We thought we were the top of the world. The most advanced. The richest. The strongest. The U. S. of A., best of the best. All those things are true in so many ways. Aside from our wealth of natural resources, the nation’s strength and riches are what we, each and collectively, have to offer.
But strengths and riches aren’t all we have to offer. We also perform acts of insane violence that kill young children or innocent churchgoers, of smug self-righteousness that allows a brother to repeatedly molest his sisters, that allows an adopted six year old girl to be ‘rehomed’ and raped by her new ‘father.’
Why do deep veins of ignorance, hate, and fear continue to burn through our national body like a stream of caustic lye?
More urgently, what are we going to do about it?
Cultural Tradition: The Scots, for example
Following centuries of armed conflict between the native Scots and the British, in 1745 the British brutally terminated the last rebellion. Traditional Scottish kilts were outlawed and inherited lands were taken from the ruling class. A century earlier, Britain had moved large numbers of Scots into northern Ireland in an effort to weaken the equally rebellious Irish. (The volatile results of that maneuver continue to simmer today.) This Scots population of northern Ireland became known as the Scotch-Irish.
Aside from the desire for self-rule, the Protestant Scots and Catholic Irish fought the Anglican British over religion.
Between 1717 and 1775, nearly a quarter million Scots and Scotch-Irish migrated to the American colonies. Earlier settlers had already built their towns, farms, and plantations along the eastern seaboard so these newcomers moved west to unsettled land. They fought Native Americans and the wilderness to carve out a life where nobody told them how to worship or what to wear.
These are the people who formed the predominant original working class white populations of the southern states and parts of the Midwest. Already inured by generations of religious conflict in their native lands, the Scots clung fiercely to their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and desire for independence from government rule. Generally not slave-holders, they nevertheless rallied to the Confederate cause, seeing it as their own because it was against government control, against someone telling them what to do.
The defeat of the South with its quarter-million deaths, injuries that came home with the veterans, and the loss of land, homes and families added to a long memory of defeat and humiliation. It is in this memory that the South will rise again, just as Scotland will once again enjoy independence from its British overlords. This is the vein of anger that holds tight to the Confederate flag, not because it is celebrated as a symbol of white over black, but because it serves as the rallying point for independent men against a conquering army. Rational analysis or details don’t matter. It’s the feeling of injustice that holds sway.
Many American Scots and Scotch-Irish have moved on, accepted the evolution of modern society and its rewards of broader understanding and tolerance. But many have not. For these folks, if you’re not with them, you’re against them.
They are but one example of ancient traditions which continue to guide attitudes and influence behavior in modern America.
Instinctive Fear: Racism
Humans innately tend to associate with others of our own kind. Researchers have given the labels of ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ in discussing this behavior. Within an ‘in-group,’ individuals are assured of mutual support in everything from caring for an injury to defending against attack. We can count on our in-group guys.
At the most primal level, an instant response rises when confronted with someone who doesn’t fit the model of our ‘in-group’. This was an important survival instinct among early humans who relied on visual cues while the stranger remained at a distance. A fight-or-flight reflex rises from the old brain upon encountering a person clearly not of our in-group and we respond accordingly.
What we hope for and strive for in an advanced multicultural, multi-racial society is an immediate secondary and reasoned response that supersedes the instantaneous first reaction to a stranger. We look again and think about whether there’s a real risk. Just because that person doesn’t fit our in-group criteria doesn’t mean he’s a threat.
A fear-based response underlies behavior like freshman Senator Tom Cotton’s advocacy for a new war against Islam. Extremist Christianity such as embraced by Cotton focuses on differences as a way to define and protect group identity. Kill the out-group! A more loving and confident mindset seeks grounds of commonality. A more realistic stance for responsible elected leaders involves negotiation and understanding to lower barriers between groups.
But the more stressed the person or occasion, the more likely the primal reflex remains in force. Cotton may suffer residual PTSD from his two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tests have shown that people are more likely to identify an ambiguous object in a stranger’s hand as a weapon if the stranger is from an out-group. Most importantly, people who regularly operate from a position of feeling threatened are more likely to react instinctively. Everyone but me and my known friends are ‘other.’ (Click here for more.)
Within our most stressed populations, acts of violence are committed by persons of a self-identified group against those seen as outsiders. The outsider is a target for the anger, frustration, and hatred of the in-group member who wants desperately to prove himself to the rest of his group. This behavior can be found in gang warfare, where fabric color designates group identity. It can be found in acts of violence in the Middle East, where a disagreement in 632 about the rightful heir to Mohammad’s leadership resulted in Sunni and Shia still killing each other 1383 years later.
Such acts on behalf of the in-group are carried out as a moral imperative.
The Charleston shooter clearly stated his moral imperative in murdering nine innocent people. They were African-American. “They” were raping “his people, taking over his country.” He did it for his group, whites. His reality, his moral imperative.
Jesus: Not What I Meant. Not What I Meant At All
Murder on behalf of racial purity is little different from those who murder on behalf of their religion. Each Islamic sect claims to be the true follower of Allah. By definition, all others are not ‘of God.’ All others deserve to die. Similarly, many Christian denominations in the U. S. believe all but their kind will burn in the fires of hell.
Faith traditions are, by their very nature, a useful measuring stick by which people may define their most important in-group. More than any other group, religion and its rules ensure a mutual understanding of appropriate behavior, ethics, traditions, and hierarchy. Ideally, religion could serve as the bridge between disparate groups and unite us in spiritual brotherhood.
Sadly, religion has more often than not become yet another means of categorizing a person as out of ‘our’ group. Thus Ronnie Floyd, current head of the Southern Baptist Convention, second largest religious denomination in the U.S. after Catholics, has proclaimed his intention to defy the highest court in the land if it rules in favor of same-sex marriage. He stated that “God, not the Supreme Court” holds final authority over marriage, as if the licensing of marriage were not a legal function of the government.
The issue of gay marriage is but one conflict between primal instinct and the tolerance and acceptance evolving as a world culture. “Raising consciousness is a persuasive enterprise,” Michael Walzer writes in his new book The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, “but it quickly turns into a cultural war between the liberators and what we can call the traditionalists.” This conflict gives rise to fundamentalism and religious ultra-orthodoxy in unexpected places around the world, including the United States.
The more threatened an individual may feel, the more likely he will invest in behavior that he believes will strengthen his in-group. Floyd speaks for all Southern Baptists in voicing fear of a social change perceived as a threat to their religion. This unreasoned primal reaction ignores the reality of the situation: gay marriage has no effect on traditional marriage—unless, as the quip goes, one of the partners in a traditional marriage is gay.
Ideally, religion serves as a pathway not only to seeing the entire human family as the in-group but also to higher self-esteem, respect for others, and a general sense of well-being, all of which help move an individual toward a less fearful stance in life. But this is where religion often plays its most destructive role. Extremist teachings emphasize differences and negatives. Only a few will be chosen. Homosexuals are not like us. Demons can control our lives. We have no personal power. Everything derives from an angry and punishing God.
Differences in economic status are also seen as a reflection of God’s will. The Protestant work ethic involves the relationship between religion, work, and capital. In order to demonstrate our Godliness, we are expected to work hard. With sufficient effort, our labors produce wealth, a sign that we have pleased God. This is why the wealthy are seen as uniquely imbued by God’s grace. For the religious extremist, the wealthy are almost worthy of worship in their own right.
If you’re poor, it’s because you’re unworthy of God’s blessings.
This is why worshipers gravitate to big fancy churches. God likes it there.
Our natural inclination is to accept authority from those we deem more worthy than ourselves. This is why corporate interests have been able to shape American lives around materialism and consumption, a development staunchly supported by religious extremists in spite of Biblical teachings that specifically condemn wealth. (More here)
Adoration of the rich and powerful is why marginalized populations resent any effort by government to assist the poor. It defies God’s will to give assistance, especially since the funding for such assistance derives from those who have worked hard and gained God’s favor. This holds particularly true in prejudices against African-Americans or Hispanics, who are often caught in a vicious cycle of economic disadvantage and notable markers of an out-group (different skin color, speech patterns, social traditions).
Likewise, yielding authority to self-anointed leaders of religion occurs as a form of obeisance to the leader of the in-group. Recently the Arkansas Times quoted employees of a preschool operated by Arkansas legislator Justin Harris, whose failed strict parenting of two adopted girls resulted in rehoming and the subsequent rape of a six year old: “This was way out of control,” said the worker quoted throughout this piece. “You know how you have an ‘aha moment’? I said the other day to [a co-worker], ‘Why didn’t any of us make a hotline call?’ She said, ‘I don’t know’ … I think because Justin is so religious, we sort of accepted it.”
Did the Charleston murderer understand instinctively that his act would call into question the entire concept of group trust? Should the church members now carry guns, mistrust all newcomers? There can be little doubt that his act, in his tiny mind, served a goal of his self-identified in-group which was/is to destroy the ‘other.’ In that, he now sees himself as a victorious hero.
Similarly, the murder of Christians or other non-Sunni sects by ISIS serves the purpose of their in-group. As one cleric has stated, “We’re ridding the world of polytheism and spreading monotheism across the planet.” (Cite)
The Failure of Education
Our nation’s citizenry can’t operate on a level playing field if they are not educated equally as children. Breaking through destructive cultural, economic, and religious barriers seems an obvious avenue toward eliminating or at least defusing in-group fears and prejudices. And it is.
Which is why members of extremist in-groups violently resist efforts like school integration and uniform curriculum standards.
One might assume that any parent wants his/her child to love learning the lessons of history, the ways of numbers, the use of language in communication and reasoning, the amazing details of biology. We have, as a nation, understood that a thriving economy and successful democracy depend on the fruits of education, which is why we dedicate significant tax dollars to support our public schools. It is why we have set standards for teacher education and defined specific educational goals, why we have forced integration and provided school lunches. We need every child to develop to his/her fullest potential.
For some, the nation’s success or even the child’s well-being hardly register on the radar when held up against the perceived value of in-group traditions.
The more embattled parents feel in protecting their religious beliefs, for example, the more likely they will fight efforts to extend their children’s acceptance of broader cultural norms.
The increase in homeschooling is a product of this mindset. Homeschooling gained its first significant boost after forced integration. With the cultural changes of the 1960s and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, it continued to pick up steam. From 2003 to 2007, the percentage of students whose parents resorted to homeschooling in order to provide religious or moral instruction increased from 72 percent to 83 percent. (Other reasons given for homeschooling included concerns about the school environment such as safety, drugs, or negative peer pressure and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools.)
Germany, among others, has outlawed homeschooling for this very reason. But in the United States, Supreme Court decisions have found that parents have a right to homeschool their children or send them to private schools based on the definition of ‘liberty’ in the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The only saving grace of these court decisions was the finding that the extent and content of private or home schooling must meet standards set by the government. (See more here.)
Because of the ‘liberty’ protected in the high court’s rulings, not all homeschooling is equal. Each state has its own set of rules about what is or isn’t required for homeschooling. While homeschooling can produce thoughtful, well-rounded children ready to pursue life as a functional American citizen, many such efforts fail utterly to meet that goal. The end result is a significant population of undereducated adults. Currently about 3.5% of young people, or around two million, are homeschooled. A majority of this segment of our nation’s people poses a real and present danger to the future of the American way of life.
Which is just what their parents intended.
Critical skills such as the scientific method of investigation and logical reasoning processes are often left out of extremist curriculum, partly because the parents have never understood such things and therefore have no appreciation for the benefits they offer. For these reactionary parents, already threatened by their perception that valued cultural traditions are being eroded, the goal is not to provide an excellent education by academic standards which mesh with the rest of the nation and world but rather to insulate their children from those very things and thus preserve the norms of their in-group.
There seems no easy resolution. The most recent effort has been the development of Common Core Standards, a widely vilified move to bring clarity and commonality to the nation’s education systems including homeschool curricula. The result of a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and the workforce.
These standards focus only on language arts and mathematics, unfortunately leaving aside a more ambitious (and contentious) goal of setting standards for such important subjects as history, social studies, or the sciences. The government’s method of enforcing these bare-bones standards is to withhold federal education funds from states which do not adopt the standards. Eight states have so far refused to adopt them, but the situation remains in flux.
Inevitably, American children fall through the cracks all the time. The Charleston assassin had advanced only as far as ninth grade, a fact which underscores his likely inability to reason clearly or appreciate the broad scope of the world around him. (As noted in a previous blog post, persons with low intelligence are more likely to nurture racial prejudices and view the world from a perspective of threat.)
At their most progressive moments, federal and state governments attempt to break into the cycle of poverty, ignorance, and entrenched in-group thinking. Whether the methods actually help is another question. For example, in an effort to reach children in at-risk populations, the U. S. Department of Education hands out vouchers through its Child Care Development Fund which parents can use anywhere including religious schools.
Such programs target children with at least one of the following characteristics: Family with gross income not exceeding 200% of federal poverty level; Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening; Parents without a high school diploma or GED; Eligible for services under IDEA; Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces); Income eligible for Title I programs; Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth; Limited English Proficiency; Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction; Parent has history of abuse or neglect; Or is a victim of abuse or neglect.
Noble goals. But by inadvertently encouraging the expansion of religious instruction, such programs may do more harm than good. In Arkansas, this avenue of government aid for children in need has become heavily trafficked by people on a religious mission.
Rep. Justin Harris’s preschool, Growing God’s Kingdom, receives nearly a million tax dollars a year through such programs. Despite theoretical restrictions that religion cannot be part of the academic day, these schools teach religion in the hours before and after the academic day, taking advantage of the extra time children are in their care while parents remain at work. Further, the state’s only method of monitoring these schools for violations is through random inspections.
That’s effective. “Stop praying, the state is here.” Numerous current and former employees of Harris report that children who misbehave during the academic day are taken to the office where they are prayed over in order to cast out the demons causing their misbehavior.
The message inculcated in these young minds is that God is in charge and prayer is the answer.
Rational thought? Personal responsibility? It’s all up to God. Join God’s group and everything will be fine. Such early indoctrination easily leads to a continuation of the conditions that led to their qualification for such programs in the first place. Pregnant at 16? God’s will. Pray. Victim of domestic abuse? Women are to submit to their husband. Pray. Addicted to meth? I’m a sinner. Pray.
At the height of Mr. Harris’ public shaming over the rehoming and subsequent rape of his adopted six year old girl, his school’s signboard proclaimed his membership in his self-identified in-group: “God Himself will fight for you.” To date, Mr. Harris has not acknowledged that he did anything wrong.
In states with the highest populations of at-risk children, legislators in charge of determining everything from curriculum to school funding are increasingly drawn from the ranks of religious extremists. Unable or unwilling to see beyond the walls of their in-group, such legislators circle the wagons against ‘outsiders’ who attempt to set new standards or otherwise interfere with group identity. In Arkansas, the only entity legally empowered to remove Justin Harris from his elected office were his like-minded legislative colleagues. Despite evidence that he illegally used his elected position to gain adoption rights to the two girls he subsequently gave away, there was no investigation. He remains in office and his school remains in operation.
Nowhere in such arguments do we hear that professional educators should be in charge of deciding the best methods of education. (This makes about as much sense as allowing politicians to decide best accounting methods for CPAs or best construction methods for engineers.) A consensus among professional educators is that homeschooling often involves inadequate standards of academic quality and comprehensiveness, lack of socialization with peers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the potential for development of religious or social extremism/individualism, and potential for development of parallel societies that do not fit into standards of citizenship and community.
Specifically because parents fear of loss of in-group values, professional educators do not control the purse strings or the programs. Children continue to be victims of their parents’ fears and prejudices, prey to the ebb and flow of political opinion. We continue, as a nation, to suffer the consequences.
What are the solutions?
I don’t pretend to have presented all points relevant to this complicated state of affairs. Nor are my proposed solutions an exhaustive or foolproof list.
But given the failure rate to date, I think it’s safe to say that religion does not and cannot serve as the unifying force for humanity.
What we need is for each person to develop so fully that his/her self-esteem and intellectual skill set outweighs the primal need for narrow in-group identification.
We need to invest in strategies which reduce perceived threats and increase opportunities to break down barriers between groups.
We need broader educational standards so that children in private and home schools have to pass tests for subjects including state, national, and world history; basics of scientific method and the facts of biology, geology, and other sciences; social studies—how government works, the role of voters. Parents need to be held accountable if 17-year-old homeschooled kids can’t pass key tests.
We must stand firm against attempts to teach Creationism as an alternative to science. We must eliminate tax funding which in any way supports religious instruction at any grade level.
We must find ways, both institutionally and personally, to facilitate in-group/out-group encounter sessions and counseling alongside cultural education at all grade levels.
We must end the war on drugs. Legalize and tax all of it. Get over the idea that government can dictate what people ingest to alter their consciousness or that altered consciousness is in itself a crime. Demilitarize our police forces and deliver our communities from the tyranny of criminal gangs. Use tax dollars currently wasted on bigger prisons along with new revenues produced from legal drug sales to initiate pro-active programs in support of early childhood health and education, family intervention in cases of abuse and neglect, substance abuse treatment, and free/low cost mental/physical health care in every community.
We must require a significant period of public service from young people. Such service would broaden the scope away from a family or church or racial in-groups and instead build ownership in the in-group of our nation.
Don’t agree with the actions of our current elected leaders? Don’t support the policies of our nation? The instrument of change lies in our hands. An informed, self-confident electorate can be—should be—the strength of America.
We can feel a bit of relief in the amazing power of television and the Internet to instill greater understanding of different lifestyles, different races, and unfamiliar cultures. Social media such as Facebook allows us to engage in constructive dialogue with members of out-groups without the immediate threat of physical violence. These are opportunities we must use carefully in order not to trigger an even more visceral in-group identification among the ‘other.’
Many of these things are already being done.
Finally, there’s this:
“…The data…demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.”
 “National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” Gregory S. Paul. Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005) http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.pdf Accessed June 19, 2015