On July 26, Florida’s ban on teaching “critical race theory” (CRT) in public schools went into effect. In June, Governor Ron DeSantis had strongly supported the ban and urged the State Board of Education to pass it. He was not alone; many other states have enacted or proposed similar regulations and legislation. DeSantis told the Board that teaching CRT would “cause a lot of divisions.” He continued, “I think it’ll cause people to think of themselves more as a member of a particular race based on skin color rather than based on the content of their character.”
DeSantis’s mention of “character” nodded strategically to Martin Luther King Jr., but it also evoked “character education.” In promulgating the CRT regulation, the Board pointed to a statute that outlines the instructional content and values to be taught in public schools. The Florida statute’s language owes to the character education movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which aimed to standardize approaches to students’ morality and character through values such as “kindness,” “charity,” “respect,” and “patriotism.” Although advocates from psychologists to moral philosophers continue to work on varied initiatives under the umbrella of character education to this day, the character education movement saw its political heyday under President George W. Bush’s standards-based public education legislation, No Child Left Behind. Campaigns to ban CRT are a new phase in the long history of public schools as sites for political and even theological conflicts about character and values.
The education bills and regulations are one flank of a larger offensive by media figures, think tanks, and politicians on the right, who have united against what they are calling critical race theory. As used by these critics, the term is malleable and can refer to almost any discussion of systemic racism, white privilege, and similar concepts, despite CRT’s history as a specific field of academic scholarship that began in law schools in the 1970s and 1980s. In academia, CRT usually refers to this legal scholarship, although in recent years some have applied the label more broadly to analyses of systemic racism and its role in American institutions. Taking a lead from the propagandist Christopher Rufo, many anti-CRT reformers initially took aim at anti-racism seminars and implicit bias training sessions for public- and private-sector employees. Quickly, though, their focus shifted to higher education and then public schools. It’s that shift—and that it was so quick and almost unnoticed—that deserves more attention.
Why schools? There are practical reasons: Public schools, more so than the private sector or even other public institutions, are possible to control via legislation and regulations. Beyond that, public schools are among Americans’ most beloved disciplinary institutions. They are the site for American debates about values, character, identity, and what kind of citizens we want to produce. For many of the same reasons, they are also a site for American religion.
On its face, religion appears most relevant to the current attacks against CRT because of the movement’s particular players. Opposition to CRT has been fostered in religious settings and, in many cases, structured by conservative Christian frameworks. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved in 2019 that CRT and intersectionality are “unbiblical ideologies.” In June, famed televangelist Pat Robertson referred to CRT as a “monstrous evil.” The history of Christian conservatives’ role in culture war politics is vital to understanding the current CRT bans. Since at least the 1960s, Christian conservatives have mobilized against what they have deemed as liberal, secular “indoctrination” in schools, and their arguments, strategies, and networks are all relevant here. The attacks on CRT are also part of the ongoing debates about public education as a vehicle for moral and spiritual values.
By situating the CRT bans in the history of religion and public schools, we see that the anti-CRT stance is ideological (despite claims to the contrary). More specifically, it represents a theological claim of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is unique among nations—a shining “city upon a hill,” to quote the line from John Winthrop’s now-famous sermon. As Joseph Winters has explained, in a recent volume on Theologies of American Exceptionalism, the idea of American exceptionalism “is a disciplinary mechanism that simultaneously reproduces the idea of America’s singularity and the burden of bearing universal values and principles.” Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, the editors of that volume, argue that “complex and deeply ambivalent religious logics” structure these ideas.
Using character language and programming in public schools to promote theological claims of white American exceptionalism is nothing new, although the specific nature of those claims has differed over time. The Cold War period is particularly helpful for understanding our current moment. This period saw a proliferation of public-school programs that promoted what they framed as universal values. Based on this supposed universality, they purported to be ideologically and religiously neutral. However, theological ideas and religious organizations helped create the programs’ foundation.
For instance, there was such a program run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), an ecumenical group founded in the 1930s to promote religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The NCCJ created “Brotherhood Week” to promote its theological and civic ideals. While the NCCJ spoke an ostensibly nonpolitical and religiously neutral language of “values,” it displayed a particular political theology. The NCCJ promoted Brotherhood Week through radio spots, newspaper articles, and lesson plans for churches, synagogues, and yes, public schools. “Brotherhood” was a central value in the invented tradition of Judeo-Christianity: a Cold War effort to unite Protestants, Catholics, and Jews as Americans because they believed, by contrast to Communists abroad who did not. In its literature, NCCJ said it sought “the Brotherhood of Man based on the Fatherhood of God.” In Brotherhood Week materials, the default American was white, male, and worshipped a male, Abrahamic God. And, despite the claims of brotherhood, racial segregation and inequity in schooling persisted throughout the country, very much including schools with Brotherhood Week programs. Thus, brotherhood’s togetherness and universality rested on a providential idea of America, where white men inherited God’s grace, regardless of their actions.
In addition to the NCCJ’s Brotherhood Week, many school districts created “moral and spiritual values” programs, which were premised on similar claims to universality. They claimed to suppress supposed Communist ideals—and, in practice if not openly in rhetoric, suppressed civil rights. The specific meaning of “moral and spiritual values” was notoriously open-ended. The most common definition came from the National Education Association (NEA)’s Educational Policies Commission. In 1951, they distributed widely a 100-page report on “Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools,” which they defined as “those values which, when applied to human behavior, exalt and refine life and bring it into accord with the standards of conduct that are approved in our democratic culture.”
Moral and spiritual values programs flourished throughout the country in the 1950s in national organizations and locales from Florida to San Diego. The American exceptionalism in the NEA report was evident: It read that “public schools should receive a clear mandate to continue and to strengthen their efforts in teaching the values which have made America great.” The report asserted that those values were theological: “America was founded by a God-fearing people.” And, although racial equality (as a “value” more than a lived reality) was part of this American exceptionalism, as Clarence Taylor showed in his book Reds at the Blackboard, anti-Communist efforts in schools sought to thwart teachers advocating for civil rights.
After the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court found school-led prayer and Bible-reading unconstitutional, many Americans feared that religion, God, and thus morality had been removed from public schools. And they had been replaced by secularism, immorality, and communism. The tropes established in this period resonate today in the anti-CRT arguments. Numerous speakers at a recent Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, including DeSantis and Senator Ted Cruz, delivered red-meat culture-war speeches that decried CRT specifically. Cruz explained that CRT is Marxist, because it simply replaces class in Marx’s analysis with race. In Cruz’s telling, CRT seeks “to turn us against each other” and “make us hate” people with “different color skin.” Former Attorney General William Barr recently accepted an award from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a major conservative Christian legal organization that is no stranger to public-school controversies. In his acceptance speech, Barr identified “the greatest threat to religious liberty in America today” as “the increasingly militant and extreme secular-progressive climate of our state-run education system.”
Anti-CRT campaigns can be considered alongside these fears of secularism in schools, and debates over textbooks, history, and scientific theories of evolution. These school-related issues allow us to see how theological debates about values and character have worked throughout history—by calling others’ values “ideological” and positing one’s own as neutral, commonsense, universal, and patriotic.
The move to present one’s view as neutral also rests on the standardization of public education, where there are performance metrics in everything from character to math scores. Florida’s State Board of Education regulation names CRT and The New York Times’s 1619 Project as “[e]xamples of theories that distort historical events and are inconsistent with State Board approved standards.” Instead, it requires that schools teach American history as founded on the “universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” The regulation draws from language in the Florida statute on academic and values instruction, which claims, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Viewing education as merely the delivery and absorption of facts denies that education is a process of ongoing discovery and reflection. It rests on a model of education as a piggy bank, where undefined “universal principles” and “factual” history are inserted into a knowledge repository, and where CRT has become dangerous currency.
In a statement about CRT, Governor DeSantis said, “The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools.” What he wants, he claims, is something non-ideological and unifying—something like brotherhood. He expresses that dual burden of America as simultaneously unique and bearing universal morality by both promoting the idea that kids should not hate each other and that “nonsense ideology” cannot be the basis of a universal morality. DeSantis and other GOP leaders have argued that accounting for racial difference undoes the unifying work of a theology of brotherhood. As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it recently, “Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us: don’t judge us by the color of our skin.”
As we can see in Florida’s State Board of Education regulation and the Florida statute on required instruction, this theology fits well alongside trends toward standardization, metrics, and scientistic factuality. CRT and anti-racism work are surely ideological, and they critique a particular theology of American exceptionalism that CRT opponents view as factual and non-ideological.
Public schools have never been free from ideology or theology, and they always shape character. They can, in theory, be the setting for good-faith debates, even theological ones, about what students learn and how. However, the current anti-CRT wave is waged in bad faith rather than efforts to understand and discuss. They surveil and attack those advocating for racial justice, instead of having a conversation with them. The stakes are high, as news headlines give way to regulations and statutes. Teachers wonder what and how they can teach, and who is watching. Understanding these controversies historically helps us recognize their nature, and the fact that theologies of American exceptionalism often aspire to universality based on exclusion. For now, when many partisans claim to be nonideological, “just teaching the facts,” we should be clear and clear-eyed about their goals and ideologies as well as our own.
Charles McCrary is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.
Leslie Ribovich is assistant professor of religion at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Kentucky.