How Christian Were the Founders?
By RUSSELL SHORTO
February 11, 2010
New York Times
...IN 1801, A GROUP of Baptist ministers in Danbury, Conn., wrote a letter to the new president, Thomas Jefferson, congratulating him on his victory. They also had a favor to ask. Baptists were a minority group, and they felt insecure. In the colonial period, there were two major Christian factions, both of which derived from England. The Congregationalists, in New England, had evolved from the Puritan settlers, and in the South and middle colonies, the Anglicans came from the Church of England. Nine colonies developed state churches, which were supported financially by the colonial governments and whose power was woven in with that of the governments. Other Christians — Lutherans, Baptists, Quakers — and, of course, those of other faiths were made unwelcome, if not persecuted outright.
...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. 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.”
...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.”
...The other nonacademic expert, David Barton, is the nationally known leader of WallBuilders, which describes itself as dedicated to “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.” Barton has written and lectured on the First Amendment and against separation of church and state. He is a controversial figure who has argued that the U.S. income tax and the capital-gains tax should be abolished because they violate Scripture (for the Bible says, in Barton’s reading, “the more profit you make the more you are rewarded”) and who pushes a Christianity-first rhetoric. When the U.S. Senate invited a Hindu leader to open a 2007 session with a prayer, he objected, saying: “In Hindu [sic], you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, did the Declaration when they talked about Creator.”
In his recommendations to the Texas school board, Barton wrote that students should be taught the following principles which, in his reading, derive directly from the Declaration of Independence: “1. There is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature. 2. There is a Creator. 3. The Creator gives to man certain unalienable rights. 4. Government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual. 5. Below God-given rights and moral laws, government is directed by the consent of the governed.”
A third expert, Daniel L. Dreisbach, a professor of justice, law and society at American University who has written extensively on First Amendment issues, stressed, in his recommendations to the guideline writers about how to frame the revolutionary period for students, that the founders were overwhelmingly Christian; that the deistic tendencies of a few — like Jefferson — were an anomaly; and that most Americans in the era were not just Christians but that “98 percent or more of Americans of European descent identified with Protestantism.”
If the fight between the “Christian nation” advocates and mainstream thinkers could be focused onto a single element, it would be the “wall of separation” phrase. Christian thinkers like to point out that it does not appear in the Constitution, nor in any other legal document — letters that presidents write to their supporters are not legal decrees. Besides which, after the phrase left Jefferson’s pen it more or less disappeared for a century and a half — until Justice Hugo Black of the Supreme Court dug it out of history’s dustbin in 1947. It then slowly worked its way into the American lexicon and American life, helping to subtly mold the way we think about religion in society. To conservative Christians, there is no separation of church and state, and there never was. The concept, they say, is a modern secular fiction. There is no legal justification, therefore, for disallowing crucifixes in government buildings or school prayer...
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.”
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.”...
“BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, What Do You See?” It’s not an especially subversive-sounding title, but the author of this 1967 children’s picture book, Bill Martin Jr., lost his place in the Texas social-studies guidelines at last month’s board meeting due to what was thought to be un-American activity — to be precise, “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.” Martin, the creator of 300 children’s books, was removed from the list of cultural figures approved for study by third graders in the blizzard of amendments offered by board members.
Over all, the TEKS guidelines make for impressive reading. They are thoughtful and deep; you can almost feel the effort at achieving balance. Poring down the long columns and knowing that the 1998 version of these guidelines served as the basis for textbooks in most U.S. states, you even begin to feel some hope for the future.
What is wrong with the Texas process, according to many observers, is illustrated by the fate of Bill Martin Jr. The board has the power to accept, reject or rewrite the TEKS, and over the past few years, in language arts, science and now social studies, the members have done all of the above. Yet few of these elected overseers are trained in the fields they are reviewing. “In general, the board members don’t know anything at all about content,” Tom Barber, the textbook executive, says. Kathy Miller, the watchdog, who has been monitoring the board for 15 years, says, referring to Don McLeroy and another board member: “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history. Last year, Don McLeroy believed he was smarter than the National Academy of Sciences, and he now believes he’s smarter than professors of American history.” In this case, one board member sent an e-mail message with a reference to “Ethical Marxism,” by Bill Martin, to another board member, who suggested that anyone who wrote a book with such a title did not belong in the TEKS. As it turned out, Bill Martin and Bill Martin Jr. are two different people. But by that time, the author of “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” was out. “That’s a perfect example of these people’s lack of knowledge,” Miller says. “They’re coming forward with hundreds of amendments at the last minute. Don McLeroy had a four-inch stack of amendments, and they all just voted on them, whether or not they actually knew the content. What we witnessed in January was a textbook example of how not to develop textbook standards.”
Before the January board meeting, one of the social-studies curriculum writers, Judy Brodigan, told me that she was very pleased with the guidelines her team produced. After the meeting, with its 10-hour marathon of amendments by board members, she spoke very differently. “I think they took a very, very good document and weakened it,” she said. “The teachers take their work seriously. I do believe there are board members on the ultraright who have an agenda. They want to make our standards very conservative and fit their viewpoint. Our job is not to take a viewpoint. It’s to present sides fairly. I thought we had done that.” ...