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

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