It’s no secret that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida plans to ride an anti-wokeness wave to the White House.
To get there, he has turned his sights increasingly on higher education — specifically “woke” professors. Whatever “wokeness” means, for DeSantis it is a weaponized term defining liberals.
After so many decades as the go-to term used by conservatives to frighten people, “liberal” seems to have lost its punch. MAGA backers have drained the word “liberal” of its ability to inspire nightmares even among moderate Republicans. New terms must be invented to stoke the fires of anger and fear.
“Wokeness” now enjoys its moment in the sun.
“Like Old McDonald on his farm, DeSantis finds wokeness here, there and everywhere.”
Like Old McDonald on his farm, DeSantis finds wokeness here, there and everywhere. Big Tech? Woke. Infrastructure spending? Woke. Academia? Definitely woke. DeSantis claims Florida “is where woke goes to die.”
DeSantis seems to label anything he opposes as “wokeness.” He is definitely making a list, checking it twice, determined to find out who is too naughty to teach in a Florida university.
DeSantis’ anti-wokeness campaign threatens to trample on free speech, academic freedom and faculty tenure — simply because the governor believes he has the right to do this as a means to win the presidency.
Make no mistake: DeSantis is an ambitious politician, but he fights like an evangelical culture war preacher. This is not really political; it’s religious.
Doing his best impression of a fiery evangelical preacher, DeSantis thunders, “This wokeness, it’s a religion of the left, and it’s infecting a lot of institutions: Big Corporate America, Big Tech, the bureaucracy, of course academia. It is wokeness, a form of cultural Marxism.”
Déjá vu all over again
There’s a sense of déjá vu here for me as an ex-Southern Baptist. Watching DeSantis fill the boards of universities with conservative trustees reads like a page out of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. On the political scene, the same strategy has played out in the Supreme Court. There’s no quit in conservative/evangelical political Christians.
DeSantis paints “wokeness” as the nuclear weapon of the radical left: “The goal is to delegitimize the founding of this country, the principles that the founders relied on, our institutions, our Constitution, to tear basically at the fabric of our society. This wokeness is dangerous, and we’ve got to defeat it on all fronts.”
DeSantis has taken the message of David Barton, the history hobbyist, relabeled it “wokeness” and declared it is the enemy of democracy and the nation. These are Barton’s arguments in a new set of clothes. It’s like the notion that creationism will be more acceptable in schools if it is known as “intelligent design.”
“These are Barton’s arguments in a new set of clothes.”
DeSantis has promised to root out all the “wokeness” in Florida’s public universities. And he has the support of the majority of the state’s voters.
There are, however, contradictions and potholes that threaten to derail the “wokeness” train. He has made repeated efforts to derail the perceived left-wing ideologies in schools and colleges by legislative fiat. He has appointed six conservative members to the 13-member board of a politically progressive liberal arts school, New College of Florida.
One of the new board members is Chris Rufo, a Manhattan Institute fellow and anti-woke crusader. Rufo announced he plans to conduct “a top-down restructuring” of the college as part of his plan to “reconquer public institutions all over the United States.”
The battle cry resounds across the land of evangelicalism: “Reconquer.” The theme, as always, is that evangelicals have lost something crucial to the health of the nation. This bit of hyperbole covers the reality that evangelicals are attacking progressive activism as an evil.
Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, said “woke” is a “slang term for activism … progressive activism” and a general belief in systemic injustices in the country.
“This is a page ripped from the playbook of Ken Ham and an army of creationists.”
Again, déjá vu. This is a page ripped from the playbook of Ken Ham and an army of creationists. In the tortured battle against evolution, evangelicals employed three strategies: Evolution is false. Evolution is unbiblical. Evolution is responsible for much of what is wrong in the world.
The first two were overwhelmed by the advance of science and the historical criticism of the Bible. The attack against evolution has thrived as the evil threatening almost everything. DeSantis has chosen the same strategy in his effort to defeat “wokeness.”
We are not dealing with political strategy but evangelical culture war strategy. This isn’t about politics. It’s about evangelicals gaining control of everything. Again, this is a religious war, not a political struggle.
Racism by another name
And there’s an even deeper evil hiding in the evangelical war plan. During the Civil Rights movement, conservatives deserted the public schools. They founded private Christian academies and colleges. This movement, as Randall Balmer has documented, was the originating purpose of the evangelical emergence in American politics: the defense of segregation.
Bob Jones University, Regent University and Liberty University fought to maintain segregation in private Christian academies. In the 1970s, the Carter-appointed head of the Internal Revenue Service proposed that private Christian academies and schools, primarily in the South, should have to prove they were not segregated or they would lose tax-exempt status. Conservative critics — most of them attending all-white churches — stormed in opposition to this state intervention and gathered around a common cause of Christian rights.
Conservatives built their own educational empires. The result was an alternate universe where young people could attend a pre-K through 12th grade private academy or be home-schooled, and then attend a private evangelical university. An evangelical young person can be raised in the USA and be isolated from the “real” world — having no interactions with the majority of American citizens.
The evangelical enterprise, born as a racist movement, has not changed anything but its language. The anti-wokeness movement is racist. Not the surface-level evil racism of men in pointy hoods or the bad thoughts, words and deeds of intentional white supremacists, but the subtle racism that denies its own existence while working day and night to perpetuate whiteness as the controlling trope of American culture.
Anti-wokeness isn’t only about religion; it’s also about race.
The evangelical educational empire has not satisfied the deep-seated desire for hegemony over the entire culture. They have looked on with deepening anger at their inability to control the levers of public education in America. Evangelicals have been unable to establish a power within academic circles that are public and secular. As a result, they are resorting to political power in the attempt to control education.
“Evangelicals have awakened to the reality that they made a mistake in building an alternate universe of schools and ignoring public schools.”
Evangelicals have awakened to the reality that they made a mistake in building an alternate universe of schools and ignoring public schools. Diversity, inclusion, openness and liberal views on social issues dominate public universities. University departments of religion teach the Bible as literature, promote concern for the environment, racial and cultural equality for oppressed groups, universality of salvation, an emphasis on social justice, tolerance of diversity. These issues along with gay rights have moved to the center as animating ethical and theological concerns.
DeSantis is the lead dog in a pack that now wishes to take control of curriculum content and faculty memberships at public universities. A movement baptized in a populist anti-intellectual evangelical pool now wants control of public universities. Part of its motivation lies in the systemic racism DeSantis says doesn’t exist.
The other complication in this surge of conservative backlash relates to “free speech.” For all their talk about “free speech,” evangelicals actually wish to maintain a “free speech” rooted in whiteness, racism and coloniality. Conservatives have consistently insisted that public universities must be places where free speech is totally protected. Yet now they are pushing for the elimination of ideas, theories, thoughts, words, teachings that fall outside the parameters of conservative epistemology.
“It turns out that ‘free speech’ for evangelicals consists of speech that is controlled, edited and censored.”
They seem to believe they have the political power to impose their own reductionistic epistemology on the entire culture. It turns out that “free speech” for evangelicals consists of speech that is controlled, edited and censored.
Nothing has changed in the evangelical mind. In the early 20th century, they were anti-science, anti-education, anti-evolution, anti-knowledge. In the early 21st century, they are still attempting to control all the institutions of democracy. Unable to control the press, they attack it relentlessly. Unable to control Congress, they attack Democrats as “devils.” They have managed to secure a majority in the Supreme Court. DeSantis now appears as their best hope to “recapture” the White House.
Never underestimate the stubborn insistence of evangelicals. They are not interested in dialogue, diversity or the common good. They have tunnel vision for only one goal: control. When you hear DeSantis, don’t be fooled into believing he is a politician desiring what is best for America. See him as an evangelical firebrand preacher determined to give evangelicals the only control they care about: total control of everything.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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