Montage by Carin Goldberg
Original Image: “‘Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull/The Bridgeman Art Library
Original Image: “‘Declaration of Independence,” by John Trumbull/The Bridgeman Art Library
Russell Shorto's article in The New York Times, How Christian Were the Founders?, is an eye-opening analysis of how the Christian religion is being infused into the educational system in Texas. In January, the Texas State Board of Education met to propose changes to the new social-studies curriculum guidelines. These Texas guidelines in educational curriculum will have an impact on students across the country, from kindergarten to 12th grade, for the next 10 years.
Finally, the board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.
This is how history is made — or rather, how the hue and cry of the present and near past gets lodged into the long-term cultural memory or else is allowed to quietly fade into an inaudible whisper.[...]
But while ignoring Kennedy and upgrading Gingrich are significant moves, something more fundamental is on the agenda. The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.
It's the money, stupid!
The state’s $22 billion education fund is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State.How do guidelines for curriculum in Texas schools impact the educational guidelines in other states?
Texas was one of the first states to adopt statewide curriculum guidelines, back in 1998, and the guidelines it came up with (which are referred to as TEKS — pronounced “teaks” — for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) were clear, broad and inclusive enough that many other states used them as a model in devising their own. And while technology is changing things, textbooks — printed or online —are still the backbone of education.
The cultural impact on education.
The cultural roots of the Texas showdown may be said to date to the late 1980s, when, in the wake of his failed presidential effort, the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition partly on the logic that conservative Christians should focus their energies at the grass-roots level. One strategy was to put candidates forward for state and local school-board elections — Robertson’s protégé, Ralph Reed, once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members” — and Texas was a beachhead. Since the election of two Christian conservatives in 2006, there are now seven on the Texas state board who are quite open about the fact that they vote in concert to advance a Christian agenda. “They do vote as a bloc,” Pat Hardy, a board member who considers herself a conservative Republican but who stands apart from the Christian faction, told me. “They work consciously to pull one more vote in with them on an issue so they’ll have a majority.”
The reshaping of history is based on a biblical concept.
The Christian “truth” about America’s founding has long been taught in Christian schools, but not beyond. Recently, however — 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, another 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.”
The plan to bring 'Jesus into American history.'
The Christian bloc’s notion this year to bring Christianity into the coverage of American history is not, from their perspective, revisionism but rather an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed. “I don’t know that what we’re doing is redefining the role of religion in America,” says Gail Lowe, who became chairwoman of the board after McLeroy was ousted and who is one of the seven conservative Christians. “Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation.” [...]Problems with the Texas process include censorship based on prejudice and religion.
Christian activists argue that American-history textbooks basically ignore religion — to the point that they distort history outright — and mainline religious historians tend to agree with them on this. [...]
[T]he goal: using courts and public schools to fuse Christianity into the nation’s founding. It may be unlikely that it will be attained any time soon, in which case the seeding of Texas’ history-textbook guidelines with “Christian nation” concepts may be mostly symbolic. But symbols can accumulate weight over time, and the Christian activists are in it for the long haul. Some observers say that over time their effort could have far-reaching consequences. “The more you can associate Christianity with the founding, the more you can sway the future Supreme Court,” Martin Marty says. “That is what Pat Robertson was about years ago. Establish the founders as Christians, and you have it made.”
What is wrong with the Texas process, according to many observers, is illustrated by the fate of Bill Martin Jr. The board has the power to accept, reject or rewrite the TEKS, and over the past few years, in language arts, science and now social studies, the members have done all of the above. Yet few of these elected overseers are trained in the fields they are reviewing. “In general, the board members don’t know anything at all about content,” Tom Barber, the textbook executive, says. Kathy Miller, the watchdog, who has been monitoring the board for 15 years, says, referring to Don McLeroy and another board member: “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history. Last year, Don McLeroy believed he was smarter than the National Academy of Sciences, and he now believes he’s smarter than professors of American history.” In this case, one board member sent an e-mail message with a reference to “Ethical Marxism,” by Bill Martin, to another board member, who suggested that anyone who wrote a book with such a title did not belong in the TEKS. As it turned out, Bill Martin and Bill Martin Jr. are two different people. But by that time, the author of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” was out. “That’s a perfect example of these people’s lack of knowledge,” Miller says. “They’re coming forward with hundreds of amendments at the last minute. Don McLeroy had a four-inch stack of amendments, and they all just voted on them, whether or not they actually knew the content. What we witnessed in January was a textbook example of how not to develop textbook standards.”
Before the January board meeting, one of the social-studies curriculum writers, Judy Brodigan, told me that she was very pleased with the guidelines her team produced. After the meeting, with its 10-hour marathon of amendments by board members, she spoke very differently. “I think they took a very, very good document and weakened it,” she said. “The teachers take their work seriously. I do believe there are board members on the ultraright who have an agenda. They want to make our standards very conservative and fit their viewpoint. Our job is not to take a viewpoint. It’s to present sides fairly. I thought we had done that.”
To give an illustration simultaneously of the power of ideology and Texas’ influence, Barber told me that when he led the social-studies division at Prentice Hall, one conservative member of the board told him that the 12th-grade book, “Magruder’s American Government,” would not be approved because it repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “living” document. “That book is probably the most famous textbook in American history,” Barber says. “It’s been around since World War I, is updated every year and it had invented the term ‘living Constitution,’ which has been there since the 1950s. But the social conservatives didn’t like its sense of flexibility. They insisted at the last minute that the wording change to ‘enduring.’ ” Prentice Hall agreed to the change, and ever since the book — which Barber estimates controlled 60 or 65 percent of the market nationally — calls it the “enduring Constitution.”
What is so remarkable is that this emphasis on a Christian foundation may be a barometer of a growing trend.
Read the complete article here.