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The priorities of modern educators are clear — and backward.

Nearly two centuries ago, the great French political analyst Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America that religion was the “first” of this country’s political institutions. By this he meant that widespread, but tolerant and noncoercive, religious observance provided the foundation of American mores, which in turn were the precondition of the responsible exercise of self-government. Recognizing the beneficial effect of religion on mores, even intelligent atheists saw the encouragement of religion as serving the country’s, and therefore their own, long-term interests. In this, Tocqueville was echoing the observation George Washington made in his farewell address, to the effect that moral behavior, in most citizens, presupposed religious beliefs, which should therefore be encouraged by government (for instance, through periodic proclamations of thanksgiving to God for our bounty).

For most of America’s history, there was general agreement with Tocqueville’s and Washington’s sentiments. As late as 1952 the left-libertarian Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, speaking on behalf of a 7–2 majority in the case of Zorach v. Clauson, which upheld the constitutionality of a “released-time” program allowing public-school students to be excused from class at their parents’ request in order to receive religious instruction at their respective houses of worship, observed that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. . . . When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions” by respecting the people’s “religious nature.”

This attitude was to change in subsequent decades at the levels of both judicial rulings and “elite” intellectual opinion. The public display of the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse was found to violate the Constitution’s establishment clauses. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court, by a 5–4 majority, ruled that the First Amendment proscribed a nondenominational benediction at a Rhode Island middle-school graduation, delivered by rotating clergy of different sects, on the ground that merely experiencing social pressure to stand for the benediction might cause a graduate to violate her conscience, thereby once again constituting an unconstitutional establishment. (The invocation delivered at the 1989 commencement that provoked the suit, given by a rabbi, thanked God “for the legacy of America where diversity is celebrated and the rights of minorities are protected,” while his benediction called on God’s blessing on the school’s staff, while exhorting all those present “to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly.”)

As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent, the Court thereby proceeded to “lay waste” to “a tradition . . . as old as public-school graduation ceremonies themselves, and that is a component of an even more longstanding American tradition of nonsectarian prayer . . . at public celebrations generally,” ceremonies in harmony with the appeal to God in the Declaration of Independence, with Washington’s first inaugural address, and with the custom of opening the Court’s own sessions with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

Since 1976 a nonprofit organization, the “Freedom from Religion Foundation” (FFRF), boasting 32,000 members, has worked tirelessly to expand the protection of the American people from any intimation of public encouragement of religion. In one of its most recent victories, the FFRA induced the government of Ashburnham, Mass., to remove from the playground of its public library “a turning game” portraying the tale of Noah’s ark, which a Foundation spokesman termed a “vengeful” tale, whose placement aimed at “young children” it found especially “troublesome.” “Enlightened parents today,” the representative observed, regard the story of the Flood as “barbarous” — all the more so because “many Americans believe it is literally true.”

But even as the FFRF and sympathetic members of the judiciary work to protect young people from dangerous intimations of religious dogma, support has grown for a different form of public “education” ostensibly concerned to promote their well-being: so-called comprehensive sexuality education. Advertised as needed to combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted teen pregnancies, the movement is promoted by such prominent institutions as the Centers for Disease Control, Planned Parenthood, and the World Health Organization.

“RRR: Rights, Respect, and Responsibility,” or 3R, is a curriculum written by two former Planned Parenthood employees and available from Advocates for Youth. The “comprehensive sex education” program has just been adopted by the school committee of Worcester, Mass. A summary of the program, provided by the nonprofit group Family Watch International, indicates that the scope, and underlying intent, of so-called comprehensive sex-ed programs extend far beyond those goals. Instead, running throughout the curriculum is a program for challenging “traditional” gender norms. It encourages children as young as ten or eleven, entering puberty (at a time when feelings of ambivalence are normal), to reconsider whether their “real” gender is different from the one they were (biologically) “assigned” at birth; in the seventh grade, students are instructed about their “right to express their gender as it makes most sense to them.”

As part of that lesson, students are instructed to try to explain to a hypothetical extraterrestrial visitor “what a ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are using commonly held stereotypes about gender.” In the ninth grade, continuing the theme of the arbitrariness of gender “assignments,” they are invited to consider the situation of someone who rejects the female gender assigned at birth:

You hate all of the boxes that society puts people in and identify as genderqueer. You work hard to have a gender-nonconforming appearance and style. You enjoy gender-bending and you feel like with Sydney [another student with whom you are invited to role-play] you have finally met someone who really ‘gets you.’”

As the foregoing excerpts demonstrate, few of these scenarios have anything to do with the stated purposes for implementing a sex-education curriculum: preventing pregnancy or STD’s. Instead, the aim is to encourage students to rethink their gender identification and sexual orientation, to challenge traditional sources of moral authority, and to regard sexual activity, as early as the tenth grade, as a “right” free of parental interference. Nor is the curriculum consistent even in its supposed support of students’ own choices: In the seventh-grade curriculum, students are to be led through what is described as a “forced choice activity assessing their opinions about homophobia in their schools,” enabling them to “be the change.”

But of course, even in this “enlightened” age, public-school programming can’t (yet) be expected to keep pace with the more outré instruction offered at private schools such as Manhattan’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, which this past May added to the curriculum “a fourth R, “raunch,” as reported in the New York Post. Juniors at the $47,000-a-year school showed up for a “health and sexuality” workshop, expecting, as one student explained, that it would just “be about condoms or birth control.” Instead, they were made to attend “something called ‘Pornography Literacy: An Intersectional Focus on Mainstream Porn,” taught by the director of health and wellness at the Dalton School, another elite prep school. Included in the slide presentation and lecture were lessons on how porn takes care of “male vulnerabilities”; statistics supposedly showing that “straight women have far fewer orgasms than gay men or women”; and illustration of various porn genres such as “incest-themed,” consensual or “vanilla,” “barely legal,” and “kink and BDSM” (including “waterboard electro” torture porn).

Several years ago the astute social critic Mary Ebersadt noted a striking reversal in social attitudes regarding eating and sex between the 1950s and today. In the 1950s, Americans tended to be far from finicky about the food they ate (e.g., TV dinners), while being much more picky about with whom, and under what circumstances, they had sex. Now, she observed, popular attitudes, at least among the enlightened, have reversed: There are few restrictions on acceptable sexual practices and partners, even as Americans grow ever more finicky about their dining (organic, vegan, local). A similar reversal, it would appear, has occurred in our attitudes toward the moral education of our youth, and toward the general standards held up to citizens generally, with regard to matters religious and sexual. On the one hand, the nature of religious freedom has been reinterpreted, from being safeguarded against coercion to protecting vulnerable youth (and adults) from any public display of support for religion, lest they feel “offended” or “pressured.”

At the same time, not only have general sexual attitudes been liberalized over recent decades; a significant body of “experts” wishes to take charge of transforming children’s views of sexuality and “gender,” with little input or active consent from their parents. The Worcester Telegram and Gazette noted that, at the school-committee public meeting where the 3Rs curriculum was adopted, a roughly equal number of citizens spoke on each side of the issue, with opponents including a significant number of racial- and ethnic-minority members as well as clergy. But the committee’s vote simply ignored all objections from parents protesting that the public schools had no right to engage in endeavoring to transform their kids’ sexual practices or gender “identities” in the name of “tolerance.” A majority of the school committee simply dismissed these concerns.

Maybe Tocqueville, Washington, and Douglas were on to something. Whom would you rather have supervising our children’s moral development: parents, members of the clergy, and statesmen who appreciate the dependence of political liberty on widespread religious belief and traditional morality, or self-styled, progressive “experts” who rely, as the producers of the 3Rs curriculum stress, on the “tenets of social learning theory” and “social cognitive theory”?

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