Theodore Roosevelt, once president of the United States and never a man to mince words, in 1914 wrote a letter to Amos Pinchon, a wealthy Pennsylvanian, in which he explained himself: "When I spoke of the Progressive Party as having a lunatic fringe, I specifically had you in mind." Secretary of Education William Bennett must have the urge to write a similar letter.
Bennett recently was interviewed by John Lofton, the Darth Vader of American columnists, and got pretty much what he deserved. After using his office to promote ethics, values, religion and other abstractions that are without definition, Bennett met a man who defined them for him. Where is God in American classrooms? Lofton wanted to know. And he was not talking abstractions. He was talking "Christ" and the Bible and the teaching of the former as God and the latter as His literal word.
Bennett kept backing up, but Lofton stalked him unmercifully. Isn't atheism the true established religion of the American classroom? he asked. Bennett said no. Not really. Lofton closed in. "Well, you either teach God or no God, don't you?" No, Bennett said reasonably, adding that not teaching religion is not the same as teaching that God does not exist. Lofton did not get the point.
Lofton wanted to know about evolution and if the secretary believed in it. Yes. Then how could he also call himself a Christian? He could. What about Genesis? Weren't it and the theory of evolution mutally exclusive? Not necessarily. "Well, which do you believe?" "I believe in God," said the secretary. "Did He do anything?" "Yes. Yes. How he did it, I'm not so sure. I don't know and you don't either." Lofton moved on to that clear and present danger, homosexual teachers. The secretary of education, it turns out, thinks they should not be fired.
Oh, how delicious! Here was Lofton, the born- again Christian, the arch-conservative, the very kind of person who should be in Bennett's corner, asking the secretary merely to do what educators frequently ask of their students -- define their terms. And he could not. He only knew what he meant by right and wrong, God, religion and the teaching thereof. The man who told Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum (quoted by Lofton) that there ought to be a restoration "of coherent moral vision" was bullyragged into incoherency by someone who has that moral vision with a vengeance.
Of course, few people could do better than Bennett. The task of restoring a "coherent moral vision" may well be beyond a mere Cabinet officer; the task of defining it most certainly is. In fact, the terms Bennett throws around are a debater's props, neoconservative smoke, designed to make the unwashed, unlearned and only tentatively Democratic think they are in some sort of revival meeting. The secular elites he uses as bogeymen turn out, upon examination, to be people like him: too skeptical to be orthodox. If you are going to bring God back in the classroom then Lofton has a point: Which God? Whose God? And where shall He go when evolution is taught? The boys room?
Lofton, though, is more than just a teacher. He is also a lesson. He has no trouble defining the terms that Bennett uses and he has no trouble, either, applying his definitions. God would make His renaissance in the classroom, but He would be no Renaissance God. Instead, He would be the God of the Inquisition and latter-day Torquemada, armed with subscriptions to Human Events, would set the curriculum and put homosexuals -- alleged, rumored or actual -- out on the street.
A tip of the hat to John Lofton. Asking questions that would not even occur to liberals or, for that matter, to almost anyone else, he engaged the resident philosopher of the Reagan administration in a Socratic dialogue and found him not only bereft of answers, but also incapable of framing the proper questions. The two couldn't even agree on what a Christian is, Bennett saying that even a "practicing sinner" could be one.
"No, no, no, no," Lofton exclaimed in typographical pain. "You can't be a practicing sinner and be a Christian."
"Oh, yes you can," replied Bennett.
Aw, let's teach it anyway.