The Washington Post needs to listen to Dowd's brother

compcondoms 2A 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://gayspirituality.typepad.com Joe Perez

    Mattingly frames the issue as a decision as to whether public education should affirm traditional morality or sexual libertinism. But the Montgomery County program illustrates that this may be a false choice (that’s the program that Maureen Dowd’s brother poo-poos)

    Spiritual progressives should make it clear that all parents should be given the right to review sex education materials and choose to allow their children not to participate. This shows genuine respect for the religious and moral beliefs of the parents while making it difficult for the question of “whose values do we teach?” from gaining traction.

    Progressives should frame the question like this: “Shall an institution funded with tax dollars offer sex-education materials that give medically accurate facts, or propaganda and misinformation disguised as science?”

  • ken53

    The only way I can understand this controversery over sex education in school is to say that conservatives like Dowds brother are just out and out lying. First of all the Montgomery County did not vote 6-0 to have 10th grade girls put condoms on cucumbers. He heard that on Rush Limbaugh. It is just another one of his lies that conservatives convenently repeat for lack of the ability to think for themselves.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com/ C. Wingate

    Well, I don’t think it’s a *lie*; it is reported in the Washington Times after all.

    http://www.washtimes.com/metro/20041109-110240-9716r.htm

    Admittedly there’s the detail that this only occurs in a video that the kids are to watch. But “lie” is way too strong a characterization of this error.

    Concern about the Mont. County curriculum goes beyond the ethical. We’ve received a message from a PA who has looked over the curriculum and sees that the statistics given about condom effectiveness are grossly overstated. Since my son is only in 6th grade and I don’t have unlimited time, I haven’t seen the proposed 10th grade materials. It’s not hard, though, to get a picture of a curriculum which, probably unintentionally, is essentially advising kids *how* to have sex.

  • http://www.jonswerens.com Jon S.

    Mr. Perez says:

    “Spiritual progressives should make it clear that all parents should be given the right to review sex education materials and choose to allow their children not to participate.”

    Ah, but they’re not so progressive as to allow parents to opt out of paying for it.

    He follows with something that makes sense on the surface:

    “This shows genuine respect for the religious and moral beliefs of the parents while making it difficult for the question of ‘whose values do we teach?’ from gaining traction.”

    And then he demonstrates the genuine respect progressives have with the following:

    “Progressives should frame the question like this: ‘Shall an institution funded with tax dollars offer sex-education materials that give medically accurate facts, or propaganda and misinformation disguised as science?’”

    Does Mr. Perez really think calling his opponents’ position “propaganda and misinformation” is being respectful? Or he is as smart as I think he is, and knows that he who chooses the battlefield wins the war?

  • PowerTee

    The best rebuttal to the “progressives” on this point is their track record–your worldview doesn’t work and your sex ed doesn’t work. The arrogance of you folks is ASTONISHING. When will you have to answer for a) your arrogance and b) the cultural consequences of your forcefed ideologies?

  • ken53

    The reason schools teach sex education in the first place if because parents are failing to do so themselves. If Dowds brother were to instruct his childred in sex education they would have nothing to worry about when a teacher brings up the subject. But since they are opposed to sex education their childred are learning all about it from such reliable sources as the internet and late night phone conversations with their adolescent friends. Either that or they will learn first hand while on hot dates where hormones are in control. Never having learned what any of it means from a trusted reliable teacher will leave them unprepared to deal with the situation safely. This is why divorce and abortions are so high in predominately conservative areas.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Joe writes:

    “Mattingly frames the issue as a decision as to whether public education should affirm traditional morality or sexual libertinism.”

    No, that is not what I said. That is not what Bates was writing about, either. I was saying it would be difficult for truly public institutions — schools or newspapers — to deal fairly with such strongly conflicting positions on moral absolutes in programs for children.

    But note that if one does a “both/and” program, you are essentially affirming a weak version of the progressive choice. That is not “sexual libertinism.” It is also not traditionalism.

    “Spiritual progressives should make it clear that all parents should be given the right to review sex education materials and choose to allow their children not to participate. This shows genuine respect for the religious and moral beliefs of the parents while making it difficult for the question of “whose values do we teach?” from gaining traction.”

    Amen and amen. Preach it, brother.

    That is precisely what has NOT happened in the past in public education settings — as Bates makes very, very clear. That is the whole issue. This is exactly what public education officials have declined to do.

    Here is what I think. When a public educator (or an editor, for that matter) comes face to face with a true fundamentalist Christian believer who is upset about something, this educator (or editor) should look the person right in the face and, with all of her or his might, try to imagine that this fundamentalist is a Muslim or a Native American. Try to offer this Christian fundamentalist precisely the same courtesy and respect that would be offered to a member of a different race or world religion.

    “Progressives should frame the question like this: ‘Shall an institution funded with tax dollars offer sex-education materials that give medically accurate facts, or propaganda and misinformation disguised as science?’ ”

    Yes, that is how most progressives would word it.

    Conservatives would say precisely the SAME THING about those on the left.

    Now, design educations and news-coverage scenarios that deal with both of those claims fairly.

    Hold both sides to the same standards and attempt to make BOTH SIDES equally happy or ticked off.

  • Molly

    I remember my experience of “sex ed” from the early 70′s. When it came time for the 5th grade girls to have their separate assembly on “becoming a woman”, we were supposed to have our mothers present with us. If our mothers attended the assembly, we were allowed to go home early – I guess to have a heart to heart with our mothers based on the information presented at school. We were also supposed to have parental permission to attend these assemblies.

    I remember the content was dry, clinical, descriptive, informative, and managed to make growing up and sexuality as dry as dirt if not somewhat alarming. I learned about the mechanics of biology; I learned about sex through conversations with my friends which is still the most likely source for “education”, I would wager.

    Based on my school days experience, I think a more effective “sex education” program would cover relationships and what is and isn’t acceptable in how we treat one another. I have no idea if this is now part of curriculi or not.

    The PC(USA) had a curriculum from the early 90′s that spent many weeks on self image, feelings, exploring what may or may not be abusive in a relationship and only one week on the diagrams of genitalia. However, it was those diagrams that made one father blow up and call the entire curriculum “pornographic”. I remember thinking he hadn’t ever seen porn if scratchy line drawings was his definition of it!

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    “Spiritual progressives should make it clear that all parents should be given the right to review sex education materials and choose to allow their children not to participate.”

    Well, this statement has ghosts hidden all through it.

    In the first place, it is next-to-assumed in such a statement that the program will offend some in its teachings. That already raises a question: how can such teaching ever really be free of im/moral instruction?

    In the second place, this opt-out is in practice an act of condescension towards the troglodytes. “OK, we’ll let you take your kids out of sex-ed [muttering under breath]so don’t blame *us* when they turn out to be sex-crazed teen parents.” The really offensive notion is that a parent (say, one named C. Wingate) might want sex-ed for his kids, but wants some control over what’s being said because the topic is so fraught with moral significance and misinformatio– not just from kids passing tales amongst themselves, but also from soi-dissant experts. It is bizarre that the sexual side of public health must be free of public review because someone might offer a religiously based opinion, but that’s where we seem to be at.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    While I’m at it:

    “The reason schools teach sex education in the first place if because parents are failing to do so themselves.”

    I thinkk it’s more because the educators, craving the turf, liked to believe that the parents *weren’t* doing it. How true this perception was, I don’t know. But it’s plainly true that teens understand sex-ed from a totally different perspective than their adult tutors, well-meaning or otherwise. One hears the most curious stories of what kids “learn” from sex-ed.

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    “This is why divorce and abortions are so high in predominately conservative areas.”

    Last I checked divorce and abortions were high everywhere in the US, irrespective of Red/Blue.

  • Marion R.

    “The reason schools teach sex education in the first place if because parents are failing to do so themselves.”

    I do not believe this statement.

  • Marion R.

    “Based on my school days experience, I think a more effective “sex education” program would cover relationships and what is and isn’t acceptable in how we treat one another. . . . The PC(USA) had a curriculum from the early 90′s that spent many weeks on self image, feelings, exploring what may or may not be abusive in a relationship and only one week on the diagrams of genitalia. . . .”

    Molly, you’re on to something but you don’t go far enough.

    A child’s “sex education” is not complete until they can provide clear definitions of the following terms:

    mortgage

    PMI

    closing

    will

    codicil

    garnishment

    whole life

    vesting

    I’m completely serious.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I will eat my hat if someone comes up with — ahem — hard evidence of a public school teaching 10th graders how to put condoms on cucumbers.

    The only schools reporting I’ve ever done involved talented teachers and administrators who were, coincidentally, conservative Christians. That’s anecdotal. But until I see real statistical evidence otherwise, I won’t believe that Christian conservatives are underrepresented in schools or more widely discriminated against there.

  • tmatt

    Jeff:

    Does the Washington Post count? Not the Times, the Post.

    The question at this point — source of the confusion of facts — is the age of the girl in the video.

    For some, inaccurately, it is a 10th grade girl. Others say a “young woman.” Another reference says it is a very young looking college student.

    The reality of the curriculum is no longer in question.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35692-2004Dec4.html

    Also, I do urge readers to check out the amazing documentation in the Bates “Battlegound” book. His open-records work is very revealing.

    The book is still in print. I just picked up a spare used copy for a song.

  • http://gayspirituality.typepad.com/blog/ Joe Perez

    tmatt:

    You wrote: “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?”

    And in response I wrote: “Mattingly frames the issue as a decision as to whether public education should affirm traditional morality or sexual libertinism.”

    Which you said is inaccurate: “No, that is not what I said… I was saying it would be difficult for truly public institutions — schools or newspapers — to deal fairly with such strongly conflicting positions on moral absolutes in programs for children.”

    I don’t think what I said is inaccurate at all. I agree that you said that this is a tough issue about dealing fairly with moral absolutes in sex ed programs. By focusing on the issue as a matter of fairness of handling “moral absolutes” in sex ed, rather than as a matter of, say, how to disseminate medically accurate information, you are framing the issue in exactly the way that I described.

  • http://davidmorrison.typepad.com/sed_contra/ David Morrison

    My Goddaughter and my Godson, when he arrives, will be schooled at home and, I predict, will turn out better prepared for futher education and with a much higher degree of self-respect than if they went to the public schools in even the better parts of the state.

    This discussion just further indicates that the “progressives” just don’t get it. Parents with traditional are no longer going to send their kids to schools which are predominantly hostile to their core beliefs – and they will work very hard not to pay for them either, and they will continue to vote for candidates who reflect their religious values.

    At this rate, the realignment in the American electorate that the last election hinted at is becoming steadily more fixed and real every minute.

  • Molly

    David, why penalize poor urban kids by withholding your tax dollars?

  • Molly

    Oops, didn’t mean to post twice and in retrospect, I was too narrow in my description. Poverty is everywhere and by circling the wagons on morality, we cut off our neighbors’ kids from access to education. I think Jesus has something to say about that..y’know, loving our neighbors as ourselves?

    Here is an interesting link http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2004/12/07/teacher/index.html.

    I like the question; the answer leaves A LOT to be desired. I wonder how others (specifically the authors of this site) would respond to the questioner?

  • Hal Duston

    David Morrison wrote: “My Goddaughter and my Godson, when he arrives, will be schooled at home …”

    Molly wrote: “David, why penalize poor urban kids by withholding your tax dollars?”

    I fail to see what one has to do with the other. I school my children at home as well, and I pay over $1,500 in taxes to the schools. I don’t think that amount would be considered as withholding tax dollars. Now I will admit that my tax dollars do in fact go to the local school district in which I live, and not to a poor urban one. But, if I placed my children in the local school district that fact would still remain.

  • Molly

    “…and they will work very hard not to pay for them either,”

    I assumed withholding tax dollars is what David was referring to. Maybe a bold assumption on my part, but not an idea I haven’t heard of before.

  • Hal Duston

    Withholding school district tax dollars will get a house sold at auction on the county courthouse steps, so that’s not a realistic action to take. I do, however, as David Morrison says, vote according to my beliefs both on school district tax issues, and for various candidates.

  • JoJo

    There are other ways that folks fight. In recent years my local school district has struggled because the voters disapproved several critical levies, until they were scaled back to painfully low levels. One man was the key force behind the nasty and dishonest “Vote No” campaign. His kids attend a private church school, not the public ones.


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