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In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Conservative Christianity and Its Relationship With American Public Schools

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This article provides an overview of the socio-political, cultural, and historical characteristics of the relationship between conservative Christians and the American system of public education, describes the influence of fundamentalist views on contemporary conservative Christians and recounts the historical relationship between the Religious Right and American public schools. Specifically, the article examines several policy issues advanced by conservative Christians, analyzes developments in legal strategies employed by the Religious Right to influence public school curricula over the past century, and considers how vestiges of the Judeo-Christian roots of American public education continue to influence school policy and discourse despite claims to the contrary by contemporary conservative Christians. The article concludes with a critique of the fundamentalist approach to education and an argument for taking seriously the need to defend democratic aims of public education against fundamentalist challenges.
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In the World, But Not of the World:
Understanding Conservative Christianity
and Its Relationship With American
Public Schools
Benjamin J. Bindewalda
a Oklahoma State University
Published online: 11 Apr 2015.
To cite this article: Benjamin J. Bindewald (2015) In the World, But Not of the World:
Understanding Conservative Christianity and Its Relationship With American Public Schools,
Educational Studies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 51:2, 93-111, DOI:
10.1080/00131946.2015.1015343
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 51(2), 93–111, 2015
Copyright C
American Educational Studies Association
ISSN: 0013-1946 print / 1532-6993 online
DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2015.1015343
ARTICLES
In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding
Conservative Christianity and Its Relationship With
American Public Schools
Benjamin J. Bindewald
Oklahoma State University
This article provides an overview of the socio-political, cultural, and historical characteristics of the
relationship between conservative Christians and the American system of public education; describes
the influence of fundamentalist views on contemporary conservative Christians; and recounts the
historical relationship between the Religious Right and American public schools. Specifically, the
article examines several policy issues advanced by conservative Christians, analyzes developments
in legal strategies employed by the Religious Right to influence public school curricula over the
past century, and considers how vestiges of the Judeo-Christian roots of American public education
continue to influence school policy and discourse despite claims to the contrary by contemporary
fundamentalist Christians. The article concludes with a critique of the fundamentalist approach to
education and an argument for taking seriously the need to defend democratic aims of public education
against fundamentalist challenges.
Ninety percent of our nation’s young people attend public schools, and they’re drawn from every
conceivable religious and non-religious background. Despite their differences, these youngsters are
educated by the public school system, which passes along the shared values of what it means to be an
American. ...That’s quite an accomplishment, and it’s one most Americans are proud of. But to the
Religious Right, our public school system is something else. They see it as a mission field, a place
to do proselytizing. In short, they want to “Christianize” the schools with a dose of that old-time
fundamentalism. (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, 2012)
The Religious Right represents a significantly large and powerful group of conservative Christians
who have lobbied, sometimes more successfully than others, to influence the decision making
of government bodies at local, state, and federal levels in the United States for many years
(Lindsay, 2008). It is important to note, however, that members of the Religious Right did not
Correspondence should be addressed to Benjamin J. Bindewald, Ph.D., School of Educational Studies, College of
Education, Oklahoma State University, 214 Willard Hall, Stillwater, OK 74078. E-mail: ben.bindewald@okstate.edu
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94 BINDEWALD
suddenly appear in recent decades, but have deeper and more complex fundamentalist roots much
earlier in American history. Seeing public schools as promising mission fields and the most effec-
tive avenues through which to preserve their traditional beliefs and influence American culture,
members of the Religious Right have channeled much of their political energy toward public
education. The proselytizing and indoctrinating approach to education articulated by this group,
I argue, is especially problematic in the context of public schools situated in religiously diverse,
democratic societies of the 21st century, such as the United States. This article describes the
fundamentalist influences on the contemporary Religious Right, traces the historical relationship
between the Religious Right and American public education, and demonstrates the inappropri-
ateness of fundamentalist educational aims for contemporary American public schools. I begin
with a description of origins of Protestant fundamentalism, an ideology that supplied the guiding
theological and political vision of the contemporary Religious Right.
THE FUNDAMENTALIST ORIGINS OF THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
The term fundamentalist can be traced back to a collection of essays published between 1905
and 1915, entitled The Fundamentals (Torrey & Dixon, 1994), which outlined the contributing
authors’ conceptions of essential, orthodox, Protestant beliefs. The driving purpose of the pub-
lication of The Fundamentals was to protect the integrity of the authors’ views of traditional
Protestantism from the forces of modernism, liberalism, and religious pluralism. The principles
outlined in the collection of essays are widely viewed as the foundation of Christian funda-
mentalism, thus adherents to these beliefs came to be commonly referred to as fundamentalists
(Greenawalt, 2005).
Although the full collection of principles in The Fundamentals is extensive, the contemporary
group that I will to fundamentalists hold (at a minimum) the following beliefs to be sacred: (a) the
inerrancy of the Protestant Bible—the Bible is the perfect word of God; it is absolutely true and
should be interpreted literally; (b) original sin—humans are collectively guilty of turning against
God and are in need of salvation; (c) salvation comes exclusively through Jesus Christ—Jesus is
the son of God; he was sacrificed so that sinners who accept him as their lord and savior could
be reconciled with God; and (d) evangelism—Christians have a duty to aggressively spread their
faith in “the Good News” of the gospels so that others might also become saved (Zimmerman,
2002).
The label fundamentalist has become somewhat controversial, and critics are more likely to
use it than those who adhere to the previously referenced beliefs (Zimmerman, 2002). In everyday
parlance, the term fundamentalist often carries with it images of poor, ignorant, geographically
isolated hillbillies, but this is not the way that I use the label throughout this article. Understandably
uncomfortable with this term, many of the individuals that I refer to as fundamentalists have
instead identified themselves under such labels as “conservative Christians” or “evangelicals,
but these are less precise and sometimes misleading because some individuals within these
groups do not accept the fundamental tenets of biblical literalism and inerrancy (Greenawalt,
2005, p. 218). Warren Nord (1995) points out that although evangelicals and fundamentalists
are different in significant respects (e.g., contemporary evangelicals are much less opposed to
advanced education; many have college degrees, whereas fundamentalists are rightly referred to as
antiintellectuals), they both share a fundamental commitment to the authority of Biblical scripture.
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 95
Furthermore, according to Nord, although not all conservative Protestants read the Bible the same
way, they are virtually united in the perception that humans must rely on “special revelation”
through scripture rather than “critical reason and modern historical scholarship” (pp. 50–51).
Nevertheless, I remain hesitant to use the term fundamentalist, given the likelihood that those to
whom I am referring might reject the label as offensive. However, for academic purposes of clarity
and precision, I believe that use of the label is necessary. To illustrate the predicament, consider
the following line of reasoning: The duty to evangelize is a component of fundamentalism—so,
by definition, all fundamentalists accept evangelism as an obligation of their faith. Biblical
literalism is also a tenet of fundamentalism. Here is where the problem lies: Some people who
do not interpret the Bible literally nevertheless adhere to the duty to evangelize. Hence, all
fundamentalist Christians are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals adhere to all fundamentalist
beliefs, such as Biblical literalism. Thus, I choose to use the word fundamentalists rather than
evangelicals to describe a particular set of believers because I do not want to paint all evangelicals,
some of whom hold politically liberal views and interpret the Bible figuratively, with the same
brush. When I use the term fundamentalist, therefore, I use it in its academic sense—distinctly
referring to those who adhere to most of the orthodox ideas laid out in The Fundamentals—and
not as a derisive label.
Christian fundamentalism in the United States began toward the end of the 19th century as a
response to profound cultural changes in American society. Rapid industrialization and urbaniza-
tion, mass immigration, and the rise of secularism and naturalistic science in American colleges
and universities are among the most important of these social and cultural changes in the United
States (Marty, 1970). For many Americans, rapid industrialization and urbanization drastically
changed their way of life. The traditionally large, stationary American rural family transitioned
into a much smaller unit of city dwellers with far fewer children. Mass immigration from Southern
and Eastern Europe created an influx of Catholic and Jewish residents of urban areas throughout
the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of the United States (Nord, 1995). Advances in modern
naturalistic science, particularly the publication of Charles Darwin’s (1859) revolutionary theory
of evolution by natural selection, added to the growing secularism of American colleges and
universities.
As prominent Protestant clergymen and theologians began to apply the tools of modern science
to the study of the Bible and many believers shifted to a more liberal, contextualized, and figurative
interpretation of scripture, those who continued to interpret the Bible literally felt increasingly
marginalized, even within their own church communities. Many of these individuals began to
separate themselves from mainline Protestantism and from mainstream American society, but not
all were content to sit passively while their country continued to adapt to increasing social and
cultural pressures (Zimmerman, 2002).
Sensing these changes as direct attacks on their core beliefs and their vision for American
culture and society, some committed Christian traditionalists felt a sense of urgency to take action
to rally their countrymen against the advancing tide of modernity. This sense of urgency led to the
rise of a vocal, energized fundamentalist movement toward the end of the 19th century, seeking
to protect conservative theology and traditional American culture from liberal influences. For
instance, fundamentalist activists launched, during the early years of the movement, vigorous
campaigns to prohibit the consumption of alcohol and to stem the tide of Catholic immigration
to the United States (Marsden, 1980). It was not until the second decade of the 20th century,
however, that the fundamentalist movement began to influence American public schools.
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96 BINDEWALD
THE HISTORICAL ROLE OF RELIGION IN AMERICAN EDUCATION
Although American public schools have continually aimed to educate children to be moral persons
and good citizens, the place of religion has undergone a fundamental shift: from colonial times to the
mid-twentieth century, primary and secondary education became increasingly public, universal, and
secular. (Greenawalt, 2005, p. 13)
A large majority of the early European settlers in what came to be the United States, from Puritan
New England to the Anglican southern colonies, were Protestants. In these colonies, “education
was almost entirely private and substantially religious” (Greenawalt, 2005, p. 13). The earliest
publicly supported schools arose in Massachusetts in 1647, with the enactment of the Old Deluder
Satan Act (1647), which set out to help produce informed citizens who could read the Bible for
themselves, despite the best efforts of “that old deluder, Satan [who seeks] to keep men from
the knowledge of the Scriptures.” In the years that followed the American Revolution, concern
regarding popular enlightenment for civic purposes led to the growth of American free schools,
which along with a focus on republican virtue, were heavily saturated with a Protestant ethos
(Provenzo, 1990).
From the earliest days of the Republic, education was seen as a responsibility of the states and
of the people, and not of the federal government. Thus, there was no centralized policy dealing
with the role of religion in tax-supported schools. The First Amendment to the United States
Constitution contains two Religion Clauses, which are commonly referred to as the Establishment
Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause, “Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,” and the Free Exercise Clause, “[Congress shall make no
law] prohibiting the free exercise [of religion],” originally applied only to actions of the United
States Congress. This interpretation, which left the states free to make their own policies regarding
the role of religion in the schools, would prevail over the next century and a half (Zimmerman,
2002).
As believers exercised their freedom in the American religious marketplace, “different
churches propounded different interpretations of God’s word, and each church vied to get its
version taught in the schools” (Bates, 1993, p. 41). This phenomenon persisted through the mid-
19th century when the common school movement, in an effort toward social cohesion, solidified
the prominent position of nonsectarian Protestantism in the growing system of American public
schools. Although Massachusetts was the only state with laws on the books requiring such prac-
tices during this time, official prayers, daily readings from the King James Bible, and the use of
materials that promoted a Protestant Christian worldview had become predominant features of
common school culture throughout much of the United States (Nord, 1995).
The modernization that characterized the transition of American society into the 20th century,
coupled with a great increase in the immigration of religiously diverse groups from Southern
and Eastern Europe, primarily Catholics and Jews, led to a significant challenge to Protestant
hegemony and a general deemphasis of religion in American public schools (Nord, 1995). As
majority mainstream Protestants increasingly sought to accommodate the diverse demands of a
religiously pluralist society, a third group, for very different reasons, joined the protests against the
nature of religion in the public schools: “Like Catholics and Jews, these new dissenters contended
that seemingly neutral classroom practices were antithetical to their faith. They were conservative
Christians, who called themselves fundamentalists” (Bates 1993, p. 43). Fundamentalists became
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 97
increasingly concerned about the impact of the schools’ superficial treatment of the Bible upon
America’s young people. Other so-called progressive measures in the public schools, including
the movement toward scientific efficiency, pushed the teaching of Protestant morality further
to the margins of the curriculum. Education was at the center of what they perceived to be an
eminent crisis of culture. Thus, it was toward the public schools that the growing fundamentalist
movement focused its attention (Zimmerman, 2002).
EDUCATION POLICY ISSUES AND RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY
In general, [fundamentalists] have strongly opposed the current thrust of American education ...on
the basis of what they believe are the underlying philosophical values and beliefs of our educational
system. ... Textbooks and curricula, evolution versus creationism, sex education and prayer in the
public schools are all issues that have been recently addressed. ... Their attack has been both
carefully planned and argued. As a result, the [fundamentalists] have emerged with a detailed and
comprehensive critique of contemporary American schooling and culture. (Provenzo, 1990, p. 4)
Fundamentalists have waged various campaigns to influence public school curricula in a variety of
ways, and some of these efforts have been more successful than others. In this section of the article,
I present brief overviews of what I think are the most significant areas of school reform—including
the various undertakings to undermine the teaching of evolution, to reinstate school-led prayer
and Bible reading, to censor textbooks, and to proselytize students through reconceptualized,
devotional released time religious education programs—targeted by fundamentalist activists over
the past century. We now turn to the fundamentalists’ first major reactionary campaign launched
against the public schools.
Antievolution
By the 1920s, basic familiarity with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had permeated the
thinking of many policy-makers across the United States. It was during this time that fundamen-
talists set their sights on keeping evolution out of the public schools. By the mid-1920s, several
state legislatures had passed laws banning the teaching of evolution. When a young biology
teacher in Tennessee, named John T. Scopes, taught his students the forbidden theory, he ignited
a firestorm that would culminate with the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 (Scopes v.
State, 1925). Although Scopes was found guilty of violating the antievolution law, the court of
public opinion came down solidly on his side. The reporting of the trial led to an outcome in
which “the fundamentalists suffered a devastating defeat. In the public eye, their faith seemed
ludicrously, obstinately anachronistic” (Bates, 1993, p. 45). After the humiliation of the Scopes
Trial, as the fundamentalists became increasingly isolated, they largely retreated from public life
for several decades (Manatt, 1995).
Although the fundamentalists had been humiliated, the controversial nature of the Scopes Trial
convinced many textbook companies, which wanted to maximize sales, to deemphasize evolution
in most of the books used in high school biology classes across the United States over the next
3 decades. However, fear of falling behind in competition with the Soviet Union, primarily in
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98 BINDEWALD
response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, led Congress to pass the National Defense Education
Act (NDEA, 1958). NDEA (1958) called for a renewed focus on math and science education
and, among other initiatives, funded the publication of new textbooks that gave a much more
direct treatment to the topic of evolution. This, in part, sparked a new round of antievolution
bills. Unlike earlier fundamentalists, who had largely disengaged with mainstream American
culture following the Scopes trial, many conservative Christians after the early 1960s have seen
themselves as “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:14–18 New International Version). In
other words, they believed that they were heavenly creatures living in a sinful world, and they felt
an eminent need to engage with mainstream culture to steer it in, what was from their perspective,
a more godly direction (Manatt, 1995).
The Supreme Court ruled, shortly thereafter in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), that laws banning
the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional, generally putting an end to such efforts (Skoog,
1978). The Epperson decision forced fundamentalists to rethink their approach to the perceived
threat of Darwinism in the public school curriculum. Realizing that any effort to ban evolution
outright was destined to fail, fundamentalists sought, instead, the passage of laws that would
require the teaching of their views alongside evolution in biology classes. Advocating for academic
freedom and “equal time” between “creation science” and “evolution science,” they hoped, would
increase their chances of success (Scott, 2004, p. 106). Bills crafted according to this logic were
introduced in several states, with versions passing in Arkansas and Louisiana. Challenges to one
of these laws led to McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), in which a federal court ruled
that balanced treatment or equal time between creation science and evolution science amounted to
an unconstitutional establishment of religion. This decision was followed several years later with
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), in which the Supreme Court declared creationism to be a religious,
rather than scientific, view, effectively ending challenges for equal time between creationism and
evolution in American public schools.
Fundamentalists then turned hopefully to the concept of intelligent design (ID) as a means
of discrediting evolution within the public school science curriculum. Advocates of ID launched
a nationwide campaign for public schools to teach the controversy surrounding evolution by
natural selection—a controversy, which if it existed at all, existed outside the circle of mainstream
biologists. In Kitzmiller v. Dover (2005), a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled against allowing
ID to be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes, arguing that ID did not
qualify as actual science because it: (a) invoked supernatural causation, (b) employed the same
flawed dualistic logic used by creation science in the 1980s, and (c) instead of providing positive
evidence in support of its claims, relied only on negative attacks on evolution that had been
soundly refuted within the scientific community—in effect, claiming that because there were
gaps in evolutionary theory, ID is true by default. The judge added that ID had failed to generate
peer-reviewed publications and had not been subjected to testing and research. This decision
largely ended serious efforts to have ID taught in public school biology classes (PBS, 2007).
School Prayer and Bible Reading
Although it was commonplace in the early years of public education for students to be led in
prayer and Bible reading, before 1900 only Massachusetts had a law specifically requiring daily
school prayer. Only after 1913 did fundamentalists who were concerned about the increasing
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 99
secularization of American society successfully lobby for the passage of such laws in 11 other
states (Boston, 2003). Such laws were permissible because, before the 1940s, the Establishment
and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment—which effectively create a wall of separa-
tion between church and state—were interpreted to apply only to the federal government. In
the landmark case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court applied the
Establishment Clause to state and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment, which had
broadly extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to all citizens and applied constitutional
limitations to state and local government entities (Lofaso, 2009).
The Everson decision led to a wave of cases that severely restricted the power of the states and school
districts to establish religion through educational policy. By the 1960s, the [school] day opened with
Bible reading in fewer than half of American schools, down from about three-fourths at the turn of
the century. Students recited a prayer—most frequently the Lord’s Prayer, which some courts had
adjudged non-sectarian—in about one-third of schools. Most schools would excuse a child from these
religious exercises at the parents’ request. The exercises were nearly universal in the South, common
in the East, and relatively rare elsewhere. (Bates, 1993, pp. 45–46)
Official school prayer was determined by the Supreme Court to be an unconstitutional violation of
the Establishment Clause in Engel v. Vitale (1962). Most religious believers, including Catholics
and mainline Protestants, reacted negatively to the Engel decision, seeing it as a judicial overstep
into state and local matters. Responses from ultra-conservative politicians were particularly
defiant:
Ending prayer in public schools provided the spark that set off a firestorm of posturing, preaching,
and defiant moves by politicians. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia castigated the justices for
‘tampering with America’s soul.’ Governor George Wallace thundered that any Alabama school that
dropped its religious exercises could ‘kiss its state aid good-bye.’ In Texas, where few school districts
had an official position on religious exercises when the two prayer cases came down, nearly 90 percent
of Texas districts required daily prayers a few years later. (Manatt 1995, p. 14)
The contentious Engel decision was followed by a related ruling a year later in Abington
School District v. Schempp (1963), which declared school-sponsored Bible reading and devotional
activities to be illegal. The response to the Schempp decision, despite the fact that it would have a
far greater impact than Engel, was the much milder of the two. Perhaps this was because, although
Schempp forbade school-sponsored and devotional Bible reading, “the opinion heartily endorsed
the role of religion in the curriculum through courses on comparative religion, religious history,
or the Bible as literature” (Bates, 1993, p. 50). Nevertheless, fundamentalists were outspoken in
harsh opposition to both rulings.
Although few complained publicly about the Schempp decision, neither did states rush to
comply with it. In fact, government officials in some states, particularly in the South—a bastion
of fundamentalism—ordered schools to ignore the ruling and to continue with business as usual
(Provenzo, 1990). The law was rarely enforced, unless individual plaintiffs supported by watchdog
groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church
and State, People for the American Way, or the Freedom from Religion Foundation brought
lawsuits against state and local governing bodies. In fact, as late as 1985, “More than two decades
after the Supreme Court had outlawed the practices, 20 percent of Southern schools still had
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100 BINDEWALD
Bible reading and 43 percent had spoken prayer” (Bates, 1993, p. 51). These rulings, along with
what they perceived as excesses of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s,
were viewed as provocations by the fundamentalists, who had largely stayed quiet since their
antievolution activism of the 1920s. They would not remain silent for much longer (Manatt,
1995).
Censorship
The New Right arose in the 1970s largely as a reaction to what its followers saw as the United
States’ trajectory in the wrong cultural direction—a course set in the 1960s that was taking the
country away from its traditions and conservative values (Williams, 2012). The Moral Majority, an
activist organization that sought to influence the social agenda of the New Right, was formed in the
late 1970s by a group of conservative Christians led by televangelist Jerry Falwell. Falwell and the
Moral Majority quickly rose to the forefront of the conservative movement in the 1980s and set an
agenda to reshape the cultural direction of the United States (Williams, 2012). Fundamentalists
gained a renewed sense of confidence from the movement, reemerged to mainstream society
from decades of self-imposed exile in the political wilderness, and refocused their attention
on the public schools. Educational reforms of the early 1970s had introduced multiculturalism,
controversial issues, a renewed focus on evolution, and a more student-centered curriculum into
many of the nation’s public schools (Nord, 1995). These reforms sparked a fundamentalist-led
censorship campaign that would span more than 3 decades. Eugene Provenzo (1990) describes the
rationale for the campaign: “[The fundamentalist] conflict over censorship and the curriculum is
about the meaning of American culture, the changes that we have experienced in recent decades,
and the possibilities that we as a people possess in terms of the future” (p. 15).
In the most shocking of the censorship campaigns, in 1974 in Kanawha County, West Virginia,
the struggle to influence the public school curriculum took an astoundingly violent turn. Angry
over the inclusion of books that were found to be, “disrespectful of authority and religion,
destructive of social and cultural values, obscene, pornographic, [and] unpatriotic,” a group of
West Virginia fundamentalists waged a small war against their school system (Provenzo, 1990,
p. 24). Initially, protesters kept 8,000 of the district’s 46,000 students out of school, and picketers
closed mines, bus depots, grocery stores, and construction sites. These peaceful acts of resistance
were followed, however, by harrowing acts of violence. For instance, district office windows were
shot out, several individuals were shot or beaten, a local reverend asked for prayers for the death
of school board members who supported adoption of the textbooks, an elementary school was
fire-bombed, cars were blown up, two school buses were hit with shotgun blasts, and a police
car was hit by sniper fire (Mason, 2009). To curb the violence, the local school board acquiesced
and adopted a set of guidelines for textbook selection that “made it possible for the protestors
to impose their values on the schools and community... [making] a mockery of the selection
process” (Provenzo, 1990, p. 24).
Several other significant, albeit less violent, examples of fundamentalist-led efforts to censor
public school curricula took place throughout the decade and a half that followed the Kanawha
campaign. In 1977 in Warsaw, Indiana, the local school board banned the use of controversial
textbooks such as Values Clarification (Simon, Howe, & Kirshenbaum 1984), ordered the dis-
continuation of courses in areas like Black literature and women’s literature, and summarily fired
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 101
three teachers who protested these actions (Bosmajian, 2006). These motions overstepped the
authority granted to the school board by a written policy requiring both a hearing before a review
committee and a superintendent’s recommendation before any such actions could be legitimately
taken. The citizens of Warsaw, largely in support of their school board, felt that their values were
under serious threat, and “in order to preserve these values they were willing to allow books to be
censored, obstruct the legal process and destroy the careers of teachers” (Provenzo, 1990, p. 25).
Unlike the Kanawha County and Warsaw examples, the next case made its way all the
way to United States Supreme Court. In 1975, the board of the Island Trees Free Schools of
Long Island, New York, removed nine books from the local high school’s library. The act of
censorship took place after three of the school board members attended a conference sponsored
by a fundamentalist organization in which a list of “objectionable” books was circulated among
attendees (Kraus, 1984, pp. 343–345). Following the book removal, a group of students led by the
high school student council president promptly sued the board based on the argument that their
First Amendment rights had been violated. After 6 years of appeals, the Supreme Court finally
issued a decision in Board of Education v. Pico (1982) that books could not be removed simply
because of their “anti-American content,” but had to violate obscenity laws for such censorship
to be legally justified.
During this time, many other instances of censorship took place across the United States at the
local level. Individual parents or local special interest groups often initiated the protests against
textbooks, but outsiders often supported these efforts. In 1978, United States Senator Orin Hatch
introduced a piece of legislation, now known as the Hatch Amendment, to protect parents’ rights
to direct the education of their children. Fundamentalists celebrated the legislation as a victory
in the struggle to control the curriculum of the public schools. Provenzo (1990) laments that:
The improper use of the Hatch Amendment has allowed local censors to limit virtually any kind of
classroom discussion. Open-ended questions almost automatically become subject to controversy.
By definition the curriculum becomes limited to strictly factual presentations, subject to neither
interpretation [n]or discussion. (p. 18)
The most influential of the nationally active textbook censors were Mel and Norma Gabler
of Hawkins, Texas. This married couple, originally spurred to action by the perceived moral
and cultural relativism they found in their son’s schoolbooks, eventually became leaders in the
fundamentalist effort to censor public school textbooks. Over 4 decades of activism earned the
Gablers a reputation as cultural watchdogs among their state’s sizable fundamentalist community.
When they labeled a textbook as anti-American, people listened—and they put pressure on the
powers-that-be to remove such books from consideration (Delfattore, 1992).
Texas used a centralized method for approving textbooks for adoption in the state’s public
schools. Given the size of Texas’s population, publishing companies faced extensive economic
pressure to shape content in a way that they suspected would please the Gablers. Because the
textbook companies were already mass-producing books for the Texas market, they could print
additional books at little cost. Other states could then purchase the Gabler-approved Texas version
textbooks for lower prices than they could find for less restricted books. In this way, the Gablers
were able to influence the content of books not just in Texas, but throughout much of the rest of
the nation as well (Delfattore, 1992).
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102 BINDEWALD
Reconceptualization of “Released Time”
Released time for religious instruction (released time) is a policy through which students are
excused from public schools, during regular hours, to participate in devotional lessons typically
conducted by local religious organizations (Time for God, 2000). Since Zorach v. Clauson (1952),
the courts have upheld this practice as long as classes are held off public school premises, with
parental permission, and without government aid. Although released time programs have been in
existence for almost century as a means of accommodating religious believers and were neither
devised nor originally very widely supported by fundamentalists, evangelical Christian activists
have recently embraced and reconceptualized released time as an open door through which
to bring their worldview to public school students. To understand the nature and significance
of this reconceptualization, a brief discussion of the origins and history of released time is in
order.
At a multidenominational church conference in New York City in 1905, attendees discussed
what they perceived to be a pressing need to improve the religious and moral education of public
school students. They also expressed concerns about the difficulties of teaching substantive lessons
in religion and morality without inflaming sectarian passions in the increasingly pluralistic and
secular urban public schools. Among those in attendance, Dr. George U. Wenner proposed that
students should be released from public schools for one afternoon per week so that they might
receive religious instruction (Gorham, 1934).
The generally well-received idea eventually made its way to the ears of Dr. William Wirt, the
Superintendent of Public Schools in Gary, Indiana. As part of an effort to bolster the teaching of
morality in public schools while accommodating religious diversity, in 1914 Dr. Wirt established
a program through which pupils were released from public school supervision to the care of local
religious leaders for instruction in the religion of their parents. This Gary Plan, which became a
model for released time programs across the country, is generally recognized as the first released
time program in the United States (Berrett, 1988).1
Many Catholics and Mainline Protestants embraced released time as a way to accommodate
religious diversity and to provide support to the religious and moral education of public school
children. Some Catholics, however, were initially hesitant to support released time because they
feared that Protestants would use it as a way to maintain a hegemonic presence in the public
schools (Pfeffer, 1975). A strange coalition, consisting of Jewish special interest groups, secular
organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, and most Baptist associations, formed
in opposition to released time. Interestingly, Baptist organizations—with Southern Baptists be-
ing among the largest of the fundamentalist denominations—originally opposed released time
because they thought it violated the principle of separation of church and state, encroached upon
the parents’ right to sole dominion over their children’s religious education, undermined national
unity by highlighting student differences, and impeded the assimilation of religious minorities
into mainstream American society (Zucker, 2007).
It was only after a case in Champaign, Illinois that large numbers of Baptists came to embrace
released time. In 1945, Vashti McCollum, an acknowledged atheist, complained that the Cham-
paign school district’s released time policy discriminated against her son James and violated
the Establishment Clause. Her claims were dismissed as frivolous, but she appealed her case all
the way to the United States Supreme Court. Because the program met on campus (as did most
released time programs at that time) and received funding and other means of support from the
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 103
public school system, the Court, in an 8–1 decision in what came to be known as McCollum v.
Board of Education (1948) ruled that the Champaign released time program violated the First
Amendment and was thus unconstitutional (Setran, 2012). Leery of being associated with atheists
such as McCollum, many Baptist laypeople—or perhaps more accurately, many of the relatively
small number who were familiar with released time—rejected the position of their leaders and
began supporting the concept (Setran, 2012). Nevertheless, released time participation nationwide
saw a considerable decline after McCollum, as many school leaders interpreted the ruling to have
banned all released time programs (Sorauf, 1959). However, the practice of released time—as
long as it took place with parental permission, off public school campus, and without aid from
the state—was upheld 4 years later in another landmark case, Zorach v. Clauson (1952).
Very little scholarship exists on the history of released time programs after 1950 (Poore, 1983).
Dean Kelley (1980), however, on the basis of observations made over a 22-year period as Director
of Religious and Civil Liberty for the National Council of Churches, reported that, although Bible
education programs existed in parts of the country, released time was a diminishing phenomenon
and no longer a topic of conversation in national church circles. As American public schools
gradually shifted away from a Protestant ethos toward a more secular approach to education,
fundamentalists had to reconsider their strategic efforts to shape school policy and curriculum.
Reconceptualizing the released time policy was one way in which they sought to influence
American public education.
In the mid-1990s, evangelical Christian activists began to argue on the basis of free exercise,
through the language of multiculturalism, to bring their religious perspective back into the schools
through the overlooked open door of released time (Ericsson, Colby, Payne, & Crawford, 1996).
The first of these evangelical released time Bible education programs, most of which served
elementary and middle school students, were set up in Georgia and South Carolina. Proponents
of the programs who wished to expand them to the high school level argued that the compulsory
school day, combined with stringent graduation requirements, prevented religious high school
students from accessing released time Bible education courses.
Despite getting off to a slow start, high school released time programs in South Carolina
experienced significant growth after evangelical Christians successfully lobbied for passage of
The South Carolina Released Time Credit Act (SCRTCA) in 2006 (SCRTCA, 2006). The bill
authorized public schools to award up to two high school academic elective credits for these
classes, which was critical to the survival, indeed the proliferation, of high school released time
programs throughout the state (Tonn, 2006). Although school districts in a few states, including
Utah, Georgia, and South Carolina, award some form of high school credit for participation in
released time religious education, South Carolina is the only state to have passed legislation
specifically sanctioning the practice.2
Given the overtly proselytizing, rather than strictly academic, nature of these programs, the
issuance of public school credits for released time has proven to be problematic. In fact, the
establishment of a released time program in Spartanburg County, South Carolina eventually led
to Moss v. Spartanburg County School District Number 7 (2012), a federal court case in which
two students and their parents, along with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, filed suit
against their school district. The plaintiffs, invoking the Supreme Court’s Lemon test,argued
that the district’s released time policy was improper because: “(1) it lack[ed] a predominately
secular purpose; (2) its principal effect [wa]s to advance religion; and (3) it foster[ed] excessive
entanglement with religion” (Legal Clips, 2011).
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104 BINDEWALD
The school district responded that its released time policy was consistent with the Establishment
Clause and that the allegations against it were unfounded. The court sided with the district, ruling
“that a school district’s award of academic credit for off-campus religious instruction does not
violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause” and that, “the school district’s release time
policy was a passive measure aimed at satisfying the constitutionally permissible purpose of
accommodating students’ religious beliefs” (Legal Clips, 2011). The plaintiffs appealed to the
Fourth Circuit Federal Court, and a three-judge panel upheld the initial ruling. The plaintiffs then
asked for another hearing in front of the full court, but their request was denied. Their appeal to
obtain a hearing by the Supreme Court was also recently denied (Becket Fund, 2012).3
Thus, by using the language of accommodation often employed by multiculturalists, South
Carolina’s evangelical Christian community has found a clever way to not only provide devotional
and proselytizing religious instruction to public school students during regular school hours, but
has also been able to secure the issuance of public school credits for these courses. Awarding
public school credits for evangelical released time courses gives the appearance of state sanction
for fundamentalist educational approaches, values, and aims. For this reason, released time is fast
becoming a central issue in struggles relating to establishment and free exercise of religion in
American public schools (Rosenblith & Bindewald, 2013).
Rather than merely accommodating the free expression of those who are already believers,
awarding public school credits for devotional released time programs aids evangelicals in their
religious mission to gain converts. In support of this argument, a leading released time program
in South Carolina celebrates not the degree to which it has secured religious freedom for children
of practicing evangelical Christians but rather that “hundreds of public school students have
committed their lives to Christ!” as a result of participation in their programs and that between
one-half and two-thirds of participating students in their program are “unchurched” (Christian
Learning Centers of Greenville, 2013). Allowing these programs to use public school credits
to lend credibility and the appearance of state approval to courses designed to indoctrinate and
convert students into a religious faith is an unwise policy for a pluralistic, democratic society that
values critical thinking and the freedom of conscience.
THE LASTING IMPACT OF CHRISTIANITY ON AMERICAN PUBLIC
SCHOOL CULTURE
I have thus far focused upon several specific educational policy issues relating to fundamentalists’
efforts to shape decision-making in American public schools. Although knowledge of the con-
troversies surrounding such policy issues is of central importance to understanding conservative
Christianity and its influence on public education, it does not tell the whole story. Burke and
Segall (2011) highlight the importance of another aspect of the discussion, the lasting influence
of American public education’s Christian roots. The authors point out that, contrary to funda-
mentalists’ complaints, religion and religious influences are still very much a part of the public
school climate.
I want to be careful here not to communicate a conflation of Christianity, in general, with
fundamentalist Christianity, in particular. When Burke and Segall (2011) describe the remnants
of Christianity in American public schools, little of what they describe is representative of
fundamentalist pedagogy. What I emphasize here, rather, is that in a system in which most teachers
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 105
are Christian, most student-initiated religious clubs and campus organizations are Christian, and
most religious groups, like the Good News Club, that meet on public school campuses as students
are dismissed at the end of the regular school day, together create a significant Christian influence
on public school culture. Thus, the summary of the authors’ argument is included not to show
that fundamentalists have a dominant influence over American public school policy, curriculum,
and pedagogy, but to counter the overstated claim made regularly by fundamentalists that secular
humanists have forcefully removed every vestige of Christianity from the public schools.4
Burke and Segall’s (2011) critical approach to language and other symbolic components
of discourse in the public schools (i.e., subtler ways of communicating messages to students)
reveals that as microcosms of society—in this case, of a majority Christian nation with deep
historical roots in Protestantism—public schools inevitably reflect the predominate historical
and contemporary views of the societies in which they are based. Emphasizing the semiotic
and structural arrangements of contemporary public schools, which include the nearly universal
practice of arranging school schedules on a Christian calendar, organizing school administrative
structures on Medieval Roman Catholic hierarchical models, and treating children as little sinners
in need of redemption of various types, the authors demonstrate that continuing a school discourse
based on these traditionally Christian understandings and practices lead to a “normalized and
not-so-silent authoritative religious discourse” in American public schools (p. 644). They refer
to the use of a Christian calendar that organizes school holidays around Christmas and Easter, as
one form of evidence of the continued presence of Christian influence over the public schools:
The calendar of the public schools in the USA remains very much in service of the subtle and not-so-
subtle Christian religiosity of the educational project. It is thus easy to remain invisibly Christian in
our schools because the holidays come to you; one must, at the inconvenience of employer, teacher,
and student all, become overtly Jewish, blatantly Muslim, to maintain many rituals of faith. ... That
schools ... schedule themselves around what could basically be considered a Christian or Judeo-
Christian calendar is one thing. That such a calendar is taken as self-evident, natural, and above
questioning by those of us in education is quite another. (p. 641)
Ultimately, Burke and Segall (2011) make the compelling case that,
while you can take education out of the hands of religion through the establishment of a secular,
public school system, it is much more difficult, considering the historical roots of education in the
church, to take religion out of education. (p. 651)
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
It would be an exaggeration to say that American public schools continue as bastions of Protes-
tant hegemony, given the general secularization of public education that took place throughout
much of the 20th century.5The claim that the public schools have been stripped of every remnant
of Christian tradition and values, however, is equally overstated. Nevertheless, activists of the
Religious Right remain convinced that this is, indeed, the case. Fundamentalists see the series
of rulings from the 1940s through the 1980s that clarified the Court’s position regarding Consti-
tutional protections against the establishment of religion as a direct attack on their beliefs and
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106 BINDEWALD
vision for the country. Many religious conservatives in the United States see the combination
of compulsory attendance laws with what they perceive to be a secular humanist conspiracy to
destroy Christianity through the public schools as an unbearable situation.6
Whereas some conservative Christians have given up on public schools in favor of homeschool-
ing or private schooling, many—such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family—see the
“unbearable” situation as a call to action for the faithful to take the reins of the public schools:
“Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience—what they see,
hear, think, and believe—will determine the future course for the nation” (Dobson, 1994, p. 27).
What then, would the fundamentalists change about the public school system? As they conceive
of the United States as a Christian nation and define Christian in fundamentalist terms, one need
only look to the philosophy of education advocated by predominant fundamentalists to see how,
given the opportunity, they would alter public school curricula and policies (and how untenable
this would be for a pluralist, democratic society).
Fundamentalist education is centered on indoctrination and proselytizing. To the fundamental-
ist educator, the school ought to be used, among other things, as an avenue for teaching children
about the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and to lead them to accept Jesus Christ as their
personal savior. To shield them from the corrupting forces of modernity, teachers should also
train young people in Christian apologetics. Rather than educating for autonomy—equipping
children with the tools that they will need to be able to pursue their own goals in life, to think
critically so that they might be able to evaluate multiple conceptions of the good, or to be able
to navigate the increasingly complex and globalized world—fundamentalists are most concerned
with preserving and promoting their traditional faith (taught, of course, in the guise of established
fact). Thus, education ought not to be designed to help children develop into independent adult
citizens, but it should guide them to salvation and show them how they should live. But before
children can be saved, they must be instructed as to what they must be saved from. Consider the
following sentiments from James Dobson (1987):
I firmly believe in acquainting children with God’s judgment and wrath while they are young. Nowhere
in the Bible are we instructed to skip over the unpleasant scriptures in our teaching. The wages of sin
is death, and children have the right to understand that fact. (p. 106)
Under no circumstances should students be exposed to educational materials that question or
contradict the content or authority of the Bible. There is no need to equip students with tools of
rational inquiry, for the most important questions in life have already been answered in scripture.
Author of The Fundamentals of Extremism, Kimberly Blaker (2003), describes the fundamentalist
philosophy of education as follows:
Christian fundamentalist schooling is known for indoctrinating children through recitation and mem-
orization of Bible verses and prayers, reinforced with hellfire and brimstone lectures. ... These
children learn only what neatly fits into the myopic views of their parents and teachers. ... Funda-
mentalists know too well that children who learn to think on their own may someday stray from their
indoctrination. The ideology of children in fundamentalist families is predetermined. Mind control,
therefore, is the mode by which fundamentalists, whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or any other
group, gain adherents. (p. 8)
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 107
Furthermore, she adds:
Authoritarian in nature, their interpretation of sacred texts calls on them to dominate society and to
‘determine the future course for the nation,’ as Dobson suggests. If fundamentalists do not guard
against children learning to think on their own, they risk turning out adults who will choose a path
inharmonious or even opposed to their own. For many fundamentalists, this path is simple, to serve
God by bringing him loyal servants. However, a large proportion work to raise leaders and followers
who will bring about political change and build a society ruled by an ideology not conducive to
democracy. (p. 9)
Fundamentalist approaches to teaching and learning can be harmful to students and society
in many ways. For instance, Stitzlein’s (2008) review of 3 decades of literature on the topic of
sexism in Christian schools details the mistreatment that often prevails when schools implement
the religious right’s educational vision and makes a compelling argument that such an environment
not only harms girls but ultimately jeopardizes pluralist democracy.7Bates (1993) provide an
illustrative overview of fundamentalist opposition to students’ exposure to multiple perspectives
in public school curriculum in his comprehensive study of the case of Mozert v. Hawkins County
(1987). Macgillivray (2008), focusing on the Christian Right’s arguments in opposition to the
discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom, details how fundamentalists are willing to co-opt
the language of multiculturalism in their efforts to maintain hegemony over public school policy
and discourse. These and other autonomy inhibiting and antiegalitarian aspects of fundamentalist
education demonstrate the problematic nature of this approach to schooling for young citizens of
a pluralist democracy.
The fundamentalist philosophy of education is relevant to stakeholders of public schools be-
cause it is precisely these educational aims—designed to either indoctrinate and convert students
into a comprehensive worldview or prevent exposure of students to any ideas that oppose that
comprehensive worldview—that fundamentalists have a long history of trying to impose on the
rest of American society. They have tirelessly attempted to infiltrate the public schools and the
broader political arena to exercise power and influence over the direction of the country. In what
I perceive to be the most significant efforts to assert themselves in public school decision-making
processes, fundamentalist Christians have attempted to undermine the teaching of evolution so
that creationism may be preserved, promote their faith through school-sponsored prayer and
devotional Bible reading, censor textbooks and library materials to prevent students from being
exposed to alternative viewpoints, and proselytize to unchurched students through a reconcep-
tualized released time policy. The type of authoritarian and indoctrinating education advocated
by fundamentalist Christians is clearly not the sort needed to prepare citizens for life in a 21st-
century, pluralist democracy. What type of education, then, is needed for students in American
public schools?
Pluralist societies need schools that prepare young people with the knowledge, skills, and
dispositions for autonomous living and full participation as democratic citizens. In such societies,
individuals and groups with competing visions of the good life must find, at a minimum, ways
to peacefully coexist. A fuller realization of the liberal, pluralist, democratic ideal would call
for an education that helps to prepare citizens with the ability and desire to navigate complex
cultural, social, and political terrains, across significant differences, for the purpose of shared
decision-making regarding common public issues.
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108 BINDEWALD
Religion and religious believers play an important role in this type of education. Parents and
churches, for instance, have “a right to invite” children into a religious faith and to challenge the
ideas taught in public schools (Warnick, 2013, pp. 47–51). They do not, however, have a legitimate
right to deny students access to an education that exposes them to diverse perspectives. Public
schools can and should teach about religions. Failure to do so leaves young people ignorant
of important differences and provides them with an inadequate civic education. Furthermore,
students should be permitted to engage in free and robust expression of their religious beliefs, so
long as they remain civil and respectful of those with whom they disagree on important matters
of faith. This is precisely the sort of dialogue that is needed to establish and maintain mutual
democratic commitments in a multicultural democracy such as the United States, lest we become
further balkanized—with majority groups dominating and minority groups disengaging from
public life.
The challenge posed by fundamentalists in a 21st-century, pluralist democracy such as the
United States is a difficult one. On the one hand, like any other group, fundamentalists have the
right to speak freely, to teach their children as they see fit, and to promote their values in the
public square. On the other hand, as is the case with any group, fundamentalists do not have
the right to impose upon the rest of society a very restrictive and dogmatic vision of culture and
education.
As the majority of public school leaders seek to prepare students for life in an ever-changing
world, American society will have to find a way to extend the tolerance and respect due to all of its
members and groups without offering to fundamentalists, religious or otherwise, a form of blanket
acceptance that enables them to dictate to those who do not share their views (Minow, Shweder,
& Markus, 2010). Perhaps nowhere is this paradox more evident than when public schools must
decide how to handle fundamentalist attempts to undermine the pluralist, democratic aims of
education. Should public schools tolerate the intolerant in an effort to promote inclusion and
social cohesion? How far in these efforts is too far for schools to go?
In response to fundamentalist challenges to the civic aims of education, democratic societies
should tolerate illiberal attitudes and behaviors in the broader public sphere for the purpose
of protecting pluralism and preserving cultural identities, but they also have a responsibility
to transform such attitudes through civic education (Macedo, 2000). This position does not,
however, call for schools to directly undermine students’ religious views in their efforts to
develop tolerant citizens. By calling for broad tolerance in the public sphere but refusing to
compromise core principles of democratic education, this approach presents a firm defense of the
civic mission of public schools in the face of challenges by fundamentalists and calls for blanket
inclusion by others. Embracing this position establishes a model of public education that affords
all students meaningful opportunities to develop the knowledge, dispositions, and skills required
for autonomous living and active citizenship in a pluralist democracy.
NOTES
1. It is important to note that, although the Gary program is commonly cited as the first
released time program in the United States, a separate movement of Latter-Day Saints’
high school seminaries had been established for Mormon students in Utah public schools
in 1912.
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EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 109
2. At the time of this writing, Alabama and Ohio are also considering such policies.
3. The Supreme Court generally declines to hear cases in the absence of conflicting rulings
issued by lower courts. As the Moss case is the only one of its kind, it is conceivable
that a contradictory ruling in another state could lead the Court to issue a decision on the
constitutionality of for-credit released time programs.
4. I owe debts of gratitude to anonymous reviewers for their suggested revisions relating
to this section: One suggested that I include a review of Burke and Segall’s argument
and another suggested that I be careful not to conflate fundamentalist Christianity with
Christianity, in general. Both suggestions, I believe, added important clarifications and
additions to my overall argument.
5. It is also important to note that several states have passed Bible Bills, which allow for the
teaching of the Bible as an important and influential historical and literary work. Along
with the fact that nowhere have the courts ruled that schools cannot teach about Chris-
tianity, passage of these bills further undermines the exaggerated claims that Christianity
has been banned from the schools.
6. Michael Apple (2001) emphasized in Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards,
God, and Inequality that, since the 1980s, American public schools have dramatically
shifted in a conservative direction—with Christian fundamentalist beliefs and commit-
ments among the driving forces behind the shift.
7. For instance, her analysis of 3 decades of research on the topic shows that girls in these
schools routinely receive less opportunities to participate in school-sponsored athletics,
inadequate sex education (which she argues has an especially harmful effect on women),
blame for Eve’s alleged disobedience to God in the Book of Genesis, and lessons that they
are inferior to men—girls are often taught that women are especially weak and sinful,
are unworthy of leadership positions and are suited only for domestic roles, and should
adopt attitudes of submission to fathers and husbands.
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