AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
As education battles continue to take center stage in the Culture Wars, it’s worth looking back on a speech given one year ago today by former Attorney General Bill Barr, who served in that role under both President George H.W. Bush and President Donald Trump. In his speech, Barr outlined why the progressive ideology being pushed today in K-12 schools is concerning, not just from the standpoint of preventing the radicalization of America’s youth, but from the standpoint of protecting religious liberty as well. His analysis, in addition to proving prescient about how classrooms would become a key battleground in the Culture War, continues to provide insight into how conservatives might approach education issues today, and why Judeo-Christian values remain so important, even for non-religious people, as the left seeks to erase them from every part of American life.
In the remarks, which were delivered to Alliance Defending Freedom as Barr accepted their “Edwin Meese III Award for Originalism and Religious Liberty,” he described how progressives, under the guise of making education religiously neutral, have instead substituted wokeness as the official religion of state-run education. Progressivism, Barr argues, has “all the trapping and hallmarks of a religion. It has its notion of original sin, salvation, penance, its clergy, its dogmas, its sensitivity to any whiff of heresy, even its burning at the stake.” Moreover, this “secular-progressivism orthodoxy” in schools is “totally incompatible with traditional Christianity and other major religious traditions in our country.”
But how did we get here? As Barr explained, public education in the United States has proceeded in three basic phases. First, early advocates for state-run schools explicitly incorporated broadly acceptable religious content into education, understanding as they did that one cannot “separate moral education from religion.” In the second phase, beginning in the mid-20th Century, “the left embarked on a relentless campaign of secularization intent on driving every vestige of traditional religion from the public square,” Barr said. But, he noted, without the common thread of Judeo-Christian values, there was no underpinning for the generic “be a good person” moral code that the left wished to push in schools. “What passed for morality [in the public school curriculum] had no metaphysical foundation,” he pointed out. “It is hard to teach that someone ought to behave in a certain way unless you can explain why.”
In the third phase of public education that we are witnessing now, Barr noted that even the “vapor trails of Christianity” have been dismantled and replaced entirely with “a secular belief system and worldview that is a substitute for religion and is antithetical to the beliefs and values of traditional God-centered religion.” The woke ideologies being foisted on schoolchildren are, as Barr describes, far from religiously neutral, but are instead a religion all their own that is “fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.”
Naturally, many parents and educators are opposed to this fundamental shift in the nature of education, and are now fighting back against it. Following Barr’s speech in May of last year, education took center stage in the Virginia gubernatorial election, with Glenn Youngkin becoming the first Republican to win statewide in more than a decade after promising to ban Critical Race Theory and give parents more control over their children’s education.
Conservative school board candidates pledging to get wokeness out of schools have also seen a wave of success over the past year, and many candidates for federal office have also come out strongly in opposition to the politicization of school curriculum. While the movement for a return to more traditional education is not explicitly based on religious motives, even many non-religious Americans understand that it is the Judeo-Christian values upon which the country was founded that are the foundation of an honest and well-rounded education.
But for Barr, fixing the problem may require more than just exposing instances of wokeism taking root in schools and winning school board elections, although those developments are undoubtedly positive. To bring about real change, he argued, Americans must first recognize that it is an utterly failing strategy to give a monopoly over public education to a secularist cult which in turn decides what students learn in schools. In pushing concepts like Critical Race Theory, the public school system as it currently exists has by and large betrayed its fundamental mission of “promot[ing] our common identity” by “separating us… teaching unbridgeable differences… [and] waging war on the nation’s moral, historical, philosophical, and religious foundations.”
Instead, he argued, parents should have the option of using the public dollars set aside for the education of their children to send their kids to schools that align with their values and beliefs. This solution also holds great promise for kids trapped in failing public schools.
Unsurprisingly, elected Democrats are terrified at the prospect that they will no longer have free rein to fill the minds of America’s youth with left-wing propaganda. When President Biden said last month that children “belong” to the school when they are in the classroom, he was saying out loud what the left has quietly believed for decades – that parents’ wishes don’t matter when it comes to what their kids learn in the classroom. This line of thinking explains why Democrats, instead of viewing school choice as a way for parents to exercise their freedom of religion by empowering them to send their children to a school that aligns with their beliefs, are outraged at the prospect that any American student should not be trained as an unquestioning, unthinking disciple of progressivism.
For Republicans, whether through enabling greater school choice or other means, addressing the influx of leftism in education presents an opportunity to deliver a victory not just for freedom of thought, but for freedom of religion as well. For the future of our country and the health of our democracy, perhaps no battle is more important to win than this one.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @Shane_Harris_
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