“A Christian Land Governed By Christian Principles”

It is a sad day for the teaching of American history in Texas.  Unfortunately, we have a system that allows a dentist and others without any qualifications whatsoever to rewrite American history in a way that satisfies their own agenda.  Fortunately, they’ve been honest about that agenda from the beginning.  In the end, the state Board of Education failed to understand the difference between interpreting the crucial role that religion has played in American history and using history to advocate for a Christian world view.

No amount of prayer changes the fact that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are secular documents.  No, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion through prayer. I had to read important historical studies by such reputable historians as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove, Saul Cornell, and Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.  I think when it comes to understanding the past I will continue to do so.

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26 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough May 22, 2010

    Kevin-While the studies are excellent, it’s important to start with the documents themselves: The Declaration of Independence used the terminology of deism, which comes closest to Jefferson’s rather complex beliefs on morality & religion (let’s face it; we are talking about the same man that the Texas School Board wants to turn into a non-person because of these beliefs of his). Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights (or any subsequent amendment to the Constitution) use the terms God, Jesus, Holy Trinity. The only reference to religion in the original Constitution is Article VI’s ban on religious tests for public office. The only reference to religion among the Constitutional amendments is the First Amendment’s dual & dueling pair the Free Exercise & Establishment Clauses.

    The leading Founding Fathers and/or Framers were creatures of the Enlightenment. They even rejected Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion (it appears, primarily, to calm people down) to have a prayer said at convention sessions. It makes sense. The religious wars and persecution of Europe were not so distant. They were trying to govern a country that included the former theocracy of Massachusetts which was transitioning into the Congregational and Unitarian Churches, the states that spun off from Massachusetts Bay when it was a colony, the Quaker-founded anabaptist refuge of Pennsylvania, the Maryland founded, in part, as a refuge for British Catholics, and Virginia where it took a brutal debate to disestablish the Anglican/Episcopal Church with Jefferson and Madison leading the disestablishmentarian forces.

    • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

      Margaret,

      Of course, any history class must be structured around the documents themselves. What I find so interesting is that the Board (and many others) miss the fact that the Founders were actually trying to protect religious worship by limiting it’s influence in government.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 22, 2010

        Kevin-Agree. They firmly believed that goverment involvement in religion was not good for either government or religion, and they’ve been proved right. While the US has often fallen short, particularly in respecting the no religious test for public office ban, compare the state of religion in this country to those where Established denominations held sway. For all John Lennon got trashed for the Beatles more popular than Jesus remark, he was stating a fact about the UK. As Jefferson stated in the Query on religion (including the established church in Virginia) in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”:

        >>Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws.<<

      • Lane Kiffin May 22, 2010

        I disagree Kevin, they were trying to keep Government Influence out of Religion. I for one support the changes in TX since they will influence most of the Nations History Books for the next 10 years. We have had almost 50 years of liberal whitewashing and attacks on this Nation’s History and it is good to see it swing back toward the center.

        • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

          Lane,

          Let’s assume that the following is true: “We have had almost 50 years of liberal whitewashing and attacks on this Nation’s History and it is good to see it swing back toward the center.”

          It’s pretty clear that historical interpretation was not on the minds of most of the school board members so it is difficult to see how it gets us closer to anything having to do with a “center.”

          I agree with your first point. The FF were trying to keep government and religion separate. There is no religious qualification for public office and the FF experienced the problems associated with the Church of England and their forced support of it in many places through taxes.

        • Margaret D. Blough May 22, 2010

          Lane-

          The Framers were trying to do both. If what you suggest were correct, the First Amendment would only have the Establishment clause and not the Free Exercise clause as well. This is from James Madison’s July 10, 1822 letter to Edward Livingston http://www.constitution.org/jm/18220710_livingston.htm

          >>I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace. This has always been a favorite principle with me; and it was not with my approbation, that the deviation from it took place in Congs., when they appointed Chaplains, to be paid from the Nad. Treasury. It would have been a much better proof to their Constituents of their pious feeling if the members had contributed for the purpose, a pittance from their own pockets. As the precedent is not likely to be rescinded, the best that can now be done, may be to apply to the Constn. the maxim of the law, de minimis non curat.

          There has been another deviation from the strict principle in the Executive Proclamations of fasts & festivals, so far, at least, as they have spoken the language of injunction, or have lost sight of the equality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution. Whilst I was honored with the Executive Trust I found it necessary on more than one occasion to follow the example of predecessors. But I was always careful to make the Proclamations absolutely indiscriminate, and merely recommendatory; or rather mere designations of a day, on which all who thought proper might unite in consecrating it to religious purposes, according to their own faith & forms. In this sense, I presume you reserve to the Govt. a right to appoint particular days for religious worship throughout the State, without any penal sanction enforcing the worship. I know not what may be the way of thinking on this subject in Louisiana. I should suppose the Catholic portion of the people, at least, as a small & even unpopular sect in the U. S., would rally, as they did in Virga. when religious liberty was a Legislative topic, to its broadest principle. Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. And in a Govt. of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law, was right & necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; And that the only question to be decided was which was the true religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects, dissenting from the established sect, was safe & even useful. The example of the Colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all Sects might be safely & advantageously put on a footing of equal & entire freedom; and a continuance of their example since the declaration of Independence, has shewn that its success in Colonies was not to be ascribed to their connection with the parent Country. If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States, which have abolished their religious establishments. I cannot speak particularly of any of the cases excepting that of Virga. where it is impossible to deny that Religion prevails with more zeal, and a more exemplary priesthood than it ever did when established and patronised by Public authority. We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.<<

          I'm baffled at what you might consider to be "liberal whitewashing" or even how one could simultaneously whitewash and attack.

          • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

            Margaret,

            Part of the problem is that complex questions are being reduced to meaningless generalizations. Where the Framers stood on the role and place of religion in public life ought to be discussed, but we got nowhere reducing such complex issues to meaningless generalizations. When I am teaching about the place of democracy during the Founding Era I have to get across a very difficult narrative. Most of my students are surprised to learn that many of the Framers were skeptical about the role of the people in government. We have to come to an understanding about government during the colonial period, the effects of the Revolution/Articles of Confederation on these assumptions as well as the steps the Framers took during the Constitutional Convention. Finally, we have to understand the Bill of Rights. My point is that we ought not to treat the Framers themselves as static points. Many of them evolved in their understanding of core issues related to how our government ought to operate. My hope at the end of this unit is that my students have more questions than answers.

            • Margaret D. Blough May 22, 2010

              Kevin-I agree with you. I’m firmly in the school of the Constitution as living, constantly evolving being rather than something rigidly carved in stone. IMHO, the Framers understood that they were attempting something unprecedented that they hoped would survive into a future that they couldn’t even begin to imagine. The original Constitution is a remarkably brief framework. The fact that it provided an amendment process that was difficult enough to survive popular whims but change when change reached a consensus and binding on all states without unanimity.

              However, the foundation needs to be understood & seen clearly. The Founding Fathers and Framers were not saints but what they believed and why they did what they did must continually be rescued from those who would distort it to suit their own ends.

        • Marianne Davis May 22, 2010

          Lane,

          I agree that the Founders were trying to protect religion from State intrusion. I fear, though, that threat seems to be growing in Texas and elsewhere. The new Texas texts, and the influence you hope they will exert for the next twenty years, appear to be part of that threat. Those of us who hold religious views which differ from those of the Christian right are now in danger of being portrayed as somehow outside of the normative American ethos. I am a committed Christian woman who thinks it is important to remember that the Pilgrims feared and detested religious freedom, that the Founders mistrusted my own church, and that Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were roughly tied for infrequent church attendance.
          We entrust our children to their schools. We must hope that the schools will present facts, and through the years, teach the children to confirm, analyze or even debunk them. History must be treated like math. (I would say like science, but science is proving too fact-based for some, as well.) Children should question, test, prove and disprove if they can. But we must present the facts as we find them, not as we wish they were.

        • toby May 23, 2010

          It is extraordinary that you should attack political slanting of history textbooks, by celebrating political slanting of history textbooks (from a different brand of politics)! Surely, the solution was to invite a panel of Texas historians to make submissions and advise the committee on a balanced curriculum?

          Luckily, textbooks are less important today because of the availability of documents on the internet. So a resourceful (in the best context) teacher will not be constrained.

          The reputation of Texas education has already suffered because of the school board’s activities in relation to the teaching of evolution.

          • Andy Hall May 23, 2010

            Unless I am mistaken, none of the members of the Texas board have advanced, formal academic training in the social sciences (broadly defined), and certainly the board doesn’t have that level of expertise across all the range of curricula for which they are responsible. Board members are elected; the only qualification is that required to hold any public office in Texas — which is to say, virtually none.

            The problem was not that the board didn’t have legitimate and balanced input from professionals; it did. The problem is that the board, usually on a straight, party-line vote, has consistently adopted hard-right, Christianist interpretations in virtually every field, including (as you note) the biological sciences. One member, Cynthia Dunbar of Richmond (west of Houston), for example, is an attorney whose law degree is from Regent University — Pat Robertson’s outfit — and who is explicitly opposed to publicly-funded education of any kind, saying in her recent book that “the establishment of public schools is unconstitutional and even ‘tyrannical’.” Naturally, Governor Perry is rumored to want Dunbar to serve as board chairperson next time around.

    • Jonathan Dresner May 22, 2010

      Reading these comments after viewing the video (ugh) yesterday, I came to a realization. What Ms. Blough (and most of us) consider the founding documents of the nation are really the founding documents of the state. The Texas Invocation, and the Christianist historical view it represents, views those documents as secondary to earlier materials (mentioned in the Invocation and Standards) because they define the nation in an ethnic-cultural sense as continuous with the early English settlers. This explains a lot, actually, about their views on race, religion and change. Unlike the traditional ‘originalist’ view which sees the Founding Fathers as critical defining figures, this Board is taking a more radical step which allows them, in their own minds, to bypass the Founders generation and the balances they established.

      • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

        Jonathan,

        That’s a really good point.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 22, 2010

        Jonathan-I definitely see your point, but my experience is that proponents of this desperately try to portray themselves as the true heirs of the Founding Fathers and the Framers instead of admitting that what they are after is a radical rejection of the founding principles. Of course, the Enlightenment principles at the core of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were never universally accepted. The Constitutional ratificaion process was contentious, dramatic, and, at times, quite rowdy. John Calhoun explicitly rejected Jefferson’s egalitarian vision in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Andy Hall May 22, 2010

    This has been building for a long time here in Texas, and it surprises no one who’s been paying attention to these issues within the state. I have mixed feelings about the national and international attention the board has been getting lately — glad because sunlight is the best disinfectant, and discouraged because it makes all of us here look like fools — as Coates likes to say, “proud of being ignorant.”

    FWIW, the chairman of the board, Don McLeroy, was defeated in the Republican primary some weeks back, but his term doesn’t end until next January.

  • Al Mackey May 22, 2010

    Kevin, Please don’t take this as a hostile comment, because I don’t mean it in any hostile way at all. But have you actually read the new standards themselves, and not just reports about them? I keep reading comments about what a travesty the new standards are, how they’re removing people from history, how this will set history in Texas back years, but when I actually read the new standards themselves I don’t see that. I see where, as conservatives, the Texas board would emphasize the accomplishments of people a liberal board would not wish to emphasize, and that they don’t emphasize the accomplishments of people a liberal board would want to emphasize. The use the words “such as” when they are listing the people. They very clearly explain those are examples, not meant to be restrictive. They also use the word “including” to list people also. They very clearly explain that those people must be included in the textbooks, but the textbooks aren’t limited to those people. I don’t see where they are mandating that falsehoods be taught as truths. Quite frankly, so far it seems as though the hubbub is, in the grand scheme of things, much do about nothing. It’s that some liberal icons are being deemphasized while some conservative icons are being emphasized. Can people point to page and paragraph where the new standards are factually wrong? Seriously, I’d like to be educated on this to see where they will actually do all the damage I’ve been reading about in commentaries, because I don’t see that damage in the standards.

    • Kevin Levin May 22, 2010

      Hi Al,

      I welcome the comment. Yes, I have seen updated lists of proposed changes on various websites that I assumed reflected the work of the commission. I agree that a great deal of commentary on the news and web is coming from folk who clearly are getting their information second hand. I have a number of friends who teach history in Texas who have sent along information. The one thing I am not so clear about is why some of these changes were needed. Of course, I agree that it is always helpful to go back to review a given subject’s curriculum. I do it as a matter of course at the beginning of every year. That said, can someone provide me with concrete examples of textbooks that capture this out-of-control liberal bias? I am looking for textbook titles and direct quotes.

      Just in case anyone is interested here is the Texas Administrative Code from 1998: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter113/index.html

  • JMRudy May 22, 2010

    Kevin et al.,
    As an avowed deist, and on-again-off-again atheist, I have one shot I fire across the Christian Right’s bow when it comes to this whole ‘US founded as a Christian nation’ debate…

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
    -Article 11, Treaty of Tripoli, Ratified by Congress 7June 1797

    That note, written by members of the Revolutionary generation and signed into law by one of the co-authors of the most beautiful document ever written, is enough for me.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2010

      John,

      Thanks for the comment. I think we have to be very careful when discussing this issue. It’s much too easy to reduce the subject down to our favorite passage. We could prove pretty much anything about the past if we take this approach. I am much more interested in approaching these questions from a much broader perspective. As to how to understand the Constitution and Bill of Rights I shared the books that have shaped my view of this subject. Folks are free to object to those specific studies assuming they have read them.

  • elektratig May 23, 2010

    Be careful about relying upon what you read in the Washington Post. Lawprof Ann Althouse has gone through some of the characterizations in the article and blasts them as inaccurate. http://althouse.blogspot.com/2010/05/if-youre-going-to-criticize-new-social.html

  • chris meekins May 23, 2010

    Not to sell short the actions and the resulting texts; and I understand that, in the past, as Texas went so goes a whole lot of textbook manufacturing. But it seems a really simple solution – work to make sure the local school board or state agency does not adopt this text book as the standard.

    If you delivery an inferior product then the buyer should vote by spending his or her money elsewhere. Textbook manufacturers, if left with a red bottom line, will change their tune.

    Call me crazy but I thought that was, um, capitalism. Forcing a singular view without allowing competition seems somewhat socialistic. That ought to make those real Americans a bit more squeamish.
    [Last bit is a clumsy attempt at humor - sue me if you must.]

  • Al Mackey May 23, 2010

    Kevin,

    First of all, thanks to Elektratig for the link pointing out the inaccuracies in the Washington Post commentary. It’s the type of great work this poster is known for in various fora. But Kevin you asked why these changes are needed. Doesn’t this go directly to your work on memory? As the result of elections, this particular board has been assembled and chooses to emphasize more conservative icons than liberal icons in the way history is remembered. This is just more evidence that elections at all levels matter and the winners get to implement their agendas, because theoretically at least they represent the collective agendas of the majorities who elected them. Don’t ask me about specific examples regarding so-called “liberal” textbooks, because I personally reject the claim that textbooks as a whole have a decidedly liberal bias. Other than the late Howard Zinn’s _A People’s History of the United States,_ which wasn’t widely used below the college level, I am hard-pressed to point to any texts that have an overly liberal bias. Even in Zinn’s book, I don’t see inaccuracies. I see a different emphasis. If passing the new standards is indeed a “sad day for the teaching of American History in Texas,” I haven’t seen it, and I’m still trying to be educated on why that is so, since again I don’t find any inaccuracies in the standards themselves.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2010

      Al,

      It seems to me that many on board went beyond simply pointing out a difference in emphasis. Based on interviews I’ve seen some on the board (especially Mackey) have been quite clear about how they hope to use history in the classroom. I was simply asking for specific examples that might give me a sense of where the problems lay w/ the old standards. I think you are making too much of a big deal in my choice of words. I’ve been following this for some time and was referring to the process as a whole.

  • Al Mackey May 23, 2010

    Kevin,

    I think you mean McLeroy. : )

    I don’t disagree with you at all regarding what has been reported about the personal hopes of some of the board members. But my comments are based on what is in the standards themselves, not on what people on any side are saying about the standards. Thus far I’ve seen no concrete examples to bolster claims of those who are against the standards.

    • Kevin Levin May 23, 2010

      I agree that the text has been largely overlooked. Thanks also to Elektratig for providing the link. Still, I don’t think we can overlook how the board has arrived at its decisions. There is a broader story here.

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