Texas public school students are about to learn that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the Bible.
Or at least that’s what some experts fear will happen if Texas’ State Board of Education (SBOE) passes a controversial proposed social studies curriculum. According to the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an ally of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, serious problems plague the books.
TFN, a statewide watchdog of the Religious Right, recently released an independent review of the textbooks, an act it says was made necessary by the SBOE’s failure to appoint the appropriate scholars to its own review team. Only three out of 140 of the state’s reviewers teach history at a Texas college or university; Politico noted that the SBOE rejected a slate of qualified scholars and educators.
TFN’s independent review team, while much smaller than the SBOE’s, included three full professors and seven doctoral candidates in history. And they’ve concluded that the textbooks as proposed pose serious threats to the separation of church and state.
Among their findings: The books “exaggerate” Judeo-Christian influence on the Founding Fathers and “include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.”
In fact, a government textbook published by McGraw-Hill states, “Thomas Jefferson once referred to the establishment clause as a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase is not used in the Constitution, however.”
Another, published by Perfection Learning, skews discussion of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale, which banned school officials from writing prayers and coercing students to participate. TFN’s review notes, “The discussion has four paragraphs that are devoted primarily to examining the logic of the rulings of lower, state courts in favor of school prayer. These paragraphs mention that a state court decision notes that ‘neither the Constitution nor its writers discussed the use of prayer in public schools’ and that the judges in these cases ‘noted that the prayer did not fall into the same category as Bible readings or religious instruction in public schools.’”
These flaws are probably no accident. According to critics on both ends of the political spectrum, the state’s latest curriculum controversy is the direct result of textbook standards passed by the SBOE in 2010.
Not long after those standards passed, Mariah Blake of Washington Monthly interviewed Don McLeroy, who at the time served as the SBOE’s chair. McLeroy, an unabashed creationist, told Blake, “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation. But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles.”
He added, “The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan – he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”
Despite their focus on Reagan, the standards McLeroy worked so hard to pass didn’t encounter universal acceptance from the right. In 2011, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute called them a “politicized distortion of history.”
“Biblical influences on America’s founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed,” the Institute reported. “Texas has constructed a bizarre amalgam of traditionally ahistorical social studies – combining the usual inclusive, diversity-driven checklists with a string of politically and religiously motivated historical distortions.”
The Institute was hardly a lonely voice crying in the wilderness; rather, many critics speculated that the newly passed standards heralded a major victory for the Religious Right principally due to the state’s size.
Gail Collins, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2012, noted, “No matter where you live, if your children go to public schools, the textbooks they use were very possibly written under Texas influence.”
The reason, Collins argued, is that “[T]he state was so big and influential that national publishers tended to gear their books toward whatever it wanted.”
The view is supported by Blake; in the piece profiling McLeroy, she noted that Texas is the nation’s “second-largest textbook market” and quoted a textbook publishing official as saying, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”
Years later, it appears that observers’ concerns – and McLeroy’s ambitions – have come to fruition.
Emile Lester, a professor of history in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington, reviewed the textbooks for TFN and told Church & State they contained so many problems it was difficult to summarize them all.
According to Lester, the books contained “inventions and exaggerations” about Christianity’s influence on the Founding Fathers and, by extension, the formation of American democracy.
He added that some of the texts specifically emphasized the alleged influence of Mosaic law on the founding of the United States. Although the Religious Right peddles this claim frequently, scholars have debunked it.
“That’s certainly a strange argument for them to make,” Lester said. “Solomon was a monarch who levied public taxes for a public works.”
Lester placed the blame for the textbooks’ problems at the feet of the SBOE, noting that its textbook standards ask students to compare and contrast separation of church and state with what’s in the Constitution (the implication is that the concept isn’t constitutional).
“That’s a dangerous game for conservatives to play,” he said. “‘God’ doesn’t appear in the Constitution, and ‘democracy’ doesn’t appear in the Bible. Context matters just as much as wording.”
But according to Lester and his fellow reviewers, the SBOE is concerned less with historical context and more with ideology. In an editorial for The Daily Beast news website, Edward Countryman, who teaches colonial American history at Southern Methodist University and reviewed the textbooks for TFN, wrote, “The issue that attracted the most attention revolved around the intellectual influences the Framers felt when they crafted the United States Constitution. The new curriculum standards require students to learn about the supposed influence of individuals such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, William Blackstone, and even Moses on 18th-century republican thought and the American founding.”
Countryman continued, “Never mind that Aquinas and Calvin were theologians, or that Blackstone believed all societies should require some form of absolute, unchallengeable sovereign power. The real issue turned out to be Moses.”
Moses’ inclusion, Countryman wrote, is evidence of a more nefarious agenda at work. He cited analysis by scholar Justine Esta Ellis, who noted in 2011 that the SBOE’s decision to include the biblical figure in social studies education is likely part of an attempt to promote the idea that the United States is a “redeemer nation” – that is, American exceptionalism given divine justification.
Kathleen Wellman, a former colleague of Countryman’s, told the SBOE at its September 16 hearing that as a result of the curriculum standards, students were likely to think that Moses was “the first Founding Father.”
TFN’s communications director, Dan Quinn, says the standards reflect a concerted effort to introduce fundamentalist beliefs to public school classrooms. He told Church & State that the SBOE’s decision to reject over a dozen applications from qualified scholars is telling, given who board members did approve to review the books: among those reviewers is a used car salesman turned minister, with no qualifications in education or research.
Although individuals like that won slots as reviewers, the chair of the History Department at Southern Methodist University and several faculty members at the University of Texas were rejected. Quinn says that was a deliberate move.
“There’s a very substantial bloc of [SBOE] members who reject separation of church and state and believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation,” Quinn said. He also noted that the SBOE’s current chair, Barbara Cargill, is a creationist, just like her predecessor.
Quinn, who added there are “serious questions” about whether the books violate the First Amendment, said that several state definitively that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, and that the story can be found in the Book of Exodus.
“That’s a faith claim,” he noted.
And, echoing comments made to Collins years ago, he warned that if the SBOE decides to keep the books, there could be national ramifications for history education. Specifically, he said, he’s concerned that publishers will sell the books to other states, whose officials might be unaware of their flaws.
The Texas offensive isn’t the first time Religious Right groups have tried to rewrite social studies textbooks. In 1998, California’s Academic Standards Commission was asked to prepare history and social studies standards for all grade levels. One member sought input from notorious “Christian nation” advocate David Barton.
Barton singled out every mention of the phrase “separation of church and state” in the standards and sought to have them removed. The effort was flying mostly under the radar until Susan Mogull, an activist with AU’s Sacramento Chapter, realized what was going on and launched a counter-offensive. In the end, many of Barton’s suggestions were removed, but some remained.
Barton, like many of the reviewers in Texas, has no academic training as a historian. His input was sought purely for ideological reasons. Many Religious Right supporters don’t like evolution and have fashioned creationism to combat it; likewise, they don’t like the true history of America that shows the Founders’ support for separation of church and state. The “Christian nation” myth is their response.
Other states are at risk. Researcher Sarah Smarsh wrote recently in Guernica magazine about efforts by far-right legislators in Kansas and other states to push “Celebrate Freedom Week.” During the event, schools are told to focus on “the original intent, meaning and importance” of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and reminded that “the religious references in the writings of the founding fathers shall not be censored when presented as part of such instruction.”
Smarsh noted that the Kansas State Department of Education issued a list of resources, among them a group called American Heritage Education Foundation. The Foundation publishes a book titled The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. It purports to show “how the Bible and Judeo-Christian thought are arguably the nation’s most significant foundational root and its enduring source of strength.”
In Colorado, a flap over social studies has roiled Jefferson County, where a conservative school board has complained that advanced-placement history classes are too negative. They board wants classes that teach “American exceptionalism,” a view many scholars say whitewashes some aspects of the nation’s past. Some observers believe the movement is spreading to other states.
As this issue of Church & State went to press, Texas’ SBOE hadn’t yet voted whether or not to adopt the textbooks as proposed. The final vote is set to occur this month, however, and that leaves critics scrambling to define next steps. But short of litigation, there are few options available if the books enter classrooms. Quinn stated that parents could encourage local school districts to be wary of the texts, though it’s unclear exactly what schools can do if they’re reluctant to use the curriculum.
Americans United has been active. Zack Kopplin, an activist who works to keep sectarian bias out of public education, testified before the board on AU’s behalf Sept. 16.
“It is greatly concerning that two of the proposed government textbooks provide misleading information about the U.S. Constitution and the separation of church and state, and several others overemphasize the influence of Judeo-Christian legal traditions on the founding of our government,” Kopplin told the board. “The proposed textbooks contain many problematic statements, among them a passage that wrongly applies Moses’ Ten Commandments to the founding of America and a discussion of the separation of church and state that emphasizes state court cases governing prayers in public schools, while de-emphasizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings that such prayers are unconstitutional.”
Kopplin added, “The social studies curriculum proposed today would continue to overstate the alleged biblical sources for our history, law, government, and morals, without providing an accurate account of the prohibitions on government involvement in religion. And, it would fail to teach students about equally valid points of view outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is the duty of public schools to educate the children of this state – not to promote any particular religious viewpoint.”
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, argues that regardless of whether the textbooks pose a threat to other states, their adoption puts the First Amendment in jeopardy in Texas.
“Students deserve access to fair, unbiased history education,” he said. “Children aren’t pawns in a fundamentalist culture war and the SBOE is poised to seriously damage their chances to succeed in higher education and the working world.”