Friday, September 14, 2012

What David Barton May Get Right

For over a decade David Barton has been arguing that school textbooks have been hostile to religion or have removed religion from the story of American history.  If a talk I heard this week at the Duke conference on the "Bible in the Public Square" is correct, then Barton's complaint may have some merit.  Let me explain.

In his lecture entitled "The Good Book as Textbook in Historical Perspective," Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey described the textbook industry's reaction to the Supreme Court's decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District vs. Schempp (1963).  (Now that I recall--this discussion may have taken place during the Q&A session). The Vitale case made it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.  The Schempp case declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.

According to Chancey (and I am paraphrasing his lecture here), publishers responded to these Supreme Court decisions by downplaying religion in American history textbooks.  Things got so absurd that several popular textbook authors avoided the mention of religion in discussions of the Pilgrims and Puritans.  As Chancey pointed out, the textbook companies misunderstood these Supreme Court decisions to mean that religion was not permitted in the curriculum.  Because they feared that public schools (which in many cases also misunderstood the decisions) would not purchase their books if they had too much religion in them, textbook companies chose instead to take it out.  After Vitale and Schempp, school districts and textbook companies became unnecessarily paranoid about violating the First Amendment's religious clause and thus erred on the side of caution.

So when Barton complains about religion being missing from the story of America, he may have a point. 

But by the 1980s and 1990s a new wave of scholarship emerged that took (and continues to take) religion seriously in the story of the American past.  From what I have been able to tell, this new scholarship has found its way into school textbooks, offering a more religious-friendly narrative of American history than what may have been offered in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is very interesting stuff.  At this point I can only call attention to Chancey's lecture, but I would like to learn more.