This is the drumming season. Male woodpeckers are staking out their territories by drumming on hollow trees. A few more enterprising birds will drum on drainpipes or tin roofs. One hairy woodpecker of my acquaintance discovered a “No Hunting” sign lodged between the twin trunks of a maple and created an exquisite racket. During drumming season, the only rule is to find something hollow and then beat on it incessantly.
And that’s exactly what a bunch of Democrats and hairy woodpeckers of the cultural Left are doing. The hollow tree they are beating on this time is the pretence that Secretary of Education Rod Paige has undermined the principle of religious tolerance in public schools.
Paige has done nothing of the sort, but that doesn’t get in the way of the Left making its own exquisite racket. This story began Monday April 7, when the Baptist Press published an account of an interview with Paige in which he told the reporter that, “All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community.”
By Wednesday, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State had persuaded the Washington Post that Paige had indeed said something controversial. The Post quoted the executive director of the United-for-Separation group, the Reverend Barry W. Lynn, declaring that Paige had shown, “an astonishing mix of disrespect for both America’s religious diversity and the public schools.” Lynn thought Paige should take back his words or resign.
And just like that the drumming began. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights wrote to Paige “to express our outrage at your recent statements to the Baptist Press,” urging him to “apologize for and retract these statements.” Congressman George Miller, Senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, sent Paige a stiff letter asking him to “clarify recent remarks.” By week’s end, twelve other congressmen had chimed in with a joint letter to say they found Paige’s views “profoundly troubling.”
For the record, the profoundly troubled congressmen are:
Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.), Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.), John Conyers, (D., Mich.), Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), Barney Frank (D., Mass.), Joseph Hoeffel (D., Pa.), Mike Honda (D., Calif.), Sander Levin (D., Mich.), Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), Jose Serrano (D., N.Y.), Ted Strickland (D., Ohio), and Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) Over in the Senate, Ted Kennedy added a word (“divisive”) and Frank Lautenberg added two (“offensive and hurtful.”)
These legislators are understandably worried that Secretary Paige, in his friendly attitude toward Christian values, is about to desecularize the nation’s schools and, perhaps, like Samson, pull down the pillars of the Temple of Dagon, crushing that key Democratic constituency, the Philistines.
Or maybe not.
In any case, the legislators are not alone in their consternation over Paige’s alleged fondness for Christian education. The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, for example, jumped in and the New York Times, calling Paige’s remarks, “a terrible blow to the Bush administration’s much touted education initiative,” declared that, “The secretary of education needs either to do some fast fence-mending or step down.”
The heap of indignant politicians and sensitive souls aghast at Paige’s remarks is way too large to list here. It created common cause in some unlikely quarters. AtheistParents.org is more or less in line with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which in turn is joined by folks like Ameena Jandali, on the board of the Islamic Networks Group of San Jose, who is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle opining that, “The Secretary of Education should not be endorsing Christian or private education over public education.”
Midweek, Paige called a news conference to say that he was standing by his remarks, but pointing out that they had been somewhat misunderstood. In the interview, he had been responding to a question about colleges, not public schools. And in fact the transcript of the interview bears this out. The interviewer, Todd Starnes asked:
Given the choice between private and Christian — or private and public universities, what do you think — who do you think has the best deal?
What Starnes may have meant by “best deal” is by no means clear, but Paige answered:
That’s a judgment, too, that would vary because each of tem have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities. But, you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there’s a strong appreciation of values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, and so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally.
Paige, in other words, declares that he would prefer to send his child to a Christian college that emphasizes Christian values. So what? A very large number of parents feel the same way, and the United States is home to a large number of sectarian colleges and universities.
So, in one sense, this turns out to have been a controversy over nothing. Read the quotations in context and there just isn’t anything there that remotely touches on Paige’s fair-mindedness or his dedication to respecting the rights of all Americans. All those worked-up atheists can go prayer-less back to bed; all those the aroused defenders of the sensibilities of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jains, Zorasterians, wiccans, and animists can click “close file.” Rod Paige is not planning to narrow anyone’s religious options. Pluralism and secularism are safe and sound.
But that, of course, was never really the point and the facts, in the form of the Baptist Press’s published transcript of the interview, are unlikely to curb the Left’s zeal in portraying Paige as enemy of tolerance, diversity, and freedom. Paige was, after all, completely clear that he himself is a practicing Christian and someone who upholds the idea that “religious education” promotes “a strong value system.”
In the interview, Paige lamented that “our educational system is underperforming and leaving large numbers of children behind, especially minority children,” and he also allowed that he saw justification for parents who pulled their children out of failing public schools to attend private schools or be home-schooled. And he indeed noted that, “In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it’s very hard to get consensus around some core values.”
That sentence was quoted with particular umbrage by several of Paige’s critics. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, for example, took it as an example of how Paige’s remarks “denigrate the presence of those with different religious beliefs in our public school system and gives credibility to harmful stereotypes about non-Christians.” Say what? The difficulty of “getting consensus on core values” looks far more like Paige echoing the Left’s own language, than his importing any kind of Christian apologetics. “Consensus on core values” isn’t Baptist talk; it is, to the contrary, an educrat cliché. The problem for the Left isn’t what Paige said but that he said it in the context of praising traditional religious values.
The attack on Paige thus comes down to character assassination. It is not that he did anything untoward. Not even that he actually said anything especially provocative. Rather he is being vilified by the Left for expressing an anodyne opinion about the wholesomeness of Christian education. For this, he gets portrayed as a religious bigot.
Why has the Left turned so viciously on a man who seems generally to stand for tolerance, open-mindedness, and deep concern for the nation’s young? Paige appears mostly a target of opportunity, and the campaign of smears against him no more than a calculus of political advantage among groups that oppose President Bush’s education agenda.
Somewhere in the background to this noisy attack lies the very important question of what kind of society we aim to build through the nation’s public schools. The Left’s answer is that the schools should promote the ideology of “diversity,” which offers a value system based on a hierarchy of supposed victimization. The greater the degree of victimization, the greater the compensatory awards that can be expected from society. The social order that flows from these values is a society of competing ethnic, racial, and identity-based interest groups.
The Left knows what it wants and has largely achieved its vision in the schools as they now stand. Thus its basic stance is to preserve the status quo, as an institution. Secretary Paige, by contrast, offers a program of reform, which threatens the Left principally by encouraging parents to give serious consideration to their non-public school alternatives. Paige has no comprehensive vision for transforming American society comparable to the Left’s diversity doctrine. He appears instead to be a pragmatic, step-by-step manager.
Even that alarms the Left. Secretary Paige, however, can look forward to some respite. Drumming season doesn’t last long. After a few days of loud and meaningless racket, the woodpeckers get hungry and fly off to hunt for grubs.
— Peter Wood is an anthropology professor at Boston University and author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.