This week the Texas State Board of Education will be meeting to consider recommendations from a review panel tasked with looking at revisions for the history curriculum and textbooks in the state's public schools. Since the days of Mel and Norma Gabler, this periodic process has been the focus of national attention because the Texas school system is so large that its decisions dictate what publishers will put in their books and what school districts around the country will do with their curricula.
While the Gablers censorship efforts focused mostly on trying to muddy the biology curriculum with creationism and remove suggestive material from the English texts, the focus of their successors has shifted to something closer to my personal area of concern, the issue of whether the United States was formed as a "Christian Nation."
Among the many attempts to revise history to fit a political agenda, the efforts of Christian extremists to distort the intentions of our nation's founders are particularly pernicious. Contrary to the writings of the founders, from their personal journals and letters to the key founding documents of the nation, these fanatical propagandists would have us believe that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were outspoken in their disdain for organized religion, intended for the United States to be a Christian theocracy.
This is the "Big Lie" for the ages, issued by people who believe that if they can redefine the past they can control the nation's future. They know that liberty is based on truth and believe that if they can change the truth they can then destroy liberty and essentially rewrite the Constitution. They've seen how the political left has used the schools and the teachers unions to try to sway rising generations and they see this as their opportunity to do the same.
Most troubling is that the Texas State Board of Education, which has an enormously important responsibility to safeguard the educations of the nation's children, has put people on the panel which is reviewing history textbooks who are either grossly unqualified for the job or driven by agendas which are hostile to the truth. Three of the six members are legitimate academics, but the other three represent interests whose priority is not historical accuracy.
Professor Daniel Dreisbach of American University is at least an academic, though he is not a trained as a historian. He has written several books attempting to distort Thomas Jefferson's beliefs regarding the separation of church and state and dispute the accepted interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. David Barton is the head of a group called WallBuilders which basically has the agenda of turning America into a Christian theocracy. Barton uses very selective sources and quotes taken out of context to try to make his argument that the U.S. was founded as a vehicle for religion-based government. Reverend Peter Marshall is an evangelical preacher who has said "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it." These three revisionists see their role on this panel as being to rewrite history with the express goal of putting an end to the principle of the separation of church and state, contrary to the intent of the founders and the best interests of our modern, religiously impartial nation.
I have no argument with those who want to change the emphasis of the text books to focus more on the religious groups who came to America to avoid persecution. That's a legitimate area of study which has been neglected in recent textbook editions. I think that their ideas and especially those of some of their greatest forgotten leaders like Roger Williams, who wrote "forced religion stinks in God's nostrils," ought to get more exposure. Yet even those puritans believed vehemently in the idea of the separation of church and state. They moved to America expressly for the purpose of removing themselves from a state which sought to dictate how they should worship. The wisest among them, like Roger Williams and William Penn were absolute in their belief in religious toleration and freedom of faith.
Just as we ought to give fair and honest coverage to the role which faith played in bringing people to America in their struggle for religious and political freedom, we have to give fair recognition to the influence of the enlightenment and the move away from organized religion and towards a more rational view of the universe. It was that trend which led to the new political ideas which inspired the revolution and were the basis of the government of new nation, and while they may have included a respect for the moral values of Christianity, they also included a strong suspicion of and even hostility towards organized religion and especially state-sponsored religion.
As a historian I find any effort to propagandize history by any group to be troubling. We have already seen the political left trying to subvert the curriculum and filling the heads of our children with arrant nonsense and Marxist ideology. But it is no better to undermine education with lies from the right than it is with lies from the left. Religious indoctrination has no place in the schools. Textbooks and course plans should be based on historical fact, not revisionist fantasy. Those who would rewrite history are enemies of liberty and are using the tactics of tyrants to attack the foundation of our constitutional republic.
The Texas State Board of Education doesn't get a lot of attention until an issue like this comes around, but this week they will face protesters on both sides of this issue and pressure from groups with agendas to promote. I hope that they will try to listen to the voices of history and to the wisdom of the founders of this nation rather than the advocates of extremism and theocracy.