Russell Shorto: Christianizing American History





[Russell Shorto is a contributing writer for the magazine. His most recent book is ‘‘Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.’’]

...This year’s social-studies review has drawn the most attention for the battles over what names should be included in the roll call of history. 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....

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.”

There was a religious element to the American Revolution, which was so pronounced that you could just as well view the event in religious as in political terms. Many of the founders, especially the Southerners, were rebelling simultaneously against state-church oppression and English rule. The Connecticut Baptists saw Jefferson — an anti-Federalist who was bitterly opposed to the idea of establishment churches — as a friend. “Our constitution of government,” they wrote, “is not specific” with regard to a guarantee of religious freedoms that would protect them. Might the president offer some thoughts that, “like the radiant beams of the sun,” would shed light on the intent of the framers? In his reply, Jefferson said it was not the place of the president to involve himself in religion, and he expressed his belief that the First Amendment’s clauses — that the government must not establish a state religion (the so-called establishment clause) but also that it must ensure the free exercise of religion (what became known as the free-exercise clause) — meant, as far as he was concerned, that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.”...

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. “In American history, religion is all over the place, and wherever it appears, you should tell the story and do it appropriately,” says Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History and perhaps the unofficial dean of American religious historians. “The goal should be natural inclusion. You couldn’t tell the story of the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Dutch in New York without religion.” Though conservatives would argue otherwise, James Kracht said the absence of religion is not part of a secularist agenda: “I don’t think religion has been purposely taken out of U.S. history, but I do think textbook companies have been cautious in discussing religious beliefs and possibly getting in trouble with some groups.”...

In the new guidelines, students taking classes in U.S. government are asked to identify traditions that informed America’s founding, “including Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law),” and to “identify the individuals whose principles of law and government institutions informed the American founding documents,” among whom they include Moses. The idea that the Bible and Mosaic law provided foundations for American law has taken root in Christian teaching about American history. So when Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., testified at the board meeting last month in opposition to the board’s approach to bringing religion into history, warning that the Supreme Court has forbidden public schools from “seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through the curriculum,” and in the process said that the founders “did not draw on Mosaic law, as is mentioned in the standards,” several of the board members seemed dumbstruck....

One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great. Peter Marshall is himself the author of a series of books that recount American history with a strong Christian focus and that have been staples in Christian schools since the first one was published in 1977....

David Barton reads the “church and state” letter to mean that Jefferson “believed, along with the other founders, that the First Amendment had been enacted only to prevent the federal establishment of a national denomination.”...

Mainstream scholars disagree, sometimes vehemently. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and writer of the documentary “Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham,” told me: “David Barton has been out there spreading this lie, frankly, that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation. He’s been very effective. But the logic is utterly screwy. He says the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution. He’s right about that. But to make that argument work you would have to argue that the phrase is not an accurate summation of the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson, who penned it, thought it was.” (David Barton declined to be interviewed for this article.)...

Ask Christian activists what they really want — what the goal is behind the effort to bring Christianity into American history — and they say they merely want “the truth.” “The main thing I’m looking for as a state board member is to make sure we have good standards,” Don McLeroy said. But the actual ambition is vast. Americans tell pollsters they support separation of church and state, but then again 65 percent of respondents to a 2007 survey by the First Amendment Center agreed with the statement that “the nation’s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation,” and 55 percent said they believed the Constitution actually established the country as a Christian nation. The Christian activists are aware of such statistics and want to build on them, as Dunbar made clear. She told me she looks to John Jay’s statement that it is the duty of the people “of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers” and has herself called for a preference for selecting Christians for positions of leadership....

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.”

Regarding religion, the writing teams had included in their guidelines some of the recommendations of the experts appointed by the Christian bloc but had chosen to ignore most. I was led to expect that the January meeting would see a torrent of religion amendments, in which Don McLeroy would reinsert items that the team failed to include, just as he did with other subjects in the past. Last November, over dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from the Texas A&M campus, McLeroy vowed to do so, saying, “I’ll get the details in there.” At that time, he and others were full of information and bravado as they pushed toward the “Christian nation” goal. But at the January meeting, while there were many conservative political amendments, there were only a few religion amendments. When I talked to him afterward, he shrugged it off in an uncharacteristically vague way. “We’re basically happy with things,” he said.

It’s possible a wave of religion amendments will come in the next meeting, in March, when American government will still be among the subjects under review. But the change of tone could signal a shift in strategy. “It could be that they feel they’ve already got enough code words sprinkled throughout the guidelines,” Kathy Miller says. The laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Moses and the Bible “informing” the American founding. “The Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” as America’s original purpose. “We’ve seen in the past how one word here or there in the curriculum standards gets seized upon by the far-right members at adoption time,” Miller says. “In the science debate, the words ‘intelligent design’ did not appear, but they used ‘strengths and weaknesses’ as an excuse to pitch a battle. The phrase became a wedge to try to weaken the theory of evolution, to suggest that scientists had serious problems with it. We’ve seen the board use these tiny fragments to wage war on publishers.”...

If there has been a shift in strategy, politics may have brought it about. The Christian bloc may have determined it would be wiser to work for this kind of transformational change out of the public gaze. Of the seven members of the Christian bloc, Ken Mercer is in a battle to keep his seat, Cynthia Dunbar recently announced she won’t run for re-election and after 11 years of forceful advocacy for fundamentalist causes on the Texas state board, during which time he was steadfastly supported by everyone from Gov. Rick Perry — who originally picked him as chairman — to tea-party organizers, Don McLeroy is now facing the stiffest opposition of his career. Thomas Ratliff, a well-connected lobbyist, has squared off against McLeroy in the Republican primary and is running an aggressive campaign, positioning himself as a practical, moderate Republican. “I’m not trying to out-conservative anyone,” Ratliff told me. “I think the state board of education has lost its way, and the social-studies thing is a prime example. They keep wanting to talk about this being a Christian nation. My attitude is this country was founded by a group of men who were Christians but who didn’t want the government dictating religion, and that’s exactly what McLeroy and his colleagues are trying to do.”

Ratliff has received prominent endorsements and has outraised McLeroy in the neighborhood of 10 to 1. But hard-core conservatives tend to vote in primaries. Anyone looking for signs of where the Republican Party is headed might scan the results of the Texas school-board District 9 Republican primary on the morning of March 3. If Don McLeroy loses, it could signal that the Christian right’s recent power surge has begun to wane. But it probably won’t affect the next generation of schoolbooks. The current board remains in place until next January. By then, decisions on what goes in the Texas curriculum guidelines will be history....



comments powered by Disqus