I just read this article, which will be in the New York Times Sunday Magazine tomorrow - and steam is currently coming out my ears.
The question of the Christianity of the Founders has been a long and heated one - clearly people are lined up on both sides of the fence and the battle lines are drawn. What I find particularly appalling are three things: 1) the fact that people who have NO idea what they are talking about except religious credo and fanaticism are leading the way for textbook publishers; 2) that the influence of one state is so overwhelming on the others; and 3) that the right wing ultra-conservative faction has it so wrong, period, and are trying desperately to pull the rug out from under anyone who would say otherwise, masking the free speech and debate so cherished by our Constitution.
But let's talk about what they have wrong.
Note this quote from the article:
In the guidelines — which will be subjected to further amendments in March and then in May — eighth-grade history students are asked to “analyze the importance of the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Virginia House of Burgesses to the growth of representative government.” Such early colonial texts have long been included in survey courses, but why focus on these in particular? The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut declare that the state was founded “to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The language in the Mayflower Compact — a document that McLeroy and several others involved in the Texas process are especially fond of — describes the Pilgrims’ journey as being “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” and thus instills the idea that America was founded as a project for the spread of Christianity.
True enough in some ways: the documents *do* describe the idea that many people came to the colonies in search of both a religious way of life and a place to "plant" their zeal. They also came with the idea that they would have free reign over this land - land already inhabited by First Peoples. So what did the colonizers do? They tried forced conversion (I see no respect for Native cultures in THAT - do you?)... and when that failed, the Puritans tried outright slaughter (think for a moment on the Pequots, the Wampanoags, and Narragansetts, among others, who were killed in the name of religion and religious freedom as the Puritans viewed it). The Virginia House of Burgesses accepted and encouraged Indian excision from ancestral lands, and expressed no qualms about applying military tactics to do so in the most brutal of ways.
Consider the quote from Don McLeroy, though: "We want stories with morals, not P.C. stories." What McLeroy, the former head of the Texas State Board of Education, a dentist, and self-proclaimed new-earth creationist, fails to grasp is that these are not P.C. stories; these are history, plain and simple. History is a mucky place, full of violence, love, hate, passion, sex, tangled alliances and even more tangled threads; as I tell my students on the first day of class, "You are not the first to discover these elements - what you feel today has come before - and will come again. Seek out the stories in the textbooks and in the history and learn to understand some of the inherent biases that exist in recording and transmitting history." McLeroy clearly is much less savvy than my students, because most of mine manage to figure these things out - or at least recognize and convey their basic understandings of them - by the end of a semester's work. Naturally, I don't want my students' history education to end there, but it is thrilling to see them expand - and yet be able to continue with their own religious, social and economic lives. A diligent, ethical history teacher never, ever, attempts to influence a student's religion - ever.
Perhaps McLeroy's concern is that the history teachers in Texas are not diligent and ethical? I would, for the most part, disagree. In my summer work grading national standardized tests I meet high school and college history teachers from around the country, and I have found that most - if not all of them - are compassionate and competent folk. They believe in their duties to inform, and to engender critical thinking skills in their students. And, I would wager that 99% of them would never seek to influence religious viewpoints. The other 1% have, in my experience, been in the McLeroy camp and do much more harm than good. They resist embracing standards. And they are more than willing to push their personal beliefs onto others.
Does McLeroy NOT want students to learn to think critically about all possible elements of society's past that have been handed down to us? Or does he only want children and young adults who can spout his viewpoint and his only? Does he not realize that this is - and always has been - a multicultural nation, and that the stories of all cultures we study are valuable and essential to understanding both their pasts and our future as well?
Consider also this:
Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.
I don't think there is a scholar worth his or her salt that would say that Christianity did not have a tremendous influence on the "origins" (what a loaded word) of our country. Not so sure about the development of the free-market system's inherent reliance on Biblical principles (it would be interesting to see him defend this statement), but he is basically correct on the idea that Christianity was a strong influence. So were Locke and Polybius and Montesquieu and Hobbes and Rousseau. He is dead wrong when he says that the idea of individual rights comes from the Bible - as though that is the fountainhead. It actually comes from the idea of sovereignty of the people and is based in the philosophy of the social contract. An Enlightenment ideal and not a Biblical one. Peter Marshall is also dead wrong stating, “The Founding Fathers’ biblical worldview taught them that human beings were by nature self-centered, so they believed that the supernatural influence of the Spirit of God was needed to free us from ourselves so that we can care for our neighbors.” Again, McLeroy: “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that." Um, no, sir.
Even beyond this, though, these ultra-conservative men - and their ilk - are attempting to hijack the minds of our children. Cynthia Dunbar, quoted in the article, states, “this battle for our nation’s children and who will control their education and training is crucial to our success for reclaiming our nation.” Also cited in the article - again by Ms. Dunbar:
Recently...perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists — some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, [a] ... Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”
Certainly this is true, but shouldn't we want strong critical thinkers made of *all* students (regardless of their religious backgrounds and beliefs), well-versed in the important issues of our multicultural, interfaith society? Somehow, I suspect Dunbar and McLeroy's answer would be an emphatic "no." They're overarching goal is to bring to the fore young men and women who will act as Christian warriors, willing to fight and fight hard for their version of revisionist history.
So where does this leave us? With much unsaid and much unargued. This debate will undoubtably continue for decades - remember the Scopes Trial? You should. It was in the 1920s and is still with us today in the divide between creationism and "intelligent design." We must all be prepared to gird ourselves for a long, hard and bitter fight.
But, in closing, I will agree with McLeroy on one thing - and likely one thing only (besides the value of brushing and flossing): "For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing."
It is, indeed.
(Many, many thanks to Russell Shorto for writing the original article.)