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When the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines welcomed students back to its 17 schools and patients into its four hospitals earlier earlier this month, there were some changes designed to telegraph just what the leaders of that 80-parish-strong organization thought about gender politics: The wokes had lost.
A six-page policy bans students, patients, or congregants to use the gender identity or pronouns of their choice, to provide for hormone therapy to prevent puberty or to present in alignment with their own sense of gender identity, or to wear clothing deemed inconsistent with traditional ideas of gendered garb. Students must play on the sports team corresponding to their gender assigned at birth, use the locker rooms to match, and visitors must use bathrooms following the same rules.
The new rule covers all Catholic programs operating in that 12,000 square mile southwest quadrant of Iowa, home to an estimated 130,000 Catholics. Of the 23 counties in the Des Moines Diocese, Donald Trump won 22 during his last presidential race.
Such moves against trans rights and gender-affirming policies are prime red meat for the red-hatted MAGA crowd, which laps up programs that argue Americans have gone wobbly with insufficient testosterone, impotent with declining sperm counts, and limp from too much coddling of pronoun choice. For a certain portion of the country, American masculinity is equal to American might, and anything that deviates from the Iowa-born John Wayne-style of manhood is downright disappointing.
For the diocese, the policies find justification in Scripture. “A person’s biological sex is expressed in and through the body. It cannot be changed because it is bestowed by God as a gift and as a calling, and ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,’” according to the policy, citing the Book of Romans. “A person’s ‘gender’ is inseparable from biological sex,” it also argues.
Yet while conservative politicians well beyond Iowa’s Polk County have wrapped themselves in similar arguments and passed rafts of laws and policies targeting trans youth, new polling suggests this type of approach is actually hurting their cause—and, of course, kids. “It’s a money strategy,” American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten—perhaps one of D.C.’s most powerful lesbians—told me when I asked about why some are clinging to this strategy. “It’s a keep-the-base-angry strategy. It’s a keep-things-chaotic, keep-things-divisive political strategy,” she continued. “There’s a huge disconnect with where voters and where parents are.”
In nationwide December surveys of 558 parents from the Democratic pollsters Hart Research Associates, just 1 in 5 parents told the pollsters that they see teachers promoting wokeness, and they view 1 in 4 schools as encouraging such a posture. Three-quarters of parents said teachers should engage in tough conversations with students about history and current events, with just one-quarter saying such difficult topics are best avoided. Two-thirds of parents said the culture wars are a distraction from schools’ primary mission of education. And, when asked to rank what should matter to leaders, just 1 in 10 parents said they favored removing hot-button books from libraries. In other words, the Des Moines diocese can make a few hardened anti-woke parishioners feel like they’re standing up and Making Catechism Great Again, but it’s not actually that big of a deal for most parents.
(It’s not all good news for trans kids who just want to get through their school days. 2 in 5 parents say transgender students playing sports on school teams is an issue that should be taken seriously, as is “critical race theory,” suggesting persistent hostility toward inclusion. And while fewer than 1 in 5 parents ranked either of those as a top priority, it’s still enough to be significant.)
Despite the deficit of urgency around these cultural issues in the real world, Republican lawmakers in Washington and in state legislatures—not to mention school boards—are chasing agendas that would keep this debate at the fore. You can expect the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee to spend a whole lot of time investigating the Department of Education’s efforts to provide inclusive experiences for transgender students, including student athletes. The House Oversight Committee, too, can get a piece of this, as can just about any other corner of the GOP-scheduled House. In other words, you’re going to be hearing a whole lot about trans athletes and bathrooms in the House this 118th Congress.
“They are focused off and on ginning up the hardcore, conservative base of their party. With gerrymandering and other changes in districts, many of them these days worry mainly—if not exclusively—about a possible challenge from their right in a primary as opposed to losing a general election,” says Guy Molyneux, a polling pro and partner at Hart. “I think this approach, if they stick with it for the next two years, will hurt their candidates in competitive districts and competitive states in the future. But you know, Kevin McCarthy spent five days recently on national television showing us that his focus is on making sure that the most conservative elements of his party remain in his camp.”
Beyond cynical politics, some of these lawmakers waging the war on woke may actually be sincere. “I would not discount the degree to which a lot of these Republicans are true believers. There are a lot of them who are ideologues in their approach to education,” said Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster and president of Hart. “But what the survey shows is that what they truly believe is truly out of touch with where the vast majority of the public and parents are. It is a combination of political calculation—and in our view political miscalculation—but also the ideological fervor that is characteristic of the Republican Party today.”
All of which makes political sense in terms of the raw chase of power. But that’s small comfort if you’re a student, parent, or a health care provider in one of the Catholic institutions in southwest Iowa, the latest battlefield for this agenda. Spaces meant to provide spiritual comfort are now the latest sparring venues in the culture wars—wars, it must be noted, that are not exactly popular with parents or as potent at the PTAs as some would have you believe. But, as is often the case, the loud triumphs over the true, and the drama around the showmen can obscure the substance. In this case, the sideshow masks most parents’ desire to shelve these distractions that function as a proxy for conservative orthodoxy, and instead focus on actual education.
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