The New Fundamentalists
11:00 PM, Dec 18, 2007 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
AN ARTICLE OF FAITH among many liberals is that religion and tolerance don't go well together. In a recent editorial, for example, the New York Times matter-of-factly derided conservative Christians as "the most religiously intolerant sector of American political life." That's quite a sector. It includes tens of millions of believers in the African-American, Latino, and Asian communities, male and female, from every conceivable walk of life. Sure, there are plenty of crusty fundamentalists in the mix. But other actors are manifestly better candidates for the Times's designation.
Take public education elites. Last week the D.C. Board of Education approved new Health Education Standards for the city's public schools, including guidelines for teaching about AIDS, sexuality, family life, and drug use. Ministers, activists, and parents complain--with good reason--that the standards are strongly biased against abstinence-only curricula. There are warnings about using "correct terminology" to discuss issues such as sexual orientation. There are specific guidelines for teaching about "different family structures"--gay couples, for example--to children in kindergarten.
That's going to make it tough for organizations that hold conservative views of marriage and human sexuality to continue their outreach programs to at-risk kids. And it comes at exactly the wrong time: New data show that the District boasts 12 times the national rate of new AIDS cases, the worst in the nation. One might suspect that school officials would welcome help from just about any quarter--yes, even from members of the faith community. "The chancellor has placed a moratorium on all external providers of health and consumer education," Richard Nyankori, assistant to the School Chancellor, reportedly told one abstinence-only group. "Her goal is to ensure programs are consistent with D.C. standards."
The chancellor's decision seems aimed at one particular category of provider: those uncomfortable with a boundless view of "sexual exploration" as the defining feature of childhood and adolescence. It does not matter to education mandarins that large numbers of parents in this city--mostly African-American and socially conservative--find the new standards offensive (as the comments from many of the 75 local ministers who attended a recent Clergy Leadership Summit on HIV-AIDS surely make clear). Nor does it appear relevant that many parents want their kids involved in community-based programs that uphold their values.
This moratorium on common sense finds support from a second candidate for the Most Intolerant Sector Award: media gatekeepers.
Earlier this month WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi took up the school standards issue, along with guest host Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, on Nnamdi's popular "D.C. Politics Hour." In the dock was Richard Urban, co-founder of Ultra Teen Choice, an abstinence-only program operating in D.C. public schools for the last four years. Urban's program is one of several facing possible expulsion. WAMU's listeners might have expected a discussion about the mechanics of these programs, their values, or why many D.C. parents like them. Instead, Fisher and Nnamdi staged a bare-knuckled assault on Urban's alleged religious views. Though Ultra Teen Choice is ostensibly secular--it "guides youth toward the formation of two-parent families and positive character development"--Urban acknowledges that he is a member of the Unification Church.
And on it went. To be sure, there are good reasons to challenge the presence in public schools of certain organizations, such as those linked to radical Islam. After all, a tolerant society need not condone intolerance. And the Unification Church is not without controversy; it has been accused of brainwashing and authoritarianism. Parents have a right to know the identity and values of groups influencing their kids (just as they're entitled to know the agenda of public educators). Tutoring and mentoring programs cannot be a device for proselytizing on school grounds.
Yet there was no evidence of this kind offered against Urban or his organization. Instead, he was declared guilty--of extremism, presumably--only by association. The attack on his faith looked very much like a proxy for an indictment of traditional views about sexuality and marriage.
I raised this issue in an email with WAMU's Kay Summers, director of public information. "Mr. Urban did not initially answer the question as it applied to ULTRA Teen Choice, which is why Mr. Fisher and then Mr. Nnamdi continued to ask for clarification," she insisted. "Mr. Fisher did not ask about Mr. Urban's personal religious beliefs " Well, if we're looking for an exercise in obfuscation and deception, we have it: There were no untoward insinuations about personal religious beliefs, claims WAMU--just gentle prodding for clarification.
The saturation of presidential politics with religion has surely heightened sensitivities on all sides. Politicians and activists have a constitutional right to bring their religious values into the public square--and can't cry foul when they're questioned about it. But when education and media elites use their position as a kind of Star Chamber to blacklist groups they don't like, then we've taken a step backward, a step away from pluralism.
And there's nothing enlightened or progressive or tolerant about it.
Joe Loconte is a senior fellow with Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE DAILY STANDARD.