NYT Magazine Explores SBOE's "Christian Nation"

About 130 people signed up to address the State Board of Education about its social studies standards in a marathon meeting in January.
About 130 people signed up to address the State Board of Education about its social studies standards in a marathon meeting in January.

It seems the social conservatives on the State Board of Education may be on their way to getting more ink than any other politicians in modern Texas history, a cause that will be helped in this Sunday's printing of The New York Times Magazine. Titled "How Christian Were the Founders?," the piece will include 8,100 words on their attempted Christianization of the social studies curriculum.

This year’s social-studies review has drawn the most attention for the battles over what names should be included in the roll call of history. But while ignoring Kennedy and upgrading Gingrich are significant moves, something more fundamental is on the agenda. The one thing that underlies the entire program of the nation’s Christian conservative activists is, naturally, religion. But it isn’t merely the case that their Christian orientation shapes their opinions on gay marriage, abortion and government spending. More elementally, they hold that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts. This belief provides what they consider not only a theological but also, ultimately, a judicial grounding to their positions on social questions. When they proclaim that the United States is a “Christian nation,” they are not referring to the percentage of the population that ticks a certain box in a survey or census but to the country’s roots and the intent of the founders.

The Christian “truth” about America’s founding has long been taught in Christian schools, but not beyond. Recently, however — perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists — some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.”

The battle over the curriculum, which we chronicled heavily last month, is far from over. The board, which failed to get through a slew of controversial amendments at its last meeting, will take up the matter again in March. And it remains to be seen how aggressive the board's social conservatives will be in inserting their religious views on in the curriculum. As Times contributor Russell Shorto notes, board members made few overt moves to inject Christianity at the last meeting, perhaps out of worry over the bad publicity it would create — especially at a time when several in the socially conservative bloc are facing stiff campaign challenges. 

Regarding religion, the writing teams had included in their guidelines some of the recommendations of the experts appointed by the Christian bloc but had chosen to ignore most. I was led to expect that the January meeting would see a torrent of religion amendments, in which Don McLeroy would reinsert items that the team failed to include, just as he did with other subjects in the past. Last November, over dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from the Texas A&M campus, McLeroy vowed to do so, saying, “I’ll get the details in there.” At that time, he and others were full of information and bravado as they pushed toward the “Christian nation” goal. But at the January meeting, while there were many conservative political amendments, there were only a few religion amendments. When I talked to him afterward, he shrugged it off in an uncharacteristically vague way. “We’re basically happy with things,” he said.

 

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