Here’s a helpful guide to religious freedoms as schools become a political-religious battleground


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters project was founded in an effort to “bust” myths about minorities that complicate and in some cases seriously harm the lives of American individuals and families.


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By JOE GRIMM
Director of the MSU Bias Busters Project

Legislation in two states and reporting by Pew Research have brought disagreements about the relationship between religion and government into sharp focus this month. Schools are the battleground.

State actions have been taken in Louisiana and Oklahoma.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have sued to stop a new law requiring that every public classroom in Louisiana from elementary schools through colleges display the Ten Commandments. That would start in January.

In Oklahoma, PBS reports, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has mandated that public school classrooms from grades 5-12 have copies of the Bible and that all teachers must teach from it. This also would begin in 2025.

In the midst of these actions, Pew reports that supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, who backed the Louisiana law, disagree sharply on the proper role for religion in government. This party-line split has been similar for years.

According to Pew, 71% of U.S. voters overall said religion should be kept out of government. On the other hand, 28% said government should support religious beliefs.

Among Trump voters, 56% said religion and government policy should be separate from government policy while 43% said government policies should support religious values. A larger majority of Biden supporters, 86% to 13% said religion and government should be separate.

The Secular Coalition of America advocates for “the equal rights of nonreligious Americans” and “the separation of religion and government.”

The coalition calls the Louisiana Ten Commandments law “discriminatory against religious minorities and non-religious individuals” and “a clear breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Religious freedoms are explored in 100 Questions and Answers About the Religiously Unaffiliated: Nones, Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Freethinkers, Secularists and Skeptics, a guide from the the Michigan State University School of Journalism. This series of more than 20 books helps people get to know the many groups that comprise American society.

American Dreams: Hmong hope to free themselves from ‘The Model Minority’ myth

Some Hmong artists made and sold story cloths to help families earn income. Major themes are legends or fairy tales, everyday life before the war, the war, and being forced to flee across the dangerous Mekong River to Thailand. This cloth shows Hmong people attempting to cross the Mekong River from Laos into Thailand and its refugee camps. At upper left is a tree with monkeys in it. Photo courtesy of Joe Grimm.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters project was founded in an effort to “bust” myths about minorities that complicate and in some cases seriously harm the lives of American individuals and families.


By JOE GRIMM
Director of the MSU Bias Busters Project

Hmong Americans have asked the U.S. Census Bureau to reclassify their ethnicity as Southeast Asian, rather than East Asian, in part because of The Model Minority myth.

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According to the Pew Research Center, this stereotype originated after World War II and depicted Chinese and Japanese Americans as automatically successful people. The stereotype implies they naturally follow rules, work hard and have found economic and educational success. These qualities were attributed to factors including respect for parents and authority figures.

The myth was extended to include all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

All stereotypes are incomplete and accurate. Even positive ones can be problems. Hmong Americans cite some harms as they seek reclassification. Hmong Americans, who began arriving 50 years ago in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam, suffer in the model minority comparison. Their pathway to the United States is generally far different from most other Asian immigration stories.

Hmong people fled a place that was not their homeland and where their protection from enemy soldiers evaporated when the United States pulled out of Vietnam. Hmong people fled to refugee camps or were flown to the United States. Most had little formal education or English, or relevant job training. Money and even suitable clothing for new homes in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, California and Michigan was scarce. Important ties to family and belief systems were severed.

Even so, Hmong people are getting education and jobs and contributing in the United States. They are still building their new communities and lives. Is there average income as high as that for people with East Asian roots, many of whom arrived more than a century ago? No. Not yet.

The Model Minority myth hurts all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders it is applied to. The myth implies that people can be successful without even working. But with more than 20 ethnicities in this group, that is logically impossible. Eddy Ng, professor of equity and inclusion in business at Queen’s University, Ontario, points out that all Asian American and Pacific Island people started at the same point. Even within a single ethnicity, people are different. the myth can fault some people for not measuring up to this stereotypical measuring stick. People’s authenticity as a member of that group can be questioned.

A 2018 Pew Research Center study showed that, of all broad groups, Asian American and Pacific Islander groups showed the widest disparity n wages. South Asian Indians make, on average, 10 times as much as Burmese, Samoan, Native Hawaiian or Hmong people. Each ethnicity has its own story. They have different histories and are at different stages in their development n the United States. They can also take different directions.

A 2023 Pew study showed how widespread the stereotype is known among the people it is applied to and how they feel about it.

The myth has also been used as a wedge that pits larger groups against each other. The question seems to be, “why can’t the people in your group be as successful as the people in this other group?” The answer, again, is that individuals start from different places and have different opportunities or challenges. This is why some Hmong Americans say it is more accurate to classify them as Southeast Asian, where they came from.

Asian and Pacific Islander people in general have dealt with fewer racial barriers in the United States than African Americans have, but they also have less political representation than anyone. All these measures continue to change.

Bottom line: Stereotypes are a poor, broad-brush way to describe or understand people. Their individual stories, as well as those of others, can help.

100 Questions and Answers About Hmong Americans: Secret No More, addresses issues specific to the Hmong American experience. It will be available on Amazon on July 2. It addresses many questions tied up in Hmong identity and history and the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision. The guide is published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism as part of its Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence.

MSU Bias Busters project highlights Hmong Americans, still struggling for recognition half a century after the Vietnam War

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Hmong Americans disagree with a U.S. Census classification

By JOE GRIMM
Director of the MSU School of Journalism Bias Busters project

Nearly 50 years after their evacuation to the United States from Southeast Asia in significant numbers, Hmong Americans are still fighting for an accurate portrayal by the U.S. Census.

Hmong people, who fought in the CIA’s Secret War, were hurriedly flown to the United States and fled to refugee camps when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam. Today, they are fighting for proper recognition of their origins.

In March—as the Associated Press reported—the U.S. Office of Management and Budget announced several revisions in the way the census categorizes people. It plans to classify Hmong people as East Asians, according to one Associated Press article. Representatives of the group say this is a misclassification that ignores their history and amounts to an erasure of their ethnic group. It can also perpetuate the Model Minority Myth.

The issue is keenly sensitive to Hmong people, whose history has left them without a homeland, in part because of the way they were treated in China.

A second Associated Press article explains the problem. Hmong people say the federal government has incorrectly decided Hmong people originated in China. the big player in East Asia. However, Hmong origins are older and farther north than their years in China. The nomadic Hmong people are asking to be recognized as coming from Southeast Asia, where they settled and fought for the U.S.

The East Asian classification stings because their trek through China led to persecution. Their written language was banished. They were not allowed political standing. They kept searching for a home and fled south into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—places in Southeast Asia. Having never had an opening to establish a homeland of their own, Southeast Asia is the closest thing Hmong people have to one.

The issue is about far more than history and identity, which are important in and of themselves. Given the way the U.S. government uses Census data to allocate federal resources there is a practical reason to be correctly classified. According to the bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey, income among Hmong people in the United States was about $26,000 per person. For East Asian Americans, it was almost double that. Being put into the East Asian category buries this important disparity and could cost Hmong people opportunities once again.

In AsAmNews, Valentina Lewis quoted Southeast Asia Resource Action Center Executive Director Quyen Dinh: “One of the biggest harms is the mistrust that now exists within the community from the youngest generation to the elders, who don’t even want to be counted in the next census 2030.”

The Census Bureau reports it is reviewing decisions about how Hmong people will be classified by the 2030 census.

100 Questions and Answers About Hmong Americans: Secret No More,” will be available on Amazon on July 2. It addresses many questions tied up in Hmong identity and history and the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision. The guide is published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism as part of its Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence

With the Michigan State University Bias Busters, we are celebrating the Hmong among us!

Click on this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page, where you can pre-order a copy to arrive on July 2, 2024.

Community Contributions of these Resilient Survivors are ‘Secret No More’

In fact, Secret No More is the subtitle of this new 100 Questions and Answers book from the Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters project.

“Hmong Americans have traveled a long way in a very short time,” says the Preface to the newest volume in this award-winning series of books used nationwide to help reduce bigotry through education—in both text and video formats, in this case. As the Preface explains, “Very few Hmong people lived in the United States until its 1975 pullout from Vietnam. That put Hmong people, recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to fight in a secret war against the Viet Cong, in grave danger.”

This newest Bias Busters book will ship soon from Amazon, so please read (and share with friends via social media) this story (and videos) about the new book. Let’s collectively spread awareness of this remarkable yet little-known minority among us.

As the war was ending, thousands of Hmong were killed; thousands were evacuated to the United States to build new lives. They came from Southeast Asia and were scattered among states including California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina.

Most Hmong people arrived with only what they could carry. They had little formal education, savings, warm clothing or any connection to these new places. Their English was limited. Return was impossible because the nomadic Hmong people did not even have a homeland. As Joseph Yang, one of the people you will meet in this guide, said, his people have had to “carry our culture and our religion on our backs.”

Now, in fewer than 50 years, Hmong Americans have traveled further still. Today, this population has very high rates of U.S. citizenship. They are succeeding in college, business, government and the arts. They have been elected or appointed to local, state and federal offices. They are judges, doctors, college students and professors. Many work in agriculture, as their families did in Southeast Asia before they were recruited to fight. Others work in U.S. health, education and media.

Hmong artists have enriched the tapestry of their new country with traditional music, song, poetry and visual arts. Some are excelling at U.S. forms of writing, dance and music.

But, to this day, Hmong people are little known, so this new book is a perfectly timed opportunity—as the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War approaches in 2025—to learn about these resilient survivors who are contributing in so many ways to American life.

First, how did the Hmong people get out of Laos?

Here’s one of the videos included in this book (accessible through QR codes in the book’s pages). In this short video Julie Xiong explains how Hmong people escaped from Laos.

How are Hmong families organized?

Julie continues in this short clip about the strong family networks that are an essential part of Hmong communities.

A unique cultural archive: ‘Story cloths’

In this video, Joseph Yang explains a bit about Hmong story cloths at an “Ask a Hmong” event held to spread news about this upcoming book.

Why are coins worn on traditional Hmong clothing?

Joseph continues with a brief description of this custom.

Care to learn more?

The Michigan State University School of Journalism Bias Busters project has produced about two dozen volumes in this award-winning series. Each volume is prepared by student-reporters who research 100 common questions people ask about each of the minority groups featured in a volume. Their work is overseen, in each case, by national panels of noted experts who work with the students to ensure the accuracy and balance of each book.

“In these books, we answer the questions every is asking—but no one is answering.” That’s been one of our guiding mission statements since we started this project. These guides are not in-depth histories. They are intended to provide basic information for Americans who want to understand more about our friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Please, share this story with friends to help us continue to foster this mission to help Americans understand each other in these often turbulent times.

Want to see all the guides? Here’s a link to Amazon’s overview page(Note: The Hmong guide will appear in that list after its July 2, 2024, publication date.)

And once more, here’s a direct link to order the Hmong guide, which will arrive July 2.

Have a meaningful Memorial Day! And, consider these tips for conversations with veterans.

By JOE GRIMM
Director of the MSU School of Journalism Bias Busters

Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, is a federal holiday that honors U.S. service members who have died in wars and military actions. The millions of living veterans who have served have a different federal holiday: Veterans Day. That is always on Nov. 11—and recognizes Armistice Day, the end of fighting in World War I at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

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Our entire community of authors, columnists and editors at Read the Spirit magazine is grateful for service members past and present. So, the first purpose of this column is to explain the difference between these holidays.

It is only natural that, as you encounter veterans around Memorial Day, you might want to recognize them for their service. But Memorial Day is to remember those who have died.

According to the Veterans Administration, there were 18.6 million U.S. veterans in 2023. Each year, about 200,00 people transition from active duty to civilian life.

When we thank military people, the gesture is filled with goodwill. That’s a good thing. But when we don’t know their personal experience, this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

Misunderstandings?

Think about it for a moment: One person’s military service is not like everyone’s service. Some prefer to talk about this; some prefer to remain quiet about it. Think about those veterans who sometimes wear their service like a badge on their sleeve, lapel or hat. It may seem like they’re actively advertising their service in the hope of sparking conversations. However, many who wear those badges on caps or coats explain that they wear them not to brag, but just in case someone else from their branch or unit might spot the symbol and reconnect. Those connections can be strong, even among people who have not met before.

So, rather than a hit-and-run thank-you, engage people if they are open to it. Rather than thanking them, ask a small question that shows you recognize the complexity of military service. An expression of interest can say more than a thank-you.

Maybe start with: “I see you are a veteran.” And watch the response.

If it’s welcoming, you might ask: “Which branch did you serve in?”

“When did you serve?”

“Where did you serve?”

These straightforward questions signify recognition and respect, but even they can uncover sensitive areas. They might surface painful memories or regrets. If they want to tell you more, you will learn something about their individual experience. If they don’t, that is OK. At least you took the time to look beyond the label to see the person.

Good starting points for learning about veterans—on any day of the year—are in “100 Questions and Answers About Veterans,” a guide in Michigan State University’s series on cultural competence.

This one describes the branches of the U.S. armed forces, what members are called, training, transitions, deployments and even a little military slang.

Hate crimes against gay and transgender students are way up! And—we’ve got helpful resources.

In a rising tide of hate crimes—

Our authors are publishing, teaching and speaking out for equality and inclusion

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(EDITOR’s NOTE: Special thanks to MSU School of Journalism Professor Joe Grimm for writing about this alarming new report on the steep rise in hate crimes among our most vulnerable young people. Joe is one of many authors in our publishing community concerned about equality and inclusion. Right now, for example, Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee is preparing to deliver the April 14 keynote at the Parent & Family Summit—”Interwoven: Uniting Kids, Parents and Community.” Follow that link to learn more about the event, which you could attend online.)


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By JOE GRIMM
Founder of the MSU School of Journalism Bias Busters

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page

Hate crimes against gay and transgender students are way up, especially in states with laws against transgender rights or teachers’ speech about gender and sexuality, according to The Washington Post. And the crimes are not up by just a little.

FBI statistics on anti-LGBTQ+ school hate crimes doubled from 2015-2019 to 2021-2022. But in the 28 states with new anti-LGBTQ+ laws on the books, such crimes quadrupled, The Post reported.

FBI stats show the most common crimes associated with LGBTQ+ school hate crimes are simple assault, intimidation and vandalism. Forms of bullying, which are lower on the aggression scale, might not rise to the level of being a crime. Recently, however, news stories have linked bullying of LGBTQ+ students to suicide.

On March 13, a summary autopsy report said Oklahoma high school student Nex Benedict died by suicide after being bullied in a restroom at their school because they did not identify as strictly male or female. The Washington Post report came out against that backdrop.

The Post looked at laws that bar students from sports teams or school restrooms that differ from the gender they were assigned at birth. Other laws limit or forbid teachers from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation.

How are state laws related to bullying?

The Post quoted Amy McGehee, an Oklahoma State University doctoral student who researches LGBTQ+ health and well-being. She said, “Policy sets the tone for real-world experiences [and] discriminatory policy just creates a hostile environment.”

The Post also quoted California high school student Max Ibarra, who identifies as nonbinary and transgender: “The school board has made it very clear we’re not welcome here. It’s very clear they don’t want us to exist.”

3 Valuable Books to Help Change Community Thinking

The Michigan State University Journalism School’s Bias Busters series has three guides that address basic questions for people who seek greater understanding.

One book is titled: “100 Questions and Answers About Gender Identity

Here’s an example of a common question we ran into for that guide:

Do all transgender people have gender-confirming surgery?

The answer:

Most do not. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, only 25 percent of respondents said they had some type of gender-confirming surgery. Transgender men were more likely than transgender women to have had surgery, 42 percent to 28 percent. Nine percent of nonbinary people have had surgery. Fourteen percent of transgender women and 21 percent of transgender men said they never wanted surgery. Surgery is expensive and insurance doesn’t always cover it. Even if a transgender person does not have or want surgery, their identity is still valid.

A second book is titled: 100 Questions and Answers About Sexual Orientationhttps://www.amazon.com/Questions-Orientation-Stereotypes-Surrounding-Sexualities/dp/1641800275

And a third closely related book is: “The New Bullying: How social media, social exclusion, laws and suicide have changed our definition of bullying, and what to do about it

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Joe Grimm is an MSU journalism professor and founder of the series.

We clearly have questions about the ‘Nones’ among us. MSU Bias Busters have the answers!

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By JOE GRIMM
Head of the MSU Bias Busters project

Whew! Our team of Michigan State University School of Journalism students—known as the Bias Busters—produced our latest book just in time!

For weeks now, journalists and religious leaders have been running in every direction after the latest reports on the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The same new Pew research data is being described in seemingly opposite ways. Headlines have included:

Fox: Religious ‘nones’ decline for first time since 2016, Pew study finds

NPR: Religious ‘Nones’ are now the largest single group in the U.S.

Nether headline is wrong.

While the proportion of religiously unaffiliated people in the U.S. population has declined slightly, other groups, notably Christians and Catholics, declined more. So, everybody wins— or loses.

Reactions within Christian religions to bringing people into churches varied as much as the headlines.

In The Baptist Paper in Alabama, Mark MacDonald wrote, “As believers, we need to decide if we try to reach this unchurched group, who are ‘characterized as morally directionless,’ or shake our heads and not even attempt the challenge. I would argue the question is not ‘if’ but ‘how.’ Remember, nones are not all the same, but they all need Jesus.”

MacDonald is executive director of the Center for Church Communication. He is also a speaker, consultant, author, church branding strategist for BeKnownforSomething.com. MacDonald proposes building bridges with community-helping ministries, sharing stories, leveraging social media, extending inclusive invitations and demonstrating relevance to daily life.

Michael Pakaluk, a social research and business professor at the Catholic University of America, took a harder line in an interview with the Catholic News Agency. He told CNA, “The fields are there and are ripe for the harvest. People recognize that atheism is its own form of religion. It’s harsh and unattractive. Agnosticism was never widespread and has always been limited mainly to educated classes.”

He said that if people identify as “nothing in particular”—“then in my view they are right back where the church started, among pagan nations, and that is great for us, for evangelization.” Pakaluk told CNA the rise of religious unaffiliation is due to “secularized education and the trauma and poor example of divorce.”

Despite his concerns, or maybe because of them, Pakaluk said now is a great time for evangelization. He said, “Catholic parents should think twice, or three times, before they send their children to any colleges except faithful, vibrant, Catholic colleges.”

Writing for Crisis magazine, historian and author W. Crocker III took a harder line. “Before we can reach the adult nones with the good, the beautiful, and the true, we need to shake them out of their willed imbecility. … Until that is achieved, arguments about truth will miss the mark. Christian humility, charity, and generosity will not move them. … You want to win the nones? Treat ’em rough.”

The evangelical Christianity Today ran this headline, “Why Evangelicals Aren’t Afraid of Being Outnumbered by Nones.” In the article Erik Thoennes, professor and department chair of biblical and theological studies at Biola University, said his Generation Z students are turned off by church marketing or bids to make it cool. They want authenticity.

He said he goes with traditional strengths such as the power of Christ. As the article concludes, he is quoted, “I don’t have to stay atop of the latest trends to make sure dechurching doesn’t happen at my church.” He is pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California. He said. “It’s simple: Stay focused on Jesus.”

Got questions about our minority friends, neighbors and coworkers?

There are now more than 20 guides in the Bias Busters series. Which ones would you like?