Texas school board: we’re a Christian country

February 12, 2010 • 7:38 am

The New York Times has put up, early, a piece for next Sunday’s magazine.  It’s a long article by Russell Shorto on the continuing kerfuffle in Texas about what will appear in school textbooks.  You will recall that over the last two years the fracas was about evolution, with Texas school board chairman Don McLeroy (a dentist who also happens to be a young-earth creationist) fighting hard to insert “teach-the-controversy” material into biology texts. By and large the creationists lost that one, and McLeroy lost his position, though he’s still on the board.

As the Times notes, what goes into Texas textbooks affects much of the US.  The state has a $22 billion dollar education fund, with much of that money used to buy textbooks that fit state standards.  Textbook publishers don’t want to create special editions for each state,  so many of them simply go along with what Texas wants, and that’s what other states get as well.

This year the board is debating what children will be taught in history and social-studies classes.  As you might expect, McLeroy and his half-dozen conservative minions are trying to ensure that Texas kids are taught that the United States rests firmly on Christianity and Jesus Christ (conservative activists often use the words “Judeo-Christian” here, but of course give short shrift to the Jewish belief that Christ wasn’t the Messiah):

McLeroy is a robust, cheerful and inexorable man, whose personality is perhaps typified by the framed letter T on the wall of his office, which he earned as a “yell leader” (Texas A&M nomenclature for cheerleader) in his undergraduate days in the late 1960s. “I consider myself a Christian fundamentalist,” he announced almost as soon as we sat down. He also identifies himself as a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago. He went on to explain how his Christian perspective both governs his work on the state board and guides him in the current effort to adjust American-history textbooks to highlight the role of Christianity. “Textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict,” he said. “But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.”

For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing.”

The article is worth reading, for it gives you a flavor of the controversy, what the arguments are, and who is on each side. I was surprised to learn, for example, that theologian Martin Marty, a world-famous scholar here at The University of Chicago, seems to be sympathetic to the Texas school board, at least about increasing emphasis on the importance of religion in the founding of our country.  But the article is also curiously inconclusive: it doesn’t have a point of view, but takes the “objective” journalistic stance of merely laying out who said what.  That’s fine for a news piece, but I’d expect more analysis, and perhaps a viewpoint, in the Sunday magazine.

One thing that the article should have mentioned, but doesn’t, is that the controversy about whether the US was founded as a Christian country has ramifications far beyond public-school education.  Certain members of the Supreme Court, notably Scalia and Thomas, are “originalists,” adhering to the judicial philosophy that the Constitution has a meaning that doesn’t change over time, but was fixed by the men who wrote it; and that the Court should make law based on the intent of those writers.  If conservatives start adhering to the view that the founders really wanted to create a Christian country (they support that idea with quotes, of course, but opponents have their own quotes), that opens the Court to all sorts of possibilities.  They could, for example, overturn precedent and allow the incursion of religion into the public sphere—say, prayer in schools.

Meanwhile, the loons in Texas are busy removing any approbation for liberals from the textbooks, and inserting ludicrous, pro-conservative views.  As TPM reported a month ago:

The conservative bloc on the Texas State Board of Education won a string of victories Friday, obtaining approval for an amendment requiring high school U.S. history students to know about Phyllis Schlafly and the Contract with America [the 1994 Republican document partly written by Newt Gingrich] as well as inserting a clause that aims to justify McCarthyism.

And from the Times article:

Finally, the board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.

Do read the Times piece, because we’re going to see these arguments being made by others (e.g., tea-party wackaloons) over the next few years.


UPDATE: another (and in some ways a better) article on McLeroy and the Texas school board at Washington Monthly.

34 thoughts on “Texas school board: we’re a Christian country

  1. At times it is good to see what the religious loonies in the US are up to because it shows that we non-believers can not be so laissez-faire as we have been here in Europe.
    We face the threat of Muslims getting too much (as in ‘any’) power, and the US evangelists get a foothold here.

    The grip the religious have had on society has only diminished since WW2, but the militant kooks seem to get more vocal again.
    So, as much as we pity the normal US citizens for having to put up with the religious lunacy, it is at least a stark warning to us to become more vigilant and be aware that the fundamentalists represent the same lack of freedom and tolerance as did the Nazis. *Shudder*

    1. The grip the religious have had on society has only diminished since WW2…

      I disagree. The last dozen years have been a reversal of that trend in politics and government.

      1. I’ve only been back one year after an extensive exile in Australia, but I see you’re quite right, the new rot seems to have started in earnest.

      2. “The fallacy claims that a policy leads to—or is the same as—one advocated or implemented by Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich, and so “proves” that the original policy is undesirable. For example: “Hitler was a vegetarian, so vegetarianism is wrong.” ”

        Argumentum ad nazium – you fail.

      3. @Torbjörn Larsson:
        This kind of automatic leap to assert Godwin’s Law may be valid in certain cases, but when universally applied without discernment it borders on the puerile.
        Sometimes a comparison to Hitler is valid.

      4. Torbjörn, go to your logic teacher and demand the money back!

        Last time occupied Western Europe experienced ‘lack of freedom and tolerance’ was during World War 2. And the Nazis were an not insignificant element in that event.
        In the US the religious right show the same desire to curb freedom and tolerance, and in Europe the Muslims work toward same.
        So here you have a parallel, not an argument ad anything.

        And just a small, underhanded non sequiteur (which is a logical fallacy) swipe:
        Sweden, of course, wasn’t occupied or directly involved in the war, and when the fortunes of war seemed to favour the Nazis, that was the ones the Swedish government and industry tried to appease, by for instance allowing German troop movements through their ‘neutral’ country.
        When the possible outcome of the war became unclear the Swedes changed their policies accordingly.
        And profited handsomely all along.

        I live of course in the country to the west (of Sweden) where earlier we all smelled of cod, but now of oil 🙂

  2. Certain members of the Supreme Court, notably Scalia and Thomas, are “originalists,” adhering to the judicial philosophy that the Constitution has a meaning that doesn’t change over time, but was fixed by the men who wrote it; and that the Court should make law based on the intent of those writers.

    This statement is in error. Scalia claims to adhere to original intent, but reading a few of his opinions should make it clear that what he does is start with his conclusions, and then fill in whatever “reasoning” will get him to that conclusion. See for example his dissenting opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard. there is a word for this practice, and that word is sophistry.

    1. Reginald Selkirk states:

      Scalia claims to adhere to original intent, but reading a few of his opinions should make it clear that what he does is start with his conclusions, and then fill in whatever “reasoning” will get him to that conclusion.

      While Justice Scalia self-identifies as an originalist, it is not as an original intent originalist but instead what he originally described as a textualist, now known in most scholarly circles as an original meaning originalist. He wrote a book on his interpretative technique where he makes a positive argument for his approach, dedicates chapters to some worthy opponents (e.g., liberal scholar Laurence Tribe), and provides a rebuttal chapter to his opponents’ arguments. The book, Matter of Interpretation even dedicates a chapter to Germany’s post-WWII constitution, which is much clearer on in its language and therefore Germany does not suffer from the often-defective debates about what laws, philosophies , and principles are and are not constitutional like we encounter in the U.S.

      Justice Scalia’s book also provides a defense of himself when we abandons his textualist approach in Matter.

      My observation is that Justice Scalia uses textualism as a convenient artifice to defend conservative and plutocratic political ambitions and will joyfully abandon that approach when needed to reach a preconceived approach as Mr. Selkirk also notes. In fact empirical evidence from 1991-1995 SCOTUS rulings is both statistically significant and overwhelmingly validates such a conclusion. That data is reported in an appendix in Scott Douglas Gerber’s excellent analysis of Justice Clarence Thomas’ jurisprudence from that time period, First Principles .

    1. Re. the Treaty, indeed. Wikipedia gives a good summary, but for a full treatment of the whole historical situation I can recommend “Uncle Sam in Barbary” (Richard B Parker, 2004), which I finally read last year after intending to since it came out.

  3. I can’t get my head around why, in this day and age of digital printing, what Texas may want in its textbooks should have any bearing on textbooks used in other states.

    Textbook printing is surely now digitalized from copy to layout to printing to binding to shipping, isn’t it? Theoretically, a publisher should be able to print 50 different versions of a textbook for the same cost as one version.

    These days you can download photographs, for example, to a printing house which will put together a well layed-out full hardcover one-off and ship it to you for next to nothing. Why should textbook publishing still be locked into twentieth century techniques?

    1. I haven’t heard much about it recently but at one time at least there was a strong movement towards open-access textbook publising, much along the lines of PLoS, for primary and secondary schools where they were doing just that. The project that had caught my interest was the “Cape Town Project” started by a group in South Africa and Zambia.

      I would think that it would be a great way to help both the states who want to educate their students, and save a great deal of money over the exhorbitant prices of bound textbooks.

  4. The notion that we must reject secularism in the USofA because of the supposed beliefs of its founders does have implications for US citizens but the potential for harm reaches beyond this country to world-wide concern.

    Here is US Representative Michele Bachmann from Minnesota,
    “I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States . . . [W]e have to show that we are inextricably entwined, that as a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis [Genesis 12:3], we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel.”

    1. Why?
      The badly named “free-market” system is in very close adherence to the Biblical demand for slavery, and conforms to an alarming extent with the biblical principles of lying in order to retain power, subjection of women, infinite exploitation of finite resources etc.

  5. I think there should be more focus on religion in history as well. They should show how religious persecution lead to people fleeing their home land to start a new country and how religion was used to justify slavery, burning people for witchcraft etc…

  6. “we’re going to see these arguments being made by others (e.g., tea-party wackaloons) over the next few years.”

    I don’t suppose it would do any good to tell the tea-baggers that, although the founding fathers were Deists, they strongly believed in separation of church and state.

  7. ” the controversy about whether the US was founded as a Christian country”

    There is no controversy. It wasn’t. Plain and simple fact.

    And the Founders were comprised of deists as well as more conventional Christians. With varying degrees of observance: “close to none” was pretty common.

    Like evolution, the “controversy” over the founding is a non-existent, fake issue. Once again, there is no there there in the rightwing arguments.

    1. tristero stated:

      the Founders were comprised of deists as well as more conventional Christians.

      Actually most founders were orthodox Christians. It’s the key framers who were disproportionately not orthodox Christians along with most of the influential philosophers of that day in the colonies that influenced the framers (including some of the key reverends leading some of the larger churches, colleges, or denominations). In fact within the set of the key framers it was uncommon to find an orthodox Christian. These included those most responsible for initiatives to achieve religious freedom like in Virginia a year prior to the Constitutional Convention, along with those who developed and led the effort to ratify the Constitution and the religious freedom clauses in both the Constitution and the 1st Amendment.

      It’s also important to note that most of these framers were not deists as we understand the term today since they did believe in a providential deity who was interested in the affairs of humans. A better descriptor now being used to maintain a more understandable narrowness to the current understanding of the word deist is to describe these men as theistic rationalists, e.g., Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and most likely, Madison and even Washington though we lack evidence to confidently assert any label to the latter two (Hamilton was not at all religious during the period he promoted ratification of the Constitution or served in the Washington administration. He most likely became an orthodox Christian about five years after leaving public office).

      While theistic rationalists believed in divine providence, these key framers also believed human reason was a far superior method to obtain objective truth rather then primitive dogma or claims of divine revelation like we encounter from orthodox Christians. In fact many of these framers vociferously disparaged key Christian tenets (Trinitarianism, Jesus as divine or even his miracles) and/or were unitarians (Adams, possibly Washington on unitarianism). One can easily draw an evolutionary line from the framers’ version of God to Einstein’s god given their collective fealty to science; one can not draw such a line from their version of God to the god that ‘Christian Nation’ proponents currently describe.

      We do find some historians continuing to use the descriptor ‘deists’ when discussing these key framers; however a responsible clarification that notes a wider continuum of what deism meant during the era of the founders is then also required in order that modern audiences understand the differences between the narrow modern use of the word and the word as it was used then.

      The term ‘theistic rationalist’ was coined by historian Dr. Gregory Frazer in his PhD thesis. Dr. Frazer happens to be a biblical inerrantist and conservative evangelical Christian. However he is also an effective debunker of many of the propogandist claims of Christian Nation revisionists including their primary thesis we were created as a Christian nation. He also notes that Christians who enabled, advocated, or supported the American Revolution against King George III and Parliament were sinning against God given the clear instructions in Romans 13.

  8. “If conservatives start adhering to the view that the founders really wanted to create a Christian country (they support that idea with quotes, of course, but opponents have their own quotes) …”

    A salient point about the quotes is the the quotes that seem to support the idea of the USA founded as a Christian country pretty much all (and I’m only being lawyerly in that equivocation) come from people who were opposed to the adoption of the present US Constitution (the ‘anit-Federalists’) and opposed to the Bill of Rights. The folk promoting the lie that the US was founded as a Christian country like to gloss over that fact and the fact that the founders who _supported_ the adoption of the new Constitution (the ‘Federalists’) and the Bill of Rights did not view the US as being constituted as a Christian country.

    Don’t be fooled by the mere presence of quotes on both sides. Look to their origins, a lesson fighting creationism should teach. The folk who supported adoption of a document are a much better guide to its intention than are those who opposed it.

    “The Treaty of Tripoli answered that.”

    Coming, as it did, well after the debates that surrounded and immediately followed the adoption of the US Constitution, that treaty is not the best of the evidence. The best evidence is the lack of mention of god or religion in the Constitution outside the 1st Amendment, which also includes the establishment provision. Next best are the Federalist Papers which set out the views of the folk who were for the new Constitution (to replace the Articles of Confederation).


    1. Well put,I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am considering selling my properties here in Texas and moving back to the states.

      1. Well, Phil Sheridan, who’d been in both, remarked that ‘If I owned Hell and Texas, I’d live in Hell and rent out Texas.’

  9. It is distressing that current members of the State Board of Education like Don McLeroy have used this elected position to further a personal and religious agenda. When I’m elected, I will work to return the SBOE to its core objective, which is to ensure that our neighborhood schools are the envy of the nation. Visit http://www.voterebecca.com to learn more about my campaign.
    -Rebecca Bell-Metereau

  10. Living in Texas, I can assure people in more civilized states that the views quoted in the article are very much the mainstream here. Many of my Texan friends “know” they will never die, because the Rapture will occur “as soon as we have the balls to nuke the Middle East and bring back Jesus.” These people are scary, and there are a LOT of them — in many places a majority. The only way to fight them is to educate the public with FACTS, not rhetoric — something we are, as a nation, sadly failing to do.

  11. McLeroy is a shameful and unfortunate burden that Texans must bear; though I am sure most Texans would disagree. The Texas State Board of Education is sadly just as pitiful, and McLeroy’s replacement is just as much a loon as he is. This is all very unnerving the future of science education in this state (I am a proud Texan) is grim indeed. I am currently earning my BS in biology with the goal of teaching high school biology here in the heart of central Texas, and I shudder to think of what watered down quasi-scientific standards I may be forced to adhere to as a result of our board’s strident efforts to inject religion into our schools. As a member in the trenches on the front line of this fight I will certainly have to work inordinately hard to ensure that my students receive the quality scientific education they deserve. I sure hope I am up to the task!

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