Texas Toast: Christianity and History in the Lone Star State, Part DCLXVIII

Paul Harvey

Today's New York Times magazine features another roundup of the Texas schoolbook controversy: Russell Shorto, "How Christian Were the Founders."

Since we have blogged a bit before about this, and it's been covered much more extensively and thoughtfully by (among many others) John Fea's twenty-five (and counting) posts, I don't have that much useful to add except mainly to call your attention to this very nice piece by Shorto. The public hearings over these standards were a circus defying parody. As John Fea put it, "This is what happens when non-historians try to mess with state history standards."

Just two points to mention a bit further. First, Shorto follows the remarkable career of Cynthia Dunbar, who manages to be a law professor for Liberty University in Lynchburg while residing in Richmond, Texas, and who serves on the Texas board of education which has overseen the textbook standards even while likening sending children to public schools to “throwing them into the enemy’s flames, even as the children of Israel threw their children to Moloch.” Shorto writes:

In 2008, Cynthia Dunbar published a book called “One Nation Under God,” in which she stated more openly than most of her colleagues have done the argument that the founding of America was an overtly Christian undertaking and laid out what she and others hope to achieve in public schools. “The underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes. “Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview.”

Dunbar is leading the charge of those who insist on connecting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then somehow declaring the Declaration to be based on Christian principles, and then from there arguing that those principles became law in the Constitution. Jon Rowe explains and dissects this business further here.

[[Update: Here's Cynthia Dunbar's statement about Obama, just before the 2008 election: "State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar isn't backing down from her claim that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is plotting with terrorists to attack the U.S. . . . In a column posted on the Christian Worldview Network Web site, Dunbar wrote that a terrorist attack on America during the first six months of an Obama administration 'will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny.' She also suggests Obama would seek to expand his power by declaring martial law throughout the country."]]

Secondly, and more importantly as far as I'm concerned, Shorto covers the strategy of the Houston dentist Don McLeroy and other board members who are seeking "transformational change outside of the public gaze," meaning that the real war will be conducted in private with textbook publishers who have to take these general standards and condense them down into textbook bite-sized chunks.

Their model is based on their previous assault on the state educational science standards -- failing to get in their intelligent design theories, they managed to get textbooks to incorporate language about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution as a possible "inroads to creationism." In their view, there has been a secularist conspiracy among experts to suppress "truth" in both science and history. Evidently, biology and history professors are united in an alliance to lead schoolchildren down the path of destruction, while the Texas activists seek "an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed." (My blog co-editor Randall Stephens' forthcoming book The Annointed: America's Evangelical Experts discusses the history of this idea, and the creation of an entirely separate evangelical intellectual universe, with great skill).

The conspiracy theory emanating from the evangelical right, and from state legislative proponents of "intellectual diversity," always seems odd to me, for it has been academic historians of the last generation -- evangelical, non-evangelical, Jewish, atheist, and of all other stripes -- who have led the way in creating a vibrant religious history scholarship in all fields, American history and many others besides. The recent American Historical Association poll demonstrated this best; religion led all other categories in terms of historians' fields of interests. Sociologists are busy at this too -- see the article "Sociologists Get Religion," for a rundown on the discussion about the "strong program" of religion as a social force that folks in that field are busy discussing presently.

I had further occasion to think about this recently while contrasting a statement by a regent of the University of Colorado demanding that more conservatives get hired, with a whole host of job applications that I was reading for a position in my History department at the University of Colorado, in European and/or African History. It was exciting to read over explanations of the newest work in fields of which I know relatively little, including quite an explosion of scholarship on religious interactions of Christians/Jews/Muslims in the medieval, Mediterranean, and Iberian worlds. The fact that we can only hire one candidate from this harvest of talent will be painful for sure; but the sheer intellectual firepower these (mostly) younger scholars are bringing to bear on important historical questions left me feeling pretty good about our field. History is just a damn interesting subject, and it's painful to watch (as in Texas) when it's turned into a boring slugfest over number of mentions of our favorite people/groups/religious traditions/whatever. Yawn. No wonder students don't know much about history -- there's no place for the discipline and aesthetics of historical thought.

[An aside: I feel similarly about my second love, biology, which I majored in for part of college and would have pursued had history not called me away. As I've blogged about before, reading On the Origin of the Species is like listening to the Bach cello pieces, supremely simple and complex at the same time].

Did it ever occur to me for one second to "investigate and report on" the (as Colorado radio commentator Mike Rosen, of 850 AM Denver, once expressed about me, his token America-hating left-wing professor, in a bizarre hour-long rant) "ideological inclinations" of these candidates, or to find out who they voted for in the last election and make my hiring decisions accordingly? Please.

What is best and most interesting about this work in history, sociology, religious studies, and other fields is, of course, completely lost in all these ahistorical "Christian nation" debates. The questions are posed wrongly to begin with, and thus the answers come down in ideological sound bites. That's why the complex motivations of people, founding fathers and everyone else, are reduced to categorical ideological slots that must be chosen:

McLeroy remains unbowed and talked cheerfully to me about how, confronted with a statement supporting the validity of evolution that was signed by 800 scientists, he had proudly been able to “stand up to the experts.”

The idea behind standing up to experts is that the scientific establishment has been withholding information from the public that would show flaws in the theory of evolution and that it is guilty of what McLeroy called an “intentional neglect of other scientific possibilities.”

Similarly, the Christian bloc’s notion this year to bring Christianity into the coverage of American history is not, from their perspective, revisionism but rather an uncovering of truths that have been suppressed. “I don’t know that what we’re doing is redefining the role of religion in America,” says Gail Lowe, who became chairwoman of the board after McLeroy was ousted and who is one of the seven conservative Christians. “Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation.”

Perhaps most importantly, the very public discussion of the textbook standards ultimately pales in comparison to the more private campaign to be conducted in forthcoming months and years. Sharing a meal with textbook representatives at the local Tex-Mex establishment probably will have more to do with shaping history than with whatever happened at these public forums. Shorto explains:

It’s possible a wave of religion amendments will come in the next meeting, in March, when American government will still be among the subjects under review. But the change of tone could signal a shift in strategy. “It could be that they feel they’ve already got enough code words sprinkled throughout the guidelines,” Kathy Miller says. The laws of Nature and Nature’s God. Moses and the Bible “informing” the American founding. “The Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” as America’s original purpose. “We’ve seen in the past how one word here or there in the curriculum standards gets seized upon by the far-right members at adoption time,” Miller says. “In the science debate, the words ‘intelligent design’ did not appear, but they used ‘strengths and weaknesses’ as an excuse to pitch a battle. The phrase became a wedge to try to weaken the theory of evolution, to suggest that scientists had serious problems with it. We’ve seen the board use these tiny fragments to wage war on publishers.”

This squares with what Tom Barber, the textbook executive, told me: that in the next stage in the Texas process, general guidelines are chiseled into fact-size chunks in crisp columns of print via backroom cajoling. “The process of reviewing the guidelines in Texas is very open, but what happens behind the scenes after that is quite different,” Barber says. “McLeroy is kind of the spokesman for the social conservatives, and publishers will work with him throughout. The publishers just want to make sure they get their books listed.”

I'm reminded here of the narrative that Edward Larson tells in Summer for the Gods, about the Scopes Trial, and his skillful explanation of the tension played out in Tennessee that summer between democratic/localist ideals of public education and the sometimes conflicting role of a national culture of expert-defined knowledge in shaping educational standards. From this article, it seems that the Christian Nationists on the Texas board have learned their lesson well. The controlling narrative that developed about Scopes was devastating to Christian conservatives, hence their strategic drive to control the narrative now, with the public hearings being something a sideshow for the more important and subtly strategic interventions to come.


Seth Dowland said…
Great post, Paul. The Summer for the Gods reference hits on something I've been thinking about: how large is McElroy's base? I think it's pretty small -- or at least a lot smaller than his rhetoric would have you believe. He's facing a pretty stiff challenge in the Republican primary, apparently. There's a whole slew of Republicans who don't agree with this revision of history. But the Christian right has learned lessons about political effectiveness well. Small, well-organized local initiatives can work -- and have widespread effects.

At the On Faith blog, David Waters has a thought-provoking post contending that the Christian right won't join up with the Tea Party. I'm not totally convinced -- after all, the Tea Party folks did have Sarah Palin as their main speaker a couple weeks ago. But I think it's useful to distinguish the broad, angry, anti-government spirit pervading the country from the more organized local Christian right initiatives. They're not identical (yet).

And while I'm writing, I'll echo your thanks to John Fea for such good coverage of the Texas stuff at his blog!
John G. Turner said…
The NYT Magazine article quotes Randall Balmer to the effect that Jefferson wrote the First Amendment. Wasn't it James Madison?
Unknown said…
The DOI was most certainly based on Christian Principles. It was a document of interposition much like those used in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It also contains references to inalienable rights that would seem to concur with the writings of Locke in which he pointed to man being the "workmanship" of God as the foundation of those rights. This argument is most certainly a biblical one and a historically Christian one that goes all the way back to Canon Law.
Paul Harvey said…
John: I believe the Balmer quote refers to the "wall of separation" quote -- but it depends on whhat the meaning of "it" is in that particular sentence, too. I was presuming that was the intent of the quote.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Paul. The reporter probably phrased it ambiguously, as I'm sure Balmer knows that.

My own sense is that Madison's thinking on the 1st Amendment's religion clauses was not all that far off from Jefferson's.

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