For Democrats, it’s been easy to break out the popcorn as the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives declared holy war against fellow Republicans and sought to purify conservative ranks.
After all, the GOP is reaping what it sowed. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas; recruit zealots, be devoured in the end.
In an earlier life, I would have gloated even more, because I used to think fundamentalism was purely a Republican problem. But then I started working, as a progressive, for education reform and started getting all these weird fundie flashbacks from my side.
Let me explain.
I spent my first 22 years among evangelicals — and yes, we’re talking the no-drinking-no-dancing-go-to-church-four-times-a-week kind. My parents taught at a Baptist college. As part of their job benefits, I received free tuition at a handful of conservative Christian schools, which is how I ended up at Wheaton College in Illinois, as one of its rare liberals.
At the time, Wheaton was a school so politically conservative, its president once told me he didn’t believe “anyone could have an authentic relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and still be a member of the Democratic Party.”
How to respond? Smile and nod. Get the degree. I graduated in 1979 — the same year Jerry Falwell launched the Moral Majority, a political group that symbolized the merger of the Christian right with the Republican Party.
Even then, I knew that marriage wouldn’t end well. Healthy politics require people who can adapt to a changing modern world, embrace new ideas, accept new data, listen to foes and find compromise.
And, alas, fundamentalists — whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu — mostly can’t do these things. They’re fundies precisely because they don’t want to adapt to modernity or compromise with anyone.
The very nature of fundamentalism tends to create a toxic political culture. Growing up, I heard issues framed as good vs. evil, saved vs. damned — with the apocalypse always looming as we, the faithful, were besieged by secular forces trying to destroy our way of life.
Open discussions were discouraged. People who asked tough questions were quickly demonized and shunned. Researchers say this also is a classic trait of fundamentalism: One’s opponents can’t be merely wrong about things; they must have evil intent. Hence, gays are trying to destroy the family; feminists hate men; liberals want to destroy capitalism, and so forth.
This creates a hothouse culture for conspiracy theories, made all the easier by the fundie tendency to dismiss data and evidence that don’t line up with their beliefs. Which is why many believe that evolution, global warming and President Obama’s citizenship are still unproven.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love my Baptist relations and family friends — they are such decent, kind, generous people. But their worldview tends to create rigid, dysfunctional politics. Behold the current Republican turmoil.
After college, I thought I was done with fundamentalism. As a Democrat, I spent decades feeling smug that fundies were making the other party nuts and not mine. That is, until I started working on education reform.
Man, it was like “Jaws 2.” Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water … wham, bam — fundamentalism all over again. Only this time, it’s coming from fellow Democrats, specifically the teachers’ union leadership and their allies. All of whom tend to:
1) Frame issues as either-or choices with apocalyptic endings. Either you support every clause in the contract or you’re trying to bust the union. Either you romanticize teachers or you’re “bashing” them. Either you defend traditional public schools just the way they are or you seek to destroy them.
2) Demonize opponents. In the union narrative, reformers aren’t just wrong about educational policy — they must have evil intent. So reformers are typically cast as vague “corporatists” hellbent on the equally vague profiteering from or privatizing of public schools.
3) Deny or dismiss data that challenges their worldview. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, students in that city’s new system of public charter schools have made remarkable gains in their reading and math scores, high school graduation and college acceptance rates. Is the new system perfect? No. Are students getting better results? Absolutely. Yet union leaders have gone out of their way to dismiss this data. And can we be real? If a traditional, unionized school district had been able to produce these same results, union leaders would be shouting them from the rooftops.
4) Resist any change to tradition, even if this means disenfranchising entire groups of people. Fundamentalists claim Marriage Is Between a Man and a Woman, so same-sex marriage is an attempt to destroy the family. Teachers’ unions are basically claiming Public Schools Are Between A Union and Its District, so any change in this tradition — i.e., charter schools — is an attempt to destroy public education.
Neither of these statements makes sense. Same-sex couples are creating families, not destroying them. Charters are public schools, funded by the state and open to all. And right now, the public schools getting the best results with low-income black and Latino children are … mostly charters. Yet the unions are attempting to limit or close these schools — even though this would disenfranchise entire groups of students and their families.
5) Represent a base that is mostly white, aging and nostalgic for an alleged better past that must be “reclaimed.” When faced with racial disparities, both the teachers union and conservative fundies are quick to blame alleged poor parenting or the culture of poverty. Conservatives often do this with a sense of fury; union leaders with sorrow. But ultimately, it’s the same message: Our systems are fine. It’s the brown kids and their parents who are screwed up.
Both groups also call for a return to simpler, better times — that is, a time before all this talk about racial equity or federal accountability. Conservatives hold “Reclaim the Dream” and “Reclaim the Constitution” rallies. The American Federation of Teachers has its “Reclaim the Promise” campaign.
I could keep listing common traits, but you get the idea. And yes, I know. Comparing the teachers unions to Christian fundamentalists is pure heresy among Democrats.
But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …
If the union frames issues like fundies — if it demonizes foes, denies data and tries to disenfranchise people like fundies — well, it’s certainly acting like a classic fundamentalist movement. And even though it operates on the left side of the political spectrum, it’s getting similar results.
Education Minnesota is the largest contributor to Democratic candidates and causes. It sets the tone and parameters of our education debates, which, among elected Democrats, are now predictably rigid and scripted — and this concerns a program that consumes 42 percent of the state’s operating budget, affects hundreds of thousands of children and has shamefully racialized results.
There are so many taboo topics, so many things that cannot be said for fear of setting off our funders, so many conspiracy theories, so much dismissal of data. Instead of leading on education issues, our elected Democrats, from school board members to legislators, act a lot like — God, this is painful — Republicans trying to placate their fundie base.
Our side on the education divide ducks, dodges and mostly dissembles. We block change and innovation. We defend the traditional system no matter what. And low-income children of color pay the biggest price.
How do you change a fundamentalist culture? You mostly can’t — it’s hard-wired to resist change. But for starters, we could at least admit it’s nutty.
Lynnell Mickelsen is a Minneapolis-based blogger and education activist. An earlier version of this article appeared at Education Post.