Christianity's role in history of U.S. at issue
By Joshunda Sanders
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFWhen the State Board of Education meets this week to tackle revisions to the social studies curriculum in Texas public schools, some of the most contentious public debate is likely to center on recommendations by two men who want more emphasis on the role of Christianity in how the nation was formed.
The ideas submitted by well-known Christian conservatives David Barton and the Rev. Peter Marshall could influence how social studies is taught in Texas for the next decade. The board's final decision on the social studies curriculum is expected in March.
Barton and Marshall were among six reviewers chosen by the board to make suggestions for changing the curriculum. Their key recommendations for revision include more emphasis on documents from early America like the Mayflower Compact of 1620, written by Christian pilgrims who wanted religious freedom, or adding the Bible to sources that influenced the creation of significant documents when America was founded. If their changes are accepted, students who now receive a more generic overview of religious freedom and its importance in the country's founding would be taught that the nation's founders wanted to shape America based on biblical principles.
Those ideas resonate with many Christians, history and religion professors say, but they concern many others.
"I'm an evangelical Christian, and I think David Barton and Peter Marshall are completely out to lunch," said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, a Christian institution. "They are not experts on social studies and history. Neither of them are trained in history. They are preachers who use the past and history as a means of promoting a political agenda in the present."
Barton, a Texas-based GOP activist and nationally known speaker, and Marshall, a traveling evangelist whose father was a U.S. Senate chaplain in the 1940s, are aligned with American University law and history professor Daniel Dreisbach — one of four academics on the review panel — in the belief that America was intended to be a "Christian nation" with no separation between church and state.
Barton did not return calls seeking comment, and Marshall declined to be interviewed, writing by e-mail, "I don't have anything further to say other than what was said last Fall." The board heard from reviewers during a meeting in September.
Last summer, Marshall told The Wall Street Journal, "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it."
Board member Don McLeroy said the reviewers were chosen based on board members' "life experience."
"People say, 'Oh, you need professors,'" McLeroy said. "We do have professors, like Daniel Dreisbach."
Barton, the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, was hired in 2004 by the GOP as a consultant to speak in evangelical churches during that year's presidential race, according to the journal Church & State. The former math teacher and self-taught historian has penned dozens of books and was named by Time magazine one of America's most prominent evangelicals . He now runs WallBuilders, "an organization dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and Constitutional foundation on which America was built."
Board chairwoman Gail Lowe and board member Ken Mercer nominated Barton as an expert reviewer in that context, Lowe said.
"I've heard him speak on a number of occasions," Lowe said. "I've seen him on television, and we have his books and tapes."
Among the reviewers, Barton has been the most vocal proponent of teaching about religion's impact in American history. When other reviewers submitted their first drafts of curriculum revisions, the average length of their suggestions was 13 pages. Barton's initial recommended changes were 87 pages long and included everything from minute language shifts to major changes that would show students the importance of Christianity in shaping the country's history.
"The story that people like Barton tell about the decline of America at least in some ways tracks with the idea that God was kicked out of public education," said Robert Kunzman, associate professor of education at Indiana University, who recently wrote "Write These Laws On Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling."
Board members Barbara Cargill and Cynthia Dunbar voted for Marshall's inclusion in the reviewers' group. Marshall lives in Massachusetts and attended Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary before beginning his ministry in 1977.
He co-authored "The Light and the Glory," a book widely used to teach history in home-schooling circles that has sold close to a million copies since it was first published in 1977 and is "one of the most widely read nonfiction Christian books of all time," according to Fea, the Messiah College professor. The book says America is a Christian nation dating back to colonial days.
In his suggested revisions to the social studies curriculum, Marshall recommends adding a subsection to the fifth-grade curriculum that would "describe the impact of religious revivals (the Great Awakening) in shaping a national identity and, perhaps, contributing to the drive for political independence."
The conservative reviewers don't explicitly say they promote the "Christian nation," idea, but their recommendations lay the foundation for creating a legal basis for the concept, according to Derek Davis, a dean at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton . America has always been predominately Christian, he added, but "there is this sense that the Founding Fathers were all Christians who desired a Christian nation in a formal and legal" way.
He added that the view that the nation's Christian roots shaped documents like the Constitution is "fairly common," particularly among Christians. But Edward Countryman, a history professor at Southern Methodist University who was once considered a potential addition to the group of reviewers, said that common or not, the idea has no place in public education.
"It's historically false to say that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian republic. I don't think this idea should be taught in schools."
There are some who believe that criticism of the ideas Marshall and Barton espouse is politically based.
Jonathan Saenz, legislative director of the Austin-based Freemarket Foundation — a nonprofit "dedicated to protecting freedoms and strengthening families in Texas and nationwide," according to its Web site — said Barton "can go toe to toe with any of the so-called experts anointed by Austin liberals. Any criticism of him is pure politics and desperation."
Although reviewers have made suggestions since the curriculum review process started a year ago, it's difficult to gauge how much influence they will have on the final social studies curriculum. Board member Pat Hardy said the board will ultimately decide what the final curriculum will look like. But Dan Quinn, with the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan group that monitors the religious right in Texas, said discussions about potential changes to the curriculum are "the most political part of the process" because board members can vote to amend the final draft to add the ideas of reviewers they picked.
Other reviewers include Jesús Francisco de la Teja, dean of the history department at Texas State University; Lybeth Hodges, a history professor at Texas Woman's University; and Jim Kracht, associate dean of academic affairs at Texas A&M. Their recommendations include little mention of religion. Kracht emphasized "ideological neutrality" in the curriculum standards and didn't mention religion at all.
Each reviewer drafted recommendations and sent them to the Texas Education Agency. The agency then sent those drafts to writing groups composed of teachers and community members who have been revising the curriculum standards; their revised draft of the standards will be presented at the board's meeting this week.