Textbook reshaping in NYT Magazine – How Christian Were the Founders? -by Russell Shorto

[Note: I was going to let this story pass and allow my comments to sit in my personal diary because they turn on matters of religious faith and because so much of the activism described here seems to me to arise from personal insecurity and need for affirmation from external sources, and these are always sore matters over which people can be very angry. And yet, I was deeply troubled by a lot of the very problematic approaches to American history and its teaching. I also think the strong influence of Texas, and its very clever law and rule making has made it an important market-maker in textbook publishing, in a way similar that some otherwise insignificant states have increase their influence through early primaries. So, with this caveat…. -Paul]

How Christian Were the Founders? – NYTimes.com

The past is a foreign country, and they don’t always speak our language.

Russell Shorto in the NY Times Magazine talks about the influence of politics and religion on the development of school textbooks, notably because of the Texas State Board of Education. Texas has gradually supplanted California as the arbiter of what’s included in textbooks nationwide, and many groups wanting to influence the young have been bringing their efforts to Texas. None of this is new to anyone who has watched this unfolding over the last two decades. The panicky tone is also typical. Shorto suggests that the fundamentalist Christians trying to influence the Texas State Board of Education are also looking to the idea of original intent in judicial rulings. (And also: “As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, ‘The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.'”

Public education has always been a battleground between cultural forces; one reason that Texas’ school-board members find themselves at the very center of the battlefield is, not surprisingly, money.[….]  Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually — which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State. California is the largest textbook market, but besides being bankrupt, it tends to be so specific about what kinds of information its students should learn that few other states follow its lead.

For me, this part was new, an evangelical Christian excavation of the pre-Revolutionary past to find documents opposed to the secularism (for lack of a better term) of the 18th century:

Merely weaving important religious trends and events into the narrative of American history is not what the Christian bloc on the Texas board has pushed for in revising its guidelines. Many of the points that have been incorporated into the guidelines or that have been advanced by board members and their expert advisers slant toward portraying America as having a divinely preordained mission. In the guidelines — which will be subjected to further amendments in March and then in May — eighth-grade history students are asked to “analyze the importance of the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut and the Virginia House of Burgesses to the growth of representative government.” Such early colonial texts have long been included in survey courses, but why focus on these in particular? The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut declare that the state was founded “to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The language in the Mayflower Compact — a document that McLeroy and several others involved in the Texas process are especially fond of — describes the Pilgrims’ journey as being “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” and thus instills the idea that America was founded as a project for the spread of Christianity. In a book she wrote two years ago, Cynthia Dunbar, a board member, could not have been more explicit about this being the reason for the Mayflower Compact’s inclusion in textbooks; she quoted the document and then said, “This is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.”

I think this is fascinating: an intentional telescoping of the time between the English colonization of North America, while ignoring the strong secularist/skeptical–for lack of a better term–period from 1720-1790. Yes, the Pilgrims and Puritans left England to practice their religious faith, but that doesn’t mean that religion has been passed down unchanged or that people’s attitudes are unchanged, or that those early settlers weren’t changed themselves–look at what they did to the native tribes in King Phillip’s War vs their original intent to convert them. 

Shorto argues (and he has a point), that people who identify as Christians want all the founders described as founders (including the Deists, Unitarians and Unknowns). Aside from clear statements from Benjamin Rush after a fatal illness (c1807) and many statements from Patrick Henry (the example I see cited most often), most of the founders were either rather conventional Anglicans or Congregationalists, Quakers, pre-Unitarians OR skeptics. They were only a century and a half away from the wars of religion which so turned people away from dogmatic religious beliefs, especially in Anglo-American governing circles. (That situation changes in the 1790s in both Protestant and Catholic Europe with a rise of religiosity and a revived interest in older forms of religion.) I read Washington’s letters speaking of an abstract “Providence,” and they strike me as written in a very 18th century in expression and sentiment. Christian religion for the upper classes (and most of the founders were upper class) was rather distant compared to the growing evangelical religion of the Second Great Awakening. I guess what bothers me is that a lot of our contemporaries are looking for validation for their own beliefs and are projecting contemporary ways of believing into the past.

And this sort of thinking about American exceptionalism, is exactly what so many academic historians try to combat in the thinking of their students:

One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great.

I would find this rather sweet (in an admittedly condescending way on my part) if the people arguing for it were not clutching at power to have this inserted into books that all children will be required to use.
I probably most closely agree with Shorto here (who very cleverly found conservative writer Ric Brookhiser, formerly of National Review [although his politics are probably more left of NR today]),

In fact, the founders were rooted in Christianity — they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition — and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason. “I don’t think the founders would have said they were applying Christian principles to government,” says Richard Brookhiser, the conservative columnist and author of books on Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris and George Washington. “What they said was ‘the laws of nature and nature’s God.’ They didn’t say, ‘We put our faith in Jesus Christ.’ ” [….]

Or, as Brookhiser rather succinctly summarizes the point: “The founders were not as Christian as those people would like them to be, though they weren’t as secularist as Christopher Hitchens would like them to be.”

And then there are the sneaky end-runs that these members of the Texas board do, to get around teachers and scholars: appeal directly to editors and publishers who worry about sales:

Last fall, McLeroy was frank in talking about how he applies direct pressure to textbook companies. In the language-arts re-evaluation, the members of the Christian bloc wanted books to include classic myths and fables rather than newly written stories whose messages they didn’t agree with. They didn’t get what they wanted from the writing teams, so they did an end run around them once the public battles were over. “I met with all the publishers,” McLeroy said. “We went out for Mexican food. I told them this is what we want. We want stories with morals, not P.C. stories.” He then showed me an e-mail message from an executive at Pearson, a major educational publisher, indicating the results of his effort: “Hi Don. Thanks for the impact that you have had on the development of Pearson’s Scott Foresman Reading Street series. Attached is a list of some of the Fairy Tales and Fables that we included in the series.”  

(I assumed that the religious side of the Revolution was going to bring up the “Bishop’s War”–which could rightly be viewed as an intersect fight between Congregationalists who feared a high church Anglicanism seen as invading  New England.)

And this bit on Mosaic law informing American law was bizarre. And there are other stunning assertions, like this:

[Peter] Marshall also proposed that children be taught that the separation-of-powers notion is “rooted in the Founding Fathers’ clear understanding of the sinfulness of man,” [!!!] so that it was not safe for one person to exercise unlimited power, and that “the discovery, settling and founding of the colonies happened because of the biblical worldviews of those involved.” Marshall recommended that textbooks present America’s founding and history in terms of motivational stories on themes like the Pilgrims’ zeal to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the natives.

The separation is, in fact, a response to governance in England, and also the distrust of central power that developed in the pre-Revolutionary era as the crown attempted to exert control, increase revenue and centralize the empire. (The main separation in colonial thought was, in fact, between legislative and executive; as time passed the colonials had come to resent royal governors using their authority to appoint, pay and control judges as ways to influence trials–especially in Massachusetts.)

(On America being a “Christian nation,” I recall hearing from John J.C.A. Stagg, the editor at the James Madison papers, about our 1794 treaty with Algiers in which the treaty (ratified by the Senate and signed by President Washington), declares (probably in an attempt to differentiate the United State of America from their Most Christian Majesties Louis of France and George of Great Britain) that the USA are not a Christian nation–by which Jefferson and Madison probably meant that the country was not founded in principles of exclusive Christian. You didn’t favor Christianity or your version of Christianity over any other. There was no established (national) Church, no favored (national) sect, no clergy salaried by the government. Dr. Stagg insisted that the treaty (which was law) stated that the then-new US was not a Christian nation–yes, but…. In letters of John Adams written late in life to Thomas Jefferson, Adams defines “Christian” to mean kindly, not a believer of doctrines relating to Jesus Christ. Since the 19th C, the word “Christian” has been increasingly appropriated by members of Christian denominations who exclude other Christians who under the notion of salvation, faith and good works differently–particularly Catholics and Orthodox. In any case, these self-described Christians are re-shaping history, eliminating gray areas and ignoring some things that seem to make them uncomfortable.)

By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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