Archive for the ‘russell shorto’ tag
In a New York Times Magazine preview titled, “How Christian Were the Founders?,” Russell Shorto writes about members of the Texas State School Board’s attempts to paint a more Christian picture of the United States’ founding via changes to the state’s social studies curriculum guidelines, guidelines which the article contends,
will affect students around the country, from kindergarten to 12th grade, for the next 10 years.
because of that state board’s influence on how other states choose its curriculum material.
… Tom Barber, who worked as the head of social studies at the three biggest textbook publishers before running his own editorial company, says, “Texas was and still is the most important and most influential state in the country.” And James Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M’s college of education and a longtime player in the state’s textbook process, told me flatly, “Texas governs 46 or 47 states.”
In the article, Shorto speaks with numerous members of the Texas state board and with college professors and other experts. In fact, for the most part, the only non-experts to which Shorto speaks, are, you guessed it, the very ones who will have such a weighty influence over what students are taught for the next 10 years.
While some amendments the state board has considered — one which would ask students to study Americans who have contributed much to our history (Ed Kennedy was omitted, while Newt Gingrich was included, for instance. For the record, Hillary Clinton was included, but one could make a convincing case that Kennedy had far more influence in Washington in his 30 years of service) — drew seemingly along party lines, other amendments dabbled into religious territory.
The majority of the article dealt with this conundrum: Is America a Christian nation (or should it be) and should our textbooks present that case? Noted atheist Sam Harris in his, “Letter to a Christian Nation,” meant “Christian nation” in the more nebulous sense based on pure numbers: as of 2008, about 76 percent of Americans claim to be Christian in one way or another. Fifty-one percent are Protestants (Thus, reducing the number even farther of actual Evangelicals who might be in favor of more fervently merging government and religion).
Cynthia Dunbar, current visiting associate professor of law at Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va., is one member of the Texas State School Board who seems to think this is and should be a Christian nation in the second sense. Shorto visited one of her lectures, and in The Times article, he writes:
Her presence in both worlds — public schools and the courts — suggests the connection between them that Christian activists would like to deepen. The First Amendment class for third-year law students that I watched Dunbar lead neatly merged the two components of the school’s program: “lawyering skills” and “the integration of a Christian worldview.”
Dunbar began the lecture by discussing a national day of thanksgiving that Gen. George Washington called for after the defeat of the British at Saratoga in 1777 — showing, in her reckoning, a religious base in the thinking of the country’s founders. In developing a line of legal reasoning that the future lawyers in her class might use, she wove her way to two Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, in both of which the court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. A student questioned the relevance of the 1777 event to the court rulings, because in 1777 the country did not yet have a Constitution. “And what did we have at that time?” Dunbar asked. Answer: “The Declaration of Independence.” She then discussed a legal practice called “incorporation by reference.” “When you have in one legal document reference to another, it pulls them together, so that they can’t be viewed as separate and distinct,” she said. “So you cannot read the Constitution distinct from the Declaration.” And the Declaration famously refers to a Creator and grounds itself in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Therefore, she said, the religiosity of the founders is not only established and rooted in a foundational document but linked to the Constitution. From there she moved to “judicial construction and how you should go forward with that,” i.e., how these soon-to-be lawyers might work to overturn rulings like that against prayer in schools by using the founding documents.
Shorto correctly observes:
Besides the fact that incorporation by reference is usually used for technical purposes rather than for such grandiose purposes as the reinterpretation of foundational texts, there is an oddity to this tactic.
Though it was less erudite than Dunbar’s lecture probably was, I once read a letter to the editor in which the writer indicated that we are, indeed, a Christian nation based on The Declaration. But several problems exist with this line of reasoning. First, as the article notes:
“The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.
Another problem exists with Dunbar’s “incorporation by reference” case: The Declaration of Independence is just that. It’s a declaration. It’s not law. As Shorto’s article states, it’s undeniable that the early history of this country oozes with religious overtures, from the Pilgrims to Anglicans to Quakers Baptists and many others. And while one cannot study American history without encountering religion along the way, one can study the founding and the Constitutional Convention without injecting religion into the equation. As Shorto notes:
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.’ ” Martin Marty says: “They had to invent a new, broad way. Washington, in his writings, makes scores of different references to God, but not one is biblical. He talks instead about a ‘Grand Architect,’ deliberately avoiding the Christian terms, because it had to be a religious language that was accessible to all people.”
I am not opposed to religion courses with the sole purpose of studying the story of religious influence and growth in the country, and even history textbooks that include some discussion of religious groups if its relevant to a certain topic, like religious condemnations of slavery in the 19th-century, for instance.
But the Founders knew full well that at the time that the majority of the people in the country were and would be Christians. Heck, many who took part in the Constitutional Convention were Christians in some sense of the word. Here’s a full rundown. Many of the most notable ones (Jefferson, i.e.), however, were deists, and one can’t deny that. Many were products of the Enlightenment and rationalism. But the Founders, even those who believed in Jesus, were far ahead of their time and had the foresight to realize that a free society must both protect people’s right to worship … and their right not to worship. They were all-too familiar with a near-theocracy in Great Britain, in which the Church of England was (and still is) the official national church. The Founders sought to create a place more free from whence their ancestors came.
Unfortunately, the evangelical crowd is seeking to reverse that, and that should make anyone with an appreciation for the Constitution and this diverse country pretty ashamed. So, to reiterate, this isn’t a Christian nation in the sense that many evangelicals wish it were, nor should it be. If it was, it would be a theocracy, and I don’t think folks who are fighting to reinsert Jesus and the creation story into textbooks fully understand the implications of seeing their goals carried out to their fullest ends. If they did, they would view modern day Iran, the former Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, the Crusades or the current wave of Islamic nutcases who want to establish a modern caliphate, and they would shutter.