When Shaping Culture Means Shaping Hate

In a recent speech to Ugandan policy makers, Patrick Henry College’s Dr. Graham Walker roundly condemned the ‘postmodernism’ of American universities, delivering sentiments with the potential to inflame anti-gay sentiments in the country.

Walker, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania before joining Patrick Henry’s faculty, mined his time at the Ivy League school for outrage fodder. A former mentor for incoming freshmen, Walker described a case study handed out to students to acquaint them with the school’s diversity. To the University of Pennsylvania, the study was designed to encourage respect for sexual minorities; to Walker, it encouraged nothing but sin.

He paraphrased the study for his audience.  “Imagine you are a young woman who is arriving as a new student on the urban Ivy League campus of the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “You were raised in an uncomplicated rural farming region far away from the city. When you were growing up, the people in your rural community, in your family and in your country church, taught you to believe that gay and lesbian people were perverted and depraved.”

The case study later gives this hypothetical farm girl a hypothetical lesbian roommate, painstakingly identified as courteous and intelligent. It sets up an obvious dilemma: how to resolve this clash of inherited belief with reality?

“The answer was obvious: they were supposed to abandon the outmoded ‘rural’ beliefs about homosexuality and adopt the supposedly superior beliefs of the urban sophisticates,” he told his audience.

Of course, Walker’s own bias is equally apparent throughout his remarks. He made it clear that his objection had less to do with the simplicity of the case study, and everything to do with its conclusion.

Walker slammed the social psychologist who wrote the study: “…he had written the narrative in such a way as to assume the legitimacy of the claim that some people simply ‘are;’ ‘lesbian,’ as if it were a category of identity given by the natural order of things.”

Quotation marks are Walker’s own.

It’s clear to me that he doesn’t believe anyone is essentially queer; he can’t even acknowledge ‘lesbian’ as a viable identity. Instead, he implies it’s unnatural. That would be troubling enough if his remarks had been given at his fundamentalist home institution, but of course they weren’t. They were delivered to Ugandan policy makers, right before the Ugandan parliament voted to pass a draconian law targeted at the country’s sexual minorities.

That bill assigns life imprisonment to anyone found guilty of ‘aggravated homosexuality;’ homosexuality itself has already been criminalized in the country. A previous draft of the bill assigned the death penalty for the same offense. President Yoweri Museveni, no supporter of gay rights, blocked it based on a technicality, as the parliament passed the bill without a full quorum.

And there’s further context to Walker’s speech. He’d been invited to Uganda by Uganda Christian University (UCU). UCU is affiliated with the deeply conservative Church of Uganda, an entity that has long been reluctant to condemn the country’s infamous anti-homosexuality bill. The church even defrocked a retired bishop, Christopher Senyonjo, for his advocacy for Uganda’s beleaguered sexual minorities.

Walker’s home church is also affiliated with the Church of Uganda, further deepening his ties to the conservative body. He attends Waterford Anglican Fellowship, a plant of the Church of the Holy Spirit, located in Leesburg, Virginia. A Loudoun Times-Mirror article described Holy Spirit’s consecration by Bishop John Guernsey; Guernsey himself was consecrated by the Church of Uganda.

In 2009, Rev. Dr. Christopher Byaruhanga, a professor of theology at UCU, condemned Western Christians for their antipathy toward the legislation. “You see there’s a kind of imperialism and a kind of relativism from the West,” he said. “They don’t understand our ethics in the country of Uganda and they are trying to impose what they believe.”

UCU’s Vice-Chancellor, John Senyonyi, attended last year’s Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a meeting of conservative Anglican clergy. GAFCON originally convened out of opposition to a perceived shift toward liberalism, engineered by the church’s leadership; observers believe the liberal-conservative rift has been at least partially inspired by the church’s consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man.

Last year, GAFCON adopted the Nairobi Commitment. It reads: “In 2008, the first GAFCON was convened in order to counter a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion,” and adds, “It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful.”

Senyonyi read the statement aloud on the final day of the conference.

Senyonyi and his colleagues might not explicitly advocate for the murder of sexual minorities, nor might Dr. Walker. But there is no doubt they are anti-gay. The ‘human rights language’ the Nairobi Commitment condemns is designed to protect sexual minorities from persecution. But these so-called men of God haven’t concerned themselves with the prevention of persecution. Instead, they contribute directly to it.

Walker isn’t unique. He’s merely the latest Western anti-gay activist to travel to Uganda to peddle hate disguised as faith. It’s a crusade that has already resulted in bloodshed. That context is absent from Walker’s anti-gay speech, though I’d argue it’s impossible he’s unaware that it exists. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. He is aware. He simply doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Why else deliver anti-gay remarks to policy-makers overwhelmingly devoted to the persecution and destruction of their LGBT constituents? Why travel to Uganda at the invitation of a clergyman so devoted to anti-gay prejudice he’d risk a split from the global Anglican church? Walker, who teaches government at Patrick Henry, surely understood the political implications of his speech.

On its website, Patrick Henry College boasts that it ‘shapes culture,’ and that’s certainly true. They are shaping culture: a culture of hate. And thanks to Dr. Graham Walker, that project knows no borders.

Hat tip for this story to a PHC alum who alerted me to Walker’s speech. 

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It’s Time To Rethink Virginia’s Homeschool Laws

Virginia Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon) has proposed a study of the state’s religious exemption statute for homeschoolers. To the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), the proposal, HJ 92, is a malicious attack on Christian homeschoolers. The reality, however, is quite different. Rust’s proposal is a reasonable response to a long-standing problem.

First, a brief explanation. In Virginia, families are entitled to homeschool under either an academic or religious exemption. My parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, which means that they were required to administer standardized tests to measure my academic progress. Families that homeschool under a religious exemption, however, face no such requirement. After the local school district confirms that their religious convictions are legitimate (and there is no uniform standard for this process), a homeschool family can effectively remove itself from the state’s radar.

In the state of Virginia, a religious family can pull a child out of school at any point in the term and provide no evidence of a curriculum or of the child’s subsequent educational attainment. The children are, in effect, rendered invisible.

My friend Josh Powell used to be one of those invisible children. Last summer, he told his story to the Washington Post in a bid to publicize the consequences of Virginia’s overly generous statute. At 16, Josh didn’t know that South Africa is a country and hadn’t been taught basic algebra. After years of remedial classes, Josh made his way to community college and later, Georgetown University.

Some of his younger siblings would like to attend public school. But because the state privileges the convictions of their parents over their personal goals, they remain at home. And there’s no way to ensure they receive the education Josh was denied.

That is an intolerable situation in a country that claims to value education as a human right.

It is unclear to me how anyone’s religious exercise is threatened by their child’s ability to read and write. Fringe homeschool advocates are fond of insisting that they are the best possible educators for their children and in some cases, that might be true. But this is clearly not going to be true of all parents, and common sense regulation is necessary to make sure their children are receiving an adequate education.

But try telling that to HSLDA. Its latest e-lert warns, “We must accept the possibility that Rust’s call for a study is a mere pretext, and that his true intention is to try to take away some of your freedom once the study gives him some “cover.” At the very least, it’s fair to conclude that he thinks you may have too much freedom right now!”

Now, let’s be clear about what Rust has actually proposed: a study. This means he wants to review the law. If his measure passes, the Department of Education would survey the state’s school districts to examine how they apply the religious exemption statute. It would also examine how districts review their initial decision to grant a family an exemption (if they review at all). The proposal’s final clause also calls for the DOE to determine whether or not districts monitor the educational progress of children in religiously exempt families.

I believe it’s this last clause that so concerns HSLDA. Josh Powell’s family isn’t exactly unique. Although my parents homeschooled under an academic exemption, we knew quite a few families who’d received religious exemptions instead, and to describe their educational attainment as uneven would be somewhat generous. It is certainly true that most families who homeschool do so with the best of intentions. But intentions are not magic. Sometimes parents simply aren’t qualified to be educators. Sometimes they’re even abusive. And right now, there’s no external oversight to make sure this isn’t happening in religiously exempt homeschool families.

That’s a problem.

Though not, of course, to HSLDA. And why? It’s important to note that HSLDA opposes HJ 92 due to extremist religious beliefs. A white paper they’ve produced on the proposal reveals the real motivation for their opposition. “The rights of minors are held in trust and exercised by their parents,” it asserts, and later adds, “A child’s right to an education–just like his right to worship, his right to assemble, etc., is held by his parents as custodian until he attains majority.”

But what happens when parents hold that right hostage?

To HSLDA, children have no rights of their own. Parental rights are paramount. And that explains why they’re so adamantly opposed to government oversight. It’s not necessary to make sure the rights of children are protected if you believe that they don’t really have any. Their white paper cites one study produced in 1994 that claims children in religiously exempt homeschool families score an average of 33 percentile points higher on standardized tests, as compared to peers in more traditional school environments. But it’s worth noting that the study’s author, Dr. Brian Ray, works for a partisan group, the National Home Education Research Institute. And it’s impossible to determine the real academic standards reached by religiously exempt homeschoolers when they aren’t even required to take standardized tests. Ray’s sample is self-selected, and therefore, it’s likely deeply skewed.

But here’s what we do know.

For three homeschooled children, Virginia’s lack of oversight proved deadly. Dominick Diehl, Valerie Smelser, and the unnamed adopted child of Matthew and Amy Sweeney all died of abuse in homeschool households. Abuse is not unique to the homeschool movement, but when laws like Virginia’s religious exemption statute allow families to go completely underground, it becomes much easier to hide abuse until it’s too late.

You won’t find those stories in HSLDA’s e-lerts. Just dogma, and questionable data gleaned from out-of-date studies. Even Josh’s story receives short shrift, dismissed because his hard work and determination earned him a place at an elite university.

Virginia’s children deserve better. That’s why I support HJ 92. I hope you’ll do the same.

How Exactly Do You Think This Works?

Justice: everyone says they want it. For themselves, for their neighbors, for the world at large. Yet when those who need it most demand it, on their terms, the response is inevitably the same.

Disdain: “You’re just so critical.”
Dismissive: “You’re just looking to be offended.”
Damning: “You’re an abusive bully.”
Demanding: “You should be asking for unity!”

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen these responses played out in exactly the same patterns in two communities that are, while there’s certainly overlap, are often sometimes at odds with each other: feminism and people of faith. Lately it seems that the one cause that unites them both isn’t the pursuit of justice but rather the silencing of those who fight for it.

Be more polite. Ask nicely for your rights and maybe, just maybe, if we feel like we’ll let you have a turn with the mike. Don’t make a stir. Don’t criticize–you don’t want to look bitter, do you?

But maybe I’d rather look bitter than sit on my hands and wait for somebody else to serve liberation to me on a shiny silver platter. I’ll die of old age waiting for that. I’d rather fight for my rights, and actively work in solidarity for others resisting forms of oppression to which I am not subject, because change is not a passive thing. You have to force the subject and if you want to be heard then you’re going to have to shout. Liberation was never achieved by popular vote.

All of you demanding we refocus on unity: that helps you and no one else. Look at who’s joining you in this demand, do they look like you, think like you? Do they attend the same meetings and the same churches? Then you’re operating from an echo chamber and I don’t know why you expect anyone to take you seriously. You’re not offering anyone change. You’re incapable of helping anyone achieve justice until you step out of that echo chamber and weld the door shut.

If you’re made uncomfortable by people who speak of liberation in public, you are part of the problem. If you spend more time protecting abusers than you do looking out for their victims, you are part of the problem. If your response to criticism is to mock the critic, to ask your friends to mock the critic, and otherwise pretend the critic has nothing valid whatsoever to contribute you are part of the problem.

I will defend anger and those who are angry, I will indulge my own anger, because that anger is valid. It is deserved. It is the catalyst for change and I will not be told that my anger makes me a lesser human being. And I will listen to the anger of those whose lives were not like mine, those who are oppressed in ways that I am not, because their anger is valid too. Oppression makes people angry. 

And if all you’ve got to say to that is that we sound mean: you are not worth the time it takes me to read your tweet, blog, or article.

All of your heroes–the suffragettes, the martyrs, the Nelson Mandelas and the Martin Luther King Jrs–acted on and vocalized strong conviction. And they were called divisive for it. They were called bitter. Their anger was invalidated by a ruling class with a vested interest in keeping them silent. And even now, the ruling class recycles these stories as spectacle, entertainment spun as profundity, cut down into consumable bite-sized bits and disseminated so that they can reassure themselves they’re really progressive.

But the truth is that the struggle for liberation, real liberation, is painful and dirty and raw. It is emotional. It is demanding and loud and it doesn’t fit on a bank note or in a TV special. It makes people uncomfortable by design. Shifting people out of their privileged positions to make space for those who have been denied it is supposed to be an uncomfortable process.

And pointing out that you have privilege isn’t abusing you. It’s a statement of fact. It doesn’t dehumanize you or belittle you. It’s merely the recognition of a reality to which you stubbornly remain oblivious.

So yes, I’m angry. And I’d rather be around other angry people because they’re the ones that get how this really works.