Sunday, October 22, 2006

Randall Balmer's book

I recently read Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament; How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, which is part of a larger genre of books alarmed about a looming theocracy.

The book makes a few good points here and there, such as that evangelicals have (at least in the political realm) focused too much energy on stopping other people's moral sins and not enough on their own (i.e., divorce), or that evangelicals have been too closely tied to the Republican Party. That said, I didn't like the book, for the most part.

In much of the book, Balmer is doesn't try to refute counterarguments; instead, he seems to be unaware that they might exist. For example, he has a long section arguing that if evangelicals are biblical literalists, they should have a hard time condemning abortion. Sample quotes: "For a people who take pride in a kind of slavish literalism, constructing a case against abortion [from the Bible] is not easy. . . . The problem is, the Bible is rather silent on the matter of abortion." (pp. 6-7). Well, if evangelicals were to push for "slavish literalism," there's at least one passage that would seem to apply: "Thou shalt not kill." Balmer doesn't mention this rather obvious point, not even to refute it.

One section is particularly unsupported: Balmer claims that Jerry Falwell and Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) are "especially infatuated with Rushdoony's ideas." (p. 66). (Rushdoony was a reconstructionist, one of a very small and insignificant group of Christians who thought that the government should implement the Old Testament codes.) Balmer presents absolutely no evidence of any such infatuation, other than one lone fact: In 2003, Rushdoony's foundation published an article by an associate law professor at Falwell's Liberty University. (p. 66). This fact is inadequate to establish any "especial[] infatuat[ion]."

The worst chapter, however, is the one on education, which is full of misinformation, ignorance, and trite platitudes.

For example, after discussing the Cleveland voucher program for no fewer than 13 pages, Balmer does his best to imply that the program benefits the rich: "But still another constituency wants to divert tax money from public schools, namely, the affluent, many of whom already send their children to private schools and would welcome a subsidy from public funds. . . . It occurs to me that one way to test the sincerity of those arguing for school vouchers on the basis of social justice would be to limit vouchers to children in households earning, say, less than $35,000. Would these advocates still be willing to expend all this energy to torture the Constitution if the only beneficiaries were indeed those less privileged?" (pp. 83-84).

The Cleveland voucher program is specifically designed to give priority to families with an income that is less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines -- a figure that, oddly enough, is not much more than $35,000 for the typical family of four. This isn't true only of Cleveland. As I pointed out earlier, as of the 2006 edition of The Education Gap, by William Howell and Paul Peterson, every publicly-funded voucher program in the country was aimed at 1) students from low-income families, or 2) students who attend "failing" public schools [note that not many of these students are likely to be in rich, white suburbs], or 3) students who have no public school in their community.

The only thing that Balmer could hypothetically say to defend his tendentious argument is that in Cleveland, the program wasn't strictly "limited" to people under the 200% poverty mark. That's true enough, which is why People for the American Way points out that in one year, 22% of the Cleveland students receiving vouchers were over the 200% mark. Of course, that's not to say that these students were "rich" -- and you can be sure that PFAW (and Balmer, who seems to have relied on some of PFAW's research) would happily point this out, if it were true.

In any event, it's misleading for Balmer to make these accusatory remarks about a voucher program that overwhelmingly serves poor people.

Then, in a particularly uninformed passage, Balmer sings the historic virtues of public schools, while insulting private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling:
As public, or 'common,' schools took hold in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they became vehicles for social and economic equality, as well as for the inculcation of morality and the virtues of citizenship in the new nation.
For someone whose views of schooling often sympathize with John Taylor Gatto (see here and here), this sort of pablum is hard to stomach. In any event, Balmer -- an historian -- manages to write several pages in this hyper-romanticized vein without once mentioning either 1) the fact that public schools excluded blacks for over 100 years, or 2) the fact that public schools in the 19th century were often Protestant institutions that allowed public prayer, religious instruction, and all of the things that Balmer now blames a handful of evangelicals for still supporting.
Public schools have played an invaluable role by providing a common ground for children of different ethnic groups and religious persuasions, regardless of social class.
Again, it is startling to keep seeing sentences like this, as if there had never been such a thing as segregation or white flight. The notion that public schools universally bring children together "regardless of social class" is unsupportable (not that Balmer even tries to cite any research on this point, which is not surprising). Anyone who is familiar with our nation's major cities knows that there are many inner-city schools that richer people avoid with all of their might; as well as many rich suburban schools that are virtually inaccessible to poorer people who can't even begin to afford a house in the district.
Whatever common culture we have attained in this country has come about largely through the agency of public education.
Really? This could imply that America didn't have a "common culture" until the late 19th century, which is when public education started to become more routine, which would be a rather odd view.
The creation of religious schools leads to heightened segregation of different racial and socioeconomic groups. The so-called 'school choice' initiative is both a civil rights and a social justice issue, and real Christians . . . should be fighting against voucher programs and charter schools because they perpetuate divisions, rather than reconciliation, within society.
It's not true that voucher programs lead to greater segregation. As Jay Greene points out in his Education Myths book, "nearly a fifth (19 percent) of voucher recipients [in Cleveland] attended private schools whose proportion of white students fell within 10 percent of the average proportion of white elementary students in metropolitan Cleveland. Only 5.2 percent of public-school students in metropolitan Cleveland were in similarly integrated schools. . . . A family moving to the Cleveland area would have better odds of finding an integrated school experience for their children if they enrolled in the choice program than if they were randomly assigned to a public school."
If we care anything about democracy, we must care a great deal about public education.
This is just a short quote from a longer passage in which Balmer contends that public schools are better able to teach children to live in a "democracy." Once again, Balmer shows no sign that he is aware of the empirical literature on this point. As Patrick Wolf of Georgetown has testified:
School vouchers also appear to promote democratic values. This claim may seem incredible, since opponents regularly state that school vouchers will imperil our democracy. However, Charles Glenn of Boston University has documented that the cherished “common school” has been more of a myth than a reality throughout American history, especially for ethnic minorities. Nineteen different academic studies have examined the effect of school choice on the tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political skills, political participation, and patriotism of students. Sixteen of the studies concluded that school choice and private schooling generally enhance the democratic values of students; whereas the remaining three studies found no difference in democratic values caused by school choice. None of the 19 studies concluded that exercising school choice reduces the extent to which students are prepared to be responsible citizens of our democracy.
To take another example, James Coleman summarized some of his research in an article in Phi Delta Kappan in 1981. He said:
Among Catholic schools, achievement of students from less-advantaged backgrounds -- blacks, Hispanics, and those whose parents are poorly educated -- is closer to that of students from advantaged backgrounds than is true for the public sector. Family background makes much less difference for achievement in Catholic schools than in public schools. This greater homogeneity of achievement in the Catholic sector (as well as the lesser racial and ethnic segregation of the Catholic sector) suggests that the ideal of the common school is more nearly met in the Catholic schools than in the public schools. This may be because a religious community continues to constitute a functional community to a greater extent than does a residential area, and in such a functional community there will be less stratification by family background, both within a school and between schools.
I'm not saying that these studies are necessarily unimpeachable; nothing in the social sciences ever is. Still, any chapter that so thoroughly denigrates private schools simply appears uninformed without at least a nod to the research literature that points to a different view.


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