September 2022 Church & State Magazine

Erasing History: Christian Nationalism Invades Florida’s Civics Curriculum

  Liz Hayes

Christian nationalism is being “baked into” Florida’s new civics and government curriculum, according to teachers who attended state-sponsored training on Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’ new education initiative.

The Miami Herald broke the story in late June that, as part of DeSantis’ Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative (CLEI), teachers were being trained in alternative facts about the history and intent of the separation of church and state in America, as well as a whitewashed history on slavery and racism in our country.

“There was this Christian nationalism philosophy that was just baked into everything that was there,” Richard Judd, a Broward County social studies teacher with 22 years of experience, told the Herald after attending the training.

“It was very skewed,” Barbara Segal, a 12th-grade government teacher at Fort Lauderdale High School, told the Herald. “There was a very strong Christian fundamentalist way toward analyzing different quotes and different documents. That was concerning.”

Americans United immediately launched an investigation, sending a public records request to the Florida Department of Education to demand all documents, materials, contracts and audio or video recordings related to the trainings.

“We’re not going to sit by while politicians smuggle white Christian nationalism into public school curriculums under the guise of good citizenship,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser. “This is another attack in the long war religious extremists and their lawmaker allies have launched on our public schools.”

Herald writers Ana Ceballos and Sommer Brugal wrote that the paper had reviewed more than 200 pages of the state’s presentations, which their story described as “infused with a Chris­tian and conservative ideology.” Examples of the trainings’ misinformation on church-state separation included:

  •  One slide underscoring that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.”
  •  A slide highlighting three U.S. Supreme Court cases that the trainers believed show when the “Founders’ original intent [regarding religious freedom] began to change” – including Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 landmark decision that struck down mandatory school-sponsored prayers in public schools. Judd, the Broward County teacher, said the trainers viewed the Engel decision as unjust and compared it to the court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine – a ruling widely regarded as one of the worst in Supreme Court history.
  •  Slides that showed alleged “misconceptions” included the statements “The Founders desired strict separation of church and state and the Founders only want to protect Freedom of worship” and “The American colonies were characterized by religious intolerance … and there was no religious liberty in America until the First Amendment.”
  •  During breakout sessions, the presenters repeatedly mentioned the influence Jesus Christ and the Bible had in the country’s foundation, teachers said.

“We are constantly under attack, and there is this false narrative that we’re indoctrinating children, but that is nothing compared to what the state just threw in new civic educators’ faces. That’s straight-up indoctrination,” said Segal, the government teacher who has 19 years of experience educating children.

When it was announced in summer 2021, DeSantis’ $106 million education initiative – which includes rolling out revised K-12 civics and government curriculum standards for the 2023-24 school year – was billed as an “all-in approach to fully elevate civic literacy and education for Florida’s students and teachers, beyond any state in the nation,” according to a statement by Richard Corcoran, then the state’s commissioner of education,

But in other remarks by Corcoran and DeSantis, their intent is clearly about indoctrinating public school students on their conservative religious and political beliefs, not about providing a comprehensive education.

Last spring, Corcoran told the conservative Christian Hillsdale College’s National Leadership Seminar that education is “100 percent ideological,” according to the Herald. “Education is our sword. That’s our weapon. Our weapon is education,” Corcoran said. “And we can do it. We can get it right.”

During an interview earlier this summer for a Christian nationalist group’s podcast, DeSantis leaned into a favorite talking point about combatting “woke ideologies” when Focus on the Family President Jim Daly claimed “the more we remove God from the public square, I think the more we see disaster in the culture” and asked DeSantis “where you sit, when we’re not teaching our kids values and virtues any longer, what do we expect them to behave like?”

“What the Left is doing is they are saying religion’s role in the public square should be eliminated, and they will cite the First Amendment and establishment of religion, which was not what it was intended to do,” DeSantis responded. “They are trying to establish a religion of their own. This woke ideology functions as a religion, obviously it is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they want that to be effectively the governing faith of our country. They want that to be the core orthodoxy in public schools and in other types of public functions. And so, they want to impose their values. They’re not really advocating for just a pluralistic public square; they really want to impose their worldview to the exclusion of the rest of us.”

DeSantis expanded on his view of American exceptionalism and hinted at his belief in its Judeo-Christian origins during a press conference in July: “History is good and bad. There’s all kinds of things that happen, but I think that the story is that because that we were founded differently on different ideas — about God-given rights and the way the government, the proper role of people’s lives, people have been able to triumph over big, big challenges.”

DeSantis’ remarks were reported by the news site Florida Phoenix, which interviewed AU VP of Strategic Communications Andrew L. Seidel for the story. “Christian nationalism is fundamentally opposed to pluralist democracy and, if we are teaching that to children in the public schools, we aren’t raising good citizens. It’s the opposite to what DeSantis claims is the goal of this program,” Seidel said.

In addition to demanding records related to the training materials, Americans United also requested copies of any correspondence relating to the trainings, particularly with Hillsdale College. According to the Herald’s reporting, the politically influential college in Michigan helped the state education department develop the workshops. Also reportedly playing a role in the trainings’ development was the Virginia-based Bill of Rights Institute, which was founded by Charles Koch, the billionaire known for funding conservative and libertarian causes.

Laser at AU noted the Christian nationalist elements of Florida’s new civics curriculum training are just one facet in the larger assault on public education in Florida and across the country. On the same day that AU sent its records request, Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” bill went into effect. Critics believe the bill will have a chilling effect on the state’s teachers, preventing them from age-appropriate lessons on LGBTQ issues and sexual health, or even mentioning their own or students’ same-sex or transgender relationships or family members. Florida legislators and DeSantis’ education department also have taken steps to curtail lessons that are overly critical of America’s history of slavery and racism, all under the guise of cracking down on the conservative bogeyman critical race theory – an academic study of systemic racism not typically taught in K-12 grades.

“It is disturbing, really, that through these workshops and through legislation, there is this attempt to both censor and to drive or propagandize particular points of view,” said Judd, the Broward County teacher.

“What I’m seeing here is a governor who is trying to demonize public education,” Stephen Backs told the Herald. Backs, who has taught history in Miami-Dade County schools for 27 years, didn’t attend the training but reviewed a series of slides from the event. “In the long run, it’s going to do so much damage. We’ve made so many advances and [the DeSantis administration] is trying to split us apart again. It’s going to cost us our culture.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Flor­ida Education Association, a state­wide teachers union, told the Florida Phoenix that it’s “concerning, and interesting, that this is coming from the governor’s administration where he keeps accusing teachers of indoctrinating kids but then clearly seems to want to put out a civics class in which he’s indoctrinating kids.

“As I understand it from those teachers who attended that first training that they had on civics was that it wasn’t just teaching about religion – it was teaching in one way skewed to a specific religion,” Spar added. “And it really mischaracterized the founding of this country, where it said the founding of this country is based on religion. The founding of this country was actually based on escaping religious persecution. … I think our founding fathers were very deliberate in talking about religion not being so central in how our government functions. So, you know, it is concerning.”

AU’s Laser agreed: “The state shouldn’t be indoctrinating students into Christian nationalism but educating them about the separation of church and state, which is embedded in our Constitution because the founders recognized it is the only guarantee of religious freedom for all. What we need right now is a national recommitment to the separation of church and state.”

AU had not yet received a response to its records request from Florida’s Department of Education as this issue of Church & State was going to press. As for next steps once AU has reviewed the materials, “Americans United is considering all options,” Laser said.

 

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