This morning, a New York Times op-ed contributor went full Rousas Rushdoony. Never go full Rushdoony.
One of the more amusing aspects of life as a conservative Christian is reading liberals writing about conservative Christians — especially writing about conservative Christian political causes. There’s a formula. First, you’re told there are “dog whistle” or “hidden” reasons for the use of common terms. Second, these hidden reasons trace back to racists and Christian dominionists. Third, and finally, if you use this common language and advance mainstream conservative Christian ideas, you’re actually advancing racism and theocracy. The plot is revealed. The true agenda is laid bare.
And that brings us back to Rushdoony. It also brings us to Robert Lewis Dabney. And to A. A. Hodge. Never heard of these men? Neither had I — until I started reading liberals who were explaining to me why I really send my kids to private schools and why I really use terms such as “government schools.” Dabney was a Presbyterian minister who apparently opposed public schooling for black kids in the Reconstruction-era South. Hodge didn’t like immigrant Catholics. And Rushdoony? He’s an obscure public-school-hating Calvinist whom liberals love to elevate. Yet none of these men matter to modern Evangelical Christians. And none of them matter to modern libertarians. They don’t even know who they are.
But don’t tell that to Katherine Stewart, author of the subtly titled The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. The Times gave her prime space today to try to connect the dots between these obscure and historically inconsequential figures and libertarians such as Milton Friedman (yes, Milton Friedman). The common thread? Each of them has critiqued “government schools.” Each of them has advanced home-schooling or private education. Thus, bingo-presto, when you hear libertarians and Christians critique “government schools,” they’re really unlocking a dark and racist past.
Don’t believe me? Here’s Stewart:
But the attacks on “government schools” have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow–era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism — and those roots are still visible today.
It would all be hilarious if it weren’t so consequential. There are millions of well-meaning liberal Americans who fall for exactly this kind of “research.” They don’t know Evangelicals. They don’t read Evangelical publications. They don’t know libertarians and certainly don’t read Cato research papers. So their “friends” in liberal journalism fill in the blanks, and they typically fill in the blanks with mysterious names and dark connections. It makes for a compelling story. After all, conspiracy theories rarely lack for intrigue.
But it’s garbage. Why do libertarians and Christians intentionally increasingly use the term “government schools” to describe public education? First, because it’s true. Public schools are government schools. Second, because it’s clarifying. Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.
And so it must be squashed. And there’s no better way to discredit any modern idea than by tying it to a Confederate past. It’s certainly easier than addressing the core of the fundamental idea — that it’s better for America if more parents enjoy the educational choices that wealthy progressives take for granted.
Wealthy Americans have enormous educational advantages. They can afford private-school tuition (and many do just that). They can afford homes in the best school districts. They can employ private tutors and create the most lavish and interactive home-schooling experience. The rest of America? They’re typically reduced to no choice at all. There’s the mediocre public school in the moderately priced neighborhood or the dreadful school in the cheapest district. That’s it. There is nothing else.
Too many Americans don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized, following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board.
Unless, of course, you do what education secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to do — pour resources into vouchers and charter schools. You’d think that progressives would like the egalitarianism of it all. And, in fact, many do. Democratic advocates of school choice rightly see it as a civil-rights issue. Why should disproportionately poor and minority kids be confined to the worst schools when resources exist to increase their options?
But for some progressives, when egalitarianism clashes with control, the will to power wins. Government schools, you see, are largely a progressive enterprise, dominated in many states by progressive teachers’ unions. School choice, by contrast, means parents often choose institutions dominated by conservatives, libertarians, or (gasp) Christians. School choice means competition in the marketplace of ideas. It means fighting again ideological battles that many on the left long thought that they’d won long ago.
Rather than defend public schooling on its meager merits, all too many ideologues fall back on the old insults. ‘Racist!’ they cry. ‘Theocrat!’ they yell.
Even worse for the government-school loyalist, the fight takes place on unfavorable ground. Public schools are failing large segments of the public. They’ve been failing for decades. So rather than defend public schooling on its meager merits, all too many ideologues fall back on the old insults. “Racist!” they cry. “Theocrat!” they yell. Or they say this:
When these people talk about “government schools,” they want you to think of an alien force, and not an expression of democratic purpose. And when they say “freedom,” they mean freedom from democracy itself.
Yep, that’s reasonable and completely non-hysterical. The school-choice movement is a product of American democracy, not its repudiation. Voters have demanded choice, legislators have responded, and courts have ruled it constitutional. Every branch of government has contributed to the school-reform movement, and they still do. Where does Stewart’s reasoning end? Is government ownership and control the measure of “democracy”? Why not nationalize the airlines, or the energy sector? Is that the “democratic” thing to do?
Our nation is locked in a debate over increasing economic inequality and correspondingly decreased social mobility. The upper middle class seems to be pulling away from everyone else. Spend much time with America’s wealthier families, and it’s not uncommon to see parents with three kids in three different schools. They made choices based on each child’s unique needs. They give their children the best possible chance to succeed.
Why deny these choices to poor kids? Should we punish them for their parents’ economic performance? Faced with the difficult task of defending a failing system and limiting parental choice, all too many defenders of government schools fall back on name-calling, conspiracy theories, and their own anti-Christian bigotries. But they can cite Rushdoony all they want. It doesn’t make him relevant. It doesn’t make public schools better. And it certainly doesn’t invalidate the good and decent effort to use greater competition to improve education for everyone — white and black alike.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney.