Tiersa McQueen vividly remembers the morning she woke up and found her four children teaching themselves geometry. She discovered them standing at the whiteboard, measuring angles and studying shapes they had traced.
“They wanted to know what the shapes were, so they looked them up, wrote down the names, then started going down the rabbit hole of online information,” she told me.
The McQueens are unschoolers. The children — a 14-year-old, a 13-year-old and 9-year-old twins — learn at home, but with far more flexibility than traditional home-schooling families. Their parents spurn curriculums, textbooks, tests and grades. Instead they do their best to follow the children’s natural curiosity, their impulse to drop what bores them and investigate whatever captivates them, engaging in “self-directed education” at their own pace.
During this long season of involuntary at-home learning, what parent hasn’t dreamed of moments like Ms. McQueen’s morning discovery? As parents struggle to keep up with their own jobs while kids work through packets of worksheets and iPad apps in the next room, it is tempting to hope for a silver lining: the emancipation of children’s impulses to explore the world independently, to find ways to answer their own questions.
Unschoolers, who have long occupied an obscure corner of the home-schooling community, have suddenly become intriguing, less like alien life-forms and more like your cool neighbor who managed to stay relaxed through the monthslong shortages of toilet paper and child care. Unschooling is a pedagogy premised on letting your kid sleep in, read whatever they like (or not) and learn math (or not) through baking, elaborate Lego creations or wandering the internet rather than working through a textbook.
This approach is unlikely to work for most families. Even some who believe wholeheartedly in the idea of unschooling struggle with it in practice. But unschoolers’ choice to take on that struggle should compel the rest of us to face big questions about motivation, coercion and the purpose of education during this unusual school year and beyond.
THE anti-gay ideology that has long held sway in American evangelicalism seems to be crumbling. Conservatives’ insistence that the Bible proscribes homosexual acts and their claim that protecting gay rights infringes on their own religious liberty have depended on another assumption not found in Scripture: that homosexuality is not a biologically rooted identity but a sinful temptation, an addiction that one must control.
The noisy backlash against the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage cannot mask the signs that this assumption is losing its grip. The most conspicuous indication that something is changing came in 2013 while Obergefell v. Hodges was still working its way up to the court. Alan Chambers, the president of the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, apologized to L.G.B.T. people for causing them “pain and hurt” and shut down his organization.
Exodus’s collapse was a media spectacle. It was a huge blow to those who insist that same-sex attraction can be “cured,” and an encouragement to the growing number of evangelicals, particularly millennials, who support L.G.B.T. rights. But some young Christians resist the notion that embracing queer sexuality as an identity — not a disease — permits them to embrace homosexual relationships.
These dissenters proudly call themselves gay or queer or bisexual. But they have turned to ideologies outside the conventional boundaries of evangelicalism — including Catholic theology and queer theory — to argue against both conservatives and liberals. They insist that the church should welcome gay people, yet still condemn homosexual acts. They have provoked a dispute that gets to the heart of the culture wars: a debate over the meaning of vocation that reveals the tension between modern assumptions about living a full life and older ideas about the sacrifices God’s calling requires.
DONALD TRUMP’S high poll numbers among evangelicals have preoccupied the media for months. But the most interesting thing about his Christian fans is not their willingness to overlook the sins of a casino playboy. Evangelicals happily voted for a divorced man of uncertain faith once before: Ronald Reagan. What is most striking is that Mr. Trump’s campaign has exposed a rift within evangelicalism — a split between those calling for culture war as usual and those who say Christians must adjust to life as a minority in American Babylon.
Some evangelical leaders are content to follow old models. They promise, as Jerry Falwell and his colleagues in the Moral Majority once did, that Christians are destined to lead the nation in “a moral and conservative revolution.” David Barton, the activist and pseudo-historian who helped vandalize Texas textbook guidelines, promises that “America can reclaim greatness” if its citizens recover their Christian heritage. He now runs a super PAC backing Ted Cruz, but his pledge echoes Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” — a slogan that resonates with evangelical voters who feel the country slipping out of their grip.
Yet some evangelical elites are rebelling against this vision. They have not shifted leftward, but they disown both the legacy of the Moral Majority and the populist demagogy of Mr. Trump in favor of a softer, more sophisticated approach to activism. They note the shrinking ranks of American Christianity but say that evangelicals shouldn’t kick and scream. They should embrace their new role as a moral minority instead.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — ONE Sunday last month, I walked into an auditorium past greeters and a table loaded with coffee, fruit and cookies. Onstage two young men tuned their guitars. A blank screen hung down, a silent signal that not knowing the words would be no excuse for not singing along. But this was no typical church service.
I’d come for Sunday Assembly, a godless alternative to church founded in London in 2013. A cheerful woman with a name tag stood and promised a crowd of about 40 people “all the fun parts of church but without any religion, and with fun pop songs.” The band led us in secular “hymns” like “Walking on Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.” The day’s guest preacher, a Ph.D. candidate from Duke, described his research on bonobos and the biological roots of our species’ instinct to help one another — the “seeds of a nature that is good,” he told us.
Is this what secular humanism — the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear — looks like in practice? In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void, but it is also a strand of the liberal intellectual tradition that attempts to answer the canard that godlessness means immorality.
It’s no secret that nonbelievers still grapple with social stigma. Last year, more than half of Americans told pollsters that they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if they learned he was an atheist. The nonbelievers I met were eager to challenge the stereotype of atheists as ill-tempered nihilists whose only sacred tradition is picketing the City Hall Christmas tree.
WHEN Theresa Bixby, 63, learned that she had breast cancer four years ago, she reacted as many Americans do. “One of my first thoughts was, ‘will they pay?’ ” she said. But she wasn’t talking about a conventional insurance plan. She lost hers when she left her full-time position for part-time work at her church in Greenville, S.C. She was worried about the program that she had joined six months earlier: Christian Healthcare Ministries.
Christian Healthcare Ministries is not an insurance company. It is a nonprofit “health care sharing ministry” based in Barberton, Ohio. The cost of membership is far lower than the rates of traditional insurance policies — $45 a month for the cheapest plan — but the ministry makes no guarantees of payment. Members send their monthly “gift” to an escrow account, which disburses payments for eligible medical bills, excluding costs like routine physicals, continuing treatment for pre-existing conditions or procedures that members have voted to exclude, like care for pregnancies outside wedlock.
Each time Ms. Bixby visited her hospital for tests or chemotherapy, she explained that she was a self-pay patient and a member of a cost-sharing ministry. Sometimes the receptionist nodded; sometimes she got a blank stare. The hospital never denied her treatment, but “I was getting a two-inch stack of bills every month, and threats that they would take me to collections,” she told me.
Christian Healthcare Ministries assigned her case to a “member advocate,” who negotiated discounts on her fees. These counted toward Ms. Bixby’s $5,000 deductible, so she paid out of pocket only for office visits. In the end, the ministry persuaded the hospital to lop $220,900 off a bill of $301,540 and reimbursed or paid directly the remaining $80,640.
Despite stories like this, organizations such as Christian Healthcare Ministries claim a modest membership. The four main cost-sharing ministries in the United States have about 340,000 members. Regulators in several states have raised concerns that these ministries offer the illusion of insurance while sidestepping the Affordable Care Act’s baseline standards of coverage and skirting requirements that apply to conventional insurance companies, like minimum cash reserves. Nonetheless, membership in the ministries has been growing, particularly since the act granted them an exemption as one of the only ways to avoid the law’s mandate to buy insurance without paying a fine.
But the debate over consumer protections may disguise a more interesting question: Could this model scale up?
An avalanche of insta-biographies follows every papal conclave. Catholics and outsiders alike are eager to understand the man who is, in effect, the only monarch with meaningful power remaining in the Western world. But almost two years after Pope Francis’ election, many are keen for deeper analysis of this “pope for the poor” known for holding freewheeling news conferences and driving his own 30-year-old Renault.
Austen Ivereigh’s “The Great Reformer” is no insta-book, but a gracefully written and meticulously researched account of Francis’ life. It aims to exonerate the pope once and for all from the charges of his critics, and to correct both liberals and conservatives who misunderstand his “radicalism.” It succeeds almost entirely. His defense of Francis sometimes shades into hagiography, but it is the best English-language biography of the pope to date, and — more important — raises provocative questions about the future of the church and the relationship between religion and secular modernity.
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Over the last few weeks it has become fashionable to ridicule this election as a jumble of debates that don’t resonate with the average American. The Washington Post deemed these midterms “kind of — with apologies to Seinfeld — an election about nothing,” and many other journalists have echoed the comparison. The joke is an old one: “as the reigning cliché had it, 2002 was the ‘Seinfeld’ election — an election about nothing,” Frank Rich wrote in these pages 12 years ago.
To say that an election is “about nothing” means that no coherent national narrative has emerged — other than the media’s obsession with the tight race for control of the Senate. Pundits and pollsters have published reams of charts predicting the final tally, but this obsession with data has further fragmented the story rather than explained what a Republican takeover would mean. Journalists have said comparatively little about what the party might do if it wins.
In my state of North Carolina, the neck-and-neck contest between the Democratic senator Kay Hagan and the Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House, seems to turn on one question. Who has provoked more voter outrage: the federal government or the state legislature? But this notoriously ugly and expensive race may help explain what the 2014 midterm elections are really about. The answer is not “nothing.”
WHEN most liberals hear the words “third party,” they have nasty flashbacks to Ralph Nader’s spoiler campaign in 2000. The history buffs among them might think of the populist Greenback Party’s feckless protests against the gold standard in the 19th century or the five presidential campaigns of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs — the last of which, in 1920, he ran from prison.
Third parties seem out of touch with reality, the refuge of idealists with dreams too fragile for the trenches of major party politics. But Democratic skeptics, at least, shouldn’t be too quick to judge. One state is now on the way to single-payer health care, and a third party deserves much of the credit.
Three years ago, Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, signed a bill creating Green Mountain Care: a single-payer system in which, if all goes according to plan, the state will regulate doctors’ fees and cover Vermonters’ medical bills. Mr. Shumlin is a Democrat, and the bill’s passage is a credit to his party. Yet a small upstart spent years building support for reform and nudging the Democrats left: the Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives owe much of their success to the oddities of Vermont politics. But their example offers hope that the most frustrating dimensions of our political culture can change, despite obstacles with deep roots in American history.
WHEN Jennifer Maggio was in her early 20s, she was raising two children by herself on the $750 per month that she earned as a manager at a furniture store in Vidalia, La. She went to college at night and was living in subsidized housing when she felt God urge her to make an unexpected choice. “I started tithing. To tithe while I was living on food stamps — that was a tough decision,” she said. “The conversation I had with God was: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is about the pastor wanting a new truck.’ ”
She dropped a $75 check in the offering bucket. “I kept doing it, and the bills continued to get paid.” Within a year, she got a job offer from a bank in Baton Rouge and “went from food stamps to a six-figure income,” she said. Ms. Maggio credits God, not government assistance, with helping her climb out of poverty. She later married and founded Life of a Single Mom Ministries to help other women. She hates talking politics, but says she has always been an “extremely conservative Republican.”
Politically speaking, Ms. Maggio is unusual: in 2008 and 2012, three-quarters of single mothers voted for President Obama. It’s tempting to dismiss a Republican single mom as a dupe persuaded to vote against her own interests, a victim of what Thomas Frank called “the politics of self-delusion.”
This assessment is misguided. One polling firm called single mothers “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country,” but Democrats should not take single moms for granted, even as Republicans have shown that they would rather sabotage the basic functions of government than extend the social safety net.
The single mothers who reject the politics of their peers tell us something about the limits of the liberal effort to redefine cultural ideals. The left has recast marriage not as a lifelong contract, but as a civil right, a choice, one of many paths to empowerment. An old-fashioned covenant that binds two people in mutual submission sits uneasily in a secular ideology that holds personal autonomy as the highest good.
IMMIGRATION reform is not a liberal idea. It is good, old-fashioned conservative policy — at least that’s what its supporters want the Republican faithful to believe.
The Republican Party has “historically been pro-immigration,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said after the 2012 election. The conservative National Immigration Forum declares that America needs reform that “celebrates freedom and values hard work.”
Some of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new immigration bill have come from traditional evangelicals, who insist that reform “respects the God-given dignity of every person.” Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.
“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”
“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity — and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”
The Christian right may be too optimistic about any change in the political sympathies of Latinos. Increasing numbers tell pollsters they favor same-sex marriage, for example. But the real surprise is that evangelicals may be wrong about the unyielding conservatism of their own movement.