The Making of a Memorable Meme

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 10

The Making of a Memorable Meme

This is Part 10 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary
that can be of interest “standing alone,” each builds on information,
concepts, and commentary
introduced in earlier entries in the series, and thus
it is most effective
to read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1
At the end of each entry you will find a link to the next part of the series.

schoolproblems

Perhaps you have seen this Internet “meme,” passed along by a friend on Facebook, or sent to you by a friend via email who has made you part of a CC list they send such things to.

I’ve seen variations of it numerous times in the past couple of years, on Facebook as well as a number of evangelical Christian websites and blogs. It is often accompanied by a footnote that the information was culled from “Government Surveys” or the like. (It seemed a little odd to me the first time I saw it that the “old-time” list was from 1940, but the “modern” one was pulled from way back in 1990, over 25 years ago.)

The purpose of sharing the list is almost always to accompany commentary on the results of “taking God out of the public school classrooms,” or “kicking God out of the public schools,” which is said to have been done by the Supreme Court in decisions rendered in 1962 and 1963. Just in the past year there has been much enthusiasm among evangelicals for the election of Donald Trump—who they expected to “put God back in the schools”… at the same time he forced everyone to say Merry Christmas (a bombastic promise he made at a rally early in his campaign.)   They even hoped that, if possible (with the help of his Education Secretary Betsy De Vos once he appointed her), he would put in place plans to replace many—maybe most—public schools as rapidly as possible with religious “schools of choice” supported by tax dollars.

But, you might reasonably ask, if the ultimate purpose is to stir up concern regarding violence in schools today, why not have “survey results” from some much more recent year, such as 2010 or 2015?

Why not? Because…the “information” in that comparative list doesn’t represent any surveys at all. Not from 1940, not from 1990, not from ANY date. And therein lies an interesting little story, confirming that “Fake News” is not just a phenomenon that arose with the most recent election cycle.

From the University of Virginia, Curry School of Education  (bolding added to emphasize certain points)

A widely publicized survey comparing public school problems in 1940 with modern school problems has been circulating for over twenty years [over thirty years now…yes, its beginnings were pre-Internet], but the survey is a hoax invented for political purposes. The false survey of “top problems of public schools in 1940” listed items such as talking, chewing gum, and running in the halls. This list contrasted dramatically with an accompanying list of modern school problems that included drug abuse, pregnancy, suicide, assault, and other serious problems.

In the 1980’s and 90’s the two lists were widely cited by educational authorities and political pundits such as William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Carl Rowan, and George Will. The lists appeared in national news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and newspapers such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal; they were cited in numerous speeches and were aired on CBS News… [As well as in Harper’s Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and in the Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers columns in many newspapers including the Dallas Morning News. In 1994 they appeared in a full-page ad in USA Today sponsored by the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist American Family Association.]

A skeptical professor at Yale University, Barry O’Neill, investigated the origins of the lists and in the process collected over 250 different versions of the claimed surveys. Eventually, Professor O’Neill traced the surveys to T. Cullen Davis of Fort Worth, Texas

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T. Cullen Davis and wife Priscilla, family portrait, 1971

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T. Cullen and Priscilla out on the town

“Quarter-of-a-billionaire” T. Cullen Davis was notorious back in the late 1970s for two sensationalized murder trials… the first in 1976 for allegedly killing his estranged second wife Priscilla’s boyfriend (former basketball star Stan Farr), killing her 12 year old daughter Andrea, and attempting to kill Priscilla, all at the family’s mansion.

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Ft. Worth mansion of T. Cullen Davis, site of murders

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Stan Farr and Priscilla Davis

The second trial was in 1978, in which Davis was accused of hiring a hit man to murder that same ex-wife, and the judge overseeing their divorce proceedings. (The supposed hit man was actually working undercover for the police, and the murders never occurred.) After hung juries and whatnot, he was eventually acquitted of all the accusations in both trials…although many would no doubt say he “got off on technicalities.” (A later civil suit for “wrongful death” brought by the family of the murdered boyfriend ended in an “out of court settlement.”)

“Davis was defended by famous Texas defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. Of the trial, prosecutor Tim Curry said, “We were out-bought and out-thought.” (source)]

The cases spawned four books, a 1995 TV mini-series with Heather Locklear as Priscilla and Dennis Franz as Racehorse Haynes…

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…and an A&E channel investigative report.

A New York Times article from 2001 noted, “It is said that the dastardly J. R. Ewing character of the hit television series Dallas was largely based on Davis.”

But one day somewhere between the real life “hit for hire” episode and 1982, Mr. Davis Got Religion. Fiery conservative evangelical televangelist James Robison had persuaded him to give his heart to The Lord and his millionaire’s pocketbook to the Robison ministry.

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At the time Robison was deeply involved with supporting the election of Ronald Reagan.

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James and Betty Robison with Ronald and Nancy Reagan  
during 1980 presidential campaign

In 1979, Robison had insisted that “God’s People” needed to “take back the nation” from those who didn’t share their value system. That year he coordinated a “Freedom Rally” at the Dallas Convention Center that was attended by 10,000 people. Robison’s “communications director” at the time was a young 20-something Mike Huckabee (Arkansas governor 1996-2007, presidential candidate 2016). In the future, Huckabee suggested that the 1979 Dallas rally had been the genesis of the Moral Majority movement.

And thus when Cullen Davis “got religion” he immediately got a big dose of conservative politics along with it.

So after his final acquittal, he spent years becoming famous for going on the road with Robison for public appearances as a poster boy for Changed Lives. And for giving his heart (and money) to right wing religio-political causes (and incidentally for casting demons out of people!)

(If you like murder mysteries, you can read more about the strange saga of T. Cullen Davis in an article from 1980: “The Conversion of Cullen: Or how the most famous murder defendant in Texas got that old-time religion.“  And more about his later life in an article from 2000 titled “Blood Will Sell.”)

But back to those School Problems lists.

Mr. Davis was a wealthy oil businessman and fundamentalist Christian who in 1982 constructed the lists as part of an effort to attack public education. [The original version of the list had the “comparative modern date” of 1980, which was adjusted in later incarnations to be 1990.] He shared the lists with some like-minded colleagues, who assisted in their dissemination. Asked how he arrived at the lists, Mr. Cullen told Professor O’Neill, “They weren’t done from a scientific survey. How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940? I was there. How do I know what they are now? I read the newspapers.”

Although the lists were exposed as a hoax in 1994, they continue to be cited as factual. For example, at a 2001 school safety conference at a midwestern state, an official from the U.S. Department of Education began her keynote address by presenting the same lists, unaware that they were fabricated. The point of this observation is that all of us are susceptible to misinformation about school crime and violence. Educators must be cautious about studies with bold or dramatic claims, and should demand credible evidence from firsthand sources. [U.VA. article]

That comparison listing regularly makes the rounds among Trump supporters these days, almost always connected to attempts to establish that a permanently upward trend in serious “school problems” began in 1962/63 triggered specifically because “God was kicked out of the schools.” But one seldom sees any specific details on statistics regarding what happened after 1990.

Perhaps the following charts might fill in that gap. They accompanied the U of VA article excerpted above, regarding “School Violence Myths.”

Facts: According to FBI national arrest statistics, the arrest rate of juveniles for violent crime (murder, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault) peaked in 1994 and then declined dramatically (Snyder, 2004). The most dramatic decline in juvenile violence is seen for homicides, the category with the most complete and reliable data. As shown below, there were more than four times as many juveniles arrested for murder in 1993 than in 2013. Arrest data from Table 38 in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

juvmurderarreststo2013

Juvenile Arrests for Homicide: 1993 to 2013

Facts: The rate of violent crimes in U.S. public schools has declined substantially since 1994 (Robers, Zhang, Morgan, & Musu-Gillette, 2015). The serious violent crime rate (total number of aggravated assaults, robberies, and rapes per 100,000 students) in 2013 was less than a third what it was in 1994.

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Serious Violent Crime Rate in US Schools (Crimes per 1,000 students)

Facts: Media attention to several school shootings resulted in a series of copycat crimes during the late 1990’s [such as Columbine in 1999], briefly interrupting an otherwise downward trend (Counts of fatal school shootings obtained from National School Safety Center, 2010).

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Homicides by Students on School Grounds during School Day

The 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut stimulated tremendous fear that schools were dangerous places. Communities across the country diverted tax dollars to school security measures and armed guards. Fortunately, the tragedy in Newton was an aberration. Homicides of students at school are rare events in comparison the risk of homicide outside of schools. According to U.S. Department of Education data, there is an average of 21 homicides of students in the nation’s 125,000 elementary and secondary schools each year. Simple division (125,000 divided by 21) reveals that the average school can expect a student homicide about once every 6,000 years (Borum et al., 2010).

A national study of school-associated homicides found that an average of more than two dozen school-age children were murdered every week in the United States, but only about 1% of those murders took place in schools (Modzeleski et al., 2008).

2015homicideseverywhere

Our study of homicide locations found that murders are statistically rare in schools compared to other locations (Nekvasil, Cornell, & Huang, 2015). In a 37-state sample of 18,875 homicide incidents recorded in the Federal Bureau Investigation’s National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), only 49 incidents comprising less than .3 percent of the total took place in schools. The majority (52%) of homicides took place in residences and 30% took place in parking lots or roads.

Consider that restaurants have about ten times as many homicides as schools. What if there was massive media attention to every shooting in a restaurant with vivid accounts of the victims, survivors, and grieving family members? Would there be national concern about restaurant violence, a rush to fortify restaurant entrances, and a call from the National Rifle Association that restaurant servers should carry guns?

This is worth considering. If the very, very occasional shooting in a school can be traced back to “God being kicked out of the schools,” what is causing so much restaurant violence? I’m not aware of any restaurant that bans patrons from “saying grace” before eating!  Perhaps the televangelists of America ought to have a campaign, complete with billboards and bumper stickers, that warns people that they should pray before every Big Mac so that God will remain available to protect them from violence at the local McDonald’s. That makes as much sense as insisting that God “allowed” the mass killing at Sandy Hook because He “couldn’t get in the school” to protect the kids…he’d been banned from the premises in 1962.

There is obviously a “disconnect” between statistical reality, and the idea promulgated so widely that Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 somehow “kicked God out of the schools” and thus that He has been “unable” to prevent an alleged fifty-year continuing increase in violence in schools. Is it possible that the details of exactly what was decided by the Supreme Court have been distorted by some religious commentators? Let’s take a look at a brief overview of those Supreme Court rulings, starting with the one in 1962.

19620626NYT

To hear many evangelicals tell it, the recitation of a teacher-led group “school prayer” was instituted as a standard part of the experience of students in all American public schools clear back at the time of the formation of the United States, perhaps even with the writing of the Constitution in 1789. And this practically ancient practice was suddenly and shockingly unilaterally removed by an act of the radical “Warren Court” in 1962 in a decision concerning a case titled “Engel v Vitale.”  Is this an accurate view of history? Before going into the details of that case, here’s a little commentary on that historical narrative.

Was school prayer widespread before 1962?

The religious right has a stake in making people think that the Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s destroyed a common and widely accepted practice of school prayer. In fact, laws requiring school prayer and Bible reading were not nearly as widespread as prayer advocates claim, were late-comers to the public education, were frequently and successfully challenged in court, and were on their way out when the Supreme Court handed down it’s rulings in Engle v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp.

To begin with, research suggests that mandatory prayer and Bible reading were not historically required in the public schools. Robert Boston, for example, summarizes the research of Boardman W. Katham, a United Church of Christ Minister who has researched public education extensively, as follows:

As public schools evolved in the post-Revolutionary War period, there was a general attitude of indifference toward religion among the American public. While the Bible was often used in schools as a reader and speller, formal daily prayers and devotional readings were held sporadically, often only when a local clergyman visited a school…Rather, the move to require prayer and Bible reading in the public schools didn’t gain steam until the Civil War era, and even then didn’t generally manifest itself in law until early 1900s:

Prior to 1900, only Massachusetts had a law on the books dealing with prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Between 1910 and 1930, seventeen states and the District of Columbia passed similar laws. The movement to get these ordinances on the books was spearheaded by a powerful lobby of conservative church groups, led by the National Reform Association.

Critically, these practices were soon challenged in Court as violating the freedom of religion provisions of various state Constitutions. In 1910, for example, an Illinois Supreme Court struck down religious exercises in its public schools. Wisconsin ruled such exercises unconstitutional in 1890 and Nebraska did the same in 1903…In total, the issue of religious practices in public schools came up in 22 state courts before 1962, with those practices being struck down in eight cases and upheld in 14.

Nor was Bible reading all that widespread. … Americans United for Separation of Church and State took a survey of Bible reading in the public schools in 1960, only three years before the Supreme Court’s Bible reading decision (Abington Township School District v. Schempp). According to the survey, only five states required Bible reading in the public schools, while twenty five states allowed such practices. Eleven states had declared the practice unconstitutional, and the remainder had no relevant laws on the books.

The fact is that school prayer and Bible reading was only infrequently required by law, and had been declared illegal by a number of states before 1962. The school prayer and Bible reading decisions of the Supreme Court were neither unprecedented, nor out of step with a growing body of laws and court cases that saw these practices as an infringement of our religious liberty.

So just what did happen in 1962? Below is the brief description of this Supreme Court case as it appears in Wikipedia. (Some underlining and bolding has been added to call attention to specific details.)

Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that ruled it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.

The case was brought by a group of families of public school students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained that the voluntary prayer written by the state board of regents to “Almighty God” contradicted their religious beliefs. Led by Steven Engel, a follower of Judaism, the plaintiffs sought to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s prayer in school policy.

William J. Vitale Jr. was the president of the Board of Education of New Hyde Park, and thus the case was named after him and after Mr. Engel as representative of the other plaintiffs.

They were supported by groups opposed to the school prayer including rabbinical organizations, Ethical Culture, and Judaic organizations. The acting parties were not members of one particular religion; despite being listed in the court papers as an atheist, plaintiff Lawrence Roth later denied this allegation and described himself as religious but not comfortable with prayer. The five plaintiffs were made up of three Jews and two self-proclaimed “spiritual” people who did not belong to any one organized religion. The prayer in question was:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”

The plaintiffs argued that opening the school day with such a prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (as applied to the states through the Fourteenth), which says in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The governments of twenty-two states signed on to an amicus curiae brief urging affirmance of the New York Court of Appeals decision that upheld the constitutionality of the prayer. The American Jewish Committee, the Synagogue Council of America, and the American Ethical Union each submitted briefs urging the Court to instead reverse and rule that the prayer was unconstitutional.

Opinion of the Court

In an opinion delivered by Justice Hugo Black, the Court ruled that government-written prayers were not to be recited in public schools and were a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Establishment Clause of the first amendment. This was decided in a vote of 6-1, because before the decision could be announced, Justice Felix Frankfurter suffered a cerebral stroke that forced him to retire, and Justice Byron White took no part in the case.

Black’s explanation of the ruling included these words: “The petitioners contend…that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regent’s prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause…We agree with this contention since we think that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.”

So did that mean that the Warren Court forbade anybody in schools to contact God through prayer during the school day? To hear many evangelicals tell it, that is precisely what happened, and was tantamount to kicking God out of the schools. But is that so?

Is school prayer actually prohibited?

No. The Engel v. Vitale decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 prohibited only state-mandated prayer in public schools classrooms. As Richard Riley, the former Secretary of Education, stated: “…religious rights of students and their right to freedom of conscience do not stop at the schoolhouse door.”  He was apparently quoting another landmark Supreme Court decision: Tinker v. Des Moines where the court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

I’m not sure how anyone thinks that students could be prevented from silently praying to God in school any time they wish, even during an English test! Yes, if they insisted on praying out loud right during such a test, they might be asked to refrain from continuing…not over a religious issue, but over a common-sense matter of disrupting the concentration of other students. But in addition to silent prayer, all the following are allowed.

[Under the Engel v Vitale ruling:] Students in U.S. public schools are free to:

Take Bibles or other religious texts with them on the school bus.

Pray alone or in groups at the flagpole or elsewhere on school grounds.

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Pray in classrooms outside of regular teaching hours.

Say grace and/or pray in a school cafeteria.

Form a Bible study club or any other religious club, if even one student-led group is already allowed in the school. This is a guaranteed right under the federal Equal Access Act of 1984.

Students can wear T-shirts with religious text. They can wear religious jewelry (buttons, symbols, crosses, stars of David, pentacles, etc).

Students can hand out religious materials.

Although these rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, they are not necessarily granted by school officials automatically. Fortunately, a variety of legal organizations, such as the Rutherford Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union can intervene on behalf of students and explain the law to the school administration. These matters are usually cleared up very quickly, because of the wealth of case law supporting student rights. The Rutherford Foundation has stated: “Many cases can be solved with a strong and professional letter from an attorney, a legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call from a staff member.” [ibid]

Yes, the much-despised ACLU actually has intervened on behalf of students who feel their freedom of religion has been denied them by school authorities who were too zealous in their attempts to be careful about “religion in the schools.”

The bottom line is this: Engel v Vitale was NOT about preventing individual students from personal, heart-felt prayer directly to God according to their own religious beliefs. It was about preventing “authority figures” at the state, local school board, or individual school staff from composing their own prayers and imposing recitation of those prayers on those students.

Yes, many school authorities might protest that they didn’t “force” students to recite the prayers. Some allowed students to “opt out” of the “devotional period” by leaving the classroom and waiting in the school office or infirmary or elsewhere while the rest of the class “voluntarily” participated. But anyone who knows anything about group psychology will understand that this is a recipe for opening the dissenters up to ridicule at best and bullying at worst by the other students. Indeed, before the 1962/63 rulings, children from minority religions such as Judaism and Jehovah’s Witnesses who opted out of such public school religious rituals were at times taunted by their “standard Protestant” schoolmates with threats that they were going to hell!

But in spite of all the factors of the Engel v Vitale ruling clarified above, preachers and religious writers and televangelists seem to have made sure that the average evangelical voter these days is impervious to the historical reality.  They regularly fan the flames of fear regarding the topic with overheated rhetoric. And those voters themselves help the process by making sure that misinformation like the Top Problems Meme is spread far and wide through social media.

Shortly after the Sandy Hook school shootings, Mike Huckabee (mentioned above in connection with televangelist James Robison) said on Fox News, “…we ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools”… “Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

The implication from Huckabee certainly seemed to be that if “we” had forced a perfunctory prayer composed by some governmental functionary to be recited every day at the beginning of school at Sandy Hook, that crazed killer would have never entered the school. By removing that prayer, “we” evidently removed the power of the Great God of the Universe to be omnipresent…even if, I guess, the families of some of those children were actually dedicated Christians who prayed for the safety of their children daily in their own homes before they headed off to school!

And Huckabee is representative of most of the religious Strange Bedfellows who gathered around candidate Trump, and now cheer his new administration…and expect him to “Get God Back in the Schools.”  At 83, T. Cullen Davis is still alive, and I’ll bet he was an enthusiastic Trump supporter…his spiritual mentor James Robison certainly has been. Robison was an enthusiastic campaigner for Trump.

robisontrump2016

And on January 20, 2017,  his personal efforts paid off. On that day televangelist Robison spoke from a pulpit at St. John’s Episcopal Church directly to Donald Trump at the private prayer service held in the morning just before the inauguration ceremony.

robisontrumpinaugprayermorning

Here were some of the words he was saying to The Donald in that photo above

[“The first time you and I talked”]…I said, “Sir, the meekness that God has given you is as great as any I have ever witnessed — and ability to move and motivate people that is nothing short of a divine, supernatural enabling.” I said, “Sir, if you yield the gifts of God and the strength that He put in you, not for your purposes but for His kingdom purpose, you’ll win a triple crown. You’ll win an election and you’ll save the day, even the future of freedom, and restore the foundation and the walls essential to protect it.”

I have had the joy — and I want to thank you for this joy. I’ve never been treated in 55 years of public ministry with greater honor, respect, sincere appreciation and gratitude, and joining me seeking God in prayer. Sir, you have been amazing to be with. To God be the glory! It is an answer to a lot of the prayers of the people here and around the world.

I have no doubt at all that included in Robison’s comment that Trump will “restore the foundation” is the notion that this will include somehow overturning the Engel v Vitale ruling and “putting God back in the schools” via government-sanctioned prayers again.

I’m also sure that Robison and the rest of Trump’s Strange Bedfellows will expect him to ensure that the other Warren Court school decision from the 1960s is also overturned: the 1963 Abington v Schempp 1963 ruling. It dealt with Bible readings and other “religious exercises” in schools. The next entry in this series will take a closer look at that controversial ruling. Stay tuned for …

The Bible Riots??

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