An Ecosystem of Manipulation and Its Devastating Impact on People of Faith 


For much of the past four years, news cycles, school board meetings, and state legislative agendas have been dominated by hostile political rhetoric surrounding identity-related topics such as teaching the history of race and racism in America, the rights of parents in directing curriculum, and bans of literature.

These conversations, absent any real inquiry and often guided by a swinging pendulum of political ideologies, interfere with a key tenet of public education — to form students into well-informed and discerning people, capable of engaging with a diverse world. This particular kind of strife does not exist in a vacuum. Large conservative institutions are using their influence to spread misinformation as a tactic of manipulation toward specific political ends. People of faith, particularly conservative evangelical Christians, are being targeted as a vulnerable and movable voting base in these manipulation tactics. And, unfortunately, it’s working. 

In a 2021 interview with Fox News, Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, declared Critical Race Theory (CRT) has, “infiltrated our federal government, criminal justice system, and scientific community.” While not the inventor of this ecosystem of manipulation, Rufo positioned himself (his political strategies and conservative ideology) as the linchpin of this massive political movement. State lawmakers, marching to the beat of Rufo’s drum, banned an imaginary version of CRT from the halls of government and public schools, causing incalculable collateral damage in the process. When those bans proved insufficient in their ‘war on woke,’ Rufo and his right-wing allies introduced laws seeking to elevate parents as sole arbitrators of their child’s education, usurping the dignity of educators and students alike. ‘Parent’s Rights’ laws emerged that advanced this conservative agenda, banning books and improperly restricting how teachers built and enacted curricula. 

Since January 2021, 18 states have successfully imposed bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching history or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Last year, states around the country introduced at least 142 bills to restrict healthcare for trans and nonbinary people. 80% of those laws target children under 18. Other restricting legislation and decisions related to children and public resources, like gender-affirming care, school vouchers, and child labor laws, have flourished under these conditions. 

The uproar that made these policy changes possible is grounded more in misinformation than anything else. A coalition of outside interest groups, foundations, billionaires, and legislators manufactured this crisis to instill fear and mistrust in parents. These groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, and the Liberty Council (among others), are on record as the driving force behind the ‘Parents Rights’ and anti-trans bills that target children and public education.

Through a multimillion-dollar effort, these groups create a sense of moral panic, misusing and weaponizing language like ‘indoctrination’ and ‘grooming,’ and provide legislative templates for reuse in state halls around the country purporting to address problems (that don’t exist). This was the strategy used to ban CRT in schools and is now being deployed to ban queer identity, with a focus on transgender youth, in schools and society as a whole. Other groups, such as No Left Turn in Education and Moms For Liberty, are conservative parent-driven organizations that use school boards to fight against curriculum that teaches anything antithetical to conservative values. Smaller, astroturf organizations further this work in communities throughout the United States, localizing a national political agenda. 

The result of these and other efforts is the criminalization of teaching race and racism, gender, and sexuality, which has induced paranoia in communities and disruptions in classrooms. One study found that 60% of principals surveyed reported students had rejected information sources used by their teachers, and nearly half (49%) of all high school principals reported multiple instances of students making unfounded claims in class based on unreliable media sources.1 This goes beyond thinking critically about information, and ventures into conspiratorial thinking based on faulty sources, undermining the hard work of educators and impeding the education of students. 

These machinations are part of a broader ecosystem working to destabilize public education and impose conservative Christian values on all members of society. Their strategy, which Rufo has explicitly said, is to plant seeds of doubt and alienation between schools and communities. He is on record saying, “To get universal school choice you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust. This distrust is manufactured.

The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative organization, recently published a handbook for the next conservative president. This handbook explicitly states the group’s goals of, “breaking up the Department of Education to strengthen education freedom, enhance parental rights in education, and protect taxpayers from student loan ‘forgiveness.'”

The consequences of this movement are the mobilization of a misinformed political base and the erosion of a critical public resource. By design, it becomes difficult to identify where these interconnected laws come from and whose interests they represent. If we scrutinize the origin of these ideas, the target audience, and the political strategies at play we can see that they are not rooted in a desire to see children thrive.

Public education is an essential resource to ensuring we live in a thriving and equitable society that gives all children the opportunity to learn and grow. The freedom of self-determination and a commitment to collective care are foundational to the survival of any democracy, particularly a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-class, and multi-religious democracy. People of faith are an attractive target for manipulation based on the whims of wealthy and powerful people seeking to create the kind of society that sustains their wealth and power. People of faith, particularly those who follow the way and teachings of Jesus, have far too often been the target of political schemes toward ends that neither serve their best interest nor align with the commitments of their faith tradition.   

Thankfully, in the chaos of misinformation and manipulation, the teachings of Jesus and the witness of scripture remind us of the way, the truth, and the life, or, what some have called, the true, the good, and the beautiful. When asked to identify the greatest commandment and how to access life, eternal and abundant, Jesus replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus’ words echo that of the prophet Micah who declared in Micah 6:8, “[God] has shown you, humanity, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” These texts serve as a reminder that the invitation of God is always into love – love of God, love of self, and love of others – and the work of people of faith is always that of justice and kindness. 

In Jeremiah 29:7, the prophet Jeremiah relays a message from God to the people of God when he says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This passage is a rumination on shared thriving and collective care in extremely challenging times. 

To provide collective care in our challenging times means providing life-affirming spaces for all children that do not punish them for inquiry. We must resist political machinations not rooted in any altruistic desire to help, nurture, or support children if we are to build a world in which all children have the resources to meet their needs to the highest degree.

  1.  Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple, and Red Communities
March 20, 2024
The Expectations Project

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