Social change is not easy. It is framed as a war for a reason – it's long, drawn out, and some people are going to get hurt.
On May 2nd, 2022, the Haven, Kansas city council voted to remove decals from police cars that said “In God We Trust.” They did so in a sensible effort to recognize the separation of church and state.
Sixteen days later, after an intense backlash from conservative citizens in Haven, the city council reversed that decision.
On July 18, just ten weeks later and 140 miles away in Hays, Kansas, a parent named Mary Turner complained about the school board’s policy prohibiting students from wearing clothing that made reference to Satanism. A member of The Satanic Temple, Turner made the sensible argument that Satanism, her family’s religion, deserves the same constitutional protections as any other. And the school board sensibly removed the prohibition.
When that decision was made public, a backlash from conservative citizens ensued, leading to a reversal of their vote on August 5.
After a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a quick chat with their attorneys, the school board reversed course yet again on August 12, allowing clothing that makes reference to Satanism.
On August 10, the Fargo, North Dakota school board voted to end the requirement that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited at the beginning of school board meetings because of the phrase “under God,” which members of the board believed was a violation of its diversity policy. It was a practice that had begun just a few months earlier, in April.
Following another backlash and personal threats of violence from angry citizens, the school board reversed course and reinstated the policy to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the Fargo board meeting a week later.
One such event would be interesting. Three suggests a pattern.
Change begets change
There are a number of useful frameworks that can help us make sense of both the initial changes and the responses to them.
While largely passe today, a prominent theory in sociology in the early to mid-20th century was structural functionalism. This approach sees society as a complex, interconnected structure, with shifts and changes occurring as responses to other shifts and changes. If the government begins to assume responsibility for welfare for the poor and/or disabled, for example, that would reduce the need for religions or charitable organizations to provide those resources.
While there are numerous problems with this approach, it does offer some useful insights. One of those, which introduces the problem of teleology, is the idea that society generally prefers equilibrium or stability. A society is not a thinking, living entity with thoughts or desires, of course. Societies are aggregates of individuals. Societies cannot “want” or “prefer” equilibrium, but people can and many do. We refer to such individuals as “conservatives.” Conservatives prefer to maintain the status quo or equilibrium and tend to oppose change.
One of the primary problems with the structural functionalist model is that it doesn’t offer a clear explanation for why initiatory changes take place—though it does help to explain how a society might respond to changes.
In part to address the problem of initiatory changes in society, other social theorists suggested an understanding of society based on conflict. The assumption that lies at the heart of this model is that people compete for finite resources, leading to constant conflict. That conflict can explain initiatory changes. When one group gains enough power to push for a change, that can initiate shifts throughout the entire social structure.
Conflict theory could be used to explain the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement (though other, more recent social movements theories are more compelling): African Americans were suffering from widespread discrimination and had amassed enough resources and developed sufficient organization to advocate for change (i.e., the conflict). The response from many white individuals was to oppose that change as it would result in societal-wide shifts in power dynamics and resources (i.e., structural functionalism).
This very simplified understanding of the Civil Rights Movement leads me to introduce two additional explanatory frameworks. The first is an attempt to understand why some people oppose change, like the Civil Rights Movement or recognizing the rights of atheists, Satanists, and other secular and nonreligious individuals. Scholars have recognized that the individuals who oppose these changes—conservatives—have often been in a position of privilege, a concept many conservatives bitterly dislike.
The resented loss of privilege
Privilege simply means that some people benefit from structural advantages in society more than others. Privileges experienced by white individuals can range from the relatively minor, like the assumption that local stores will carry relevant and appropriate hair care products, to the much more substantial, like the feeling that police officers are their allies and can generally be trusted to help in emergencies and not threaten or shoot them.
Similarly, privileges experienced by men can range from the relatively benign assumption that shifts in mood will not be attributed to one’s biology as it might for women, or the privilege of feeling safe walking alone at night in most locations.
Privilege is a structural concept. It is based on systemic advantages that favor some individuals over others. Privileges are typically not chosen or achieved; they are granted based on ascribed characteristics. Of course, many conservative individuals reject the very idea of social structure or systems and want to place the burden of all that happens in one’s life on decisions the individual makes. This makes it difficult to explain the idea of privilege to the very people who benefit from that privilege.
Why raise the idea of privilege? Those without these privileges see social changes that remove privileges from some as an advance toward equality. But those with privileges perceive what is happening very differently. Losing privileges still feels like you are losing something. From their perspective, they had something, and it was taken away from them.
As one of my brothers once phrased this, giving someone rights generally means taking rights away from others. Progressive individuals would argue that no one is losing rights, just privileges. From a progressive perspective, giving students the right to wear clothing with satanic references on it balances out with the privileges that Christians and other accepted religious groups already have. It is an equalizing of rights.
In contrast, conservative individuals would argue that granting members of The Satanic Temple the right to wear clothing that expresses their values takes away their right to not see such messages. Similar arguments can be made for “In God We Trust” decals on police cars and the Pledge of Allegiance.
To understand why conservative individuals feel aggrieved, we have to understand their perspective when a school board removes the requirement to say the Pledge of Allegiance or allows clothing with satanic references on it. The equilibrium that existed; the status quo that privileged them; their values that were part of the social structure; all of these are under threat. These individuals see this as a loss. Their frame of reference is not one of equality. Their frame of reference is that they are being threatened. And when they are threatened, they lash out in defense of their values. This explains the backlashes experienced by the city council and school board members noted above, which included angry messages and even threats of violence.
That leaves one other, important question: Why did these committees and public officials try to make the changes in the first place? While the theory regarding conflict helps explain this, another idea offers some insights as well.
There is a general march toward “progress” in society over time. I put “progress” in quotes here because I want to clarify what I mean. This is not “progress” in a teleological sense, as though there is some desired end state for society. By progress here I mean more progressive social values that are rooted in the idea of radical equality—that all people (and other living things) are equal and should be treated as equals, regardless of any ascribed statuses.
The basic idea is reflected in the figure below.
There are two axes to the figure: The horizontal axis is time, and the vertical axis reflects a shift from “traditional values” to progressive values. “Traditional values” is also in scare quotes because what we often think of as traditional values are really not—like the idea of the nuclear family, a relatively recent invention in Western societies. The arrows moving up and to the right are punctuated shifts in values. None of these are labeled as the model is really meant to be a heuristic rather than a reflection of history. But the arrows pointing up could include:
- the Magna Carta
- ending slavery
- giving women the right to vote
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- legalizing same-sex marriage
- ending the death penalty
- universal healthcare
…and so on. Each of these changes is intended to extend rights to a greater number of individuals in society. The lengths and angles of the upward-facing arrows are varied as the amount, degree, and speed of changes are not fixed.
Readers will note that each upward-facing arrow is then followed by a downward-facing arrow. Progressive shifts are most often followed by conservative backlashes. Ending Jim Crow laws in the US led to an overwhelming imbalance in incarceration rates for Black men that continues through today.
While The March of “Progress” figure is meant to be a broad heuristic, it can also help explain the specific events discussed at the beginning of this article. The changes that were implemented —removing the “In God We Trust” decals and Pledge of Allegiance and allowing clothing with references to Satan—were all motivated by equality. These committees were not making changes to increase inequality but to reduce privilege. They were participating in the slow and gradual march toward progressive values.
Of course, their actions were followed by immediate conservative backlashes. But, importantly, almost no one in American society (and many other societies) today is advocating for a return to a period when habeas corpus did not exist, or women could not vote, or people could legally be slaves. Once these monumental shifts toward equality take place and the backlash has settled, the changes are permanent. There is no going back.
That, of course, adds to the sense of threat among conservatives. If “under God” is removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, they know it won’t be returned. If children can wear clothing that makes references to Satanism in schools, what is next? And if our police cars cannot reflect the 1950s era motto “In God We Trust” (that replaced the more universal motto, E Pluribus Unum), American society and “traditional values” will have collapsed, and we are headed for ruin.
Social change is not easy. It is framed as a war for a reason—it is long, drawn out, and some people are going to get hurt. The three incidents described above are skirmishes in the war. Conservatives won two of those skirmishes and lost the third. But the war is not over and, if history is an accurate guide, equality for people with worldviews and values that are not rooted in religion will happen. It is going to be a long march toward progress.