Texas’ social studies standards are a mess. Thanks to pressure from Religious Right groups and far-right revisionists, the standards cast doubt on the validity of separation of church and state as a constitutional principle, reflect sympathy to the Confederacy when discussing the Civil War and insist that the U.S. government has religious underpinnings.
Over the past few months, scholars and educators have been working to revise these standards. They have a lot of work to do. As Dan Quinn with the Texas Freedom Network notes, “What do the current standards teach Texas students? Moses was a major influence on the Constitution. The roots of our nation’s legal and political systems are found in the Bible. Slavery wasn’t the primary cause of the Civil War. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson is a role model for students.”
The claim about Moses and the Ten Commandments is especially galling – and it’s one that has popped up in other contexts. When Americans United fights the display of the Ten Commandments at the seat of government, we’re often met with the argument that government-backed display of the Decalogue is permissible because it’s the foundation of our government.
The argument has a glaring flaw: It’s not true.
Many of the Ten Commandments deal explicitly with religious issues, such as how God is to be worshipped and treated. Some of the commandments deal with moral issues such as prohibitions on murder, lying and theft – rules that are common in other ancient law codes – but the Ten Commandments is hardly a governance document. It says nothing about how a government is to be established or maintained.
In 2003 during AU’s legal battle with Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, 41 professors and legal historians filed an important brief that examined this question. Moore had displayed the Ten Commandments in a judicial building in Montgomery, arguing that they were the font of American law.
The scholars reached a much different conclusion. Nothing in the nation’s legal history supports Moore’s view, they asserted.
Observed the scholars, “Aside from a failed attempt in the seventeenth century to establish a biblically based legal system in the Puritan colonies, American law is generally viewed as having secular origins.”
The brief noted that “various documents and texts” figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and private international law.
American law, they pointed out, was also influenced by the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.
The saddest thing about the Texas standards isn’t just that they rob students of the truth, it’s that they deny those young people the opportunity to hear a really interesting story. America has a foundational document – the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The story of how our nation got that document (which, by the way, is secular) and the story of how we went from a small band of theocratic settlers in Massachusetts to a country that celebrates religious freedom for all is a fascinating one. It’s filled with larger-than-life figures such as Roger Williams, John Leland, Isaac Backus, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others.
It’s a story of a new nation that dared to do what no country had done before: separate church and state as a means of protecting freedom of conscience. And it’s a story of the great success that flowed from that policy.
We should be proud of that story. We should embrace it, proclaim it and tell it with great gusto.
Young people all over America deserve to hear that story. Instead, in Texas, they’re being told an implausible tale about Moses being a Founding Father.
It’s way past time to rectify this.