The Texas State Board of Education's Attempt to Christianize the Founders

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John Willingham holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas, Austin. He has been a Texas government employee for 25 years. He is now retired and lives in Portland, Oregon. This article is based on transcripts of the meeting of the Texas State Board of Education.

In the recent social studies debates before the elected Texas State Board of Education, board member Terri Leo, an energetic Republican activist for more than twenty years, led attempts by the board's conservative bloc to include a more Christian influence in the curriculum, with the ultimate goal of teaching that America was—and now should be—a Christian nation with an exceptional, divinely-ordained mission in history.

In a section for fifth graders on the causes and effects of selected events before the American Revolution, a majority of curriculum experts had recommended that teachers discuss the French and Indian War and the Boston Tea Party.

 Leo sought to address "a huge oversight" by adding a requirement that students study the influence of religious revivals on the writers of the Declaration.  In particular, she wanted to inculcate an "appreciation" that the phrase ""…we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights" was "strongly influenced by these revivals."

Respected professional historians (especially the late Alan Heimert) have credited the influence of the First Great Awakening revival of the 1730s and 1740s on early American politics and on the Revolution.  Leo stated correctly that the revivals did promote certain democratic ideas, such as the opposition to priestly and monarchical interference with governance, and the Awakening set off a tempest of religious emotions that burst into an already unstable atmosphere of colonial grievances.

Inconveniently for Leo, however, these evangelicals were radical and emphatic in their views on another issue—the importance of holding the civil authorities apart from religion.  As opponents of the "Old Light" church leaders in New England who had benefited from the establishment of religion, the "New Light" evangelicals knew firsthand how the authorities' support for the official creed were inimical to differing beliefs.

If the board approved Leo's amendment, fifth graders would learn that the word "Creator" in the Declaration was primarily the legacy of an evangelical movement that occurred almost four decades prior to 1776.  Even professional historians with an evangelical tilt realize that the word "Creator," along with "Deity" and "Nature's God," as used in Declaration, have a deistic lineage, rather than evangelical ties. 

Deists, as the name clearly denotes, believed in God, a rational God who had created a rational universe, but their attitudes toward orthodox Christianity ranged from scornful (Thomas Paine), to respectful without doctrinal adherence (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington).  

Though not in the deist or evangelical camps, some clergymen deeply affected by the Enlightenment were able to hold in equilibrium many Christian beliefs and their equal devotion to reason.

The Rev. Samuel West,  who preached in what is now New Bedford, Massachusetts, had already defined himself in large measure by opposing the theology of Jonathan Edwards, the acknowledged evangelical leader of the First Great Awakening, when West gave his famous "election sermon" barely a month before the adoption of the Declaration.  

Some scholars cite the 15,000-word sermon as having influenced the wording of the Declaration, and they may be correct.  But West was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and by John Locke, in particular, and believed that "Natural Law" and reason championed by the Enlightenment were not to be cast aside as possible threats to Christianity, but were to be embraced as complementary to it:

A revelation, pretending to be from God, that contradicts any part of natural law, ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture; for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself... 

West was direct as well as instructive on the role of civil authority in religious matters:

But for the civil authority to pretend to establish particular modes of faith and forms of worship, and to punish all that deviate from the standard which our superiors have set up, is attended with the most pernicious consequences to society.  It cramps all free and rational inquiry, fills the world with hypocrites and superstitious bigots—nay, with infidels and skeptics; it exposes men of religion and conscience to the rage and malice of fiery, blind zealots, and dissolves every tender tie of human nature; in short, it introduces confusion and every evil work."  [Emphasis added.]

For Samuel West, no less than for Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison, the right of "free and rational inquiry" was paramount.

Leo's proposed amendment highlights the ease with which the Religious Right often assumes a strong affinity between orthodox Christianity and forms of theism that are not overtly hostile to Christianity.   The founders were not atheists, but the most famous among them were not Christians, although their respect for the moral and utilitarian uses of Christianity is sometimes transmogrified into belief.

Gathering this complexity and trying present it to fifth graders would be impossible.  The SBOE's curriculum experts had appropriately labeled study of the revivals in the proposed context as "too cerebral" for fifth graders, probably anticipating that attempts to explain it would result in a distortion of the evidence. 

Leo disagreed with them.  "I say teach it at the fifth-grade level," she argued, after citing the experts' objection.  Leo, like at least five of her colleagues on the SBOE, leans toward establishing American "exceptionalism" in the curriculum, including the idea that America is a Christian nation.  The teaching of the Declaration is the key because, unlike the Constitution, it does reference a deity four times.

But Texas fifth graders will not have to wrestle with theology and politics.  After objections from board members Patricia Hardy and Bob Craig, both of whom pointed out that the basic purposes and elements of the Declaration were already the subject of another section, Leo's motion failed.

While the Declaration is not the evangelical document seen through the lens of the Religious Right, neither is it an enshrinement of pure reason disconnected from ideas of "Providence."  Its genius was to embody a convergence of disparate religious convictions and revolutionary thought that were joined in the cause of freedom.

Is the Declaration an example of American exceptionalism, a favorite term of social conservatives?  The answer depends on our ability to embrace its true legacy.

The SBOE will meet again on March 10 in Austin to finalize their work on the social studies curriculum.

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More Comments:

John Testa - 2/24/2010

Glad to here there is strong opposition.

John Willingham - 2/24/2010

Mr. Testa, thanks for your comments. There are many in Texas--journalists, teachers, and moderates from both parties--who are in fact working hard on these issues. The amendment concerning the Declaration of Independence did not pass, thanks to opposition from moderates. The board meets again on March 10, and more news is sure to come out of that session.

John Testa - 2/23/2010

Thank you to John Willingham for the article and George Shriver for the comments. This is a serious situation. Millions of children will be taught lies about US history. Educators in Texas from Pre-K to 12th Grade will not be allowed to teach the truth. If nothing is done,all textbooks in the US will eventually contain the fundamentalist lies. The next step will be to make it a crime for anyone to present an opposing idea. That will lead to the burning and banning of books written by major historians. You have spent your lives researching the truth. Why haven't more of you spoken out about the situation in Texas.

George Shriver - 2/22/2010

Excellent comments. The Texas fundies do not want to be bothered with facts, for they think all their emotions are correct. How tragic for our young people. Wuy do we continue to elect such truly ignorant folk to any office ? Is the electorate that fickle ill informed itself ? Thes are dangerous days for true educators.

George Shriver - 2/22/2010

Excellent comments. Unfortunately, the fundies of Texas do not want to be bothered with facts. They try to create a history that never was. Tragic for our youth.