Pointing Fingers and Shading the Truth

Texas State Board of Education members are pointing fingers at everyone but themselves for the debacle over revising social studies curriculum standards. In new interviews with the Southern Baptist TEXAN, board Chair Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, and fellow member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, are complaining that reporting about the board’s actions have been inaccurate. And they point their fingers at the Texas Freedom Network for causing the problems.

So let’s do a little fact-checking of Lowe’s and McLeroy’s comments, shall we?

Lowe tells the TEXAN:

“Nowhere in our social studies curriculum standards is America referred to as a Christian nation.”

Lowe is technically correct — even these board members know that inserting a blatant “Christian nation” standard would lead almost immediately to a court battle that they would lose. What she doesn’t say, however, is that the board’s far-right members have seeded the standards with distortions that suggest the nation’s origins and constitutional foundations lie in the (Christian) religious beliefs of the Founders.

In fact, board members pressured curriculum writers to insert some of those distortions in their drafts. The draft high school government course standards, for example, list Moses as a primary influence on America’s founding documents. The same standards list “Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law)” as having been a major influence on the founding.

Yet Prof. Steven Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Oregon, explained to the board in his public testimony last fall that those standards reflect a poor understanding of history:

“The Founders were  influenced chiefly by notions of Enlightenment rationalism, not by Calvinist understandings of human depravity, and they purposefully chose not to create a government based on Christian principles.  They did not draw on Mosaic or biblical law in crafting either our constitutional or legal systems. They did not intend to create a ‘Christian nation.’ Rather, the Founders purposefully established a governmental system based on secular principles.  At the same time, however, they created a system where religious institutions and religious faith could flourish, independent of the government.”

But far-right board members chose instead to rely on the opinions of David Barton and the Rev. Peter Marshall — two conservative evangelicals and nonscholars who argue that the United States is a Christian nation and that the Constitution does not guarantee separation of church and state.

McLeroy, as he has repeatedly, tries to justify to TEXAN readers the board’s rejection of a proposed government course standard that would have required students to ““examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.” McLeroy argues that the proposed standard suggested that the Founders were neutral toward religion.

“They weren’t. They simply didn’t want a state church, a state religion. That’s it. To say that we were against protecting the religious freedoms of all the people, that is all spin from the Texas Freedom Network. That’s all it is. Because it’s not right.”

Lowe has this to say:

“The First Amendment very clearly prevents Congress from establishing a national church, but it also promotes the free exercise of religion. Students need to understand that this is what the founders intended. It is inaccurate to say the Founding Fathers were neutral about religion; most were strong proponents of religious faith but did not believe in a national church controlled by the federal government.”

Yet the proposed standard didn’t suggest that the Founders were personally neutral toward religion. Neither does it suggest that the Founders sought to limit the free exercise of religion. What the standard does, instead, is note that the Founders wanted to protect religious liberty by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any one faith. Do McLeroy and Lowe believe that the Founders wanted government to do otherwise? If so, they are rejecting a wealth of scholarship and jurisprudence to the contrary.

Lowe and McLeroy also argue that they voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about influential Enlightenment thinkers because, as McLeroy apparently told the TEXAN, “he was merely a ‘son’ of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Voltaire.” Yet we have already noted that Jefferson was a contemporary of other Enlightenment thinkers listed in the standard. In addition, Edward Countryman, a respected historian at Southern Methodist University, has explained that “Jefferson is an Enlightenment figure of the first order.”

Moreover, the board actually dropped the reference to the Enlightenment from the same standard from which Jefferson was deleted. So what’s the real reason for deleting the man who argued that “a wall of separation between church and state” is essential to freedom. Gosh, we wonder…

You can read the full TEXAN piece here. Then decide for yourself who deserves the blame for the social studies debacle — board members who don’t know history or those, like TFN, who have correctly pointed to their ignorance and ideological agenda.