Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wait, Moses Was A Founding Father?

In 2014, the Texas School Board was getting ready to meet to pass a new set of curriculum standards for its Social Studies textbooks to meet. Although you may not have heard about it at the time, these standards would have significantly impacted what children are taught about the founding of the United States and its Constitution—and not just in Texas but around the country—since Texas is one of the largest markets for textbooks, many publishers write to Texas standards and sell the same books to school systems in other states. The changes proposed by the Texas Board of Education would have, among other questionable ideas, included Moses in the list of thinkers who influenced the Constitution and seriously called into question the premise of “separation of Church and State”.

These changes have been proposed before, and there is a reason that the folks behind them take this approach to spreading their ideas: as one advocate stated in her book One Nation Under God, “This battle for our nation’s children and who will control their education and training is crucial to our success for reclaiming our nation.” The bromide “our children are our future” is cliché but true, shaping that future through the values we teach them is a highly effective way of inserting our own agendas into that future. The faction of politically and religiously conservative, mostly “evangelical”, activists who take this approach to education have often done so with little attention paid them outside the arenas in which they operate, but the implications for the future of civic and religious understanding in this country could be enormous.

The event that brought this strategy to the forefront of my attention occurred in 2010, when the Texas Board of Education (TBOE, or the School Board) attempted to pass curriculum standards which made religion and history scholars, and Texas teachers alike, cringe at the level of disingenuousness with which they handled the founding of the United States. In their attempts to insert the notion that the US was founded by Christians as a Christian nation, they played fast and loose with both the historical understanding of who the Founders were, and with the clear trend of both the Constitution and the body of juris prudence since then establishing that the US government is and should be religiously neutral.

Examples of standards the TBOE attempted to pass include attempts to treat the Bible as inerrant and historically and scientifically factual, decontextualizing quotes from the Founding Fathers in support of the notion that America is a “Christian nation” , and inserting the Ten Commandments, Moses, and “Judeo-Christian law” as influences both on the Founders and the Constitution. The idea, says Chancey, is to “Christianize the American past” thereby “Christianiz[ing] the American future.” Justine Ellis confirms the goal of this approach: by linking Christian values with a Jewish and “Judeo-Christian” continuity, conservative Evangelical textbook consultants could make the case that American colonists were influenced by and a part of the same continuity, making the United States itself a product of this “linear trajectory” and, ultimately, of the will of God.

The underlying question I had when investigating the Texas textbook kerfuffle was “who gets to rewrite history?” We like to think of education being an objective presentation of facts, whether scientific, mathematical, or historical. And while there is some flexibility of interpretation allowed in the arts, we assume history is cut and dried—so the idea that Social Studies classes could be shaped to support an agenda may be a foreign concept. As I’ve pointed out, however, this is exactly what might have happened had the TBOE gotten its way, and still points to the question of who it is that actually supports that agenda.

Interestingly—or perhaps predictably—most of the advocates for the more questionable curriculum standadrds were not teachers or scholars or historians, but “concerned citizens” like David Barton, Don McLeroy, and Cynthia Dunbar. Their concern is that Christianity is being left out of the classroom, anathema since in their minds “America is a Christian nation”. But Barton’s degree is in Religious Studies, McLeroy is a dentist, and Dunbar is a lawyer who supports teaching creationism in science classes. These are not experts, and it seems terribly problematic to leave curricula in their hands. As Tom Barber, a publishing executive put it, “board members don’t know anything at all about content.”

Perhaps more interestingly, at no point in my research of this topic did any of the curriculum change advocates support their positions with any Biblical authority. They push for that authority to have a place in the classroom, they want Moses to be on the list of Thomas Jefferson’s influences along with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, but do not support their positions with Biblical texts. The use of the Bible is the use of an idea rather than a textual support. I came across vague notions of America as the new Israel or America as the promised land, but nowhere have I seen any reference to the Bible itself as an authority on this issue. Even the “city on a hill” quote is taken from the Winthrop sermon rather than the original source. These folks want “Biblical values” but cannot delineate what these are, or why they want them other than by a circular appeal to those values’ own authority.

But so what? Why does any of this matter? I have learned over the course of my entire education to think for myself; to question everything. When “Christian values” come up in the conversation, my ears perk up, and for good reason: I don’t want my religion, my God, my Bible used in oppressive, abusive, underhanded ways, particularly when it comes to educating children. I cannot support the use of Christianity to further a political agenda whose goal is to help those in power retain their own privilege and position.

No single blog post could contain the scope of the possible impact of this agenda; this, hopefully, was an introduction to one strategy. If you are interested in learning more, I am always available for conversation. Read my sources for yourself; ask me for more. Continue to think critically about what you hear in the news, even if it appeals to you at the surface level. Ask yourself: who is behind this (policy, activity, law, etc.)? Whom does it benefit? Whom does it hurt? Whom does it attempt to control? Why should this matter to me?

If you don’t ask the question, there is no way to find out the answer.

Rob Boston, "Texas Tall Tale: Religious Right Cowboy David Barton's Fixin' to Rewrite the Social Studies Textbooks in the Lone Star State (and Maybe Yours Too)," Church & State 62, no. 7 (2009).

Cynthia Dunbar, qtd in Russell Shorto, "How Christian Were the Founders?," New York Times 14 (2010).

Mark A. Chancey, "A Textbook Example of the Christian Right: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 3 (2007).

"Rewriting History for a Christian America: Religion and the Texas Social Studies Controversy of 2009-2010," The Journal of Religion 94, no. 3 (2014).

Justine Esta Ellis, "Constructing a Protestant Nation: Religion, Politics, and the Texas Public School Curriculum," Postscripts 7, no. 1 (2011).

Shorto, "How Christian Were the Founders?." New York Times Feb. 14, 2010

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Doing a New Thing

Well--a new old thing. 

Thinking I might have to revive this old spot in an effort to help myself process all the new things happening in my life. 

I imagine there'll he a post about my dad at some point--maybe not soon. I expect mostly posts about seminary things. Learning things. New people. New things. Hopefully mostly good things, but there'll be some uncomfortable and frustrating things too, I'm sure. 

I hope you'll walk with me. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Just a thought

I love the Bible. I believe it is the 100% true, inspired, revealed word of God. But, I also love science, so it REALLY UPSETS ME WHEN PEOPLE TRY TO USE IT AS A SCIENTIFIC DOCUMENT!

Science is not a thing that is "to be accepted on faith". That's not the point of science. Science is the "systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation" (Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2001). Faith--at least what I understand faith to be--doesn't really have a place at the scientific table. Maybe the confusion comes when we, as believers, must reconcile that which we perceive with our own senses with what we believe in our hearts to be true. I get where that can cause some cognitive dissonance. I get that it might feel like a betrayal of the things we believe, that it might feel like everything we hold dear keeps getting smaller, or less relevant. But I just can't get behind the reaction that causes people to turn off their brains. God gave us our brains, and I just can't believe that, given that, we're meant not to use them.

(I also believe that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. I know there are some things about God that are mysteries and always will be, but I hope to understand, with my brain, all the stuff I believe that can be dealt with by a rational mind.)

Questioning is as much a part of faith as it is a part of science, and the result is that when we question, we get closer to the truth. When we question our faith, the conclusions we reach are so much stronger for the questioning. When we question established scientific law, we end up with the copernican system and string theory and yes, Darwinian evolution. And it. Is. Beautiful.

And please don't tell me that science is "just a progression of people being wrong". That's sort of the point. Our whole **** civilization has basically operated on the same principle. When we question the world around us, we learn. And if we never find the absolute truth about it, that's okay. At least we never stopped learning.

In my world, the places where faith and science meet are so, so beautiful, and the God I believe in gets bigger every time I make a new connection, or read about a new discovery. I love the universe we live in, the universe God created, and every single thing I learn about it only enhances the vision I have of God as Creator.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Just so's everyone is on the same page...

Turns out, I'm not moving back to California in any permanent fashion. At least, not yet. After a somewhat dramatic airing-out with my mum, the consensus was that a) I should probably stay in one place until I am finally (finally!) finished with my BA; and b) that they do want me around.

So after laying some ground rules and deciding that a trip to San Diego was still in order (I have a lot of stuff here still, I'm guest preaching at my church on April 10th, and I have an important appointment to go to the next week), it was decided that I would come back to Jacksonville for all the same reasons I named when I moved the first time. 

I feel good about this decision. And, though I'm bummed that I won't get to spend more time with lots of good people whom I love, this is important. And I'm glad I'm not turning my back on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Blue Like Jazz

I just finished a new book, one which several of my friends have read, loved, and recommended to me, and that I hadn't read yet because of the title. Shame on me. The book is wonderful, if perhaps a little too stream-of-conscious for my taste; it really made me think.

So now my new dilemma is this: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly are all beloved children of God, and I am not allowed to hate them. I think I just found my practice for this Lent.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


I knew it was going to be rough, moving home after seven years of being away, first in the Marine Corps and then on my own in San Diego.  I knew it was going to make me feel as if I were 17 again.  The thing I didn't know was how little I like who I was at 17, and how much I've grown since then.  So maybe it's been harder than I thought it would be.

We're all trying to get along with each other; to be patient and flexible and make allowances.  But we're not the same people we were seven years ago, and it's unreasonable to expect ourselves to have the same dynamic now that we did then.

It hasn't been easy.  Besides all this loaded "I'mlivingwithmyparentsagain" angst, I miss my friends, my jobs, my community, and San Diego itself.  But one thing, more than anything else--more than the cancer, more than my racist bosses--can trigger the worst feelings I've had since I've been back:  My mom has this habit of gathering all the random things that I've left out--mail, a purse, shoes, whatever--and putting it in a pile near the door.

It makes me feel SO unwanted.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Random, but not silly at all...

Very early in the morning on September 12th, I wrote this poem. It was one of those nights that you scream into your pillow for no real reason, other than the fact that your life has suddenly, just now, become overwhelming and you have no idea why. I really had no idea why... Nothing was different from normal. It was just a passing moment, and nothing more. But it was painful.

Then, five days later, my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma in his brain. I'll let you Wikipedia that if you want to be depressed. Otherwise, don't. Suffice it to say that it's a scary, uncool, depressing diagnosis.

On September 12th, I had no idea what pain was.


My dad has been in chemo and radiation treatments for four weeks, and has just begun a clinical trial for an experimental cancer treatment drug, Avastin. He's doing really well with the treatments: he's eating well and getting plenty of rest, and he's able to get out and do things when he wants. He gets cold and tired more easily than he used to, and his head itches from the radiation, but on the other hand, he can tell people that he had brain surgery whenever he forgets something or does something weird. Which is handy, because that happened all the time before he had surgery, anyway.