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Monday May 22, 2023
IN THIS ISSUE: Is Spotsylvania County a Testing Ground for Building “Christian” Public Schools? | 27th Senate District Debate
ANALYSIS: Is Spotsylvania County a Testing Ground for Building “Christian” Public Schools?
by Martin Davis
Editor’s Note: In this column, “Christian(s)” is in quotes when referring to fundamentalist Christians and/or Christian Nationalists. Our understanding of fundamentalist Christianity is sound, because it’s a category of Christianity that stretches back to the mid-19th century and is well-defined. To learn more, read: “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism” by George Marsden, and “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” by Mark Knoll.
Christian Nationalism is a term that generates considerably more discussion, and definitions of the idea vary considerably, as Kenneth Woodward of the Washington Post recently observed in a May 16 editorial. Esteemed religion writer Bob Smietana tackles this issue head on in another Washington Post editorial from May 19, and then advocates for the definition that scholars Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead propose: “a cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity, viewing the two as closely related and seeking to enhance and preserve their union.” This is the definition that I follow in this piece.
While true that not all fundamentalist Christians are Christian Nationalists, and vice-versa, the two do overlap at many points, and the latter arguably does not exist without the former.
Being clear about these distinctions is important because the “Christianity” that is fueling the belief systems of Superintendent Mark Taylor and the four members of the Spotsylvania School Board that constitute the majority (Kirk Twigg, April Gillespie, Lisa Phelps, and Rahbih Abuismail) is well outside what historically has been identified as orthodox – both Catholic and Protestant.
With graduations behind students, staff, and faculty at Spotsylvania County’s high schools, the cycle of starting to think about the new year ahead should be happening.
In Spotsylvania, there’s a lot to plan for. Just a very few items the district should be paying attention to:
The physical state of some schools in the district are in dire need of attention.
The shortage of teachers in the county has continued to plague the district, and shows no signs of abating in the near future. (There is a significant backlog with licensing new teachers that threatens to further complicate hiring enough teachers, and some are suggesting the situation is worse than the official numbers the board is putting out would suggest.)
In many districts across the state, preliminary results of SOL tests are rolling in, and leadership teams are learning from those results as they prepare for the upcoming fall. (The information will be publicly available on August 17.)
Still awaiting final funding numbers from the state, Spotsy has budget planning to do.
Unfortunately - but predictably - these are not the issues that appear to be driving Spotsy’s superintendent Mark Taylor, who is doubling down on finding new ways to ban books.
Taylor insists he is not banning books. His reasons for stating this vary. At times it’s because he is following school policy and state law. At other times it’s because the books are available in public libraries. The first argument is deeply suspect, as I have previously explained. The second argument is nonsensical, as Taylor has no control over public libraries. In the one venue he can exercise control - school libraries - he is banning these books by removing the right of individuals to read them - even when their parents see no problem with the books.
This may be just the start, however. In a disturbing twist this week, Taylor has signaled that he may well be planning to move beyond getting rid of “pornography” and starting going after other controversial topics.
His obsession with this topic is hard to explain. It’s not politically expedient. The backlash against his suggestion he would have to close libraries should have told him that he does not have the community’s support on this issue. It’s not practical, as the county faces far more challenging issues to educating our children.
His obsession does begin to make sense, however, if you place it in the context of religious extremism, and especially “Christianity” and Christian Nationalism.
To understand how, we need to back up and connect some dots.
Superintendent Sidebar Takes Center Stage
In his most-recent Superintendent’s Sidebar, Taylor continued to push paranoia over books and the ideas contained therein by sending this message:
The dedicated members of our SCPS team have followed standard practices and guidance provided by the VDOE and other appropriate authorities. They have done very good work with very limited resources. I respect and appreciate our staff, and I find it regrettable that they and all of us are now facing a challenging dilemma.
Simply put, the dilemma is this: We don’t know the content of the books in our school libraries.
Despite all the real and challenging issues Spotsylvania Schools face, this is the one Taylor chooses to put front and center as people begin to plan for a new year.
We say that our North Star - our first imperative and first guiding principle – is that we shall provide a safe environment for children. The Commonwealth of Virginia has said that maintaining parental rights to know and parental choice to avoid sexually explicit materials is imperative.
There are lots of problems with this argument. Let’s start with the obvious.
First, while it’s true the Commonwealth of Virginia is pushing hard for parents to be able to prevent their students from having access to materials some consider “sexually explicit,” to this point neither the governor nor the Department of Education has voiced support for book bans. (Whether Youngkin would sign legislation banning books is a separate question. I believe he would, and will, if given the chance.)
Second, the issue of sexually explicit content in books is not the only issue Virginia is dealing with. In fact, it’s not even the one getting the most attention.
Improving physical facilities has been a major push of the Youngkin administration, and Virginia recently awarded more than $365 million in funds to assist with school building projects. Fredericksburg City received almost $7.5 million toward the cost of the new Walker-Grant Middle School. Spotsylvania did not receive any funds. (At the time of writing we do not know if Spotsylvania even applied for these funds.)
Other foci include raising academic achievement, as new Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said to the editorial board at the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Continuing to roll out the Profile of a Virginia Graduate is another major push, as well as getting more teachers in the classroom, are also taking center stage.
Yes, Youngkin continues to push “parents’ rights,” but this is more political posturing than effective policy.
For Taylor, however, parents’ rights is all that seems to matter.
But even in this area, his thinking is inconsistent and shallow.
The truth is, Taylor and the board are talking about parents’ rights even as they are excluding more parents than they are empowering.
He is overruling parents by actively banning books in schools that review boards composed of parents from the community said were perfectly acceptable to appear on school library shelves.
And despite statements to media before his hiring that he wanted to talk with “all sides,” Taylor has shown no interest in talking with anyone outside the “Christian” bubble that he lives in.
This board is not better. Lisa Phelps’ behavior at school board meetings - shutting off microphones when she doesn’t like what’s said, marginalizing the three members of the minority to the point they have no effective voice on this board, and forcing parents to the back of the room in a move that symbolically makes clear they don’t matter - makes clear that she’s not interested in empowering all parents. Just those that she agrees with.
It is against this backdrop that what Taylor said next in his Superintendent’s Sidebar becomes so disturbing.
The inclusion of sexually explicit content is not the only basis upon which materials may be contested. We must clarify, modernize and maintain other pathways for challenges in our policy.
What “other pathways” Taylor has in mind is anyone’s guess. But it’s not hard to speculate on the topics that might be targeted next.
A book that some parent thinks has CRT in it? Gone.
A book that talks about socialism? Gone.
A book that treats other religious traditions in a balanced, academic manner? Gone.
Despite all the serious educational problems facing this district - many brought on my the board majority’s short-sighted policies - it’s the culture war against books that Taylor will continue to force.
And “Christians” and Christian Nationalists are at the core of this movement.
Sunday School Romper Room, Not Bastions of Enlightened Learning
Taylor’s obsession with banning books is carried out with all the passion of past efforts by “Christians” to ban books in the 1970s, and convince parents that devil worship was widespread during the 1980s.
He, as well as the lone parent who has pushed for these bans and the four members of the school board who support and even encourage such bans, is following the playbook of Moms for Liberty.
Touted as a “grassroots” movement of concerned moms, M4L is nothing of the sort. It’s heavily funded by deep-pocketed right-wing groups and actively trains people in methods to undermine public schools.
Not surprisingly, it has ties to extremist conservative groups. But it’s also known to have ties to the Council for National Policy, a group founded by evangelicals in the early 1980s and is a funder and supporter of Christian Nationalist organizations.
Taylor appears to be at home in this Christian Nationalist world.
In a conversation with F2S, his daughter Jael, who previously raised concerned about her father’s suitability for the superintendent’s role in a letter to multiple media sites, told F2S this weekend that she would agree with the assessment that her father’s beliefs are those of a “Christian Nationalist.”
She further notes that his embracing Christian Nationalism is somewhat new, as she had noticed him becoming more religiously extreme “over the past five years or so.”
In public interviews, he’s gone out of his way to suggest that his faith position isn’t driving this, by noting that the parent who is bringing the challenges is a Buddhist. True that may be, but the fact remains it’s extremist Christians who are fueling this this book-banning movement, and extremist Christians he is actively reaching out to.
Which brings us to the hiring of Tara Mergener.
Formerly with CBS News, Mergener is best known for her work with the Christian Broadcasting Network. She has no background in K-12 education, no real connection to this area, and purportedly isn’t even in Spotsylvania for work all that often. (F2S reached out to Mergener at her school email address for comment, but she has not responded.)
So why did Taylor and the board bring her in at a salary of almost $150,000 a year?
Apparently not to improve communications between the district and parents, which have continued to wither under Taylor’s time as superintendent.
Rather, I believe there’s a case to be made that she has been brought in to get the story of what Taylor is doing in Spotsylvania out to a sympathetic national audience of likeminded “Christians” across the nation.
Since her hiring, Taylor has appeared on two national broadcasts, both with close ties to the Christian Broadcast Network and to Christian Nationalists.
Recently, Taylor appeared on Washington Watch with Tony Perkins. Perkins is president of the Family Research Council - an extremist Christian group that the ACLU has identified as a hate group for its rhetoric about LGBTQ people.
Prior to this, Taylor appeared on America 180, which is hosted by David Brody who is affiliated with the Christian Broadcasting Network and openly expounds Christian Nationalist ideas.
Whether Mergener is the one responsible for making these appearances happen is unknown. No one in the Spotsylvania School leadership will talk with F2S or my former colleagues at the Free Lance-Star about these appearances. That makes it impossible to put the question directly to them.
By taking his case for book banning to a national audience - even as he avoids local media and local parents and local groups that support public education - suggests Taylor’s first concern is building connections to “Christian” leaders and supporters.
If I am reading the pieces correctly, the picture that is emerging is deeply troubling.
Mark Taylor is about far more than bolstering the governor’s efforts to undermine public education. He’s working to build a school system that would appeal directly to Christian Nationalist people. And he wants to broadcast those efforts to the country at large.
And what, exactly, is he promoting to them? There is no positive educational philosophy driving his ideas. His entire approach is grounded in negation. Taking away books. Taking away the freedom to teach history fully. And taking away the rights of parents to speak openly in the public arena.
If he succeeds, he will be responsible for turning our educational system into a Romper Room Sunday School, as opposed to centers for enlightened thought.
Running from science, running from the full story of America. That is in the DNA of Christian Nationalism.
It looks to be in Taylor’s, too. And he is working to bringing that anti-educational approach not only to Spotsylvania, but to the rest of the nation, too.
Reserve the Date
This Thursday night, May 25, join F2S editor Martin Davis as he cohosts the 27th District Senate Debate between Democrats Joel Griffin and Ben Litchfield. The other two moderators will be Free Lance-Star alum and current freelancer Lindley Estes, as well as Nora Walsh, a UMW student and an editor with the school’s paper, the Weekly Ringer, to ask questions.
The event is being put on by the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford Democratic Committees.