Most historians who study the modern Christian Right discuss, to some extent, how religious conservatives replaced the communist Great Satan with another bogeyman, “Secular Humanism,” a phrase common to the religious right lexicon from the 1970s on. For example, Daniel K. Williams, in his new book, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, dedicates a sub-section of his chapter on the “Culture Wars in the Carter Years” to “Concerns about ‘Secular Humanism’ in Education.” Williams notes that religious conservatives did not focus on humanism when it first organized in 1941 under the auspices of John Dewey’s American Humanist Association (although, as I show in my book, they certainly focused their ire on Dewey’s educational philosophy). Williams continues: “Yet when social conservatives became concerned about changes in school curricula in the late 1960s, they decided that objectionable programs such as sex education and values clarification classes might be an attempt by the National Education Association and, in the words of conservative Catholic journalist John Steinbacher, John Dewey’s ‘coterie of sycophantic followers’ to ‘make good little Humanists out of the kids’.”
But despite such cursory attention to the problem of secular humanism, historians rarely take religious conservative thought about secular humanism very seriously. In other words, what we need is an intellectual history of the Christian Right’s critique of secular humanism. We need this because such a critique has formed the intellectual basis and legal strategy of the Christian Right’s struggles over public education since the 1970s. We need this because doing justice to the Christian Right’s argument allows us to better understand the movement. And we need this because, as I will seek to make clear in my conclusion, the Christian Right’s critique of secular humanism obliquely reveals a major blind spot of contemporary progressive education.
Influenced by the 1970s writings of Francis Schaeffer, Rousas John Rushdoony, and Tim LaHaye, the Christian Right argued that the public schools were in violation of the First Amendment because the schools established an official religion: secular humanism. Yep, that’s right, they contended secular humanism, though atheistic, evinced all the traits of a religion and thus the public schools, awash in secular humanism, violated the religious freedom of Christians. Secularists considered this ironic, to say the least, given that the so-called Lemon test put the concepts “secular” and “religious” in direct opposition to one another in that for a statute to be deemed constitutional it must have a secular purpose and its principal effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
Nevertheless, the argument that secular humanism was a religion, and that its dominion over the public school curriculum was a violation of the First Amendment, guided conservative legal attempts to remove evolution from biology classrooms or, at least, have it taught alongside some form of creationism (including, recently, intelligent design). Occasionally, the Christian Right found sympathetic judges on this matter, such as Brevard Hand, a federal judge in Alabama who ruled against state schools in a 1987 decision, writing that the secular humanist “omission” of religion “does affect a person’s ability to develop religious beliefs and exercise that religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.” But Hand’s logic was overruled and, generally speaking, the courts have yet to grant legitimacy to this argument. For example, in another 1987 case, Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court found that a Louisiana law requiring teachers of evolution to give equal time to creationism was unconstitutional because its sole purpose was to “advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.” Obviously, to make this argument the Court did not conceptualize evolution, which the Christian Right considers integral to secular humanism, as religious doctrine.
But, just because the courts have yet to take the Christian Right seriously when it claims secular humanism is a religion does not mean intellectual historians should do likewise. LaHaye, now famous for authoring the best-selling premillennial dispensationalist Left Behind series, wrote a three-part “Battle” series in the late 1970s and early 1980s that gave his readers a framework for understanding secular humanism. LaHaye dedicated the third book in the series, The Battle for the Public Schools: Humanism’s Threat to our Children (1983) (which arrived quickly on the heels of The Battle for the Mind and The Battle for the Family), to those parents concerned about the decline of the public schools, especially “the growing army within that group who realize that secular humanism, the religious doctrine of our public schools, has brought on this decline.” LaHaye coined the awkward phrase “humanist educrats,” a reference to “the elite heads of many teachers colleges, administrators, and many superintendents and principals who are determined to jam atheistic, amoral humanism, with its socialist world view, into the minds, of our nation’s children and youth, kindergarten through college.” Like so many before and since, he blamed the apparently all-powerful John Dewey. “Dewey made the teaching of humanism exclusive by getting traditional religion and its values expelled from the public schools.” The expulsion of Christianity from the schools, and its replacement by secular humanism, was, for LaHaye, “the origin of rampant drugs, sex, violence, and self-indulgence in our schools, which are not conducive to the learning process.”
LaHaye listed all of the traits that he thought defined a religion, and argued that secular humanism, “the official doctrine of public education,” displayed all of them:
1. A well-defined Bible or “Scriptures”
2. A stated doctrine or dogma
3. An object of worship
4. A priesthood
8. An established life-style
9. A support base
10. Its roots are grounded in ancient religions
11. Recognition by the Supreme Court as a religion
12. Vigorous opposition to theistic religion
13. A world view
14. Open acknowledgement of its position
Now, I don’t buy the argument that “secular humanism” qualifies as a religion by those standards, or any other set. But, the Christian Right had valid reasons to believe that the nation’s public schools no longer represented their moral vision. The Supreme Court enshrined secularism (if not secular humanism) in the schools with a series of landmark cases, most famously the Engel v. Vitale decision that declared school prayer unconstitutional in 1962. (Stay tuned for an upcoming roundtable at this blog on David Sehat’s new book The Myth of American Religious Freedom, a discussion which will no doubt deal with some of these issues.) Curriculum trends were just as distressing. Though progressive educators since Dewey had desired that schools teach skepticism of established institutions, including organized religion, few teachers actively challenged local norms, especially religious orthodoxies. But this changed in the 1960s. In English classes, teachers increasingly assigned works by minority and women authors that complicated traditional canons. In social studies, students were challenged to clarify their own values, independent of those instilled by their parents. In science, teachers slowly overcame the century-long taboo against teaching evolution. And in health classes, honest discussions of sex came to replace moral exhortations.
A popular anthropology curriculum created for elementary students by psychologist Jerome Bruner in the early 1970s—MACOS, or, “Man: A Course of Study”—exemplified this liberalization of the curriculum. During a MACOS unit students examined the Netsilik Eskimo culture, including their practice of killing the elderly, in order to understand, yet not judge, cultural difference. Such relativism became the norm. The single, authoritative account of American history increasingly gave way to an approach that accentuated multiple perspectives. This was highlighted by a 1991 New York state report, “One Nation, Many Peoples,” that deemphasized assimilation by affirming “a right to cultural diversity” that the authors argued must be reflected in the curriculum. In short, God and Country gave way to something else, call it “secular humanism” if you like, although “multiculturalism” works better.
This is not to say that such liberalization or secularization or multiculturalization took hold everywhere or at all times. In some parts of the country, for example, the traditional patriotic historical narrative has never given way to social “history from the bottom” or a curriculum that deemphasizes American exceptionalism. Not all Americans get acquainted with evolution in school. Some biology teachers in Kansas no doubt still adhere to the 1999 state board of education decision to remove evolution as one of the five unifying themes in the science classroom. Perhaps more importantly, at least since the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, neoconservative educators like William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Chester Finn, and (until her recent intellectual u-turn) Diane Ravitch, have sought to implement standardization in order to reverse progressive educational trends in place since the 1960s. But, such facts notwithstanding, generally speaking, the way our children learn is much different than it used to be, much more liberal or progressive or multicultural or even secular humanist.
This then leads me to my conclusion: The conservative critique of secular humanist schools should make clear that, like all curriculums, the contemporary school curriculum, despite its implied cultural relativism, proves to be more tolerant of some cultural positions than others. This is normal and good. I think education should be intolerant of some positions. In my perfect world, I would have schools inculcate socialistic values and be prejudiced against values inimical to them.
I contend that the progressive educational establishment is dishonest about their project. A 1987 report put out by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, entitled “Religion in the Curriculum,” found that “references to religion have all but been excised from the public school curriculum.” Progressive educators should come out and say, forcefully, that religion is not welcome in the public schools because it contradicts the values children need to learn to become tolerant citizens in a multicultural society. If they don’t believe this to be their project, and most probably don’t, then there needs to be serious reflection about why religion is hardly taught in the schools, given how important it continues to be in our political culture. Religion is progressive education’s blind spot. Why isn’t it taught about? Is it too controversial? Should something so important be so taboo?