Journofolks are talking a lot about the Heritage Foundation these days. The narrative is that a once-august right-wing research shop has gone all hackish on us since being taken over by former Senator Jim DeMint and his fearsome 31-year-old deputy Michael Needham. “The Fall of the Heritage Foundation and the Death of Republican Ideas,” is how the The Atlantic’s Molly Ball tags it. In The New Republic, a profile of Needham, whom The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank labeled “The Shut-Down’s Enforcer-in-chief,” quotes Republican legislators lambasting him for “his ideological inflexibility and aggressive zero-sum tactics.” A bitter Senator Orrin Hatch is quoted in The New York Times: “Is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn’t amount to anything anymore? I hope not.”
Of course, for a movement supposedly devoted to conserving the past, conservatives are oh-so-splendid at forgetting their own past. The notion of Hatch as the high-minded conservator of the scholarly temper would have been pretty laughable when he won his Senate seat in 1976 as the first major feather in the cap of the nascent New Right fundraising machine captained by Richard Viguerie. Back then, his campaign served as a pass-through for all sorts of Long Con hanky-panky. But never mind. The notion of Heritage’s fall from some noble intellectual golden age has been so ably debunked by historian Jason Stahl that I have little to add.
But not nothing to add. First, some more historical detail. I’ve written here before about the extraordinary events of 1974–75 in Kanawha County, West Virginia, when the school board encompassing the state’s biggest city, Charleston, voted to adopt textbooks Christian conservatives insisted endorsed miscegenation, “secular humanism,” and other assorted alleged sins, ended up dynamiting the school board building. But not before the brand-spanking-new Heritage Foundation rushed to aid the folks laying the dynamite.
In one of the first forays of this “scholarly” organization into national politics, Heritage sent sent two staffers to West Virginia. James McKenna, a lawyer who had won a string of cases defending the rights of parents to homeschool their children, came to defend the activists under indictment for violence. Connie Marshner was a young University of South Carolina graduate who had accepted a job in 1971 on Capitol Hill as a plain old secretary for Young Americans for Freedom, which was where she quietly transformed herself into an expert on Senator Walter Mondale’s bill to establish a national system of federal childcare centers—the “therapeutic state invading the home,” Marshner said. On her own, she started a letterhead organization to fight the bill. When Nixon vetoed it, calling it a threat to “the family in its rightful position as a keystone of our civilization,” she claimed victory, and was hired as Heritage’s first director of education. Soon she was soon hard at work finding “little clusters of Evangelical, fundamentalist Mom’s groups,” and transforming them into troops for the conservative movement army. She ended up writing a book called Blackboard Tyranny as her lasting contribution to the “parents rights” movement’s scholarly legacy. Based on the ideas of the Christian deconstructionist Rousas J. Rushdoony, the book argues that education professionals began their plot to replace Christianity with the “messianic” religion of secular humanism when they started teaching that education should indoctrinate children into democracy, and that parents’ right to oppose this “came from God by way of the natural law.” Scholarly!