How to Grow More Ignorance in Arkansas

Arkansas continues to shoot itself in the foot with the recent passage of new regulations governing home schooling. As a new year begins, public hearings on the latest revisions are open only through January 17. After the public comment period, assuming comments fail to arouse concerns at the Arkansas Department of Education (under the leadership of evangelical Christian Johnny Key), the new rules will be submitted to the state Education Board for approval.

Members of the evangelical right have taken an increasingly militant stance about public education. Partly white flight from integration, partly concern over exposure to gay or minority students and the so-called liberal agenda, and partly public school difficulty in maintaining high educational standards in the face of inadequate funding alongside demand for extraordinary services in mainlining students with special needs, reasons abound for conservative parents to seek alternatives.

But by far the greatest reason for parents choosing to homeschool is their determination to teach religion. Evidently church alone isn’t enough to satisfy this need.

According to the surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 91 percent of homeschooling parents are more concerned about the environment of schools and want to offer a religious (64 percent) and/or moral (77 percent) alternative.

Smaller-scale studies of parental attitudes have found the same thing, from the conservative fathers who try to form a moral cocoon around their children, to African-American families who want to foster a sense of racial pride in their children, to “quiverfull” families trying to have enough children to Christianize the United States by demographic transformation.[1]

Obviously none of these interests coincide with the need for good citizenship in a blended American society.

In Arkansas, where fundamentalist religious teachings flourish under the guidance of such groups as the Family Council (a conservative research, advocacy, and education organization), the self-explanatory Clark County Christian Home School Organization, and the even more self-explanatory Texarkana Organization for the Resolute Christian Homeschoolers, state lawmakers have signed off on the radical Christian agenda.

On the surface, it might seem a worthy effort to give parents more control over the education of their children. After all, parents love their children and want what’s best for them. The problem lies in the parents’ judgment about what is ‘best.’

Is it best for parents to be the sole instructor and judge of their children’s education? Is it best to prioritize religious beliefs over the U. S. Constitution? What if parents don’t care much about history or math or computer skills, but prefer their children only understand the Bible?

What is the responsibility of the state to ensure that it doesn’t end up with a significant number of young adults incapable of holding down a job, getting along with their neighbors, or functioning as a thoughtful voter?

The latest round of regulations, promulgated during the 2017 legislative session, clarifies requirements for homeschoolers moving in or out of the public schools  and in particular their participation in sports and other extracurricular programs. (Never underestimate the importance of football—and, to a lesser extent, other sports—as the state’s second religion.) As the numbers of homeschoolers have grown, so has the burning need to allow an overlap of public school football and homeschoolers.

Most importantly to anyone concerned about the nation’s future and the potential for our very own religious war, the new regulations remove the state entirely from any oversight of homeschoolers.

“[The statute] eliminates all state-mandated testing and reporting of courses taught and grades earned.”[2]

No one will know if home schooled students are learning any of the reasoning skills or basic facts essential to the maintenance and advancement of our society. No one knows or apparently even cares whether the parents are capable of teaching or well-educated themselves. Most of all, no one seems to care that isolated segments of the population are being given free rein to seclude themselves harboring potentially seditious motivations.

Parents wishing to cloak their children in fundamentalist Christian beliefs can blithely ignore scientific evidence of the earth’s geologic age or evolution of species. They can sidestep entirely the subject of human reproduction and its greater context in biology. Thousands may emerge from their ‘education’ with no knowledge of how babies are made or the use of birth control, much less how lifetimes of suffering might be avoided through pre-natal testing.

No one will know if students are learning that government is evil. No one will interfere if children are taught to ignore the political process or the vital responsibilities of citizenship. The state is stepping back, washing their hands, of the original dictates of the nation’s earliest leaders who recognized the importance of education. Will any of these children, or their parents for that matter, comprehend the urgent truth in the statements of our Founding Fathers?

George Washington: “The best means of forming a manly, virtuous, and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.”

James Madison:  “Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

John Jay: “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at at cheap and easy rate.”

James Madison: “What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of liberty and learning, each leaning on each on the other for their mutual and surest support?”

Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. …Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Surely not all homeschooled children will turn out to be close-minded religious zealots incapable of reasoned understanding of complex issues such as immigration, minority rights, or the nuances of gender and sexual orientation. But as the numbers of homeschoolers continue to increase in Arkansas and the state continues to back off any meaningful oversight, the potential for rabidly ignorant and potentially treasonous segments of our population increase exponentially.

[From a 2012 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette]: The latest count of home-schooled students in Arkansas shows about 400 more students are learning at home compared to the previous year. The Arkansas Education Department said 16,405 students completed the 2011-2012 school year as home-schooled students. That’s compared with 16,003 in the prior year. …State records show that in 1986, 572 students were home-schooled in Arkansas. By 1992, the number was 3,140, and by 2002, 12,497 students were being taught at home. The 16,405 children home-schooled last academic year is equal to 3.5 percent of the state’s 468,000 public school students.[3]

The count in 2017 was 19,000.

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To voice your concerns, view the draft rules at http://bit.ly/2BTClJb or email your thoughts to ADE.RulesComments@arkansas.gov

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Yes, I’ve blogged about similar topics before.

The Poverty of Conservatism

Conscious Evolution

Treason in the Name of God is Still Treason

A Sword Cuts Both Ways

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[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/122987/does-homeschooling-make-children-more-religious

[2] “Home-school rules redo gives parents more rein,” by Cynthia Howell. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Northwest Arkansas edition, December 30, 2017. Page 5

[3] “Number of home-schoolers in state rises again,” Associated Press. Arkansas Democrat Gazette, September 10, 2012.

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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

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Following 2015 charges against “19 Kids and Counting” star John Duggar for molesting his sisters and the rape of a young girl at the hands of a former employee of Rep. Justin Harris who had adopted the girl then ‘rehomed’ her to the man who would rape her, the latest moral scandal in Arkansas has to do with a scheme of kickbacks in exchange for funneling state tax dollars to a tiny religious college. Earlier this week, former Sen. Jon Woods, Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III, and a business consultant friend of the two, Randell G. Shelton, were named in federal indictments.

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Former Rep. Micah Neal

Previously indicted on several counts in the same scheme, former Rep. Micah Neal entered a plea of guilty to taking kickbacks. Other indictments may follow for additional persons, one of whom is referred to as “Businessman A” and for Ecclesia College, assumed to be “Entity A.”

The federal investigation has been ongoing for a couple of years and covers a period from 2013 to 2015. Until news of the investigation leaked out in the summer of 2016, Neal had been running for county judge. He dropped out of the race, citing residency concerns as his reason. News of his indictment came later.

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Former Senator Jon Woods

Woods announced in November 2015 he wouldn’t run for re-election, possibly due to knowledge of the investigation.

Here’s the set up. An Arkansas law allows leftover money from the General Improvement Fund to be allocated for pet projects in legislators’ home districts. If approved, grant requests disperse the money through economic development districts toward worthy nonprofits. It’s a system ripe for abuse.

Currently in session, the legislature is expected to take away this honey hole at the urging of our rather embarrassed governor, Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and more recently, head of Homeland Security.

But the cash cow is already out of the barn, at least for this highly religious group. A total of thirteen indictments against former Senator Woods alleges he committed fraud and took a bribe of $40,000 plus “an undetermined amount of cash” in exchange for helping funnel more than $350,000 to Ecclesia College, purportedly for land on which to build student housing.

But there was no need for student housing. The grant request claimed that the college needed housing due to “rapid growth.” The college with an enrollment of less than 200 mostly off-campus students already owned 200 undeveloped acres. Records show that the GIF money paid for about fifty additional acres at an inflated price. To date, no building permits have been sought to build on any of this land, so evidently the ‘urgent’ need for housing wasn’t so urgent after all.

While indictments do not constitute a conviction, chances are good that plea deals will follow. The money was there and they wanted it and they had a handy nonprofit, namely Ecclesia College, by which to obtain it. According to the indictments, as early as January 2013 these three men “devised a scheme and artifice to defraud and deprive the citizens of the honest services of a public official through bribery.”

A March 3 write-up in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reveals a tangle of people eager to get their sweaty hands on state tax dollars. Never mind that Woods and Neal, as elected officials, both swore to uphold the state’s constitution. Never mind that Paris served as president of a college presenting itself as a Christian institution. The elaborate diversions through which the money flowed portrays clear evidence these men knew they were doing something wrong.[1]

But it’s worse than that. It’s not just greed at work here. A text message from college president Paris to Woods is cited in the news article:

Good selling point to conservative legislators is that (Entity A) produces graduates that are conservative voters. All state and secular colleges produce [a] vast majority [of] liberal voters.”

Woods replied: “Agreed.”

This blatant agenda to brainwash students toward conservative views fits right in with the apparent right-wing philosophy that the ends justify the means. These men were leaders of their communities and their church. As such, the highest standard of ethical and moral behavior would be expected. Yet they apparently had no qualms about perverting the intent of GIF grants in order to enrich themselves as well as serve their ultimate goal, that of furthering the Christian agenda in taking over the nation’s political institutions.

I recently wrote that the right-wing effort to make the United States a “Christian nation” constitutes treason.  This latest incident is only a tiny glimpse of a pervasive delusion rampant in that group that whatever is done in the name of God is acceptable, even praiseworthy.  The text of Oren Paris III clearly states the intent to increase the number of conservative voters in order to bring the country closer to their ideal Christian Nation.

This type of thinking is no different from that of ISIS leaders who justify acts of terror by claiming that it pleases God. They know what Allah wants and the ends justify the means.

Aside from minor inconveniences like federal indictments, Wood, Neal, Paris et al may suffer little consequence among their peers. Shortly after the indictments hit the news, Ecclesia College board chairman Phil Brassfield posted a letter on the college’s Facebook page stating, in part:

While the allegations made against Oren [Paris] are to be taken seriously, we are confident once all the facts and the truth are made known, all will come to understand as we on the Board of Governance believe, that Oren has acted at all times with absolute integrity and always in the best interest of Ecclesia College. We are at peace in the knowledge that Oren is a godly leader, a loving husband and father, a vigilant shepherd and a faithful servant. It is in this confidence that we as a board remain loyal and steadfast with our brother in Christ.[2], [3]

Clearly, right-wing Christian Republican hypocrisy stretches from the lowest levels of government all the way to the top where–at this very moment–perjury, lies, and dissembling of every order permeate the executive and legislative branches. In the name of God. Because the ends justify the means.

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[1] See also a write-up in the Arkansas Times.

[2] In the Arkansas Times article cited above, a testimonial written by Oren Paris’ wife regarding his meeting with then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz, states, in part: “At one of the meetings Oren was able to attend Senator Cruz and his wife Heidi shared how the Lord led them to run for the Presidential Office. I remember Oren sharing with me how the love of Jesus shone through Heidi as she told of her prayer to God whether she should do this for Ted (leave her job and dive into a campaign) or not. The Lord spoke to her and said, “No you should not do it for Ted. You should do it for Me, for my glory.” That meeting lasted more than 7 hours and was filled with Senator Cruz and Heidi (daughter and granddaughter of missionaries) sharing their hearts, answering questions, and joining in prayer for revival in our nation.”

[3] In unanimous agreement, the board confirmed Paris’ continuing role as college president. The letter was signed by board members including the newly elected Washington County judge, Joseph Wood. When former Rep. Micah Neal suddenly dropped out of the county judge race in the summer of 2016, for reasons later revealed to be his federal indictments, Joseph Wood stepped into the candidacy despite concerns about whether such a move was legal. His questionable activities since taking office, including breaking several regulations about appointees, remain under scrutiny. For more, check this article at the Arkansas Times.

 

Treason In The Name of God Is Still Treason

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The United States now faces a Republican government whose members openly state their wish to make the country a Christian nation. Vice President Pence, among others, has proudly proclaimed that his God comes before country. Legislators compete to ‘out-Christian’ each other in conservative Congressional districts.

What are these people thinking?

The Founding Fathers set down rules about this new nation. The constitution specifically restricts government establishment of religion. Do Pence et al not know this? Or are they too wrapped up in zealotry to realize what’s at stake?

A recent Pew Research Center poll delivers the news that while only 71% of Americans identify as “Christian,” over 90% of legislators do so.

Why have the ‘nones’ grown in the public, but not among Congress?” asked Greg Smith, associate director for research at Pew, referring to people who check “none” on surveys asking their religion.

One possible explanation is people tell us they would rather vote for an elected representative who is religious than for one who is not religious.[1]

Evidently voters assume that a religious legislator is more trustworthy, this despite the fact that a long list of religious elected officials have been indicted and/or convicted of  crimes ranging from sexual abuse to fraud. In the Obama Administration alone, the dirty laundry of seven legislators (three Democrats, four Republicans) came to light. Under George W. Bush, six legislators fell from grace (three and three) while five members of his executive branch—all Republicans—also were found guilty of various crimes.[2]

That doesn’t touch the continuing eruption of scandals involving Christian church leaders. In 2015, Christian TV celebrity Josh Duggar was outed for molesting his younger sisters and was soon thereafter found to have joined (twice) an online service for cheating on your spouse. In 2016, just one of many church leader sex eruptions involved another Arkansas preacher, lay pastor David Reynolds, “who in addition to “discern[ing] the will of Christ through study, mutual exhortation and prayer,” to quote his former(?) church’s website, allegedly had a habit of exchanging child pornography on the Internet—with irresistible social media screennames ‘sweetoothcandy3,’ ‘Ethanluvsts,’ and ‘Luvsomecandy.’”[3]

Then there are the Catholic priests and little boys.

You’d think that some of this would tip off the voting public that Christians hold no moral high ground. Religion and morality are not synonymous. Morality does not depend upon religion, though for some, this is “an almost automatic assumption.”[4]

Yet the cognitive dissonance between the reality of Christian misdeeds and the public’s continuing belief that Christians are somehow less flawed than the average human continues unabated. Add that to the decades of Republican strategists wielding hot-button issues like abortion and prayer in schools, and it helps explain how well-intentioned voters simply do not understand that the foundations of our great nation cannot be trusted to Christians.

If Republican voters read a bit more history, they would appreciate the context of our constitutional mandate. They would understand that it was state-sponsored religion that drove early colonists to brave the Atlantic Ocean. History has a lot to teach about our hard-won freedom to live and worship as we see fit.

In 300 AD, the late Roman Empire enforced Christianity at the point of a sword. The useful concept of government empowered by God’s will spread through Europe. Those who wouldn’t swear fealty to a Christian God and the anointed King died a brutal death. Along the way, compulsory tithing (crops, coin, whatever you’ve got) supported both kingdoms.

As Europe descended into the Dark Ages (450 – 1100 AD), only the priests knew how to read and write. People were captive of whatever the priests told them. Religion became a tool of strong men who gained power and wealth at the expense of the working man. It’s a model that apparently hasn’t lost its usefulness.

This week for example, Trump and his Congressional minions installed an education secretary who plans to divert tax dollars toward religious schools that don’t have to meet standards.

… In a 2001 interview for The Gathering, a group focused on advancing Christian faith through philanthropy, [DeVos] and her husband offered a rare public glimpse of their views. Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on giving—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.[5]

The European religious wars between 1524 and 1648 erupted after Martin Luther protested Catholic corruption such as buying forgiveness and ignoring priestly orgies with prostitutes. In response to this heretical bunch of Protestants, the Catholic inquisition targeted anyone who questioned the teachings or practices of the church. Thousands of Protestants, Jews, and other heathens were tortured and burned at the stake.[6]

The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, the uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics …[7]

In 1659, the first enactment of religious liberty in the new colonies, the Maryland Toleration Act, drafted by Lord Baltimore, provided: “No person or persons…shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.”

This became the central theme of the First Amendment which states, in part: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

All this is lost in the inflamed rhetoric of today’s evangelical right-wingers. Hard lessons won over the centuries leading up to the founding of the United States are now at risk of being entirely forgotten in a growing rush to create a Christian nation.

The 20th century saw the most rapid social and economic change of any time in human history. Conservatives, by definition, loath change. Spotting opportunity amid the fear provoked by such radical change, Republican strategists began inciting certain segments of the voting public. The so-called Silent Majority elected Reagan on the promise that their traditional lifestyles would once again become the national norm.

Despite the impossibility of this promise, Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech—one of the most significant speeches of the 20th century—was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals. That speech included references to C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, “a great spiritual awakening in America,” America’s own “legacy of evil,” school prayer, the Ten Commandments, and this telling litany: “an overwhelming majority of Americans disapprove of adultery, teenage sex, pornography, abortion, and hard drugs.”[8]

In the face of such resistance and without pretending to be a religion, progressives have pursued very Christ-like goals for generations. Ending slavery was part of that. Banning child labor was another. The long string of progressive political change has produced everything from a five-day work week to Social Security. There’s no equivalent political agenda whose objective is to benefit the human condition. All the conservatives can offer is an appeal for the good old days.

The great American experiment has been a fraught journey of defining what it means to offer ‘liberty and justice for all.’ The courts have relied on the constitution and its amendments in deciding what those promises meant. Their decisions have confirmed the rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals and sharpened the separating line between church and state.

Not happy with how all that has filtered out, extremists now want a ‘go-back’ option that takes away those rights and blurs the line so that teachers can lead prayers in schools, churches can campaign for candidates, and Christian teachings dictate national policy. Too many have been led to believe this is possible, thanks to Republican strategy in motivating voters through inciting religious passions.

Well, it is possible. We can make the United States a Christian nation. But it won’t be the nation our Founders intended. It would be like primitive nations where students are told what—not how—to think, where nonbelievers are subject to torture and brutal execution, where religion instead of reason dictates policy.

By overturning the fundamental concept upon which this nation was founded, every effort to convert the United States into a Christian nation is an act of high treason.

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[1] http://religionnews.com/2017/01/03/religious-make-up-of-the-new-congress-overwhelmingly-christian/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_federal_politicians_convicted_of_crimes#Executive_branch

[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/22/why-do-conservative-christian-clergy-keep-screwing-around.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality_and_religion

[5] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/betsy-devos-christian-schools-vouchers-charter-education-secretary

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wars_of_religion and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition

[7] https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.htm

[8] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/juneweb-only/6-7-12.0.html