America’s Spiritual Heyday

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Earlier this year, policymakers, pundits and people on the street reopened a uniquely American (and seemingly infinite) debate. In the wake of another incident of school violence, this time a mass murder at a high school in Littleton, Colo., they pondered a familiar question: Just how far should our nation go in trying to maintain a clear separation between church and state?

Congress debated the question in mid-June and decided that perhaps we had gone too far. More specifically, House lawmakers saw a need for a greater religious presence in the public schools, so they cast a series of votes designed to give new spiritual direction to the nation’s youth. The most-publicized decision: They sanctioned the posting of the Bible’s Ten Commandments on school walls.

The primarily symbolic votes topped the news of the week, not at all surprising in an era when Americans are sharply divided on the relationship between religion and government. But four decades back, the votes might have gone unnoticed, an unremarkable act at a time when Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and made the phrase “In God We Trust” the national motto and a mandatory slogan on all U.S. coins and currency.

All of that religious posturing, and more, happened during the presidency of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and in the early days of a Cold War that most patriotic Americans apparently saw as a battle between Christian America and the godless, communist Soviet Union.

The 1950s religious revival
Americans already had begun to show signs of a spiritual awakening after World War II, but Eisenhower’s election in 1952 set the stage for a rapid religious transformation. A campaign rife with religious overtones — Eisenhower invited Americans to join him in a “crusade” — preceded an administration determined to lead the nation in a religious revival.

The Republican National Committee declared Eisenhower “the spiritual leader of our times,” and Eisenhower, who had never made a practice of attending church as an adult, joined the National Presbyterian Church in Washington and became a fixture there most Sundays. The president’s inaugural parade included a “float to God,” according to the 1977 book “The Fifties: The Way We Really Were,” and Eisenhower led a prayer at his inauguration.


A True American Tragedy

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

My celebrity-obsessed journalistic brethren insist that I will remember where I was the day I heard John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law had died in an airplane accident. But because I have a notoriously lousy memory, I will make note of my whereabouts here: I was on the couch at my parents’ home in Paden City, W.Va., ranting uncontrollably at the television.

Like everyone else, I was both stunned and saddened to learn that the 38-year-old son of an assassinated president had, like so many in his family, died in the prime of his life. But 15 minutes into the news coverage, my sympathy for the lost souls and the family mourning them was overwhelmed by disgust at the idiocy surrounding the tragedy.

A full-scale search involving two branches of the military, the Coast Guard and more? A Pentagon briefing? Non-stop, and nonsensical, news coverage that sensationally dubbed JFK Jr. the “crown prince of America” and his death “An American Tragedy”? A horde of journalists morbidly waiting outside the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts for a glimpse of grief? I could not believe it.

Shattering the Kennedy mystique
Judging by the reaction on the IC bulletin boards this week, I was not alone. On July 20, action on the boards shifted dramatically from essays about hate crime and pornography to the JFK-related commentaries by IC managing editor Bob Kolasky and David Shribman we posted mid-week. And much of the commentary was markedly hostile.

John Eley characterized the transformation from personal tragedy to national spectacle as “one last feeding frenzy by those who have long since forgotten the proper role of media in a free society.” AlanH said the media had spent “12 hours regurgitating about 10 minutes worth of content” and noted what he called “some of the lamest [news] angles” ever, “everything from what Swedish newspapers thought of JFK to endless and ridiculously bad writing about ‘an ocean of sorrow’ and ‘Camelot ended.'”

Time For A Constitutional Change?

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Here is a quick synopsis of America’s constitutional history: 210 years in force, 27 total amendments, only 17 amendments since enactment of the 10-amendment Bill of Rights in 1791, one amendment enacted and later repealed (Prohibition), and no ratification of newly proposed amendments in nearly three decades. The record of the Constitution, in other words, is one of stability.

Now take a cyber stroll through the list of House and Senate joint resolutions on the agenda of the 106th Congress. You will find an array of proposals that would amend the Constitution no fewer than 20 more times.

The causes — school prayer, the federal budget, flag desecration, campaign finances and equal rights for women, to name a few — are as varied as the political philosophies of the lawmakers who advocate them. But their underlying goal is the same: to alter a democratic document that has survived virtually intact for more than two centuries.

Thinking outside the constitutional box
The length of the list of proposed amendments is not unusual. Especially in modern times, federal lawmakers typically have proposed dozens of changes to the Constitution. But political leaders who in the past ignored or condemned those proposals today introduce them. And that means they get far more attention.

True, no newly proposed amendment has been ratified since 1971, when the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. (The 27th Amendment on congressional pay raises was an anomaly. Ratified in 1992, it actually had been pending since its introduction in 1789.) But congressional leaders in particular seem much more open to the possibility of altering the Constitution.

Some are even open to the idea of changing the amendment process itself. Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., has introduced a resolution (HJRES29) that would make it easier to amend the Constitution, an idea contrary to the thinking of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” who said in The Federalist No. 49 that amendments should be used only “for certain great and extraordinary occasions.”

The Future Of Standardized Testing

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

School may be out for the summer, but one never-ending education debate continues unabated. As the American Federation of Teachers gathers in Washington this week for a conference on educational standards, the issue of high-stakes tests that link students’ performance to grade promotion or college entrance and educators’ performance to their career futures once again is at the forefront of the debate.

The location for the conference is appropriate, for the July weather in the nation’s capital seems like the perfect metaphor for the testing debate: hot, perhaps unbearable at times, with no relief in sight.

That forecast is typical, though, a fact duly noted by Thomas B. Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn Jr. in the foreword to the foundation’s January 1999 report Why Testing Experts Hate Testing. “No issue in U.S. education is more controversial than testing,” Finn wrote. “Some people view it as the linchpin of serious reform and improvement, others as a menace to quality teaching and learning.”

In search of answers
So which is it, linchpin or menace? Can we assign a “grade” to standardized tests as a whole and assess the merits of the testing movement much as the tests try to assess the merits of students and educators?

Not unless you grade each test separately and consider its mission, says Wayne Martin, director of the State Education Assessment Center at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Any broad-based analysis of standardized tests would be unfair because too many factors are at play.

“For whom is the test ‘high stakes’? Is it for students, for teachers, for schools or for districts?” Martin asks rhetorically in an e-mail interview. “Is it part of a state accountability system? Is the test … part of a set of indicators? What is the test based on (e.g., state content standards, state curriculum) and how well does it measure the material upon which it is based (content validity)?”

FDR’s Court-packing Fiasco

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The Supreme Court. The title alone lends an air of distinction to that august legal body and its nine justices who sit in judgment on an entire nation. And indeed, the United States’ highest tribunal, more than any other root of America’s democratic tree, is revered among the people.

Factions may take issue with a particular decision (the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion, for instance) or heatedly debate the qualifications of a particular justice (as they did with Clarence Thomas in 1991). But rarely do they agitate against the court as an institution. The founding fathers intentionally tried to insulate the court from the passions of politics, and they largely succeeded.

The Supreme Court at times has become a political lightning rod, yet the few attempts to attack it as an institution typically end in embarrassing failure. The politically foolish mission of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “pack” the court with justices favorable to his social policies is a perfect case study. His plan, virtually dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, faltered 62 years ago this month.

A New Deal battle royal
Roosevelt’s animosity toward the Supreme Court emerged in his first presidential term. Overwhelmingly elected in 1932, he promised a New Deal of social and economic involvement by the government in an America ravaged by the Great Depression. But the court, most of whose justices were appointed by Republicans, soon began to undo his work by ruling his New Deal laws unconstitutional on 5-4 votes.

In May 1935, the court attacked two laws. First, it invalidated the Railroad Retirement Act of 1934, a law that had established pensions for railway workers. Then in a blow to the cornerstone of the New Deal, the court gutted the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.Roosevelt lambasted the justices for those rulings. “We have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce,” he complained. But his contempt for the conservative-minded court of “Nine Old Men” — six justices were age 70 or older, and the youngest was 61 — did not deter them. In January 1936, the court ruled the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 unconstitutional.

Re-elected to a second term by an even larger majority than in 1932, and given an even larger Democratic edge in Congress, Roosevelt, then the only 20th-century president not to have appointed a Supreme Court justice in four years, began to ponder “the court problem” openly. He even took a subtle jab at the court in his second inaugural address, saying that Americans “will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will.”