Saturday, February 13, 2010

New York Times on the Texas School Controversy:

The NYT, on February 11, 2010, featured a ten page article on the Texas State Board of Education controversy involving among others David Barton, Peter Marshall and Daniel Dreisbach. A version appears in the Sun. Magazine dated February 14, 2010, on page 32.

It's titled, How Christian Were the Founders?

Some highlights:

I met Don McLeroy last November in a dental office — that is to say, his dental office — in a professional complex in the Brazos Valley city of Bryan, not far from the sprawling campus of Texas A&M University. The buzz of his hygienist at work sounded through the thin wall separating his office from the rest of the suite. McLeroy makes no bones about the fact that his professional qualifications have nothing to do with education. “I’m a dentist, not a historian,” he said. “But I’m fascinated by history, so I’ve read a lot.”

Indeed, dentistry is only a job for McLeroy; his real passions are his faith and the state board of education. He has been a member of the board since 1999 and served as its chairman from 2007 until he was demoted from that role by the State Senate last May because of concerns over his religious views. Until now those views have stood McLeroy in good stead with the constituents of his district, which meanders from Houston to Dallas and beyond, but he is currently in a heated re-election battle in the Republican primary, which takes place March 2.

McLeroy is a robust, cheerful and inexorable man, whose personality is perhaps typified by the framed letter T on the wall of his office, which he earned as a “yell leader” (Texas A&M nomenclature for cheerleader) in his undergraduate days in the late 1960s. “I consider myself a Christian fundamentalist,” he announced almost as soon as we sat down. He also identifies himself as a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago. He went on to explain how his Christian perspective both governs his work on the state board and guides him in the current effort to adjust American-history textbooks to highlight the role of Christianity. “Textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict,” he said. “But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.”

Yep, that seems typical of the "Christian Nationalism" that I've long criticized.

Next, the NYT's article consults expert opinion on the controversy:

Christian activists argue that American-history textbooks basically ignore religion — to the point that they distort history outright — and mainline religious historians tend to agree with them on this. “In American history, religion is all over the place, and wherever it appears, you should tell the story and do it appropriately,” says Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History and perhaps the unofficial dean of American religious historians. “The goal should be natural inclusion. You couldn’t tell the story of the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Dutch in New York without religion.” ...


Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and writer of the documentary “Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham,” told me: “David Barton has been out there spreading this lie, frankly, that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation. He’s been very effective. But the logic is utterly screwy. He says the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution. He’s right about that. But to make that argument work you would have to argue that the phrase is not an accurate summation of the First Amendment. And Thomas Jefferson, who penned it, thought it was.” (David Barton declined to be interviewed for this article.) In his testimony in Austin, Steven Green was challenged by a board member with the fact that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution. In response, Green pointed out that many constitutional concepts — like judicial review and separation of powers — are not found verbatim in the Constitution.

In what amounts to an in-between perspective, Daniel Dreisbach — who wrote a book called “Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State” — argues that the phrase “wall of separation” has been misapplied in recent decades to unfairly restrict religion from entering the public sphere. Martin Marty, the University of Chicago emeritus professor, agrees. “I think ‘wall’ is too heavy a metaphor,” Marty says. “There’s a trend now away from it, and I go along with that. In textbooks, we’re moving away from an unthinking secularity.” The public seems to agree. Polls on some specific church-state issues — government financing for faith-based organizations and voluntary prayer in public schools — consistently show majorities in favor of those positions.

Then too, the “Christian nation” position tries to trump the whole debate about separation of church and state by portraying the era of the nation’s founding as awash in Christianity. David Barton and others pepper their arguments with quotations, like one in which John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson, refers to American independence as having been achieved on “the general Principles of Christianity.” But others find just as many instances in which one or another of the founders seems clearly wary of religion.

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.”


I had come to sit in on a guest lecture by Cynthia Dunbar, an assistant law professor who commutes to Lynchburg once a week from her home in Richmond, Tex., where she is a practicing lawyer as well as a member of the Texas board of education. Her presence in both worlds — public schools and the courts — suggests the connection between them that Christian activists would like to deepen. The First Amendment class for third-year law students that I watched Dunbar lead neatly merged the two components of the school’s program: “lawyering skills” and “the integration of a Christian worldview.”

Dunbar began the lecture by discussing a national day of thanksgiving that Gen. George Washington called for after the defeat of the British at Saratoga in 1777 — showing, in her reckoning, a religious base in the thinking of the country’s founders. In developing a line of legal reasoning that the future lawyers in her class might use, she wove her way to two Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, in both of which the court ruled that prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. A student questioned the relevance of the 1777 event to the court rulings, because in 1777 the country did not yet have a Constitution. “And what did we have at that time?” Dunbar asked. Answer: “The Declaration of Independence.” She then discussed a legal practice called “incorporation by reference.” “When you have in one legal document reference to another, it pulls them together, so that they can’t be viewed as separate and distinct,” she said. “So you cannot read the Constitution distinct from the Declaration.” And the Declaration famously refers to a Creator and grounds itself in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Therefore, she said, the religiosity of the founders is not only established and rooted in a foundational document but linked to the Constitution. From there she moved to “judicial construction and how you should go forward with that,” i.e., how these soon-to-be lawyers might work to overturn rulings like that against prayer in schools by using the founding documents.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal center, told me that the notion of connecting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is “part of a strategy to give a clear historical understanding of the role of religion in American public life” that organizations like his have been pursuing for the last 10 or 15 years.

Besides the fact that incorporation by reference is usually used for technical purposes rather than for such grandiose purposes as the reinterpretation of foundational texts, there is an oddity to this tactic. “The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.

And here again there is a link to Texas. David Barton specifically advised the writers of the Texas guidelines that textbooks “should stipulate (but currently do not) that the Declaration of Independence is symbiotic with the Constitution rather than a separate unrelated document.”

In 2008, Cynthia Dunbar published a book called “One Nation Under God,” in which she stated more openly than most of her colleagues have done the argument that the founding of America was an overtly Christian undertaking and laid out what she and others hope to achieve in public schools. “The underlying authority for our constitutional form of government stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes. “Hence, the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers at the time of our government’s inception comes from a biblical worldview.”

There's lots more great stuff in the NYT's article (I think I've excerpted enough).

On the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, historians, political scientists and legal scholars on the Left and the Right actually vigorously dispute the matter.

Given the dispute, it's probably not a good idea for history books to take a side, but rather, do their best to "teach the controversy" (and unlike the case with Intelligent Design where you may have heard that line, there really is a compelling controversy here).

Barton and company argue the DOI's status as "law" in an attempt to answer "The Godless Constitution" thesis. The problem is the DOI is not a Christian/biblical document -- at least not in the sense that the Christian Nationalists understand the concept. It doesn't mention Jesus Christ or quote verses and chapters of scripture. Its call to revolution is arguably in tension with Romans 13. And it's not clear that many/most of the important principles enunciated in the DOI have anything to do with the Bible.

The DOI is obviously a Providential or theistic document (not necessarily a Christian or a biblical document).

8 out of 9 members of the Supreme Court (insofar as I correctly understand the newish Justices Alito's, Roberts' and Sotomayor's views) don't believe the Declaration of Independence is "law."

Justice Thomas, btw, is the only member who does.

And most conservative expert figures endorse the "DOI is NOT law position." Not only Justice Scalia (and the late CJ Rehnquist), but also former Judge Robert Bork, law professor Lino Graglia, the late conservative traditionalist Russell Kirk (who notably argued the DOI was a wink towards France to win their support against the British) and many others.

I think they recognize calling for revolt on the grounds that God gives us the "right" to do so isn't exactly a settled position in traditional conservative Christendom and also may not foster the kind of orderly, traditionalist society they desire.

Yes, a "revolutionary" current is fairly well established in Christendom. It's just not clear that revolutionary thought harmonizes better with conservative Christianity, than for instance, liberation theology.

Lino Graglia well sums up how the DOI's call for revolt arguably conflicts with conservatism’s moral traditionalism and vision for an orderly, lawful society:

... The Declaration, however, consists largely of a lengthy indictment of King George III. It is hardly the sort of thing you would expect to find in a nation's constitution. What it is, of course, is a document meant to justify revolution -- that is, illegal action. Having no human law to rely on -- being in defiance of authority -- revolutionaries necessarily come to rely on the law of God, who, happily, rarely issues a protest.

I'm not sure whether Graglia is a Christian, but he could, if he wished, quote verses and chapters of scripture and distinguished orthodox theological arguments on behalf of his sentiment.

Perhaps he, Robert Bork, Russell Kirk are wrong and perhaps the conservative Christians who reconcile the "Americanism" of the DOI with biblical Christianity are right. But, again, K-12 history books shouldn't pick a side in that debate and try to sell it to school kids as Barton wishes.

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