Saturday, February 13, 2010

Beck, Textbooks, and the "Wall of Separation."

I wrote last week about the fake historian David Barton who was called on for testimony during the Texas Board of Education hearings to discuss the writing of the textbooks that will not only be used in Texas but across the country.

Turns out that Barton's got bigger ears to fill than just the Texas School Board's. Glenn Beck who has been scheming up a conspiracy-laden next "great awakening," called "The Plan," set to be kicked off in DC on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, draws on Barton's ahistorical accounts of the US founding. Here's a segment from Keith Olberman's show that account's not only Barton's rewriting of history but Beck's plans for our nation's next 100 years.

In tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto has a story that looks at the battle over the soul's of the Founding Fathers and how the Texas School Board and affiliated organizations (the Legal Right) work to establish that not only was the country founded on Christian principles but that the US' laws are Biblical in origin. Barton makes an appearance, below. In the article, Shorto writes that like last year's battle over "intelligent design," this year's battle over the religious birth of the nation has a long history:

The cultural roots of the Texas showdown may be said to date to the late 1980s, when, in the wake of his failed presidential effort, the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition partly on the logic that conservative Christians should focus their energies at the grass-roots level. One strategy was to put candidates forward for state and local school-board elections — Robertson’s protégé, Ralph Reed, once said, “I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members” — and Texas was a beachhead. Since the election of two Christian conservatives in 2006, there are now seven on the Texas state board who are quite open about the fact that they vote in concert to advance a Christian agenda. “They do vote as a bloc,” Pat Hardy, a board member who considers herself a conservative Republican but who stands apart from the Christian faction, told me. “They work consciously to pull one more vote in with them on an issue so they’ll have a majority.”


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.”

On Barton, Shorto writes:

The other nonacademic expert, David Barton, is the nationally known leader of WallBuilders, which describes itself as dedicated to “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage.” Barton has written and lectured on the First Amendment and against separation of church and state. He is a controversial figure who has argued that the U.S. income tax and the capital-gains tax should be abolished because they violate Scripture (for the Bible says, in Barton’s reading, “the more profit you make the more you are rewarded”) and who pushes a Christianity-first rhetoric. When the U.S. Senate invited a Hindu leader to open a 2007 session with a prayer, he objected, saying: “In Hindu [sic], you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, did the Declaration when they talked about Creator.”

In his recommendations to the Texas school board, Barton wrote that students should be taught the following principles which, in his reading, derive directly from the Declaration of Independence: “1. There is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature. 2. There is a Creator. 3. The Creator gives to man certain unalienable rights. 4. Government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual. 5. Below God-given rights and moral laws, government is directed by the consent of the governed.”

Social conservatives have long known that the best way to shape the future tone of the country is through Christian schools (and universities, targeting particularly the medical and legal fields) that instill respect for and adherence to God's laws.

My first reaction to the need to paint the founding fathers as Christian is the question: So what if they were? As a necessarily "living" document, the Constitution should be interpreted to reflect contemporary society and technological, social and scientific advancements. But as Shorto notes, even the term "living document" has been eradicated from text books:

To give an illustration simultaneously of the power of ideology and Texas’ influence, Barber told me that when he led the social-studies division at Prentice Hall, one conservative member of the board told him that the 12th-grade book, “Magruder’s American Government,” would not be approved because it repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “living” document. “That book is probably the most famous textbook in American history,” Barber says. “It’s been around since World War I, is updated every year and it had invented the term ‘living Constitution,’ which has been there since the 1950s. But the social conservatives didn’t like its sense of flexibility. They insisted at the last minute that the wording change to ‘enduring.’ ” Prentice Hall agreed to the change, and ever since the book — which Barber estimates controlled 60 or 65 percent of the market nationally — calls it the “enduring Constitution.”

I was born and raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My grandparents were Mennonite and their story and that of Martin Harnish, our ancestor who was recruited by William Penn, along with other Anabaptist families (Amish and Mennonite) to come to America in the early 1700s, is the perfect illustration of the importance of separation of church and state. The Radical Reformation bred a hostile environment for those in Switzerland and Germany who did not ascribe to the beliefs of the state-ordained church. They were killed and tortured for their faith for centuries. A ticket to the frontiers of what would soon be called Pennsylvania saved my ancestors from continued persecution.

Today, the Amish and to some extent the Mennonites live outside society, protected from governmental discrimination by the Establishment Clause and the "separation of church and state."

One can only wonder how non-evangelical or non-fundamentalist Christian Americans feel about a particular "Christian" history being taught at their public, federally-funded schools. It is this sort of discrimination against individual religious conscience that "separation of church and state" is meant to prevent. And yet, it is this sort of discrimination that the Texas Board of Education and other related groups seek to perpetrate.

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