The culture wars have long anchored the Christian right and, while contained under the Obama administration, they were fiercely renewed and reinvigorated under Trump. When Trump and other top administration officials took office, they pledged to fulfill the 2016 Republican Party’s platform that asserted:
Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.
The Trump administration and Senate Republicans stacked the Supreme Court and innumerable federal judgeships with conservatives. They secured the appointment of three judges to the Supreme Court, 54 to federal appeals court and 174 to the district courts. The current legal battle regarding the Texas “Heartbeat” Act (Senate Bill 8) may well reverse the landmark Roe v. Wade (1973) decision acknowledging a woman’s right to determine her pregnancy.
Most troubling, conservative culture values were once championed by a minority of religious activists but, during Trump’s presidency, they became the anchor for the larger white nationalist and rightwing movement. In the wake of the January 6th effort to seize the Capitol, the culture wars strongly influenced Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement but the more troubling rightwing movement that is manifesting itself in an ever-growing number of social or cultural domains.
The most consequential area in which the renewed culture wars is playing out concerns the ongoing ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of mid-December, the U.S. had 50.5 million cases and 805,000 people have died. And now with the new Omicron strain, Covid is again spreading rapidly throughout the country.
Perhaps most troubling, millions of Americans refuse mask-wearing and vaccine requirements as a violation of their ”freedom” and in fierce opposition to government restrictions. Yet, the unvaccinated appear to be most resistant to wearing masks and are the most susceptible to infection and more likely to spread the disease.
Conservatives identify still other, secondary practices that threaten the nation’s moral order. They include homosexuality, teen sex education, immigrants, multiculturalism and religion’s shrinking place in public life. As the cultural wars became more single-focused on abortion, battles became increasingly bitter, mean spirited. Antiabortion proponents are well organized, strongly motivated, well-funded and with strong political allies.
In addition to its aggressive effort to end a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion, Texas is pursuing a culture war to restrict intellectual freedom in schools. In early November, Gov. Greg Abbott asserted:
A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system. The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.
In a follow-up communique, Abbot directed state education officials to investigate whether pornography is available in public schools and to notify law enforcement if such material is accessible. This followed his earlier call for the Texas Education Agency, State Board of Education and Texas’ library and archives commission to develop standards to prevent the presence of “pornography and other obscene content” in schools.
To add dubious substance to the governor’s claims, State Senator Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) recently emailed a list of 850 books to state school officials. These books shared on thing in common: in Krause’s words they “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”
Krause is 41-year-old and a member of the WallBuilders, a group founded by evangelical fundamentalist David Barton. He teaches at the Christian college he once attended, a school that prohibits sexual relations outside marriage, romantic displays of affection with someone of the same sex and use of different pronouns.
Krause’s list of 850 suspect books also appears to be related to Texas House Bill 3979 that seeks to block teaching of so-called “critical race theory” – although “CRT” is not taught in K-12 schools. One of the books singled out is It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, a children’s book written by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley. The purpose of the book is to inform preadolescent children of puberty by exploring different definitions of sex.
In addition to Texas, a handful of other states have singled out CRT and the 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones and originally published by the New York Times. Education Week reports that 29 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching CRT or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism; 13 states have enacted such bans, either through legislation or other avenues.
Among these efforts are the following:
Alabama – a bill has been pre-filed for the next legislative session to ban “teaching certain concepts regarding race or sex, such as critical race theory.”
Florida — the board of educationprohibits the teaching of critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
Maine – a billwas introduced to prohibit public school teachers from “engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.”
Michigan – in addition to prohibiting to CRT and 1619 from being taught in the classroom, a bill adds “anti-American and racist theories”.
In June, Congressional Republicans introduced legislation that would cut federal funding for schools the use lessons based on the 1619 project.
Republican Glenn Youngkin made the issue of education — and the ostensible lack of parental control – a pivotal issue in his electoral victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race. According to some reports, the issue increased by 9 points as a top priority as the race came to a head. In exit polls, parents who wanted more involvement in schools strongly supported Youngkin.
An invaluable piece in The Hill by two representatives of the American Historical Association (AHA), James Grossman and Jeremy C. Young, reveals the following:
Russell Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget during the previous administration, appears to be the mastermind behind the bills themselves. The exact language common to many of the bills is posted on the website of an organization that Vought leads, along with “a toolkit on how to stop critical race theory and reclaim your local board.” If you’ve wondered why all the bills have the same language, this is why: they weren’t written in response to local curricula, but factory-style, by Vought and his associates.
They also note, “The law now pending in your state legislature was written inside the Beltway, copied word-for-word from a document so hastily written and published that it has the filename ‘Model-School-Board-Language-to-Ban-CRT-SD-HCS-edits-1.’”
The U.S. has long been a battleground over what is to be taught in the classroom. A century ago, a legendary 1925 trial took place that pitted John Thomas Scopes, a science teacher, against the state of Tennessee for teaching evolution. The trial was immortalized in Stanley Kramer’s movie, Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the “Monkey Trial” starring Gene Kelly, Fredric March and Spencer Tracy. It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court ruled that state bans on teaching evolution violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
In response, the Christian right developed a series of counter strategies. One was dubbed “equal time” for the teaching of the evolution and Biblical creation theory. After the courts reject it, they switched to a new theory of science as a discipline based on the creationist notion “intelligent design” — in 2005, it was found unconstitutional. Even though school prayer and sacramental Bible reading was found unconstitutional, explicit religious campaigns persist in prayers before football games and “courses” on the Bible as literature.
One can only worry what would happen if (i) the Democrats lose control of the House in 2022 and (ii) if Trump (or one of his clones) is reelected in 2024. With a reactionary Supreme Court and a growing number of conservative state legislatures, one must worry that instruction on school-aged children will have to conform to an ever-growing list of Biblical injunctions.
The Christian right’s attacks on critical race theory and the 1619 Project follow its rage against trans people as well as classroom discussions of abortion, contraception or homosexuality. Who knows, in a couple of years, we may see a remake of Inherit the Wind but set in the 2025.
Much of American life has changed over the last century, yet so much remains the same.