The New York Times has put up, early, a piece for next Sunday’s magazine. It’s a long article by Russell Shorto on the continuing kerfuffle in Texas about what will appear in school textbooks. You will recall that over the last two years the fracas was about evolution, with Texas school board chairman Don McLeroy (a dentist who also happens to be a young-earth creationist) fighting hard to insert “teach-the-controversy” material into biology texts. By and large the creationists lost that one, and McLeroy lost his position, though he’s still on the board.
As the Times notes, what goes into Texas textbooks affects much of the US. The state has a $22 billion dollar education fund, with much of that money used to buy textbooks that fit state standards. Textbook publishers don’t want to create special editions for each state, so many of them simply go along with what Texas wants, and that’s what other states get as well.
This year the board is debating what children will be taught in history and social-studies classes. As you might expect, McLeroy and his half-dozen conservative minions are trying to ensure that Texas kids are taught that the United States rests firmly on Christianity and Jesus Christ (conservative activists often use the words “Judeo-Christian” here, but of course give short shrift to the Jewish belief that Christ wasn’t the Messiah):
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.”
For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. “There are two basic facts about man,” he said. “He was created in the image of God, and he is fallen. You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood that. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this is a huge thing.”
The article is worth reading, for it gives you a flavor of the controversy, what the arguments are, and who is on each side. I was surprised to learn, for example, that theologian Martin Marty, a world-famous scholar here at The University of Chicago, seems to be sympathetic to the Texas school board, at least about increasing emphasis on the importance of religion in the founding of our country. But the article is also curiously inconclusive: it doesn’t have a point of view, but takes the “objective” journalistic stance of merely laying out who said what. That’s fine for a news piece, but I’d expect more analysis, and perhaps a viewpoint, in the Sunday magazine.
One thing that the article should have mentioned, but doesn’t, is that the controversy about whether the US was founded as a Christian country has ramifications far beyond public-school education. Certain members of the Supreme Court, notably Scalia and Thomas, are “originalists,” adhering to the judicial philosophy that the Constitution has a meaning that doesn’t change over time, but was fixed by the men who wrote it; and that the Court should make law based on the intent of those writers. If conservatives start adhering to the view that the founders really wanted to create a Christian country (they support that idea with quotes, of course, but opponents have their own quotes), that opens the Court to all sorts of possibilities. They could, for example, overturn precedent and allow the incursion of religion into the public sphere—say, prayer in schools.
Meanwhile, the loons in Texas are busy removing any approbation for liberals from the textbooks, and inserting ludicrous, pro-conservative views. As TPM reported a month ago:
The conservative bloc on the Texas State Board of Education won a string of victories Friday, obtaining approval for an amendment requiring high school U.S. history students to know about Phyllis Schlafly and the Contract with America [the 1994 Republican document partly written by Newt Gingrich] as well as inserting a clause that aims to justify McCarthyism.
And from the Times article:
Finally, the board considered an amendment to require students to evaluate the contributions of significant Americans. The names proposed included Thurgood Marshall, Billy Graham, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. All passed muster except Kennedy, who was voted down.
Do read the Times piece, because we’re going to see these arguments being made by others (e.g., tea-party wackaloons) over the next few years.
UPDATE: another (and in some ways a better) article on McLeroy and the Texas school board at Washington Monthly.