Revising History: What Happens In Texas Won’t Stay In Texas

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Battle lines are being drawn in Texas for a protracted fight over what gets taught in the state’s social studies classrooms. And since Texas has an outsized influence on what goes into textbooks nationwide, the winners could end up writing history for us all.

The opening skirmish is over reviews just in from six outside analysts appointed by the State Board of Education to review the K-12 social studies curriculum. Three reviewers were chosen by social conservatives on the board and three by moderates and liberals — setting up a culture-war clash of competing versions of history and government.

Over the next nine months, we can anticipate heated conflicts over everything from multiculturalism to whether the United States should be called a republic, a democracy or both.

Case in point: A reviewer on one side wants more about Cesar Chavez, who led a civil rights struggle on behalf of farmworkers. A reviewer on the other side wants less of Chavez, arguing that “he’s hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation.”

The hottest debate will be over that perennial favorite, the role of religion in American history. Simply including study of religion in the curriculum mix isn’t the problem: Left and Right have long agreed that a good education requires public schools to teach about religion in history, literature and other subjects.

But the Texas board appears to be divided over how to characterize the role of religion — specifically Protestant Christianity — in our nation’s founding. Reviewers on the left ignore the question, which is unfortunate because the current curriculum says far too little about religion in U.S. history.

But worse than ignoring religion in history is using the curriculum to promote religion. And that’s what two reviewers on the right, David Barton and Peter Marshall, sound like they’re trying to do by calling for teaching the “biblical foundations” of a “Christian America.”

The Texas Freedom Network, an advocacy group that works to counteract the influence of the Religious Right in the state, charges that Barton, Marshall and the board members who appointed them are pushing a religious agenda in public schools that would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Barton is the evangelical founder of WallBuilders, a controversial organization that, despite the name, is focused on tearing down Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state. And Marshall heads a ministry dedicated to “helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations.”

Of course, no good historian would deny that biblical religions have influenced Western civilization, including American laws and customs. It’s also undeniable that early America was mostly Protestant (albeit a diverse, divided assortment of Protestants). And many educators agree that students should learn more than they do now about early American religious ideas and debates.

But it would be educational malfeasance for Texas public schools to teach that America was founded as a Christian nation in any formal or legal sense. The framers of the Constitution were influenced by many ideas — religious and secular. But they produced a document that nowhere mentions religion except to prohibit any religious test for office. “The Convention of 1787,” writes historian Clinton Rossiter, “was highly rationalist and even secular in spirit.”

I’m all for letting students in on theological and philosophical disagreements that shaped America’s founding — debates that helped ensure “no establishment” of religion by government. Some Founders were orthodox in their Protestant convictions (Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton), while others held deist and other unorthodox views (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson). But I suspect that teaching about these differences isn’t the “Christian heritage” that Marshall and Barton have in mind.

It’s probably too much to ask that Texas board members avoid playing politics with the social studies curriculum. It’s probably too much to ask that they get advice on teaching history from actual historians. Education is (unfortunately) highly political in America — and, too often, ideologically driven.

But we can only hope that the Texas-sized debate about teaching history will end with victory for a fair, balanced and accurate account of American history — one that reflects a commitment to sound scholarship and constitutional principles. If that happens, I won’t mind if history is written by the winners.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: [email protected].