A decade ago, a sharp Harvard-educated think tank wonk named Stephen Bates wrote an important book -- praised by everyone from E.J. Dionne Jr. to Father Richard John Neuhaus -- that I still hear quoted in Beltway discussions from time to time. It was called Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. Bates thought he would be on the side of the educational establishment. He ended up worried that American public schools are in danger -- because educators cannot not get themselves to be fair to the religious conservatives in their desks. I cannot possibly do justice to the book in a few paragraphs. But here is a chunk of an interview I did with him at that time:
It speaks volumes, said Bates, that the educational establishment will accommodate so many other special interest groups, but not conservative Christians. Driving millions of people away from public schools will only increase support for the ultimate weapons in education battles -- tax-funded tuition vouchers and school board takeovers, he said.
Thus, it undercuts education, and threatens religious liberty, when state officials attempt to woo children away from the religious beliefs of their parents.
"I'm afraid that public school leaders are cutting their own throats," said Bates. "They are going to have to realize the importance of being sensitive to the beliefs of all kinds of faith groups -- big, little or whatever -- before it's too late."
I thought about Bates' book while reading a Washington Post piece titled "Some Abstinence Programs Mistead Teens, Report Says." Ceci Connolly's report offers half of a very important story. I have no doubts whatsoever that this hit piece has unearthed some wonderfully wacky examples of religious-right influence in some abstinance-based sex education programs.
I also have no doubt that the conservatives behind some of the better programs have science that they can quote to back their arguments. This is another one of those reports in which it is assumed that every anecdote and statistic the progressives quote is accurate and every anecdote and statistic the traditionalists quote is wrong -- with almost no details cited on the source of anything being quoted by anyone. The left could be using highly politicized studies funded by Planned Parenthood, for all we know. The right could be quoting Focus on the Family. Who knows?
You can read the details for yourself. Here is one of the key summaries, drawing on research pushed by the office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.):
Several million children ages 9 to 18 have participated in the more than 100 federal abstinence programs since the efforts began in 1999. Waxman's staff reviewed the 13 most commonly used curricula -- those used by at least five programs apiece.
The report concluded that two of the curricula were accurate but the 11 others, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, contain unproved claims, subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health, gender traits and when life begins. In some cases, Waxman said in an interview, the factual issues were limited to occasional misinterpretations of publicly available data; in others, the materials pervasively presented subjective opinions as scientific fact.
The story is simply loaded with statements sure to inspire hand-to-hand combat between apologists for the sexual revolution and apologists for, let's say, Evangelical-Catholic-Muslim-Hindu traditions about the moral status of sex outside of marriage.
Back to Bates, for a moment. Here is the hard part of the issue the Post is trying to cover. How does an institution funded with tax dollars offer sex-education materials that say that sex outside of marriage is just peachy -- or that it is sin, sin, sinful -- without attacking the moral beliefs on one or the other side of this divide?
How do schools, and newspapers, treat both sides with respect? I would imagine that the progressives quoted in the Connolly piece would say she treated them fairly, while the conservatives scream bloody murder. If you want to hear what they would scream, you can read Maureen Dowd's account of her Thanksgiving visit with the red-zone traditionalists in her family. At one point, she lets her brother Kevin -- a salesman from Montgomery County, Md. -- air some of his views about the 2004 election. He writes:
We do not live in a secular country. There are all sorts of people of faith that place moral values over personal freedoms. They are not all "wacky evangelicals." . . . They don't like being told that a young girl does not have to seek her mother's counsel about an abortion. They don't like seeing an eight-month-old fetus having his head punctured and his brains sucked out. They don't like being told the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silent prayer and the words "under God" are offensive to an enlightened few so nobody should be allowed to use them. . . . My wife and I picked our sons' schools based on three criteria: 1) moral values 2) discipline 3) religious maintenance -- in that order. We have spent an obscene amount of money doing this and never regretted a penny. Last week on the news, I heard that the Montgomery County school board voted to include a class with a 10th-grade girl demonstrating how to put a condom on a cucumber and a study of the homosexual lifestyle. The vote was 6-0. I feel better about the money all the time.
There you go. That's the divide that Bates described so well in his book. It's the divide that the Post failed to cover in its story on the Waxman report.