Ominous threats of President Obama “indoctrinating” schoolchildren did not emerge in a vacuum. They fit a decades-old pattern Michael Wolraich calls “persecution politics.” (More)

Blowing Smoke, Part I – Jim Crow and Jerry Falwell

This week Morning Feature explores Michael Wolraich’s Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual. Today we consider the history of persecution politics. Tomorrow we’ll look at why persecution narratives are so attractive and persecution politics so successful. Saturday we’ll discuss Wolraich’s proposed solutions.

Note: On behalf of the faculty, staff, and student body, I’d like to welcome Michael Wolraich to the BPI Campus. He began blogging at TPM Café before opening dagblog two years ago, and is a regular contributor at CNN. Mr. Wolraich will join us for this week’s discussion, and we hope he enjoys his visit enough to stay and pursue one of our many degrees.

Weep for Your Children

Remember the old days, way back when President Obama set out to “indoctrinate” America’s children with an “unprecedented” back-to-school message? Monica Crowley implied the idea came from Chairman Mao. Others called it the first step on a slippery slope toward a Hitler Youth program.

In fact it wasn’t unprecedented. President George H.W. Bush and others had before and since had given messages to schools. And the only indoctrination was encouragement to stay in school, set goals, and work to meet those goals. Newt Gingrich, Laura Bush, and then-Senate candidate Pat Toomey (R-PA) praised the speech, and last year President Obama gave another back-to-school address with no controversy at all.

With so many other uproars since, it’s hard to remember that President Obama’s back-to-school address dominated the news for a week. Did this tempest in a teapot prove the narrative-driving force of Fox News, talk radio, and right-wing blogs? Michael Wolraich suggests another essential element: the “indoctrination” threat resonated on a long-standing conservative persecution narrative.

The Segregation Academies

In the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Court found that even if the “tangible factors” – buildings, books, etc. – were the the same, segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson “has no place” in public education.

Jerry Falwell was among many who disagreed:

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

As Michael Wolraich documents, the result were “segregation academies,” whites-only private schools that “blossomed like daisies across the South.” In Holmes County Mississippi, white enrollment in public schools dropped from 771 to 28 in the year after desegregation, and the next year dropped to zero. Most soon adopted Christian affiliations – including Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian Academy, described as “a private school for white students” – and began seeking tax-deductible donations. In 1969, a federal court decision led to new IRS rules denying tax-exempt status to segregated private schools. The schools simply wrote non-discrimination clauses into their charters … and went on discriminating in practice.

Kicking the Sleeping Dog

Contrary to the Falwellian myth, the religious right was not born in a wave of righteous rage after Roe v. Wade. In fact, Falwell and evangelicals had little interest in abortion. Their outrage was over new IRS proposal, in 1978, that would require tax-exempt private schools to meet equal opportunity recruiting standards.

Wolraich likens that IRS proposal to “kicking the sleeping dog,” and the result was a persecution narrative. With explicit racism no longer popular, the IRS rules were instead framed as an attack on Christianity itself. As Wolraich writes:

But with the IRS proposal, Carter seemed to mutate almost instantaneously in the minds of many evangelicals from good Christian father to anti-Christian autocrat. What made the transformation plausible to them was the appearance of a new villain on the American political landscape in the late 1970s, an ideological network that had cunningly invaded Carter’s government in its fiendish bid to indoctrinate Christian youth with atheistic, immoral, and unpatriotic ideas. It was called secular humanism.

And the best part was … it didn’t exist.

Nailing Jell-O to a Tree

What exactly is or was “secular humanism?” Conservative columnist William Safire described the attempt to define it as “trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.” And with good reason. It’s hard to define a movement that doesn’t actually exist. There is an American Humanist Association, and a Council for Secular Humanism. If you had never heard of either, that may be because each has only a few thousand members. As Wolraich notes, that’s about the size of one modern mega-church. Hardly an existential threat to the 76% of Americans who identify as Christians.

And that was the religious right’s advantage. With no acknowledged movement, leaders, or political agenda, “secular humanism” was a blank canvas, a “code word for the precepts and practices of almost anyone this side of Communism who disagrees with [the religious right], including liberals, feminists, atheists, civil libertarians, [and] internationalists.” (Quoting Kurt Anderson in Time, September 14, 1981.)

Add scientists to the list, as since the 1970s religious conservatives have pushed for the teaching of creationism in public schools to counter the “religious dogma of evolution.” In what ‘religion’ is the theory of evolution a ‘dogma?’ Secular humanism, which evangelical preacher Homer Duncan called “The Most Dangerous Religion in America.”

I’ve focused on this one narrative from Chapter 2 of Wolraich’s book because it demonstrates his three components of persecution politics:

  1. A slippery slope, where the proposal in question is simply the first step on a path toward Awful; propelled by,
  2. A secret plot, involving a powerful but unseen villain; leading to,
  3. The persecution of a currently privileged group.

The outrage over President Obama’s back-to-school message did not happen in a vacuum. It was simply another subplot in an ongoing conspiracy to despoil our children. Feeling persecuted is so much more comfortable than admitting you don’t want your white kids in classrooms with those Others, especially not an Other speaking as President of the United States.

And as we’ll see tomorrow, feeling comfortably persecuted is a key attraction of persecution politics.

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Happy Thursday!