God’s Choice : THE TOTAL WORLD OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIAN SCHOOL by Alan Peshkin (University of Chicago: $19.95; 345 pp.)
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). This biblical promise, coupled with mistrust of the larger society’s worldliness, has long led American Fundamentalists to found Bible institutes, colleges and schools of their own. With a sharp eye and a generous if critical spirit, Alan Peshkin sets out to reveal the inner workings and overarching vision of one such school, a school dedicated to serving God by “declaring our tradition--the Bible, authority, patriotism. Learn not the way of the heathen.”
Bethany Baptist Academy was begun in 1971 by an Independent Baptist Church in a small Illinois city. In 1980, the last year of this study by a professor of education at the University of Illinois, the academy numbered 350 students and 18 teachers. The conviction that “God’s truth knows no limits” draws them together into “a total life” of Christian character-building that unites church and family into a “24-hour school” of the spirit. Its teachers serve the Lord 90 hours a week on a seven-day schedule that includes compulsory attendance at all church services by contract as well as personal conviction. In 1980-'81 they earned a base salary of $5,900. Yet they are overwhelmingly content in their work, competent and committed to an explicitly religious calling they see as the last best hope of America.
Born with a burden of sin and living in a world full of temptation, Fundamentalist Christians understand themselves to need strong discipline to learn self-control and accept responsibility as their brother’s keeper. “The policing never stops,” notes the school’s headmaster. It ranges from demerits for girls with short dresses and boys with long hair through paddling for moviegoing, smoking, dancing and petting, to expulsion for drinking or taking drugs.
To mold the moral integrity of God’s people, the school seeks to integrate Scriptural study and academic instruction. History becomes “ His story.” Science manifests the handiwork of God’s creation, and mathematics shows its orderliness. English and Bible study go hand in hand to the pulpit for a priesthood of all believers obliged to preach and proselytize.
After exploring Bethany’s doctrinal outlook, structure of control and socializing regimen in the company of its teachers and headmaster for the first half of this book, it comes as a real relief to meet its students in the second half and find them more like their once-born peers than like pious automatons. They whisper and pass notes in class, write “Let it rip” on washroom walls, discuss “Saturday Night Live” between classes. A few of them even cheat on tests, deface books, get pregnant. Students pondering the millennium wonder “if we would have a choice of where we wanted to live and what kind of house we wanted to have.” They look forward to being raptured away when the world ends, but not before they get their driver’s licenses.
In fact, such incongruities raise few eyebrows among an elect separated out from “the world” who nonetheless see themselves as exemplary Americans. The very innocence of their pranks and romances suggests how different these students are from many of their counterparts in the secular city, as does the orthodoxy of the moral standards they continue to hold, even when they don’t live up to all of those standards.
These attitudinal comparisons are blurred, however, by the book’s failure to fill in the social background and location of Bethany’s students and their families in relation to their public school counterparts, whether across town or across the nation. This also blurs the social meaning of the political and economic conservatism Bethany’s students and teachers espouse.
In the 1980 elections, all of the teachers voted for Ronald Reagan, as did 93% of the students. They did not consider Reagan a born-again Christian. They supported him for taking doctrinally sound positions on key issues, positions which the born-again Jimmy Carter violated.
However representative this sounds of the alliance between conservative religion and politics, large-scale polls and voting studies of the 1980 and 1984 elections show that social and economic status, race, gender and region predict Fundamentalists’ positions on most such decisive issues much more powerfully than does religion. Thus, slightly more than half of the country’s Fundamentalists support the ERA, gun registration and government intervention to deal with economic problems, for example, and this should come as no surprise, given the disproportion of women, poorer whites and blacks among Fundamentalists. This mix of social influences holds true for all but a small minority of culturally conservative Fundamentalists on such explicitly religious issues as school prayer. It also holds true for Fundamentalist support of President Reagan. In 1980, a slightly smaller percentage of born-again white Protestants than of other white Protestants actually voted for Reagan. Between 1976 and 1980, Carter lost less support among white Fundamentalists than among other white Protestants, Catholics or Jews. In 1984, Moral Majority endorsement of Reagan drove far more voters away from him than it attracted to him.
Such contextual facts bear directly on Peshkin’s central concern, the extent of Fundamentalists’ respect for ideological diversity and cultural pluralism. Precisely as many of Bethany’s students (83%) agree that belief in God is not necessary for being a good American as reject the claim that there is no one absolute, true religion. More than three-quarters of them hold that the godless and the political radical are entitled to the same right to free speech as anyone else, but just as many disapprove of America having so many different churches and religious beliefs.
Explains an official of the American Assn. of Christian Schools, Bethany’s umbrella organization: “Christian educators have never assumed that our Christian view of absolute standards of morality and truth is to be foisted on the entire public. Partly we feel it’s impractical, and partly we perceive that’s not the spirit of the Constitution. America allows for people who believe in absolutes and people who believe in relatives.” Peshkin sees “the paradox of Bethany’s professed regard for diversity and its commitment to absolute truth” turning out to be a matter of “lip-service” paid to the principle of pluralism, and one of moral rejection practiced toward those outside the Fundamentalist fold. More attention to other variables might refine his view.
This is a study at its best in describing one school’s everyday life and reporting what its students and teachers say about themselves. When it comes to interpreting what it has described, the book proves less sure-footed. There are two reasons for this.
First, its institutional analysis rests on Erving Goffman’s concept of “total institutions” instead of the more fitting and nuanced concept of the religious sect. Unlike Goffman’s mental institutions, prisons and army barracks, the Christian school is not genuinely coercive, state-controlled or residentially restrictive.
Second, the book’s ability to plumb the paradoxes of Fundamentalism is limited by its neglect of the movement’s complex history. A basic tension between outgoing revivalism and uncivil separatism defines the Fundamentalist heritage, both because it fuses contrasting religious traditions in our culture and because its adherents have played contrasting social roles in different eras of our past. For most of the 20th Century, argues George Marsden, Fundamentalists have experienced being powerless outsiders, a ridiculed minority in a secularizing society. In the 19th Century, however, the revivalist Evangelical matrix of Fundamentalism marked the religious mainstream, and back then its members were powerfully public-spirited insiders. Because of their Puritan heritage, and despite their anti-intellectual image, Fundamentalists are even now among those Americans who take ideas most seriously.
For all the benefits Fundamentalist schools render their students and religious communities as havens from a half-hearted world, Peshkin remains critical of them for enshrining beliefs that dismiss intellectual questioning and foreclose personal choice. Writing candidly as one “born a Jew and gladly remaining one,” he confesses his personal distress at the impact of Fundamentalist “arrogance” and proselytizing pressure and the fears of anti-Semitism they trigger. But he also makes clear that he felt no bigotry at Bethany, and he sees no theocratic conspiracy from the religious Right endangering the First Amendment. Addressing Fundamentalists and their alarmist opponents alike, Peshkin calls for compassion as well as civility, based on Madison’s insight that “liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” The causes of religious faction cannot be removed in a free society. Its effects should be tolerated right up to the point at which they would destroy the practice of tolerance itself.