terrifying influences on school boards

I am reluctant to bump “Conference” down on my front page with this can of worms, especially now that my readership has been on the up-and-up, but hey, it’s my blog….

Yesterday I made the mistake of trolling around the New York Times web site for a few minutes between a lunch meeting and getting back to work. It was a mistake because I discovered this magazine article on the influence of religion in textbook revisions. It caught my attention with its headline, but it’s not really about how Christian the American Founding Fathers were. It’s about how Christian the Texas state school board thinks they were.

It’s a long article, and it covers a lot of ground. And I find a lot of it, honestly, terrifying.

I’m not just talking about the despicable attempts to get Christian creationism into science classrooms. (Side notes on semantics: “intelligent design” is a form of creationism, so I will not distinguish between the two; also, I will generally use the word “creationism” as a shorthand for “Christian creationism” – a necessary distinction, as there are hundreds of religions, each with their own creation story, to choose from.) Nor am I talking about the insidious efforts to insert the beliefs and practices of specific Christian sects into our government. I am talking about the repeated references to concepts like manifest destiny – the idea that American history has been guided by divine providence, that westward expansion was an effort to bring the One True Religion to the inferior heathen natives, that God has chosen America for divine purpose. It’s the divine right of kings all over again. And it’s the very reason why we have the First Amendment. A lot of that article made me so angry that I couldn’t do any useful work for about half an hour.

For example, here’s an excerpt from the article:

Maybe the most striking thing about current history textbooks is that they have lost a controlling narrative. America is no longer portrayed as one thing, one people, but rather a hodgepodge of issues and minorities, forces and struggles. If it were possible to cast the concerns of the Christian conservatives into secular terms, it might be said that they find this lack of a through line and purpose to be disturbing and dangerous. Many others do as well, of course. But the Christians have an answer.

Their answer is rather specific. 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.

That’s right…American history needs a “controlling narrative” – controlled, specifically, by the Christian God who is running America as a little pet experiment to see how rapidly that particular religion can cover the globe. (That is not an experiment I want in the hands of a nation that can incinerate the world three or four times over.) This idea continues, here:

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. Peter Marshall is himself the author of a series of books that recount American history with a strong Christian focus and that have been staples in Christian schools since the first one was published in 1977. (He told me that they have sold more than a million copies.) In these history books, he employs a decidedly unhistorical tone in which the guiding hand of Providence shapes America’s story, starting with the voyage of Christopher Columbus. “Columbus’s heart belonged to God,” he assures his readers, and he notes that a particular event in the explorer’s life “marked the turning point of God’s plan to use Columbus to raise the curtain on His new Promised Land.”

Again – “American exceptionalism,” with “Christianity as the driving force,” and a divine hand steering (causing?) American history. According to the article, one preacher even “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.”

It’s when I read things like that very last phrase that I really start to bristle. In this case, nobody could have put my feelings any better than George Carlin did on the inaugural “Saturday Night Live” episode.

Religion … is like a lift in your shoe. If you need it for a while, and it makes you walk straight and feel better – fine. … Religion is like a lift in the shoe, and I say just don’t ask me to wear your shoes. And let’s not go down and nail lifts onto the natives’ feet.

The one profession that I have no respect for is the missionary. (I don’t mean humanitarians, or aid workers, or charitable doctors and nurses. The people who bring help and support to the impoverished regions of the world do great work. But when they come with all sorts of Jesus merchandise, and start to push it on those vulnerable people coming to them for basic needs, then I start to shudder.) The missionary ideals of “[bringing] the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the natives” involve some extremely harsh value judgments. These are people who advocate going to another land and telling the members of the established culture there, “We don’t know your ways, but we can tell you that we’re right and you’re wrong. Your belief systems are completely incompatible with our belief systems, and ours supersede yours. You can’t even integrate our system into your own frameworks; you must replace your beliefs with ours.” It’s sheer arrogance. These judgments border on flat-out racism; if you read some of the primary sources from missionaries in the American colonies, they talk about how “backward” and “inferior” the “heathen” “savages” are. (The parts about incompatibility and non-integrability gave Christian missionaries in the Americas particular trouble; one reason why they found the natives so “difficult to convert” is that, when presented with the idea of Jesus, many of those cultures responded by saying, “Okay, we’ll add him to the list.” At which point they were usually labeled blasphemous and targeted for burnings.)

You may have noticed that I do have a bias here in my mental image of missionaries. I grew up in New England, went to Williams College in New England, and took a class on colonial-era Native America. I wrote some reports that required reading some of those primary sources. Those missionaries were generally terrible in their tolerance and attitudes towards the Native American cultures – almost surprising, since the Pilgrims, as an example, were trying to escape religious persecution, but then I remember that, to them, religious tolerance extended no further than tolerating different brands of Christianity. Well, maybe also the Jews, for historical reasons. So, when I picture a “missionary,” I tend to see a guy wearing gray wool and big black boots, trudging through a snowy forest to an unfamiliar village where he will try to convince the inhabitants to let him smear ash on the foreheads of their smallpox-ridden children before they die unbaptized. (Bonus points for guessing where the smallpox came from. Besides Lord AmHerst, of course.)

This arrogance is a dangerous attitude that has no place in rational politics and should not be present on the national or international stage. I do not want to live in a nation that believes that its has the single best way of life, because there is always room for improvement. I do not want to live in a nation that believes itself to be inherently culturally superior to other nations or belief systems. I do not want to live in a nation that believes its purpose is to impose its culture and beliefs on others. And I especially do not want such a nation to have cruise missiles and fusion warheads.

One of the major currencies of international politics is respect. Respect for the abilities of other nations, respect for the people of other nations, respect for the needs of other nations, respect for the histories of other nations, and respect for the cultures of other nations. That respect is how countries develop and exercise soft power – the capability to accomplish their international objectives without application of threats or force. Without respect, a nation loses this capability. Think about North Korea or Iran: they have no respect for the international community, and with rapidly waning soft power, they must rely on farcical military parades, missile tests, and uranium refinement milestones to try and get attention on the world stage. Even Iran’s trade connections with Russia and China may not be enough at this point. So, in the future, even if the United States’ diplomats act respectful towards other nations, if they ever go on record as saying things like, “The United States of America is God’s New Promised Land, and its Divine Mission is to advance the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ across all Creation,” then this country will see its soft power evaporate. Perhaps quickly, perhaps slowly, but disappear it will, and then those fanatical leaders will find themselves with hard power as the only way to “advance” Christianity. To stave that eventuality off, we must maintain our respect for other nations and cultures, and the only effective way to do that is to have leaders who do respect other nations and cultures. There might be fundamentalists and fanatics in the United States – and I will respect their right to hold those beliefs, even if I do not personally agree with their choices and goals – but we cannot have such fanaticism built into our national principles. (Another semantic note: yes, I will respect fundamentalists’ right to hold their beliefs. I will even go so far as to respect their beliefs. But I will not respect pushing their ideology on other cultures or the children of our own culture.)

Within our own borders, a national focus on spreading religion – one religion – is not only fundamentally at odds with the founding principles of our country, but would directly damage America domestically. By prioritizing religious concerns over worldly ones, we would be obstructing or delaying solutions to problems ranging from hunger to poverty to disease. I’d rather have a little human-driven social work at the national level than national prayer breakfasts or divine missions – providing tangible solutions to real problems, which does not require religion. By pushing a single belief system, we would be actively shutting out and repelling those citizens or potential citizens who may have a great deal of value to add to our country. One of the things that makes America great, in my opinion, is that we will let a guy with a name like Wernher have free reign over our technological and industrial capabilities. That sort of thing got us to the Moon. And finally (in this list, at least), by placing a very specific religious worldview at the forefront of our national consciousness, we would be rejecting scientific methods, theories, and all the potential benefits they would derive. If, for whatever reason, you worry about Chinese flags appearing on the Moon next, then you ought to be petrified of writing Christianity into the Constitution.

One of the most difficult and frustrating things about this whole history-textbook issue is that people like me, who advocate a rational, precise, fact-based approached rather than some ideological, doctrinal crusade is that we have to make allowances for the views of the other side while they do not. From the NYT magazine article,

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.”

Ask Christian activists what they really want — what the goal is behind the effort to bring Christianity into American history — and they say they merely want “the truth.”

Sure, they want “the truth.” Stress on “the.” In fact, it would probably be best to replace the “the” with an “our.”

The problem is that I want the truth. But, since I don’t believe that there is any source of Inerrant Truth available to me, I must determine the truth from available data. I must also use the scientific method: propose a hypothesis, and test it. So, I must allow these revisionist historians to propose their hypotheses, and I must allow them to test those hypotheses. And if the results of those tests are reproducible, I must accept their results.

The problem is that, politically, this looks like what we now know as “waffling.” I’m somehow not sticking to my guns, and somehow that is B – A – D bad.

Here’s another example of this principle at work. My girlfriend reported to me that she saw some protesters on her university campus recently; one of the demonstrators was carrying a sign that read, “Do you have the courage to question evolution?” He may not have realized it, but that question pretty much defines any science/religion debate. Do scientists question evolution? Sure they do. That is how science works. We question our theories, propose other possibilities, suggest alternatives, produce contradictory data. But then we synthesize all the available data into the existing theories, mutating them into new theories, which we test again. (Hey, look at that. Scientific theories evolve through selection.) But does that protester question his bible? Does he test it against available data? Most importantly – does he try to synthesize it with current understanding, to generate a self-consistent model of the universe?

If he can start from nothing but his bible and get to a functional explanation for why his flu vaccine works that is consistent with all observed data to date, my hat is off to him.

But, politically, in making the above statements it looks like I’m giving creationists room to advance their ideas. It looks like I’m giving fundamentalists the go-ahead to write creationism into science texts. Because I’m not rigidly sticking to a dogma. (And if I do, the creationists will rightly call me on it. But they usually take it too far – That’s what they’re trying to do when they append “-ism” and “-ist” to “evolution:” equate evolution and creationism as belief systems, because they cannot be equated as science and it is not meaningful to compare them independently with no common frame of reference.) No, I’m not adhering to a dogma, I’m allowing room for questioning and I’m integrating new findings into my previous theories. The ideologues have no such limitations; they quote doctrine mindlessly without the critical thinking skeptics advocate. To the modern political drama machine, for which the world is Black or White, Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, that makes me automatically lose the debate.

A really intelligent and forthright conversation or education about evolution and creationism would require a full understanding of the scientific method. Which brings me back to this history-textbook issue: a full discussion of American history, and the role religion plays in that history, requires an understanding of the historical contexts, data, and methods. What we find, in the case of science, is that creationism does not hold up under the lens of rigorous investigation. So far, evolution is the best theory available to us. What we find, in the case of history, is that events were driven by human beings with human concerns – sometimes expressed in terms of religion or integrated with religion. “Divine missions” can often be analyzed in terms of the characters of the people supporting them, or in terms of prevailing socioeconomic conditions. Religion is not a negligible force, but it is by no means “the” driving force of America.

We absolutely should teach the role of religion in the Enlightenment, the role of Judeo-Christian values in shaping the philosophies of our Founders, and the role of the Great Awakening in shaping our Revolution. Those are historical facts. But we should also teach that several of the Founding Fathers were Deists, that they left the word “God” out of the Constitution on purpose – and the Declaration of Independence only uses the word once, crucially embedded in the phrase “Nature’s God,” that the Pilgrims came to the New World to escape religious persecution, and the role of Christian missionaries in the destruction of existing American cultures. We must remember that it is our diversity which makes America great – our ability to confront the unknown and face it, understand it, and even absorb it into ourselves. We must remember the protections of the First Amendment, and why the states, with their varied religious backgrounds, refused to ratify the Constitution without protections such as those. And all the while we must remember that a full investigation of history and politics, with a rejection of ideology, does not reveal weakness, but gives us a stronger, more integrated understanding.

So history textbooks can have some bits on the religious beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers. But they absolutely should not portray America as a “Christian” nation and definitely should not assign a divine mission to its history or future.

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