When An Evangelical Christian Candidate Sneezes, The GOP Catches A Cold

August 22, 2012, 1:52 pm

It’s not allergies — my fallopian tubes are spasming to prevent conception!

This is my hope, at least, following Representative Todd Akin’s (R-MO) recent explanation that women who have been “legitimately” raped don’t get pregnant, and hence have no need for abortions. These words prompted a call by GOP conservative kingmakers for Akin to voluntarily withdraw from a key race against Senator Claire McCaskill, which he has (rightly) refused to do.

What Akin actually said, according to a Sunday news interview transcribed by the WaPo, was this:

“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Todd Akin is not dropping out of the race. Critics who see him as a candidate who has been weakened by his strange ideas about the female reproductive system may by underestimating how much support he has, not just in Missouri, but nationally. While it will be hard to replace the $10 million that American Crossroads and the GOP have threatened to pull out of his campaign, a Google search for “What did Todd Akin say?” popped the donor page of his campaign website to the top of the list and asked me to “Show [my] support for Todd by Chiping-in (sic) $3 today.” As of this writing, it claimed to have collected almost $17K of today’s $20K goal.

Seventeen thousand dollars won’t win a race, of course, but my point is that Akin’s supporters don’t think his ideas are strange. Presumably, when he was originally vetted as a Senate candidate, neither did the GOP or the Koch Brothers. In fact, if you were surprised by them, it may show how out of it you are. According to Garance Franke-Rute last night on The PBS NewsHour,

….there has been for a while now within the anti-abortion movement a move to sort of minimize the pregnancy consequences of rape as a way of minimizing the question about abortion exceptions, for abortion bans in particular….There’s been talk of this going back as early as 1980, as far as I can find, on people saying that, you know, pregnancy after rape is as rare as snowfall in Miami, that there are certain secretions secreted after a sexual assault that prevent pregnancy, other people who say that the tubes become spastic, and, consequently, women don’t become pregnant.

And this is the way of arguing against the need for rape exceptions in abortion laws.

My question: why are the GOP establishment and the big Tea Party funders so horrified? They parrot weird science all the time. They have pulled in every weird science constituency there is — climate change deniers, evolution deniers, people who have started a whooping cough epidemic by not vaccinating their children — and given them a legitimate place at the policy table.

But when one of these folks says what they really think (Sarah Palin, for example), the GOP behaves as if these are not mainstream beliefs within the party. Akin’s website invites donors to help him “fight the liberal elite,” but it is the conservative establishment — an establishment that claims to stand for individual freedom, returning power to the people and whatnot — that wants Akins to return his primary nomination to someone who, um…..well, someone who can better keep his mouth shut I guess.

Mittens and Paul Ryan are not, of course, really one of “them” even though pretend to be, and this, I think suggests a fissure in the GOP that is becoming a problem for conservatism. I began to follow this story as I sat in an East Coast public facility, surrounded by solidly Republican voters who were more or less gobsmacked by Akin’s views about the female reproductive system. I was less surprised by the story, being a professor of recent political history and gender studies. Years ago I read an essay about the consequences of Reagan-era abstinence-only sex education policies, written by a male college student who also hailed from Missouri. He described his best female friend in high school, a devout young evangelical, who was determined to enter her marriage as a virgin, which meant –as she understood it — refraining from vaginal intercourse. As an alternative, therefore, she offered her equally Christian boyfriend unprotected anal intercourse on a weekly basis.

My point is that many of us in both parties, in red states and blue, and of all faiths, probably overestimate what is passing for popular scientific knowledge in communities that are geared much more towards the Everlasting than they are to the here and now.

I do worry that the scorn that is heaped on people like Akins on such issues diverts our attention from related beliefs that are held by such voters that produce weird popular knowledge about science and medicine. Because the Democratic Party has chosen women’s reproductive health (which is not exactly the same as women’s reproductive rights, but thank you anyway) as its wedge issue,  the other aspirations that committed evangelicals have for reshaping the state that are not being reported on as they should be.

I’m interested in adding education to the picture. For example,  Todd Akin home schooled all six of his children. Would someone please get a few quotes on that please? Home schoolers in contemporary politics are explicitly trying to reshape the educational realm to an evangelical agenda. Politicians who home school include, according to the website Famous Home Schoolers: Representatives Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Geoff Davis (R-KY); Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum (R-PA); and Kristin McGuire, chair of the South Carolina Board of Education. A few minutes of research added the following former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-CO) to the list. (Readers are invited to add more in the comments section.)

Learning at home can be appropriate or beneficial for some children if they are being mentored by a parent who has a good education and is a compassionate, skilled teacher. But as a grassroots movement, home schoolers do not believe that knowledge or skill as important as protecting a child from the temptations and challenges to the sacred that a secular education represents.

Home schooling advocacy is not just about the choice that an individual family might make to teach a child at home. It is also a set of convictions about shrinking the public dollars that go to public education (the Home School Legal Defense Association also acts as a political network on other radically conservative issues as well.) More importantly, it is about starving public education by funneling the remaining tax dollars into the privatized testing and curriculum companies that home schoolers rely in to credential their children and to meet the basic legal requirements for schooling.

Think paint by numbers.

According to this article in the New York Times, that home schooler Todd Akin “has criticized federal spending on things like school lunches and student loans and has been quick to equate government spending to socialism.” Families who home school out of religious conviction do not believe in public education at all.

But the connection between the daily practice of faith and the reshaping of education funding is neither made, nor is it developed. It is important to emphasize that Akin’s opposition to school funding is not conservative as much as it is faith-driven, and thus does not fit neatly into some of the critiques that have been aimed at contemporary neoliberal school “reformers.” It is a related — but different — movement, and it is one that graphically underlines how important the separation of secular and sacred realms is to public policies that preserve a lively, common public sphere.

The GOP has given comfortable house room to candidates like Todd Akin and the voters who support him, even though many in the Republican establishment undoubtedly find what passes for home schooling in many homes as idiosyncratic and insufficient to citizenship as I do.

Too much derision, and too little discussion, has accompanied phenomena like the plank in the Texas GOP platform promoting “Knowledge-Based Education.” It has two objectives. One is exactly what it says: it opposes “the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education. (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

But the other objective becomes less clear unless you focus on the importance of home schoolers as a constituency. What “knowledge-based,” or in essence purely factual, education means is reducing curricula throughout the state to easily testable content that can be taught entirely at home by parents who are more or less unqualified to teach.  What we also need to be clear on is that such content will not necessarily be factual, because people like Todd Akin have their own set of “facts” that bear no relationship to what is actually true.

Public education is about putting citizens in the making in one place to talk to each other and learn together.  Is it an accident that when large numbers of voters fail to participate in a common enterprise with Americans not of their choosing that we have so little to say to each other during an election season?

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