty cases at the Supreme Court. He is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and vice president of the American Law Institute.

R&P: You support same-sex marriage, but you also have come out in support of Indiana’s religious freedom law. Why do you support SB101?

DL: A right to believe your religion, with no right to practice it, is meaningless. It is no more reasonable to expect religious believers not to act on their understanding of God’s will than to expect all gays and lesbians to remain celibate.

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment protects your right to believe a religion, but it provides limited, ambiguous, and highly contested protection for your right to practice a religion. Congress passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), unanimously in the House and 97-3 in the Senate, to restore legal protection for religious practice. Bill Clinton enthusiastically signed it.

In 1997, the Supreme Court said the federal law could not be applied to the states. If states wanted to protect religious practice they would have to do it themselves. There are now 20 state RFRAs, and 11 more states that have interpreted their state constitution to mean the RFRA standard, so 31 states altogether. This includes all the largest states except California: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and Florida.

Most of your readers have probably never heard of these laws, except for Hobby Lobby, because they haven’t done anything very controversial. There are very few cases, and the religious side loses far more often than it wins; these laws have been under-enforced, not over-enforced.

The critical fact with respect to all the hysteria over Indiana is this: No one has ever won an exemption from a discrimination law under a RFRA standard. Few have tried, and none have won. There is absolutely no basis in experience for the charge that these laws are a license to discriminate.

R&P: This week Gov. Mike Pence and the state legislature said they would amend the bill to clarify that their state RFRA does not allow discrimination against LGBT individuals. How could this be accomplished? And what precedent is there for this in other states?

DL: They could do something clumsy like exclude all discrimination claims, or all civil rights claims. The Texas RFRA does that. Of course religious liberty is a civil right.

They could do something more nuanced, that identifies the very small set of discrimination claims from which some religious objectors should be exempt, create specific exemptions for those, and exclude all the others from the state RFRA. The recent Utah legislation made an important start in that direction. There is now a statewide law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Utah—the reddest of red states. And there are important religious exemptions. The religious exemptions made it possible to enact a gay rights law.

They didn’t deal with all the issues; the new law doesn’t cover public accommodations. And the national gay rights organizations immediately denounced it and said it’s not a model for anywhere else. My understanding is that conservative legislators thought they had given away far too much, and held their noses as they voted for it.

And that’s really the problem. The two sides are so far apart, so polarized, so deeply mistrustful, that it is extremely difficult for them to agree on anything. The gay rights side increasingly appears to oppose any exemptions at all, except that they still seem to agree that the clergy don’t have to do the weddings. And we can’t even enact basic gay rights laws in most of the red states.

R&P: More broadly, how can states balance the civil liberties of LGBT persons with the religious liberty of others?

DL: Each side has to be allowed some space in which to live their own lives by their own values. We need to enact non-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation in the states that don’t have that. I have filed a brief urging the Court to require marriage equality as a matter of constitutional law, and then to protect the religious liberty of dissenters.

Churches and religious organizations, which generally understand marriage to be an inherently religious relationship, should be allowed to retain their religious definitions of marriage. And for purposes of conducting the work of the church, they should not be required to recognize same-sex civil marriages that are simply not marriages on their religious understanding. This is the most important thing from the religious liberty perspective: inside the religious organization should be an enclave where religious rules control. The gay rights side has been unwilling to concede even that.

No one should get an exemption that permits him to refuse to serve gays and lesbians as such. Gays and lesbians should be free to go about their daily lives without fear of encountering discrimination. No substantial business should get any kind of exemption, even in the specialized cases I am about to discuss. If tasks that are religiously prohibited in the owner’s view will come in ordinary course to a rank-and-file employee who does not object, or can easily be delegated to such an employee, you don’t really need an exemption.

I would exempt counselors from doing marriage counseling or relationship counseling for same-sex couples. It is in no one’s interest to force a counselor to work with a couple, or subject the couple to working with a counselor, if the counselor thinks the couple’s relationship is fundamentally wrong in its very existence. But the gay rights side will not concede even that; important forces want to drive all these conservative religious folks from the helping professions. The principal battleground has been efforts to force graduate students out of their degree programs.

I would exempt very small businesses, where the owner has to be personally involved in providing the services, from doing same-sex weddings. If you understand marriage to be an inherently religious relationship, and a wedding to be an inherently religious event—and if you understand your job as a wedding planner, or caterer, or photographer, to make this wedding the best and most memorable it can be for your clients—and if you understand same-sex marriage to be fundamentally at odds with the Christian or Jewish understanding of marriage, then you believe that you are being asked to commit a sacrilege. You are being asked to promote and help celebrate a religious ceremony that is religiously prohibited.

So I would exempt the very small businesses in the wedding industry, provided that some other reasonably convenient business nearby is available to provide the same goods and services. The gay rights side is unwilling to even think about that. They don’t see that weddings are a religious context; they don’t distinguish declining to do a wedding from simply refusing to serve gays.

I think that any such exemption for small businesses in the wedding industry would have to be specifically legislated. The general language of a state RFRA is not likely to be interpreted to create such an exemption, because judges have always believed that nondiscrimination laws serve a compelling government interest.

And if I sound frustrated with the gay rights side, I am equally frustrated with the conservative religious side. They are often equally adamant in refusing to concede any rights to gays and lesbians. Most of their churches do not teach discrimination against gays as such, but they generally prevent the enactment of gay rights laws in red states, and they remain adamantly opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Neither side is willing to respect the liberty of the other, and that’s the central problem.

R&P: You helped craft the original federal RFRA, signed into law in 1993. What was the purpose of the law then? And why does it still matter now?

DL: I was pretty junior then, and my role has been greatly exaggerated over the years, but I did help. The law was a response to a Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, in 1990. Smith said that the Constitution never protects religious practices from generally applicable laws. It’s still not clear what the Court meant by a generally applicable law. But it was clear that for religious practices to be protected, legislation was required. The federal RFRA was a direct response.

There have not been many cases, but there have been a few. In 2006, the Court unanimously protected a small group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which uses hoasca as a central feature of its religious services. Hoasca is a mildly hallucinogenic tea from the Brazilian jungle; this is a much larger religion in Brazil. The services are tightly controlled, under the supervision of a religious leader; the participants report a heightened state of spiritual consciousness. The trial judge held a nine-day hearing, and found that the government had not proved either a health risk or a risk of diversion to recreational markets.

And then there is Hobby Lobby, which has also been widely misunderstood. The owners of Hobby Lobby believed they were being asked to pay to kill babies. I wouldn’t characterize it that way, but if that’s what you believe, that’s a very serious thing. For the first time in American history, government had made it unlawful, at least if you were an employer, to practice a well-known teaching of the largest religions in the country. The same-sex marriage debate has the same feature. This attempt to suppress practices of the largest faiths is a new thing in the American experience. And this huge escalation in the level of government regulation of religious practices is of course producing a reaction from religious conservatives, and is part of the reason for the current polarization.

The Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby was actually very narrow. The case was decided on the ground that the government had another way to provide free contraception to all female employees without making the employer pay for it. So the impact on female employees would be “precisely zero.” Hobby Lobby did not say that employees had to do without to accommodate the religious views of their employer; that would be a different case.

The Court recently heard a case based on a similar federal statute that applies the RFRA standard to prisoners, and the Court unanimously protected a Muslim prisoner’s right to grow a beard. [Editor’s note: Laycock was one of the lawyers for the plaintiff in this case.]

So RFRA remains important to protect both tiny minority religions like the group that uses hoasca, major world religions that are a minority in the United States, like the Muslim prisoner, and occasionally, major American religions that are slipping into minority status and losing public policy battles over their fundamental religious commitments.

R&P: Critics argue that the Indiana law is unique compared to the federal and state RFRAs in that it extends protection to businesses and allows lawsuits to be brought by individuals and not just the government. Are those assessments fair and are these differences in Indiana’s law significant?

DL: The assessments are not fair and the differences are not significant. The substantive standard in the Indiana and federal RFRAs is identical, word for word: If government substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion, that burden must be the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.

On businesses, both the Indiana RFRA and the federal RFRA protect any “person.” The Indiana RFRA defines “person” to include corporations. Federal law also defines “person” to include corporations, in the very first section of the United States Code, commonly called the Dictionary Act. So the only difference is that in Indiana, the definition appears in the same statute; in the federal RFRA, it appears in a different statute and a different section of the code. In 1998-99, when Congress debated re-enacting a version of the federal RFRA that could be applied to the states, all the leadership on both sides agreed that the language of the federal RFRA covered corporations. When the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby held that the federal RFRA protects corporations, that was a perfectly straightforward reading of the words of the statute.

On private parties, the federal RFRA was clearly intended to provide a possible defense (subject, as always, to the compelling interest test) when a religious organization or believer is sued, whether by a government or a private citizen. The statute specifically mentioned relief against a government, because of concerns about sovereign immunity (the rule that you usually can’t sue a state). And that created an ambiguity; did it mean only against a government? The drafting history is very clear about how this happened, and “only” is not what they said or what they meant.

Most states copied the federal language, and copied the ambiguity. And the New Mexico Supreme Court took advantage of that, and said no RFRA defense in a suit by a private citizen. So the Indiana bill addresses that ambiguity. If your church is feeding the homeless, and the neighbors don’t like it, it really doesn’t matter whether you get sued by the neighbors or sued by the city.

The Indiana RFRA is clear that no one can sue a private citizen under the state RFRA. It merely provides a possible defense if the private citizen sues a religious organization or individual. And the Indiana RFRA is also clear that no one who establishes a successful RFRA defense can recover attorneys’ fees from a private citizen. Fees can be awarded only against the government. I think that each of those points would also be the best reading of the federal RFRA, but the federal RFRA is actually ambiguous on those points. So Indiana didn’t just clarify that it could be invoked against private citizens; it also clarified the protections for those private citizens.

R&P: Two legal contributors to Religion & Politics recently argued that Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on same-sex marriage have spurred on the recent uptick in state RFRAs. What do you think of this claim?

DL: That is partly true. Twenty state RFRAs have been enacted gradually over the last 22 years; most of them are not recent. They are needed with or without the contraception mandate and with or without marriage equality. But some conservatives who feel threatened by marriage equality have pushed RFRAs in response. And some legislators have said silly things about all the protection state RFRAs will provide, promising the base things that they can’t possibly deliver with the general language of a RFRA.

No state RFRA will protect anybody from a Supreme Court decision that says the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage. No more specific language would protect against that either. States will have to recognize those marriages, and every county will have to issue marriage licenses, and if judges perform marriages, some judge in every locality will have to perform same-sex weddings.

All that a state RFRA can protect against is state law. So in Indianapolis, Bloomington, and South Bend, where there are sexual-orientation nondiscrimination laws, a state RFRA could be offered as a defense. But as I said at the beginning, judges have always thought that nondiscrimination laws serve compelling government interests, and no one has ever won a RFRA exemption from a nondiscrimination law. Such a thing may never happen, and if it ever does, it will be in very narrow contexts.

In the rest of Indiana, it was perfectly legal before the RFRA to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; there is no law for anyone to be exempted from. Indiana reporters who have called me have not been aware of any significant practice of discrimination against gays and lesbians. It must happen occasionally, in isolated instances, but if it were happening to any significant extent, there would surely be complaints to the media.

Marriage equality will affect nondiscrimination laws in one way: it raises the religious stakes. As I already discussed, seriously religious folks view a wedding as an inherently religious event. So once there is marriage equality, those nondiscrimination laws in Indianapolis, Bloomington, and South Bend now apply in much more seriously religious contexts.

R&P: Do you think the Indiana religious freedom law has been misunderstood?

DL: It has been misunderstood by some people, and deliberately distorted and lied about by others.

R&P: What is your take on the reaction to it?

DL: It is very sad. It is very bad for liberty in America when neither side will respect the liberty of the other, and when a basic and widespread provision for protecting religious liberty makes a state the subject of boycotts and denunciations. It is a disaster that religious liberty has become a partisan issue, with one party in favor and one party opposed, and both parties exaggerating what religious liberty can actually protect.

Of course the folks denouncing the Indiana RFRA would claim that they still support religious liberty. But they don’t. It is meaningless to say that you support religious liberty only so long as the religious practice isn’t anything you seriously disagree with. Anybody can respect the liberty to do things that are OK with him. Just as we protect the freedom to say things we disagree with, we have to protect the liberty of religions we disagree with.

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America’s Broken Politics: A Conversation with Senators Joe Lieberman and John C. Danforth Tue, 24 Mar 2015 16:34:24 +0000 (Washington University in St. Louis)

(Washington University in St. Louis)

Almost everyone across the liberal to conservative spectrum seems to agree that American politics is deeply damaged. It often feels as if nothing gets done in Washington. Republicans and Democrats seem to despise each other. The most extreme voices appear to win over and over again, while everyone else has to live with the consequences. Religion, too, has played a role in the gridlock: sometimes it exacerbates the polarization; sometimes it improves it. Regardless, most of us today feel bleak about our political present and we worry profoundly about the future.

In an attempt to examine America’s broken politics, Washington University in St. Louis recently hosted a conversation between former Senators John C. Danforth and Joe Lieberman, two politicians from different political parties who served and worked together. Marie Griffith, the director of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, moderated the discussion, which took place on the campus of Washington University last December.

John C. Danforth recently retired as a partner with the law firm Bryan Cave. He began his political career in 1968 when he was elected attorney general of Missouri. He served in that post until 1976, when Missouri voters elected him to the U.S. Senate, where he served a total of 18 years. He later represented the United States as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and served as a special envoy to Sudan. As an Episcopal priest, Senator Danforth has been open about his Christian faith and commitments, and he has presided many important occasions, including the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. He has also written a book on the subject, Faith and Politics: How the Moral Values Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together, and he is currently completing a new book for Random House, titled The Relevance of Religion. Danforth has been a generous patron of numerous organizations, including the Center on Religion and Politics that bears his name at Washington University, which publishes this journal.

Joe Lieberman is perhaps best known as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States in 2000. In 1970 he was elected to the Connecticut State Senate and served there for a decade. He then served as Connecticut’s attorney general. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1988, and he served 18 years before being elected to a fourth term as an Independent in 2006. Senator Lieberman has spoken and written widely about his Orthodox Jewish faith and its relevance to politics, and he is the author, among other works, of the 2011 book The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the beauty of the Sabbath. Lieberman now practices law in New York and is co-chair of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project, a cross-party initiative designed to rebuild a bipartisan consensus around American global leadership and engagement.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MG: I’ll ask you first, Senator Lieberman. When did politics seem to function well and when didn’t it? And how can we begin to think better about our broken politics today?

Lieberman: Let me just say how much I’ve been looking forward to this evening. I’m really fascinated by the topic, because religion and politics have played a big role in my life.

I came to the Senate in 1989, which was the beginning of Jack’s third and last term. I came from Connecticut, where as the old saying goes, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” In other words, there was some partisanship to it. But even then, I was surprised at some of the debates that became partisan, such as the debate on whether we should be involved in the Gulf War, to give the first President Bush the authority to go on. I must say that every year since then, the Senate has become more partisan. I told Jack this story when we were talking about tonight on the phone, which he asked me to repeat, so I will.

The Senate is so divided in terms of party, even in schedule. Every Tuesday, Republicans meet separately at their caucus lunch; Democrats meet separately at their caucus lunch. One Tuesday evening I was at a reception in Washington and ran into a Republican colleague, and I said, “How are you doing?” and I said, “Did you have a good day?” and he said, “Oh, it was all right, but oh my god, those caucuses kill me.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said: “Well you know, Senator So-and-So gets up for the first 20 minutes and he’s the head of the campaign finance committee, and he calls our names out and tells us how we’re letting him down and we’re not raising enough money for the next election. Then Senator So-and-So gets up and talks about how we’re going to essentially make the Democrats look terrible in what happens on the floor this week, and that goes on for about a half hour. And that leaves about ten minutes for constructive discussion.” And I said to him, “I got to tell you the truth: the Democratic caucus is the exact mirror reflection of what you have just described.”

We’re at a point where George Washington, in his farewell address, which reads pretty well after more than two centuries, warned of what he called “the danger of factions” in America’s future. Really, I think he meant parties—that loyalty of members of the government to their faction would become more important than loyalty to the country. And I think we’re living Washington’s worst nightmare now. I mean I can talk if you’d like about why it’s happened, but basically people who run for Congress with the best of intentions—most of them have worked very hard to get there—and then acting in a way once they get there—because of party divisions, ideological rigidity—in a way that cannot really give them any satisfaction. It’s not why they ran and it’s certainly not why their constituents voted for them, and the result is a gridlock that makes the government dysfunctional.

If I had to say in one or two simple sentences why isn’t the place working anymore, what does it mean that people are too loyal to party ideology, big campaign contributors, it’s because people have lost the ability to compromise. If you go into a debate or discussion on a major piece of legislation and you’re going to take the position that if this one piece is not in there I won’t support it or, as some do, if I don’t get 100 percent of what I want in this bill, I’m not supporting it, the end result is that you and the Senate and the country are going to get 0 percent because we’re a country of almost 320 million people represented by 535 people in Congress. We’re an extraordinarily diverse country, and all of that is represented in Congress. You can’t get anything done unless people are willing to be reasonable with one another and compromise, and that’s not what happening. Who was it who had the definition of insanity—that you keep repeating the same fruitless behavior over and over again? The net effect of all this is that Congress is at a historic low in terms of public approval. The numbers hover somewhere around 10 percent or below. My friend John McCain says that when your numbers are that low, you’re basically down to close relatives or paid staff. And usually I say, “You know, I’m not so sure about all my paid staff.” Anyway, that’s a sad introduction with a joke at the end.

Danforth: Joe, thanks for being here. It really is great to see you. Believe it or not, I left the Senate 20 years ago. There are only three ways to leave the Senate. Two have to do with boxes, and you don’t want either of those. But I’m not sure I’ve seen you since, and I just want to let you know that you haven’t aged a day.

Lieberman: So good of you. That’s why I love you, John.

Danforth: I’m fishing, I’m fishing. Well, Joe talked about the Tuesday caucuses, the party caucuses—they have been going on for a long time. I got to the Senate in January 1977 and we had our party caucuses then, and they were reasonable affairs. But beginning in my last couple of years in the Senate, they changed, and they became basically schemes to embarrass the Democrats. And I take it that it was pretty much the same on the other side, and it’s easy to do it. The way you try to embarrass the other side is you concoct amendments for members of the Senate to vote on that will put them in a bad light. This is not a new strategy. When Ronald Reagan was first elected president, he put in place with the help of Congress what was popularly called Reaganomics, which was essentially, “Let’s cut taxes and trim back some of the spending programs.” The Democrats offered a series of floor amendments that we Republicans had to vote on, and basically they were to the effect of, “Let’s restore money for the halt and the lame and the veterans and so forth,” and not give tax breaks to the rich, and that was the kind of thing we had to vote on. The other side has done it to Republicans. And so these Tuesday meetings became increasingly “gotcha” meetings, where members of my party would stand up with real glee on their face—“Make em vote on it”—something that would make the Democrats look bad. Now, my understanding is that instead of the parties meeting once a week on Tuesdays for lunch, they now meet Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday for lunch, just as parties. And all of these meetings are in the same vein, namely, let’s do the other guys in and set ourselves up for the next election. So everything has to do with, how am I going to gain advantage for my party in the next election?

It really is remarkable, you know, that we just had an election a month ago and now you’re hearing the TV commentators say, “Well they better get with it in Congress because in a few months they won’t do anything because another election is coming.” And it’s as though it’s always the election right around the bend and everything that is done in Congress is to try and create an advantage, particularly by offering embarrassing amendments. What’s happened in the Senate, is that the majority leader, now outgoing, Harry Reid, decided, “Well I don’t want that to happen to my party, so I’m going to get control of the floor and not allow any amendments to be offered.” And so the Republicans say, “We’re going to do the same kind of thing. If anything comes up, we’re going to filibuster it.” So now it takes 60 votes to get anything. That is new. I mean that was the filibuster rule, but when the filibuster is just tried occasionally, okay, that’s what it takes to invoke cloture and end the filibuster. Now it’s the standard way of proceeding. So the effect is gridlock. The effect is, nothing gets done. And that, I think, is the current state of American politics.

Now I have one further thought. And that is, why is it that partisans in Congress take these exceptionally hardline positions? And compromise has become a dirty word? We won’t allow it. Why is that? Why no compromise? Why is the spirit of compromise gone? That really is a big change recently. It’s gone because politicians want to succeed and the way they succeed is to get reelected, the way the get reelected is to get nominated, to get nominated they have to appeal to their so-called base, and the base, certainly in the Republican party and I think increasingly in the Democratic party as well, are the purists. And their view is, don’t give an inch. And this is what members of Congress hear: Don’t give an inch. So the moral of the story is that there have to be other voices, and there has to be participation on the part of people who are not just the party regulars who show up at primary elections. It’s very important for more people to vote in primaries and very important for more people to show up at political meetings and be counter-voices to what the politicians are hearing.

Lieberman: I agree with everything Jack has said, and I think the analysis particularly about appealing to the core constituencies has been heightened by the misuse of a good thing, which was the Supreme Court decision, which I think was in the 60s, Baker v. Carr, which said basically that the Congressional districts had to be about equal after every 10-year census, because otherwise people who had 200,000 in their district would have more weight in Congress than people with 2 million. That led to redistricting every 10 years, and the politicians took hold of that and drafted lines to protect incumbents in the House. And so the districts became more and more partisan. Basically, to just put an exclamation point after what Jack has said, most analysts say that out of all the 435 seats in the House, almost 400 are really uncontested on Election Day, on most normal election days. It’s all about the primary. And here’s why this has a bad consequence—this and dependence on partisan and ideological contributors to your campaign—because you won’t take a risk. You can’t solve the country’s most difficult problems. Take the debt—now over 17 trillion dollars—it’s hard to believe, and we’ve done that over the last 14 years. You can’t solve that and make everybody happy. You’ll do the right thing for the country, you’ll probably be unpopular with some groups for a while, but in the end I think you’ll be popular because the economy will get better. But the whole place is risk averse because they don’t want to offend the partisan group back home.

You know, I thought of something. When Jack was still there, there was a tradition in the Senate that seems quite quaint and outdated now. During my first term the best I can recall no incumbent senator would go into the state of another incumbent from the other party and campaign against that person. That happens all the time now. Now you can imagine the effect that has when you get back in the Senate. You go to incumbent Senator B, who you’ve just campaigned against, and ask for his or her support on a bill, and, you know, “Hell no! Where were you last November?” [Laughs.] So you know, that’s just a little anecdotal response to what Jack has said.

Danforth: I was elected to the Senate in 1976, so I went to Washington and started in the Senate January 1977. I was then 40 years old. And the Republicans only had 38 seats. 38 seats is nothing. It’s just nothing. And I landed on the Senate Finance Committee, and what a great committee. It has this terrific jurisdiction over taxation and international trade, healthcare, social security, all the big issues. And so I show up, one of 38 republicans, the junior member of the minority party in the Finance Committee, and the chairman of the committee is Russell Long. One of the great experiences was to know Russell Long. He was just terrific. So I take my seat, I’d never met Russell Long before, this was my first day! And I’m sitting at the end of the table and the finance committee was at work drafting a letter to the budget committee about what our plan was going to be for the next year. Here is what we’re going to do this ensuing year. There was a little pause in the proceeding and I put my hand up and I said, “Mr. Chairman,” and he looked down the table at me, and I said, “I have an idea.” And he said, “Oh? What’s your idea?” and hey, I’m a Republican, and I said, “I think we should have a tax cut.” And he said, “How much?” Well, I hadn’t thought about that. [laughter] So I said, “5 billion dollars.” And this was 1977—5 billion dollars was worth something. [laughter] And he said, “All right. Any objection?” Nobody said anything. And he said, “That’s agreed to.” And I thought, “Wow!” [laughter] “This is going to be great!” So I hustled back to my office and cranked out press releases telling the people of our state that on my first day on the job I’d gotten a 5 billion dollar tax cut. Actually I had done nothing of the kind—we were writing a letter to the budget committee, it didn’t have anything to do with real legislating—but I put it in my press release. Here’s the question: why did Russell Long do that? Senior Republican, junior nonentity, one of 38 Republicans—why did he do that?

Fast forward 8 years, Republicans are now in control of the Senate. I become chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and I decide I’m going to call on Russell Long and ask him, how do you become a good committee chairman? He gave me two pieces of advice. One is never hold a grudge, because your opponent today you’ll need as your ally tomorrow, and the second is, give everyone on your committee a sense of belonging, a sense of participation, a sense of being part of the action. That’s what he was doing. He was making me look good! I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

Lieberman: It’s rarely the case, Jack. It’s a wonderful story. So it leads me to this response: It reminds me and everyone here that politics is not a science, it’s an art. Even though there are departments of political science at great universities like Washington University, and even though some of the most important decisions in politics are based on numbers—the number of votes you get, the number of votes you have to pass legislation—ultimately I say it’s art because it really deals with people being able to work together, people being able to trust each other, people feeling like they belong on the committee. There’s very little of this. It’s part of the reason why the place is dysfunctional and the parties have dominated. The parties are some of the cause of that, but there’s more to it than that. I could go on too long about it. Part of it is the schedule of the Senate. The joke in Washington is that the two worst things to happen to Congress were the advent of air conditioning and modern airplane travel. Air conditioning because Congress can stay there during the summer. Before that, Congress used to come in January and pretty much stay until late spring and then go home. But air travel, because generally speaking, senators arrive for a vote Monday afternoon—a bed check vote, so-called, usually not a very important one. They work Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday—you can talk to Harry Reid in the last several years and Mitch McConnell will have the same experience next year—the members are going over to the leader and saying, “I got an event back home,” or “I got a fundraiser in St. Louis or New York” or whatever. “I got to get out of here, early today, Harry or Mitch.” And by midafternoon—sometimes a little later—they’re on the plane out of town. When they’re there they’re running around to different events. There’s very little time for members to get to know each other and particularly across party lines because of the division of the caucus and all the rest. So what I’m saying is that in the end, the Senate—all the big debates and big issues and real problems—in one sense it’s 100 people going to work in the same place every day and it’s really like pretty much any other workplace. If you trust the person you work with and perhaps you even like the person you’re working with, you’re more likely to cooperate with him or her. And the prospects for that are less and less today because members really don’t know each other that well besides the “you’re in my caucus” and “you’re not in my caucus.”

Just a brief story. I was part of a group with Lamar Alexander from Tennessee that was trying to figure out a couple years ago, how do we break through some of this partisanship? And we invited in two of the senior members of the Senate: Ted Stevens from Alaska, Republican, and Danny Inouye, Democrat from Hawaii. Both are now gone from the Senate and this earth. They were really remarkable people. Interestingly, both were the first senators from their states after statehood, and neither from the continental U.S. They had an unbelievable relationship. For years and years and years they were the top Republican and top Democrat on the all-powerful Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and then the full committee. They used to say you have more staff when you’re in the majority; when one party would lose the majority the other would come in and pay for the other’s staff, so they could keep the same staff. Ted Stevens told me a story that was so quaint. He said, “One of the reasons how I learned about the Senate—when I first came, I used to carpool in with Mike Mansfield, who was later the majority leader and a Democrat,” and I forgot a couple of others. “Basically we were in town all the time and we’d rotate when we’d leave the car for our wives”—this was the old days—“and we just got to know each other.” Stevens said, “Once I put an amendment on a bill, and a Democratic senator got up and opposed it and all the Democrats fell in line, they were in the majority, and defeated the amendment. And I knew he didn’t know a damn thing about it”—knowing Stevens, his language was a little more florid than I have just spoken—and he said, “I went over to Mike Mansfield, and I said, ‘Mike, I don’t think your folks understand this amendment.’” And Mansfield said, “Well, tell me.” And he told him about it, and he said, “Mansfield moved to reconsider the vote. And explained that he’d talked to me and thought I was right, and he urged all Democrats to vote for the amendment, and it passed. That would never happen today. And part of it was because we carpooled together, we knew each other.”

Danforth: It sounds like it’s not a big point, but it is. There is a breakdown in social interaction, I think. And I’ve really been gone a long time, but I do know that we had a lot of social interaction across party lines. And when you’re in someone’s home and you know the senator’s spouse and you know the children of that family, it does have an effect on how you act. I was told by one incumbent senator that this person couldn’t think of six other senators he would have over at his house for dinner. Part of it is the cost of living in Washington. It’s the great populist thing: Never give these people a pay raise, that’s terrible, they’re in it for the money. They’re not in it for the money. All of them could make more money elsewhere. But they can’t afford to have their families there. And it’s just one little thing—Marie, do you mind if I just briefly interrupt this program for a commercial message?

Griffith: Go right ahead. About what?

Danforth: Religion.

Griffith: Okay! Well, that was next.

Danforth: I want to talk about why this breakdown is, I think, a religious issue. Because I think that the message that politicians are hearing now—members of the Senate, members of Congress—is basically from the base, “Don’t compromise, don’t move an inch.” And from everybody, “Your job is to give me mine, now. Give me my benefits and don’t raise my taxes.” And politicians who want to be popular and want to be reelected a) attend to their base and b) don’t say anything that’s not popular. I think that the antidote to those messages is essentially religious. Because I think religion says to the ideologically pure, the true believers, it says, it’s just politics. It’s not absolute. There are no absolutes in politics. It’s only politics, it’s only sausage-making. And it should not be confused with religion. Back in 1982 I was running for reelection, and I thought I was going to lose the election. I was in a deep depression, oh my gosh, my whole career is going to be ruined. And my daughter DD, who is here tonight, was trying I guess to cheer me up, and she said during my despair, “Well, it’s not the World Series.” [laughter] And it isn’t. And it isn’t religion. And I think religion says—faithful people say—compromise is something that is expected from politics. Because if it’s not compromising, first of all it’s not respectful, it’s a violation of the love commandment. But secondly it’s idolatry. It’s making a political ideology an absolute. That is idolatry—it’s not making something out of wood, it’s making something out of ideas. It’s making politics something that it really isn’t. And I think that that is really, really an important thing for religious people to say to politics.

Lieberman: So I want to join in your commercial message. I think that’s a brilliant insight. How does religion organize itself to influence politics in that way? You’re right: Religion is really about what ought to be. There’s a great rabbi of the last century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who talked about there being in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, two covenants, if you will. One was with Abraham, which he called the “covenant of fate,” which is the original covenant, but really what we are, what one is—in this case as a Jew but more broadly of course because Abraham transcends the monotheistic religions

The other covenant was entered at Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the rabbi called that the Covenant of Destiny, the values that we aspired to. In other words, not what we are, as in the Covenant of Fate, but what we hope to be, as in the Covenant of Destiny. And religion generally is about as you said what we ought to be. It’s about vision, perhaps a prophetic vision. Politics is deep in what is but really at its best it tries to mediate between what is and what ought to be. So that’s where religion can have an impact if we can figure out how to organize it: in raising politicians above where they are now, particularly the ones in Congress. In the Hebrew Bible the most powerful expression or illustration of the prophetic vision is the long journey of the children of Israel through the desert for 40 years with a lot of difficulties on the way, making it hard on their leader Moses and even turning against God, or complaining to God, but ultimately seeing that the way they reached the promised land was by joining together and working together. It wasn’t easy.

It may be that you’re on to something really unique, because frankly nothing else so far has worked to disenthrall those in power in Washington from where they are—the gridlock—and to liberate them back to where I think most of them really want to be. Of course the point of leverage here is that most Americans and most members of Congress are religious. But I think that what happens, which happens in other parts of our lives, is they separate their religious beliefs and aspirations and values from the work that they’re doing in Congress. I don’t mean even substantively, I mean the way they’re going at it—the fact that they’ve allowed themselves to be trapped by loyalties they have made idols.

Danforth: But I think it’s not just the politicians. Politicians, look, they’re human beings. They want to win, they want to tell people what they want to hear, which is exactly what they do. And what people want to hear is, “I’ve got it coming. I’ve really got it coming. I’ve been treated so unfairly. I deserve more than I’m getting from politics.” And the politicians say, “Oh, of course. You’re right.” Where’s the counter-message to this? There was this concept of our first four presidents that was one of the great Republican principles in the early days of our country. And it was called virtue. Virtue to them meant great conduct, but it meant something else: It meant not grabbing everything yourself but putting the common good ahead of personal interest. All of them—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison—spoke about virtue. Madison, the consummate political realist, Madison said, “Without virtue, everything is just going to fall apart.” Well, where’s that message anymore? It’s not coming from politics. JFK, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and he said, “Let the world know that we will pay any price and bear any burden in the pursuit of liberty,” that was more than 50 years ago, and have you ever heard anything from any politician like that since? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any politician that would say, you should pay any burden at all, pay any price, however small, no. You should get a tax cut. Keep your social security checks coming. Medicare! All of this stuff. So we’ve got the 17 trillion dollar national debt, and growing. So where does the counter-message come from?

Griffith: Religion has been part of the problem at times, too. It sounds like both of you are in some ways talking about cultivating a particular kind of virtue, or returning to certain kinds of virtues, rather than talking about “all” religion. Can you be more specific about what you’re advocating?

Lieberman: You know, I was just thinking as Jack was talking that if there’s a place to be encouraged about this, it is that some of these values and virtues are actually still lived out in the lives of people. There’s still an awful lot of volunteering for charitable or communal organizations, religious, not religious, etc. It’s the fundamental feeling that people get tremendous satisfaction out of serving a cause larger than themselves. At some point they want to feel that they’ve done something that may leave the place better when the leave, or is just beyond taking care of themselves. And it’s perhaps easier for you and me, out of office now, to say, but I think that there’s a lot of people in this country, and it might just be a majority, who would respond to a leader who would challenge them to be more selfless. To make the country as strong as they want it to be again. And I hope somebody tries it in the next presidential election. It may be that the country is so fed up with the status quo and knows that it’s not just that Congress is not producing widgets—the Congress is not solving problems that people have that are real. Whether it’s the debt or the condition of too many of our public schools—we’re failing a lot of kids, including mostly poor kids—whether it’s something like climate change, we have a series of problems that it seems as if Congress is going to wait to become crises or catastrophes before they deal with them, and it’s going to be very hard. I wish somebody would come along and appeal to our better nature. Incidentally, if I had to cite two things or three that got me into public service, it would be that Kennedy inaugural address. I was going into college that year, and it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of people of my generation who were catalyzed into public service by those ideas.

Griffith: Speaking of problems and issues to be solved, one issue as you know that’s facing the St. Louis region is the tension around race, racism, and inequality in and around Ferguson, and here we’re just about 10 miles from Ferguson. I think we talked a little bit in our conference call about ways you might think about bringing some of these ideas about religion to bear on these kinds of broader issues that are very live across the country. Senator Danforth, could you speak to that?

Danforth: I think this whole thing has been heartbreaking for all of us who love this town. I mean, we love it. When I left the Senate I didn’t leave because I was tired of it or I didn’t like it. I loved being in the Senate. I wouldn’t like it now, but I loved it at the time. I wanted to come home. This is our home. If you go around and talk to just scads of people in St. Louis, you’ll get the message, “We love it here.” And then we have become sort of the national or international standard for something awful. And we got to make it right. So I think that we need a project here. There are just so many good people in this town. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands of them. And they’re not mean, nasty, violent, racist people. They’re good people, and they take pride in having a community in which they live, so we got to make this thing right. We got to have a project, in my opinion, and part of the project, a lot of it, is governmental stuff. People are working on this. So what are we going to do? People say we need more representative police departments. Good, let’s work on that. We can do that. There are ways to do that. People say that these traffic tickets, speed traps and so on to make money for these little municipalities, basically poor municipalities, it’s just wrong, it’s asking for trouble. We can fix that. We can do that. Or the body cameras, if that’s a good idea. There are things we can do; let’s just get on with it. Let’s turn this from St. Louis being the standard for just awfulness to a community that can turn it around, and I think that this, too, is a responsibility for particularly our religious congregations. It’s not just “okay, let’s change the law on how much revenue municipalities can get from traffic tickets,” or “let’s recruit more African American police officers.” That’s good stuff to do. But I believe that being a faithful person must entail more than writing a letter to your congressman or your state legislator. So what can religious congregations do? What would happen if our religious congregations—I’m a great believer in congregations—maybe some people worship God on the golf course, but I bet they don’t—

Lieberman: [laughs] They may pray to God on the golf course.

Danforth: More likely curse God. [laughs] But let’s suppose that our religious congregations started thinking about, “Okay, let’s get some projects going here.” What could they be? “Let’s support some schools.” Our daughter Mary is involved in starting the Hawthorn School. It’s going to be on North Kingshighway and it will be a charter school for girls, teaching them STEM curriculum. That’s a big deal. Why couldn’t our congregations say, “Okay, we’re going to help something like that,” or “we’re going to have a mentoring program,” or “we’re going to have a one-to-one relationship with another congregation in another part of town, we’re going to make them stronger. We’re going to make them community centers. That’s something we can do.” And I think that’s what people in St. Louis want to do. So let’s get on with it.

Lieberman: I don’t have much to add to that. I’d say, Jack, your response is both characteristically constructive and characteristic of you, to take on that kind of personal feeling of almost guilt for this region. I do want you to know from the perspective of somebody who’s been in the Northeast since the trouble broke out in Ferguson, after the grand jury decision, that I don’t think anybody I’ve talked to sees it as a St. Louis or Ferguson problem. In other words, we don’t see it as “that’s them.” I think people are seeing it as us. And feeling that notwithstanding that we have an African American president, notwithstanding that we have African Americans at higher and higher levels of every area of activity in America, there are still a lot of African Americans who are left behind and are not treated equally. That we don’t have equal opportunity. And I agree with you. I think that in some ways religions and religious entities have pulled off that particular battlefield. I mean religions were really—I’ll say a good word for religion here—American history religion has played a very constructive role overall. In the beginning the founders framed our founding documents based really on a lot of their religious beliefs. Self-evident truth that all of us are created equal and endowed not by the philosophers of the enlightenment but by our creator with the rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The abolitionist movement was led by religious leaders and religious congregations, and so too with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it’s time for religious groups to come back onto the field and continue the work because it’s not over, the need is not over.

Danforth: I wrote a book several years ago and it was a reaction to what I thought was the misuse of religion to divide us, and the creation of religiously fraught wedge issues and the use of them for political purposes. I wrote that book and Rush Limbaugh spent a couple of segments attacking my book. I bet you’ve been the topic of Rush.

Lieberman: Yes. Something else we have in common. [laughter]

Danforth: Anybody else? You haven’t lived! [laughter] But he said, “Oh no, Danforth says religious people should get out of politics” No, I think they should get into it, not out of it. But it’s really interesting. Religion can be used divisively, has been used divisively—look at Iraq. Very divisive. That’s why we kept it out. We don’t want the entanglement of religion and politics in the United States and we certainly don’t want political agendas. But the meaning of religion, the meaning of the word, the root of the word, is the same as for “ligament.” It means “to bind us together.” That’s what it means. In Hebrew, “shalom,” as I understand it, means “wholeness.” In Christianity, “in Christ all things held together.” Holding together—the ministry of reconciliation—really is religion in a constructive, positive way, not to try to win elections—“I’m on God’s side, you’re not”—but religion is binding us together. And that’s a great national project as well as a great religious project.

Griffith: Please join me in thanking Senator Lieberman and Senator Danforth.

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Nebraska: A Cornhusker Prays with FCA Tue, 17 Mar 2015 17:56:50 +0000 A Cornhusker Prays with FCA.

(Courtesy of The Gospel Coalition)

(Courtesy of The Gospel Coalition)

My childhood was oriented around Nebraska Cornhusker football. A pastor’s kid growing up in McCook, a town of 8,000 in southwest Nebraska, I came of age during the Cornhuskers’ string of championship runs in the 1990s. I was more likely to skip church on Sunday than miss the Saturday radio or television broadcast of the Cornhusker game. Occasionally I scored tickets to see the action in person. I have vivid memories of the four-hour pilgrimage east to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, where I joined fellow Huskers as we sang hymns like “Dear Old Nebraska U,” chanted “Husker Power!” and participated in the call-and-response liturgy of “throwing the bones” (crossing our arms into an X) after a spectacular defensive play.

Not everyone in Nebraska roots for Cornhusker football, but nothing else unites the state quite as much. Even for dissenters, the power of the Big Red cannot be avoided. Fall weddings must be planned around football games; trips out in public on game day must be taken with the assumption that the radio broadcast will be piped through the speakers of whatever establishment you are visiting. It is no wonder that scholars have found Cornhusker fans useful when exploring the “sports-as-religion” thesis.

There are plenty of others states that love college football (see: every state in the South). But there is something different about the context in which Nebraska football operates. This difference can be traced, in part, back to the Morrill Act of 1862. The law offered the sale of federal lands in the West (lands from which American Indians were forcibly removed) to fund the establishment of land-grant colleges in participating states. In states like Kansas (Kansas State), Alabama (Auburn), and South Carolina (Clemson), the Morrill Act funded new public colleges separate from the state university—inadvertently creating long-lasting intrastate athletic rivalries. Elsewhere, in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, the state university and land-grant college were joined together in one institution. The decision by Nebraska to create one unified statewide public institution of higher education—combined with the absence of professional teams or large private universities—ensured that as college athletics developed in the twentieth century, the loyalties of Nebraska’s football fans would be united. “No mountains. No beaches. No big-league teams,” Tom Callahan wrote in TIME in 1983. “Other than slow-changing seasons, burning summers, bitter winters, and autumns that can be rather a brilliant compensation, only this football team gathers up an entire state of people and brings them to one emotional place.”

The University of Nebraska first fielded a football team in 1890. By 1893 Nebraska student Willa Cather was singing the praises of the program. “A good foot ball game is an epic,” Cather wrote in the student newspaper, “it rouses the oldest part of us.” From 1900 until 1940, the Cornhuskers had only two losing seasons, emerging as a national football power. The team struggled in the 1940s and 1950s, but as more Nebraskans attended the school in the postwar years and as the era of big-time college athletics emerged, head coach Bob Devaney led a Big Red renaissance. Under his watch, which stretched from 1962 until 1973, Nebraska won 81 percent of its games, eight Big Eight conference titles, and two national championships. Devaney’s successor, Tom Osborne, kept the football program rolling until his retirement in 1998. Osborne’s last five years were especially remarkable: from 1993 until 1997, the Cornhuskers won as many national championships (three) as they lost games.

Devaney and Osborne are both revered figures in the state. It’s fitting that they also represent Nebraska’s two leading twentieth-century religious denominations: Roman Catholicism (Devaney) and United Methodism (Osborne).

Devaney generally didn’t make a public display of his Catholicism, but some Catholics in Nebraska found it necessary to make a public display of their Cornhuskerness. This was particularly true in 1973, when Nebraska and Notre Dame matched up in the Orange Bowl. Loyalties collided: while the Cornhuskers claimed to represent Nebraskans, Notre Dame claimed the same for America’s Catholics. In Huskerville: A Story of Nebraska Football, Fans, and the Power of Place, Roger Aden recounted the story of a young Nebraska Catholic boy going to mass on the day of the game. “The entire parish was wearing red,” the fan recalled. “They wanted to show that the fact they were Catholic did not mean they were going to refuse to be Nebraskans.”

Under Devaney, Cornhusker football became a kind of religion of its own. Under Osborne, the state’s devotion to the program became a means through which Christianity could be promoted. One of the primary beneficiaries and agents of this mingling of faith and football was the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

FCA, founded in 1954, was viewed early on as a tool to harness the nation’s growing obsession with sports and use it for civic good by channeling it into Christian expression. FCA aimed to strengthen Christian churches with an infusion of newly committed Christian youth, who would then go on to make better citizens. Few raised eyebrows as FCA’s celebrity athletes came to public schools in the South, Midwest, and California, dishing tales from the big leagues and selling students on the benefits of Christianity. True to its ecumenical nature, an FCA campaign in Omaha in 1957 featured stops at public schools and Catholic schools. But despite its more broad-based appeal in the 1950s, by the 1970s FCA had moved decisively into the conservative evangelical sphere alongside organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ.

Osborne’s connection to FCA dates back to 1957 when he had a profound religious experience while attending a national FCA camp. As he wrote in his book More Than Winning, “Until 1957, most of what I believed about God was a sort of second-hand religion.” At the FCA camp that year he mingled with Christian sports stars. For the first time, he recalled, Christianity seemed exciting. By the end of the camp Osborne felt that “my faith really became my own.”

In 1967, soon after Osborne became an assistant at Nebraska, he helped launch an FCA huddle on campus. As FCA expanded in the state and as its institutional infrastructure matured, Osborne provided FCA with access to the Nebraska football team and served as a powerful statesman for the organization. FCA huddle groups in Nebraska expanded from 30 in 1976 to 220 by 2001. In the 1980s, a “Cornhuskers for Christ” group featuring Nebraska football players regularly toured the state; by the mid-1990s Cross Training, a publishing house based in Nebraska, churned out books connecting Cornhusker football with the conservative evangelical faith favored by FCA. I still have from my childhood library four Cross Training books: I Can, a religious biography of Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown; Lessons from Nebraska Football, featuring moments from Nebraska football history combined with bible lessons; Hearts of Champions, a collection of twenty evangelical conversion narratives from Cornhusker coaches and players; and One Final Pass, a biography of Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer, who tragically died in 1996 while flying to speak at an FCA event.

Berringer’s story, in particular, shows just how connected FCA was with Nebraska football. In 1995 during his senior season, Berringer became born-again through relationships developed in FCA. Months later, in April 1996, the beloved backup quarterback died in a plane crash, triggering a statewide outpouring of emotion. Ron Brown immediately saw the evangelization potential: in print, radio, and television media across the state, he (and other FCA leaders) highlighted Berringer’s recent conversion and the suddenness of his death. Would Nebraskans catch Brook’s “one final pass,” Brown asked in a video made with support from the University of Nebraska athletic program, and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?

For many Nebraskans, using Nebraska football to evangelize was not a problem. Since the 1940s Nebraska had been a bastion of conservative politics and Nebraskans generally supported a prominent public role for Christian institutions and expressions. Most Nebraskans took it for granted that faith was a central part of the Cornhusker program. It helped that many Nebraskans saw in FCA a generalized Christianity imbued with the character traits and values Nebraskans liked to think that they possessed in a unique way: working hard, doing things with integrity, believing in a higher power; “Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory,” goes the oft-quoted phrase inscribed on the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium. Those generalized notions of Christianity were what Sister Mary Hlas, a nun well-known for her Husker enthusiasm, had in mind in 1982 when she congratulated “Tom Osborne and his players” because they “are not members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in name only, but they truly live out their philosophy.”

For his part, Osborne cultivated goodwill by leaning towards an irenic, cooperative brand of evangelicalism. He remained a member of the United Methodist church and he encouraged players to pursue the benefits of a committed spiritual life within their chosen religious traditions. Thus, when Milt Cooper, the national director of programs for FCA, said in 1998 that “the Christian atmosphere” within the Nebraska football program was “one of the best in the nation, if not the best,” most Cornhusker fans took it in stride, if not pride.

But not all Cornhusker fans. The team was too central to the state’s identity to allow its connection with an evangelical-leaning Christianity—or even a generalized Christianity—go unchallenged. Especially for those affiliated with the Nebraska ACLU, the public Christian image was potentially unconstitutional. Beginning in the 1990s, the ACLU increasingly scrutinized FCA’s access to Cornhusker football and to public high schools. In response, FCA defended itself on legal grounds and argued that the ACLU’s views represented only a tiny fraction of Nebraskans. Since the majority of Nebraskans did not oppose what FCA was doing, why did the ACLU have a problem?

The frequent battles between the ACLU and the FCA often centered on the actions of Assistant Coach Ron Brown, the leading representative of the FCA/Cornhusker fusion in the post-Osborne era and a longtime member of an evangelical, nondenominational church in Lincoln. As an African American, Brown occupied a unique place of prominence in Nebraska. African Americans constitute just five percent of the state’s population, but are usually a majority of the football team’s starting lineup. Brown used his position to support racial equality and reconciliation—albeit in ways that other African American leaders, like longtime State Senator Ernie Chambers, found ineffective.

Unlike Osborne, Brown wears his evangelistic zeal on his sleeve, and he has often spoken out against homosexuality. For example, in 1999 on his weekly radio show he called on Christians not to abandon gay and lesbian individuals to “a politically correct world that honors this lifestyle.” Rather, Brown said, Christians should “win the homosexual to Christ” through love and active evangelism. Brown’s supporters have claimed that he treats all his players with equal respect, even if they disagree with his religious views: Eric Lueshen, an openly gay player, and Ameer Abdullah, a Muslim player, seem to back this up in supportive statements they have made about Brown. Yet for Brown’s opponents, his treatment of individual players did not take away from the controversy of his public statements. Nor did it address the larger structural and power issues at play. The matter for them was simple: Brown used his position in a public university to tirelessly promote his exclusionary conservative evangelical views and to demonize those in the LGBT community. “Nebraska is not a Christian state,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel said in response to Brown in 1999. “The University of Nebraska is not a Christian university.”

For the most part the culturally conservative politics of Nebraska meant that Brown was protected from his opponents. But the tide began to shift somewhat in 2012, when he gained national attention for publicly opposing an ordinance in Omaha that would ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Before making his public comments, Brown listed his address as “Memorial Stadium.” His appropriation of a powerful state symbol prior to giving his inflammatory remarks raised the ire of his Nebraska opponents and more than a few national writers. Although Brown was not fired, and although he did not back down from his comments, even some of his supporters felt he had gone too far. Omaha World-Herald columnist Dirk Chatelain, who lauded Brown as a strong spiritual influence, nevertheless wrote that Brown spoke about homosexuality “in a way that reflects negatively on Nebraska and—more importantly—on Christianity.”

Brown’s forays into the political realm contrasted sharply with Osborne’s more moderate tone. Yet, even Osborne found that his football-based reputation could only carry him so far when it came to politics. After leaving coaching, Osborne served three terms in Congress for Nebraska’s third district, never receiving less than 82 percent of the vote. But then he lost his bid for governor in 2006 when he was defeated in the Republican primaries. The former coach faced an incumbent governor, and GOP voters disliked some of his moderate stances, such as his willingness to give college tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. Though he never attained another elected office, his approval ratings did bounce back: A 2011 survey of the state by Public Policy Polling found Osborne to be “the most popular person PPP has ever polled on anywhere.”

Earlier this year Ron Brown announced his departure from Nebraska, a casualty of the recent firing of head coach Bo Pelini. His longtime co-laborer and former Husker Gordon Thiessen penned a heartfelt goodbye to Brown on an FCA website, commending him for using his “platform as a Husker football coach in a football-crazed state to tell people about Jesus.” Others probably felt less charitable. Regardless of one’s sentiments, it certainly felt like an era had ended: the link to the Osborne-initiated blending of faith and football was gone. Who will carry on the torch? Perhaps Brown’s departure portends to a future in which FCA does not have the same access to Nebraska football. Or perhaps another sport will take the lead. Nebraska’s wildly popular women’s volleyball team is coached by John Cook, another FCA stalwart whose connections may continue to pay dividends for the organization.

As those changes are sorted out, a new generation of Nebraskans—pastors’ kids and otherwise—are learning the rites and rituals of Cornhusker fandom. The glory years of the 1990s may seem like the distant past, but devotion to Cornhusker football remains strong. And as long as Cornhusker football serves as a powerful symbol of state identity, residents and organizations will continue to integrate faith and football—and to challenge unwanted attempts at such integration—in ways that inevitably spill over into politics.

Paul Putz is a PhD student in history at Baylor University. He lived in Nebraska for 28 years prior to moving to Baylor. Follow him @p_emory.

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AP Course Controversy: When Do We Say “We” in History? Tue, 10 Mar 2015 16:08:49 +0000 (Getty/John Leyba​)

(Getty/John Leyba​)

Afunny thing has happened to a petition posted online by Larry Krieger, a former Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher, and Jane Robbins, a conservative opponent of the Common Core educational standards. In their petition, written as an open letter to the president of the College Board, they ask readers to support their quest to reform the newest version of the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course, which the College Board implemented in the current school. Nearly half a million high school students took the College Board’s AP U.S. History exam last year to try to earn college credit. The course’s new framework, Krieger and Robbins argue, presents a negative view of the American past, emphasizing the “oppressors and exploiters” among our lot, rather than the “dreamers and innovators.” The old course taught students that early British colonists sought “to build a ‘City upon a Hill.’” The new one teaches them that these same colonists, possessed by “a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,” organized their society according to “a rigid racial hierarchy.” Among other things.

Since late February, when an Oklahoma State House committee voted to eliminate AP U.S. history instruction in the state (they’ve since walked it back to a review of the curriculum), a number of people have signed the petition with fake names. Many of these are vulgar complaints directed against the petition’s authors, but a few are clean, and some are even funny. For example: “America Was Born Perfect Then It Got More Perfect.” Another: “I Fully Support AP Standards. The Authors Of This Letter Can Not Meet Them.” And, perhaps contributed by someone who can, and who is playing a deep game, both historically and humor-wise: “JOHN ADAMS SIGNED THE TREATY OF TRIPOLI.” (Wikipedia tells me that the Treaty of Tripoli signed by Adams contains a disputed passage stating that the U.S. government was not “founded on the Christian religion.”)

Robbins and Krieger published their petition on August 4, 2014. On August 8, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution calling for the rethinking of AP U.S. History education. Echoing Robbins and Krieger, the RNC argues that the new framework departs from the balanced view of American history traditional to the course: where, the resolution laments, are “the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the religious influences on our nation’s history”?

It’s true—George Washington is only mentioned glancingly in the new framework. But as this document itself states, it does not—nor is it meant to—provide an exhaustive list of the historical events, people, and primary sources a given teacher might use to illuminate the conceptual knowledge and skills of historical analysis that students must absorb to do well on the exam. Where the framework gives examples that teachers might use to communicate a particular concept, it does so because teachers who reviewed the guidelines for the College Board indicated that they had difficulty coming up with examples they might use to teach that concept. Throughout, the framework emphasizes that teachers are by no means bound by these examples. The sermon in which Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop described the new settlement “as a city upon a hill”—one of the foundational texts that critics claim is absent from the new framework, and the Oklahoma bill lists as a text it would require in high school U.S. history classes—would fit right in as a source that could spark classroom discussion of the founding ideals of Puritan New England.

But whether conservative critics of the AP U.S. History framework tendentiously misread the primary source document isn’t really the most interesting question one could ask. Their response to the new framework exposes deeper, underlying tensions in how we think and talk about history, particularly national history: when do we say “we” in history? With whom do we say it? When we look around at the past, who do we point to and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people”? These are questions whose history is at once troubling and exalted. The answers necessarily include some, exclude others. They’re the foundation of a nation, or a religion, both of which find their identities by tracing their own particular thread of “we” through history. Answers to these questions can also be the premise for action—often violent—as when nations, or subgroups within them, seek to subordinate, or even eliminate, those who don’t fit a particular vision of who “we” are.

Yet, perhaps these questions don’t belong in a U.S. history classroom—or, at the very least, in that space, their answers should not be assumed. The AP framework seems to take this stance; this may be one of the reasons it so frustrates its critics. In its discussion of the early history of settlement, warfare, and colonial expansion in the territory that became the United States, the new framework resists saying “we.” On the religious roots of the American Revolution, it reads, “Protestant evangelical religious fervor strengthened many British colonists’ understandings of themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty, while Enlightenment philosophers and ideas inspired many American political thinkers to emphasize individual talent over hereditary privilege.”

This is hardly neglect: evangelical fervor is right there, strengthening British colonists’ resolve when confronted with challenges to their liberties. But in speaking of “British colonists’ understandings of themselves,” the language also sets up a distance between us and them. They understood themselves as a chosen people blessed with liberty; we can adopt that view if we wish, but we don’t have to take it on uncritically. The framework creates this measure of historical distance not only between us and early American Protestants, but between us and each of the many different kinds of colonial Americans it discusses—enslaved Africans, Indians, and colonists, traders, missionaries, and adventurers from France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands. It presents colonial history as a diverse space inhabited by many different kinds of people, with many different kinds of aims. Students of a range of backgrounds might see themselves here—though the framework certainly doesn’t force them to.

Avoiding the historical “we” isn’t necessarily easy. I teach early modern European history. A few years ago, I caught myself, mid-lecture, somewhat startled, saying “we” in reference to historical figures. But not all of them, I realized. Who was I saying “we” with? Did I say it with Glückel of Hameln, a seventeenth-century Jewish businesswoman, mother, and wife, whose memoir we read and discussed? No. Did I say it with the Algonquian Indians that explorer and mathematician Thomas Harriot encountered when, in the late sixteenth century, he voyaged to a land he called Virginia—on our maps, coastal North Carolina? No. Oh. When I said “we” in the classroom, I was assimilating myself to the perspective of white, Christian Europeans, many of them men. What train of inheritance was I implicating myself in? My students?

At the university where I taught at the time, in the mountains of North Carolina, most of the students in my specialized, upper-division courses on early modern Europe or Britain were white. Occasionally, they brought up their religious backgrounds in class: when we discussed the Reformation, for example, or the early history of the Methodist movement, John Wesley’s eighteenth-century push for the spiritual reform of the Anglican church. Many students identified as some variety of Christian—non-denominational, Baptist, or Methodist, occasionally Lutheran or Catholic. There was a bit more ethnic diversity in the classes that I taught for non-majors, general surveys of European political, religious, and intellectual history, with a few Black, Latino, and Asian American students scattered amongst the majority white student bodies.

Since that day, I’ve done my best to escape the historical “we,” at least in the classroom. This “we” was as much a disservice to my white students as it was to their Black, Latino, and Asian American peers, whom it tended to exclude. It encouraged white students to assimilate, uncritically, the perspective of those in history who happened to share their skin color and (for many of them) their religious identity. In truth, over four centuries, so much has changed in the lived experience of racial and ethnic identity and religious belief that my students have much more in common with each other than with their racial and religious forebears.

The AP U.S. history framework’s conservative critics, Krieger, Robbins, and the Republican National Committee, seem most troubled that high school students would learn that while not all colonial-era Americans were white, plenty of the white ones were racist, and this racism shaped the country just as much as Protestant ideals of religious and political liberty. Indeed, it’s more than that: the Protestant ideals and the racism were deeply intertwined. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonists believed that different kinds of bodies, under different kinds of circumstances, were fitted for different kinds of liberty, as can be seen in American historian Eric Foner’s popular college U.S. history textbook, Give Me Liberty!

How do we acknowledge and move forward from the sins of the past? The historical “we” in place, the distance between past and present falsely collapsed, we can only understand them as our own. Here is where the historical distance created by the AP U.S. framework, with its careful locutions, pays off. For, of course, in seeing that U.S. history has been shaped by racism, one may be lead to reflect upon our inheritance of that history, and how it plays out in daily life, in ways big and small, across the United States. Our history, properly told, should push students towards these kinds of reflections (though it won’t dictate their outcomes). But such thoughts may be particularly painful—too painful to confront—for those who look back on the “Founding Fathers,” and say, “Them. Those are my people. Those are our people.”

Recently, I’ve returned to reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost, composed in the mid-seventeenth century just as the second and third generations of British colonists in America were settling in for the long haul. The poem expresses many of the Puritan ideals that the New England colonists themselves held. I read a few lines each night as a kind of Lenten discipline. It’s the Zeno’s paradox of books, one I return to every few years, but never quite seem to finish. But there’s something I love about being the reader that Milton did not anticipate: an educated woman, mother of children, teacher of students, an Episcopalian in the New World.

Milton didn’t go in for women’s equality. In Book IV of Paradise Lost, when a newly created Eve first speaks to Adam, she proclaims not only her inferiority to Adam, but also her perfect contentment in that inferiority. As Satan watches on, Eve confesses to Adam that she owes God daily thanks for her creation, especially because she occupies “So far the happier lot, enjoying thee Preeminent by so much odds, while thou Like consort to thyself canst nowhere find.” God made Adam from the dust, and Eve from his rib: alone in the world together, Eve had a fit companion, one superior to herself, while Adam had no one to call a friend and equal. “He for God only,” Milton wrote, “she for God in him.”

Milton didn’t think much of me, apparently. Why not return the favor?

I could say a number of things in answer to this question: that Paradise Lost makes me laugh—as when upon viewing Adam and Eve in the garden for the first time, Satan exclaims, “Oh hell!” Or, that I love reading Milton’s sentences out loud, puzzling the meaning out of the grammar. Or, that sometimes the beauty of a phrase, or a passage, stops me for a moment, and I read that out loud, too. Or, that literary scholars, reading the poem in its historical context, disagree as to what, precisely, Eve’s speeches tell us about Milton’s attitudes towards women. Or, that in some maddening, allusive—and elusive—way, Paradise Lost is a book with which I say “we.” But perhaps all I should say is this: it must be a fragile faith that can be broken by the knowledge that its heroes—that we—are human.

Elizabeth Yale is the author of Script, Print, Speech, Mail: Nature, Nation, and Learned Communication in Early Modern Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

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State Legislatures Pit Religious Freedom Against Civil Rights Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:31:41 +0000 (AP/Matt York)

(AP/Matt York)

The debate over last summer’s Hobby Lobby decision has a new source for conflict: state legislatures. The Supreme Court decision, which expanded corporate religious liberty, rested on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal statute that Congress passed in 1993. In the post-Hobby Lobby era, it has become common to hear of states gearing up to buttress their own versions of RFRA. At least 20 states have enacted RFRAs, and in the past several months, state lawmakers in several jurisdictions have proposed RFRA amendments to protect business owners against claims of discrimination.

In Georgia, where a same-sex marriage ban is currently being challenged in federal court, the state legislature proposed the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act” in late January. The bill would amend the state’s RFRA to shield businesses and employers who engage in discriminatory practices, if their motives are religious. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed similar legislation after both business and civil rights leaders objected. Kansas, Michigan, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma, among others, have also considered such bills.

The legislation is being pushed by religious conservatives. They have been alarmed by lawsuits that have been brought in several states against small business owners—photographers, florists, and bakers—who refused services to customers involved in same-sex weddings. They contend they have a right to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws that prohibit denying service on the basis of sexual orientation. Against this claim, courts have consistently held that business owners do not have the right to refuse to serve gay and lesbian couples. But these decisions have been reached in states like New Jersey and Washington, which do not have RFRAs. In Idaho, which does have a state RFRA, a similar case had a very different outcome in late 2014; officials from the city of Coeur d’Alene concluded that a wedding chapel run by two ministers would be exempt from a city anti-discrimination law as a religious organization.

When the Supreme Court agreed in January to decide whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to license and recognize same-sex marriages, the fight over religious exemptions from civil rights laws intensified. States that have proposed shoring up their RFRAs are doing so in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. The politics surrounding these questions are acrimonious and there is genuine pain on both sides. According to proponents of bills like one being considered in Georgia, the “right” to discriminate is the only refuge for otherwise imperiled religious commitments. On the other side, critics deplore the subordination of equality to religious freedom. Noting that anti-discrimination laws protect against invidious distinctions by race, national origin, and sex, as well as religion, they argue that enacting the broadly phrased RFRA laws that religious conservatives are promoting would shield many kinds of bad behavior—not just refusals to serve same-sex couples.

For both sides, there are monsters lurking in the rapidly changing law of religion and marriage.

We have seen a similar conflict before. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s marriage debates, the law of marriage was also at the center of debates about the Fourteenth Amendment that took place a generation ago in the 1960s through the 1980s, when the issue was racial equality, not sexual equality. In the end, in the face of protracted resistance, a head-on collision between religion and race produced a strong win for anti-discrimination, with racial equality deemed to be more central to American constitutional life than sincerely held, racially discriminatory religious beliefs. After the Supreme Court held in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws (which prohibited interracial marriage) violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, some religious organizations fought back by seeking religious accommodations for segregation. A case in point is Bob Jones University, which had traditionally refused to admit students of African descent. After 1971, it accepted black students but only if they were already married. In 1975, in response to pressure from the federal government, the university accepted unmarried black applicants, but prohibited interracial dating.

The issue of religious accommodations came to a head in the early 1980s. Acting on a 1970 regulation that prohibits granting tax-exempt status to any educational institution that maintains racially discriminatory policies, the IRS had long maintained that Bob Jones should be ineligible. The university fought back, citing the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. Finally, in 1983 the Supreme Court took up the question. In an 8-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court held that the government as “a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education … which substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the university’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.”

This decision, which involved statutory as well as constitutional law, was attacked by religious conservatives, some of whom claimed that the Bob Jones case would rank next to Supreme Court cases on school prayer and Bible reading, which they had long condemned as the imposition of “secular humanism” on the people of America. In fact, the outrage eventually subsided. In 2000, Bob Jones University announced that it would permit interracial dating on campus, and now formally apologizes for the “segregationist ethos” that underlay its earlier policy. By mid-2013, a record 87 percent of Americans approved of marriages between those of African and European descent.

The new proposed amendments to state RFRAs seek to undo the result in Bob Jones, by exempting those who discriminate on religious grounds from the operation of statutes protecting civil rights. Supported by conservative religious groups such as the Beckett Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom, such laws have become the go-to solution for states that seek to resist what they predict will be the law of marriage nationwide, after the Supreme Court decides the question by the end of its current term, in June 2015. We know that the right to marry is considered a fundamental right, and that considerations of equality are paramount constitutional concerns. The question raised by the current proposals to amend RFRAs at the state level is whether statutory laws exempting religious actors will be allowed to trump those long-standing rights in a new era.

What lessons are we to draw from this history, especially in light of the new campaign to amend state RFRAs? One lesson is that the current controversy about religion and discrimination is part of a long series of related conflicts, especially over marriage. For almost 50 years, equality has intruded into the blended religious and civil status of marriage, dividing those who welcome changes that reflect new understandings of equality and those who feel deeply threatened by those changes. Equally important, however, is the recognition that change has come before and has not resulted in lasting social conflict. Concepts of equality have been debated, deployed, and challenged in legislative chambers and church pews. Refusing accommodations will exacerbate the current conflict, say proponents. But history suggests otherwise. Denying religious exemptions may actually lead some religious groups to adjust to change that once seemed contrary to religious beliefs (as happened in the case of interracial marriage).

Change has been as important as continuity in American law and life. Religious groups have as often been advocates for change, as well as forces resisting such shifts. This was the case in the earlier battles over race discrimination, when religious leaders spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement at the same time that other religious organizations, like Bob Jones University, resisted it. And this is equally true today, when a strong religious campaign in favor of same-sex marriage plays an important role in combatting those who invoke religious interests against it.

Marriage has frequently been the focus of conflict over race, religion and equality. Religious accommodation has frequently been the last refuge of those who seek to escape the imposition of new anti-discrimination laws, especially in the field of sexuality and marriage. Bob Jones reached the right result more than thirty years ago. The newly proposed state RFRA bills would undo that result, abandoning our nation’s commitment to equality before the law. That would be a dangerous development, and a sadly counterproductive outcome for all religious interests.


Sarah Barringer Gordon is Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law & Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is co-editor of Studies in Legal History, the book series of the American Society for Legal History, published by Cambridge University Press.

Nomi Stolzenberg is the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at the University of Southern California Law School. She is the director of USC’s Program on Religious Accommodation and co-directs USC’s Center for Law, History and Culture.

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God in the Machine: The Role of Religion in Net Neutrality Debates Tue, 24 Feb 2015 18:33:36 +0000 (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty)

The public movement to protect a free and open Internet is approaching a critical moment this week: on February 26, the Federal Communications Commission will vote whether to pass strong rules against corporate control of the Internet. For years, companies that manage America’s access to the Internet—corporate giants like Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner—have sparred with activists and the FCC for control of cyberspace. Advocates on both sides have debated net neutrality, the notion that all information, data, and content online should be treated the same and equally accessible to all.

At stake is whether more wealthy content providers (think: Netflix) should be able to pay for faster service while smaller, less wealthy start-ups, or personal websites are left behind in an Internet gridlock. President Obama supports FCC regulation of net neutrality, and polling shows that the majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose Internet service providers (ISPs) charging some websites more for faster service. Last summer, nearly 4 million people submitted comments to the FCC, most of them urging the agency to pursue stronger net neutrality protections.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan, which five FCC commissioners will vote on this week, proposes to reclassify the Internet as a public utility like water or electricity, using Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, which could then treat the Internet as an unencumbered benefit for all citizens. This legal maneuver will enable the FCC to prohibit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from censoring or prioritizing content or charging additional fees to some websites and video-streaming services.

The topic can be highly technical, and policy wonks, online startups, and public interest legal groups have understandably led much of the net neutrality movement over the past decade. But religious activists and organizers like us have also played a role in these changing debates. While largely Christian, religious groups have brought together strange bedfellows of progressive, faith-based activists and conservative religious organizations, from the Christian Coalition of America and the United Church of Christ to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All have spoken out for net neutrality, even if they do not necessarily share arguments or coalition actions.

As high-speed Internet has grown from a novelty to an essential tool, communities of faith and conscience have come to rely on it for their media, organizing, and outreach. Religious messaging has framed net neutrality as a free speech issue for religious voices on both ends of the political spectrum; more recently, activists have also made the case that open access to the Internet is a civil rights issue for underserved populations and religious communities. Last April in The Daily Beast, the former head of Obama’s White House faith office, Joshua Dubois, envisioned a future without net neutrality protections: a small-time innovator, a young man from Detroit with tech skills and big ideas, cannot compete with big companies who can pay for faster and better Internet service. Last year, the Jewish online magazine ZEEK published an article advocating for net neutrality and noting that “small online magazines like ZEEK need #NetNeutrality.” Posts like these have cut through technical jargon to show that religious voices have a very real stake in net neutrality debates.

In the final months of 2014, a small group of lawyers, religious activists, and organizers launched the Faithful Internet campaign in order to collect video and written testimonials from religious leaders and community members about why a free and open Internet makes a difference in their spiritual lives. (Full disclosure: We are both Faithful Internet volunteers.) The project is managed by the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communications, Inc. (OC, Inc.)—a key operator in creating a movement around net neutrality. The campaign has included diverse voices ranging from North Carolina’s Moral Mondays leader, the Rev. William Barber; to Helen Osman, the secretary for communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); to Valarie Kaur, a prominent Sikh activist and a central organizer for Faithful Internet.

According to OC, Inc. policy advisor Cheryl Leanza, the United Church of Christ (UCC), a liberal denomination, was working on “what was then called ‘open access’ principles for high speed Internet” as early as 2002, when the church’s media ministry filed comments on the subject with the FCC. Their goal was to serve as “a technically sophisticated, highly visible player in the narrow field of FCC regulation” and to be “a small but vocal proponent of prophetic Christian social justice.” In 2005, the UCC, along with the Christian Coalition of America, Gun Owners of America, and, joined a broad group of organizations from across the religious and political spectrum to be part of the Save the Internet coalition, which lobbied for legislative net neutrality protections.

Some conservative Christian organizations, such as the Christian Coalition, worried that a lack of net neutrality could silence minority conservative voices: “What if a cable company with a pro-choice Board of Directors decides that it doesn’t like a pro-life organization using its high speed network to encourage pro-life activities?” they asked on their website.

In 2010, when the FCC first proposed net neutrality rules, debates began to gain traction in the broader faith and politics advocacy community—with an eye toward advancing open Internet regulations for everyone, not just particular religious communities. In 2010, the National Council of Churches, representing more liberal Christian communities, released a comprehensive resolution in favor of net neutrality. They argued that access to the Internet was important for religious people and “network neutrality principles will allow the full diversity of voices to flourish.” Likewise, in a 2011 letter to Congress, the USCCB stated that American Catholic bishops supported net neutrality legislation and regulation to “ensure equal access to the Internet for all.” They added, “True net neutrality is necessary for people to flourish in a democratic society.”

Today, some conservative Christian voices are still speaking out in favor of net neutrality, although fewer than in the past. Last year, National Religious Broadcasters denounced religious censorship and its president has said that Internet providers should not be allowed to block content of which they disapprove. But the NRB does not endorse net neutrality or ambitious FCC regulatory measures, preferring a light touch approach that would limit the government’s involvement in the market.

In September of 2014, a coalition letter representing diverse religious groups, including the USCCB, the National Council of Churches, and the Islamic Society of North America, called for the FCC to promote net neutrality. Their message was threefold: “Strong net neutrality protections are critical to the faith community to function and connect with members, essential to protect and enhance the ability of vulnerable communities to use advanced technology, and necessary for any organization that seeks to organize, advocate for justice or bear witness in the crowded and over-commercialized media environment.”

One of the central concerns expressed in the coalition’s letter was whether religious voices may have to give way to well-funded entertainment and corporate speech—a well-founded fear. ISPs have fought regulations and have argued that they require flexible pricing strategies to continue to invest in costly Internet infrastructure and maintenance. In 2012 alone, the National Cable and Television Association, a lobbying entity of the country’s major cable and Internet providers, along with Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, spent more than $19 million to oppose measures to preserve net neutrality.

Understanding the uphill battle to challenge such well-heeled lobbying efforts, we and other organizers at Faithful Internet have turned from national-level coalition letters to grassroots organizing and advocacy. In our collected testimonials, individuals can offer their pleas for a free and open Internet. In one statement, David Gladston, a chaplain and counselor from a South Carolina Baptist church, says that an open Internet allows him to connect and “help my patients and clients face the end of their lives.” In another, Sara Fitzgerald, a clerk at a Virginia UCC congregation, writes that the Internet allows her church to reach out locally so “people find the kind of progressive Christian community we aspire to be.” From New York, Aaron Stauffer, who directs Religions for Peace USA, says an open Internet is crucial to his campaign to fight Islamophobia. He writes, “Sharing the stories of Christians and Muslims and Jews and Baha’I and Hindu and people of all faith, in text and video, would simply fail through any other avenue.”

Net neutrality has been more than a political debate, but an opportunity for religious organizations and activists to express their political identities with spiritual impetus. Today, the ideals of open access as an organizing tool and a civil rights issue are the driving forces for faith-based activists. On one hand, religious voices want to protect the faithful from real or perceived censorship, and they want to reach their own members online. On the other hand, they want justice for disadvantaged communities who may have limited or mobile-only access to the Internet. In particular, communities of color rely disproportionately on mobile devices to access the Internet, and by acknowledging that, many faith communities are hitting upon touchstones of their theological-political identities: service to the underserved and vulnerable.

With their theological tone and their push for Internet access for all communities, the faith-based, net-neutrality activists aspire to be descendants of the Civil Rights Movement, as religious-political connectors for grassroots engagement. Indeed, recently Civil Rights icon, Representative John Lewis of Georgia, took to Facebook to support net neutrality. He noted, “If we had the technology, if we had the Internet during the movement, we could have done more, much more, to bring people together from all around the country, to organize and work together to build the beloved community.”

These religious advocates for net neutrality are striving to protect the entire beloved community— online and off.

Emily Baxter and Aseem Mehta are non-residential fellows at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

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The Troubling Push to Deregulate Homeschooling Tue, 17 Feb 2015 17:00:28 +0000 (Getty/Boston Globe)

(Getty/Boston Globe)

When my mother pulled me out of kindergarten to homeschool, it wasn’t a religious choice. We were an average Christian family, casually attending a non-denominational church. I was a shy child, overwhelmed by the boisterous atmosphere of my school and quickly targeted by bullies. Homeschooling was supposed to be a temporary measure, a chance for me to build up confidence for a return to school. For the first few years, I thrived on a flexible curriculum that built upon my natural love of reading and writing. Homeschooling gave my family ample free time to take field trips and participate in science and craft fairs. A local homeschooling group provided everyday social support as well as extracurricular activities.

But over time, the group became polarized, driving out non-Christian families and focusing more on “character building” than academics. Religious homeschoolers recruited my mother to a strict form of patriarchal Christianity, convincing her that homeschooling was a godly necessity and that the right to homeschool was under immediate threat by the government. As I grew older and academic subjects grew more difficult, it became less acceptable for my mother to seek help outside the homeschool group or consider putting me back into school. Regular evaluation and testing in Pennsylvania kept us on track during elementary and middle school, but my education fell apart when we moved to New Jersey, a state with no homeschooling laws. I spent an entire academic year with my geometry book propped open to the same page, and my only exposure to the theory of evolution was a caricature crafted by my creationist textbooks to make secular science sound absurd.

By the time I graduated high school as a homeschooler, my family and I were deeply involved in a fundamentalist church, where girls were forbidden to attend college. What had begun as an experiment to improve my education had inadvertently derailed my academic life.


WHILE HOMESCHOOL ADVOCATES commonly assert that America’s early leaders were homeschooled, it is impossible to speak of homeschooling as a self-conscious movement before the 1960s. From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences. By the early 1980s, a growing body of families subscribed to both religious and secular arguments for homeschooling, some using them interchangeably. Moore’s Home Grown Kids, published in 1981, rapidly became a classic among homeschooling families and remains widely read today.

The religious side of the homeschooling movement grew stronger and more rigid in its opposition to other forms of education over the next decade. When evangelical leader James Dobson invited Moore to speak on his radio show, Focus on the Family, in 1979, he helped widen the audience for religious homeschooling to mainstream evangelical families. The endorsement was well-timed. Families who had withdrawn from public schools but remained unsatisfied with the climate of Christian schools increasingly turned to homeschooling as a more effective means of directing their children’s education. Religious homeschoolers developed an ideology based on Deuteronomy 6:7, which urges parents to teach their children the commandments of God from morning to night, to prove that homeschooling was ideal. Homeschooling not only removed children from perceived negative influences in schools, but it also kept Christian parents (usually mothers) in constant contact with their children. In 1983, homeschooling parent Michael Farris founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) to advocate for the parental right to homeschool without state supervision. By the 1990s, some evangelical and fundamentalist parents opposed even Christian schools, as they believed parents who did not homeschool were shirking a moral duty.

Today, the number of homeschooled children in the United States is likely close to 2 million. In 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics reported 1.77 million homeschooled children in the U.S., up from 850,000 in 1999. But there is no federal standard for how these students should be taught. Homeschooling statutes, which govern program assessments and subject areas, vary widely across the United States. And in recent years, there has been a push for more deregulation. Eleven states do not require notification of a parent’s intent to homeschool, and 25 states require no academic assessment of homeschooled students. States that do oversee homeschooling—such as New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont—use a combination of testing and portfolio evaluation to measure progress. In Pennsylvania, where I completed grades 1-8, homeschooling families had to file notices of intent to homeschool, cover a range of required subjects, take biennial standardized tests, and submit a portfolio to a licensed evaluator and the local school superintendent every year. These requirements remain in place for the 2015-16 academic year, but the state legislature eliminated the superintendent review component last October, as a result of lobbying by HSLDA and a subset of homeschool parents who favor a hands-off approach. There are dangers in forgoing this last round of oversight, as it severs the connection between homeschoolers and their district, leaving the evaluation process subject to corruption. It also prevents the district from identifying educationally neglected children and referring them for assistance.

Homeschooling parents often support reasonable oversight like the subject and assessment laws in Pennsylvania. Former homeschooling mother LaDonna Sasscer writes that accountability laws in her state made her a more effective educator to her children. “I appreciated the professionalism involved in keeping meticulous records,” she writes on a homeschooling advocacy website. “It kept me on my toes.” My own mother saw our evaluator as a partner in my education. Subject requirements and standardized tests served as benchmarks: strong test results validated my mother’s choice to homeschool, proving that we could exceed public school standards. But the longer we stayed in our homeschool group, the more we learned to fear state supervision. We perceived the superintendent as a threatening figure intent on discrediting homeschoolers, despite the fact that no one we knew had ever been investigated for educational neglect. We absorbed these fears from HSLDA bulletins, which warned us periodically that the right to homeschool was under threat. We believed them, despite the growing acceptance we saw in our own community.

The deregulation lobby is troubling, as absences of oversight provide opportunities for abusive parents to use homeschooling as a cover for deliberate isolation and educational neglect. The case of Hana Williams, an adopted and homeschooled child who died in 2011 of abuse and neglect at the age of 13, underscores how proper oversight could prevent tragedy. Between 2009 and 2011, Hana did not see a doctor. At the time of her death, she weighed less than 80 pounds. Her body was marked from beatings with plumbing supply line, a punishment drawn from the book To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl. That these warning signs went undetected for two years underscores how complete the isolation of homeschooled children can be if their parents have less than honorable intentions. Proper oversight, including annual evaluations and regular medical exams, would have brought Hana into contact with doctors or educators who would be required by law to report suspected abuse. It is likely that regular contact with mandatory reporters would have lessened Hana’s abuse and saved her life.

Homeschooling can be a powerful educational tool, but in the absence of oversight, it can also leave children vulnerable to educational neglect, abuse, and anti-education ideologies. Recently, some homeschooling alumni have been advocating for keeping needed regulations in place. The nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE), which was founded in 2013 by homeschool alumni Rachel Coleman and Heather Doney, brings together a small team of alumni, researchers, and educators to promote reasonable oversight for homeschooling at the state level. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the organization as a volunteer.) Homeschooling’s Invisible Children (HIC), a volunteer-led organization operating under CRHE, tells the stories of children whose abusive parents used homeschooling as a cover to avoid detection. The vision of CRHE, broadly shared by its affiliates, is “for homeschooling to be a child-centered educational option, used only to lovingly prepare young people for an open future.” Homeschool alumni who support CRHE differ in their religious and political convictions, but agree that oversight is necessary to ensure that homeschooled children’s best interests are respected.

Homeschool graduates now in their 20s and 30s constitute a first generation cohort for the homeschooling movement. Among alumni there appears to be a generally positive or moderate attitude toward homeschooling, though more research is needed to create a complete picture of homeschooling experiences across the U.S. An informal survey conducted in 2014 by the homeschool alumni group Homeschoolers Anonymous found that a majority of alumni agreed that homeschooling had prepared them for the future, and 47 percent preferred homeschooling over other educational choices for their own children. But the survey also raised red flags: 30 percent and 16.2 percent of respondents reported they had experienced emotional or physical abuse, respectively. Seventeen percent reported educational neglect. Survey respondents also reported being less likely to have access to, and more likely to skip, courses in higher-level mathematics and the natural sciences compared to other subjects. Academic research supports the existence of a “math gap” in home education: in a 2013 study, Robert Kunzman and Milton Gaither observed that homeschooling “tends to improve students’ verbal and weaken their math capacities.” As homeschooling alumni age, they bring insights into the effects of the homeschooling movement on children’s academic and personal wellbeing, and are able to identify areas where children might fall through the cracks. Those of us who have gone on to advocate for better oversight are interested in plugging such gaps, ensuring that the next generations of homeschooled children have access to strong academic preparation and adequate protection from abuse.

Opponents of oversight believe parents’ rights supersede any relationship a child has with society. They argue that no one cares about children as much as their parents, and therefore parents are the only ones qualified to evaluate their own educational choices. HSLDA’s director Michael Farris heads, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group that would like to add a Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their arguments favor total parental sovereignty, operating on the assumption that parents always act in their children’s best interests. The case of Hana Williams, and more recently transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, demonstrate that this is not always true. Alcorn’s parents, who allegedly used homeschooling to isolate her from her friends and prevent her from expressing her gender identity, believed they acted out of love. When Leelah committed suicide on December 28, 2014, she left a note citing her parents’ controlling behavior as the reason she could not go on. These stories are in the minority in homeschooling families, but all children nonetheless deserve safety, support, and a solid educational foundation. The parental rights lobby is ideological rather than pragmatic: its Old Testament basis and vision for a conservative Christian America led by homeschool graduates would dismantle protections for the vulnerable few in order to relieve all homeschooling parents of accountability.


MY EXPERIENCE MIRRORED the shift among religious homeschoolers from a vision of homeschooling as a simple, positive educational choice toward an ideology in which homeschooling is mandatory, regardless of academic progress. Initially, homeschooling was an unusual but pragmatic choice that my mother believed would encourage my creativity. But by fifth grade, my family had entered a homeschooling world that was no longer about customized curriculum or the pursuit of natural curiosity. We were now part of a countercultural movement. I was fed a steady stream of stereotypes about public school kids: they were foul-mouthed, disobedient, and slovenly; they abused drugs, joined gangs, and had sex too young. Public schools, I was taught, were indoctrination camps where the government bred docile consumers. I was afraid to set foot on a public school campus, much less make friends with any public schooled kids in my neighborhood. Homeschooling was no longer an educational choice; it was an act of cultural warfare.

Lax homeschooling laws provide cover for fundamentalist parents who neglect girls’ education in service of patriarchal ideals. Religious homeschooling has been fertile ground for a range of ideologies aimed at keeping young women out of the workforce. These include the Quiverfull movement, which rejects the use of birth control, and the stay-at-home daughter movement. In 2005, a group of young women from my church, all homeschool graduates, banded together to request permission to attend Bob Jones University. Their fathers denied the request; adult women had no business moving away from home before marriage. While young men regularly earned degrees, their sisters were told that education was a distraction from their calling as homemakers. Parents in my church sometimes spoke of educating their daughters through high school as “rendering unto Caesar,” a duty performed so as not to break the law. These parents used their freedom to homeschool in order to limit their daughters’ education, locking them into permanent economic dependence on fathers and husbands.

How did I escape? I was lucky. The religious messages of my church were counterbalanced by my working-class parents’ determination that I would have a better education than they did. In my final year of high school, my mother sent me to community college to earn credit toward my homeschool diploma. Community college was my earthly salvation. A literature professor opened the doors of the world to me, encouraging me to see myself as intelligent and capable for the first time in years. This intervention helped me persevere through remedial classes, catch up, and ultimately acquire a master’s degree. I had to leave my church—indeed, my whole world—behind to do this. Had I not fallen off the grid in high school, I might have entered college prepared to choose any major. As it was, my inadequate preparation in math and science pushed me into the humanities. I could not have become an engineer or a scientist without undertaking years of remedial training in subjects we’d simply skipped, like chemistry and calculus. I succeeded in college, but my options were curtailed from the start. Young adults need adequate preparation in basic subjects in order to have a full range of choices about the careers and lives they want to pursue. I was lucky, but American children deserve better than luck; they deserve a level playing field. Homeschooled children cannot have that without reasonable oversight.

Caitlin G. Townsend is a writer in Ann Arbor. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge.

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Jewish Life in the City: An Interview with Deborah Dash Moore Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:22:15 +0000 (Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

(Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

Deborah Dash Moore has played a pioneering role in the study of Jews and in establishing the field of American Jewish history. Only with difficulty could one find a scholar of American Jewish history who has not been touched, often personally, by Moore in her roles as writer, teacher, conference organizer, mentor, and editor. She is recognized as an architect of the field, particularly at its intersections with urban history and gender history. Last fall, her Urban Origins of American Judaism was published, and I corresponded with her over email about her work and this latest book.

Moore is the Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Previously, she taught at Vassar College where she helped to found their program in Jewish Studies and served as head of Religious Studies. She is the authored or edited ten books, including At Home In America: Second Generation New York Jews, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and Los Angeles, and, with Paula Hyman, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, for which they received a National Jewish Book Award. Moore’s 2004 book, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. This interview had been edited slightly for length and clarity. 

R&P: “Jews and cities” has been a longstanding and rich scholarly preoccupation for you. How did your upbringing in New York shape this interest?

DDM: New York was the quintessential city for me and I learned its rhythms from a relatively early age. In 2013 I published an essay, “Sidewalk Histories,” that spoke to some of the specific things I gained from growing up in the city, from walking its sidewalks to riding its public transit to viewing its streets from eye level. I largely took for granted the city’s socioeconomic, religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, just as I accepted as normal living to be on the 11th floor of a 20-story apartment building and needing to walk blocks to find a park with trees. The city intrigued me. I loved to explore it. I was fortunate that as I was choosing a dissertation topic, urban history was a burgeoning field and that allowed me to bring my local, insider’s knowledge into dialogue with what I uncovered as a historian.

R&P: Photography has been another important aspect of your scholarship and this book. As you point out in Urban Origins of American Judaism, it’s hard to think about the history of the Jews of New York without thinking of all of the historic photographic images associated with that topic, thanks to Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Arnold Eagle, Cornell Capa, and others. How has photography influenced your teaching and thinking about American Jewish history?

DDM: In 2001 Howard Rock and I published Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images. We had started the project in the 1990s as an effort to recast a classic visual account of New York City by John Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York, that we thought needed to be updated. We divided the book and I took the years from 1870 to 2000. Initially I looked at various visual representations of the city, but increasingly the photographic record attracted my attention and I decided just to use photographs. I began with what was familiar (the Byron Brothers, Riis, Hine) and then moved on to less familiar photographers whose work I discovered at the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Public Library. When I started to request permission to publish the photographs (I ended up looking at around 10,000 images in order to narrow it down to 4,000, and then finally to 1,000), many of the photographers asked me where I had seen their work. Then they invited me to come to their studios to see a much larger collection. So I met these amazing photographers and immersed myself in their vision of New York.

Around that time David Lobenstine, a Vassar student who was working as my research assistant, drafted a paper on the photographic legacy of the Lower East Side, which we ended up publishing as “Photographing the Lower East Side.” This served as my introduction to thinking visually about urban history. Having met so many photographers who also turned out to be Jewish then prompted me to consider why so many Jews picked up cameras to record images of the city. I was not alone in these observations. Max Kozloff curated an exhibit at The Jewish Museum on “New York: Capitol of Photography.” In the catalog he raised the question of a Jewish sensibility in New York photography.

After these initial forays into thinking about Jewish photographers and their pictures, I began to integrate photobooks (such as Richard Nagler’s My Love Affair with Miami Beach) into my American Jewish history courses. These books usually wed text and image to reflect upon urban culture. Photographs bring an immediacy to history; they also can be read in many different ways. The more I have taught history with photographs, the more attention I have paid to how people, in different time periods, have interpreted a photograph. The photographs in Urban Origins of American Judaism include classic images but also less well-known pictures. And they invite readers to imagine a dialogue, to initiate a conversation. They are far more mutable than other historical documents. And, I should note, students are very comfortable offering their own interpretations. They are visually literate and good at looking at photographs and drawing insights from them.

R&P: As you’ve moved from New York to Ann Arbor, how has your interest in cities evolved? 

DDM: This semester I have just finished co-teaching with Marian Krzyzowski a course on “Detroit: Race, Religion and Ethnicity in the 20th Century.” I find Detroit so very different from New York in its industry, politics, ethnic groups, religious organizations, and economy. Even its racism seems different, despite common elements. So I’m constantly making comparisons in my head and discussing them with Marian. I’ve also become far more interested in suburbs since so many of my students come from suburbs.

I should add that I have wonderful colleagues in the History department who run a Metropolitan History seminar and several of my graduate students participate in this. So moving to the Midwest has broadened my interests in cities.

R&P: I thought of your book recently when I heard an interview with the late director Mike Nichols in which he described his first memory of 1930’s New York. Seeing the Yiddish signs on city streets, he asked his father, “Is that allowed?” “It is here,” his father told him. In Urban Origins of American Judaism, you discuss that public face of Judaism in American cities. Did experiences like Nichols’s shape your interest in urban Judaism?

DDM: Most definitely, yes. I recall discussing with Paula Hyman, z”l [of blessed memory], when we were both graduate students about how liberating it was for her to be living in New York City in comparison with Boston, especially around Christmas time. I had just assumed a Jewish presence visible on the city streets, in stores especially, and her comments to me made me realize how distinctive it was and also how empowering it was. All of the department stores regularly featured specials for Jewish holidays like Passover and, of course, Hanukkah appeared alongside Christmas. This commercial visibility, combined with attention to lived religion, contributed significantly to my interest in studying the dimensions of urban Judaism.

R&P: Religious leaders have sometimes feared and denounced New York’s influence on religion (I’m thinking of Billy Graham’s 1957 Gotham crusade), but American Jewish leaders, as your book portrays them, have historically taken a liberal attitude to the positive effects that bustling, urban life could have on Judaism. How do you explain this?

DDM: Jon Butler has been working on a book on religion in Gotham, arguing that cities—commonly thought of as sites of sin and moral decay—actually are places that nourish religious invention. I think that American Jewish leaders appreciated the opportunities cities presented and were willing to take the risks that accompanied those opportunities. Even some insular Hasidic groups have held on to a stake in the city. Urban spaces offer niches in neighborhoods and even on blocks that allow religious groups like Jews to fashion their own distinctive milieus. Multiplicity outweighs uniformity. Jews recognize this.

R&P: In your book GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, you described how Jews like your father, who had grown up in pre-WWII New York, experienced Jewishness as “a way of being and thinking.” (Jewishness was the food you ate, your politics, the company you chose, etc.) But then World War II transformed this urban paradigm of Jewishness.

DDM: Yes, I think that there was something of a paradigm shift in urban Jewish identity. As Jews became identified with a Judaism that was considered one of the three fighting faiths of democracy, they began to adumbrate religious forms of Jewish life that followed the other two American faiths: Protestantism and Catholicism. Rather than understanding Jewishness as a way of being and perceiving the world, they came to think of it as set aside for specific occasions, such as life cycle events or days on the calendar. Jews who moved to the suburbs especially privatized many aspects of Jewishness. Lila Corwin Berman argues in a forthcoming book on Detroit Jews that they transformed their urban perspectives into a political ideology of “remote urbanism” that allowed them to remain connected to the city even while living in the suburbs. Still, this was a far cry from a sensibility that many urban Jews held that imagined many of their neighbors as “Jew-ish,” even though they knew weren’t Jews. (One thinks of Colin Powell, for example, who spoke a decent Yiddish, part of his experience growing up in the Bronx when it was a very Jewish borough.)

R&P: In addition to the misery of crowded urban life, The Urban Origins of American Judaism discusses the fun that could be had through urban living. I wonder if you think there’s a connection between some 20th century rabbis’ desire to create an American Judaism in which Jews could live in two civilizations (American and Jewish) and the allure of their city’s cultural offerings. Your book points out Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s appreciation of art and aesthetics, and it shows that Rabbi Louis Finkelstein was shaped by his awareness that other Jews cared about the leisure-time pursuits the city had to offer.

DDM: Like baseball. There’s a great account of Kaplan and Finkelstein walking around the reservoir in Central Park and talking about a sabbath sermon—and the importance of baseball as part of it. (The World Series occasionally coincided with the High Holidays and kids regularly snuck out of services to follow the score on the radio.) But you’re referencing not just sports but elite forms of culture such as opera and ballet and symphony concerts and musical theater. When Rubin Tucker, the cantor at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, decided to leave the cantorate for a career in opera under the name Richard Tucker, his congregants cheered (and bought tickets to hear him sing at the Metropolitan Opera House). The city enticed Jews with its many forms of culture, and rabbis especially recognized how Judaism needed to compete creatively with the latest cultural turns. They saw it as a stimulus because they, too, enjoyed the city’s leisure pleasures.

R&P: Food is naturally a part of this story of urban Judaism. Your book discusses “appetizing stores.” It’s such a curious name! In America, food can seem like a party that all of America is having, all of the time (hot dogs sold at baseball games, cheeseburgers advertised on television). But it’s a party to which Jews don’t always feel invited. One way to respond was by overcompensating. Jewish food wouldn’t just be labeled kosher or Jewish food; it was oh-so-appetizing. What is the cultural work of Jewish food in cities?

DDM: “Appetizing store” is an odd name for dairy stores, but I don’t think it reflected any overcompensation. Mostly it developed as a result of the requisites of kashrut to keep meat and dairy products separate combined with a capitalist fueled diversity of retail stores. One needs to remember that by 1930 there were more Jews living in New York City than in most Western European nations and this concentration in a relatively small space spurred all kinds of commercial establishments that specialized in their products. Cities also were sites of a lot of food production: bread baking, meatpacking, fish canning, even wine and beer distilling. The demands of kashrut spurred Jews to enter many parts of food production as well as marketing.

R&P: Since the immediate post-WWII era, there’s been a flip in how suburban and urban Judaism are perceived. Urban Judaism has become synonymous with young, innovative Jewish life, and—no disrespect to the suburban Judaism of my youth—but the bloom is somewhat off the rose of suburban Judaism, compared with its postwar days. And yet, it is often the children of suburbia who are now leaders in innovative urban Jewish life. How do we understand this dynamic?

DDM: Really good question and one that I suspect you will be answering in the future through your scholarship. I think you’re right that there’s a pendulum and that the excitement of the suburbs, the lure of a new private home and yard, and the appeal of the nuclear family apart from nosy relatives, is dimming in favor of recycled old apartments, the fast pace of city streets, and, of course, an enduring desire to get away from parents. There’s definitely a suburban-urban counterpoint here. Perhaps there is also inspiration.

R&P: You’ve played a leading role in the establishment of American Jewish history as a recognized field in American religious history, Jewish Studies, and in American history. What have you observed about how the field of American Jewish history has changed over the past three decades?

DDM: American Jewish history has really blossomed since the mid-1980s into a recognized field in dialogue with American religious history, Jewish Studies and American history. Gone are the days when a budding scholar would be told that American Jewish history was mere journalism and not fit for serious scholarship. The field has burgeoned and is now often on the cutting edge of scholarship, serving to stimulate research questions that advance other fields as well. Having run a workshop two years ago with Beth Wenger for graduate students writing dissertations that dealt with politics and American Jewish history, I was impressed with the exciting new work being done. However, there are still occasional barriers to be overcome, both internal and external. The former refers to a kind of parochialism that measures the Jewishness of American Jewish history by its content rather than looking at how thinking with Jews about particular issues can illuminate large questions that involve others as well. The latter references other scholars who can’t see historical figures as Jews in their scholarship because they really don’t quite know what to do with them.

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