Since 2021, American public school boards have played host to a coordinated, conservative campaign intent on revising curricula, altering policies, and banning books. Especially after Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia Governor’s race that fall, the rhetorical power of child- and school-based concerns has been revealed and cultivated. This movement is active here in Pennsylvania, where it has staked a claim on American values.
Back in 2010, I began writing a doctoral dissertation on the role of classically liberal language in culture war rhetoric. Specifically, I was interested in the various ways that terms like liberty, freedom, and rights had been adopted by religious-political movements to align their goals with core American values. I was especially focused on conservative movements, since they seemed to do this sort of thing a lot more often (and a lot more successfully) than their counterparts on the left. After completing and defending the manuscript in 2012, I sliced it up and sent it out as a series of six journal articles. The crux of the argument appeared in the first of these, “Fighting for Freedom: Liberal Argumentation in Culture War Rhetoric.”
That essay considers the speech and writing of conservative columnist and National Organization for Marriage founder Maggie Gallagher, who worked tirelessly to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States prior to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. A devout Catholic, Gallagher might have opposed same-sex marriage from an explicitly religious angle, arguing that it violates God’s will for the institution—a view that she plainly held. But because she was also a shrewd politician, she instead pressed the argument that legalization would violate the religious liberty of its opponents. Her rhetoric advanced a religious claim in a liberal frame, in other words, hoping thereby to persuade centrists at a time when public opinion was trending steadily against her. Allies rallied, but critics smelled a rhetorical bait-and-switch.
There’s nothing wrong with religious figures drawing on liberal premises to make arguments in public, of course, and ultimately I endorsed the view that the strategy is beneficial if it allows competing factions to confront each other in a shared vocabulary. But as Gallagher demonstrates, it may also have limited prospects for success. If you’re really out to represent God, on any issue, then your claim to represent liberty may make for an awkward fit. The extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples did not really violate the liberties of conservative Christians who disapproved, and the concerted effort to claim otherwise survived only as long as it seemed useful to Republican politics. When it became a liability, Gallagher lost her platform. I, too, have mostly moved on from these sorts of questions. But I’ve been thinking through them again since learning about “Moms for Liberty.”
I might not have learned about the Moms at all except that they turned up at Warwick High School, my alma mater in Lititz, Pennsylvania. A national advocacy organization established in January of 2021 and based in Florida, Moms for Liberty is “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Its co-founders are former school board members, and its advocacy is focused on local politics. As of last year, the group claimed 195 chapters in 37 states, with nearly 100,000 members. Their website features a map on which these chapters are documented, with many clustered in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. One of these is in Lancaster County.
The Lancaster chapter is led by a woman named Rachel Wilson Snyder, who addressed the Warwick School Board on December 20. Also present were members of “Warwick Parents for Change,” an affiliated group that has been frequenting school board meetings and raising concerns about district policies and curricula. Their objections have focused so far on gender definitions, approaches to “equity,” and the inclusion of certain books in the high school library or among course assignments. At a meeting on November 29, speakers identified a pair of books as particularly troubling. One of these, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is an assigned reading in sophomore English classes. The other, Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer, is not assigned but is available in the library. Both appear on American Library Association lists of most frequently challenged books from 2020 and 2021, meaning that each is a popular target of groups that claim to stand for liberty, animated by what they call parental rights.
Critics of these groups question whether liberty or rights are really at stake, and they seem to doubt that this top-down campaign is really about books. Citing a local effort to mobilize pastors and churches against Warwick’s curricula, some in Lititz have decried an effort to impose a “Christian worldview” on public school students. Others have pointed out that, though most objections focus on bad language and racy images, All American Boys and Gender Queer serve as conversation starters on race and gender, a pair of topics that the largely white, straight opposition evidently does not want to discuss. For district supporters, freedom’s just another word for letting students read.Continue reading