Russell Shorto’s article “How Christian Were the Founders?”, a piece discussing the religious revisions being made to textbooks by the Texas school board, has hovered in the New York Times’ “Top 10 Most E-Mailed” article list for the last week or so. It is an investigative report of the Texas School Board’s curriculum decisions over the last year. These amendments will affect the social science textbooks published in the next decade, and the religious bent of the boards’ amendments to the Texas history curriculum have drawn the attention both of educators and of the nation at large.
So, why mess with Texas? Because Texas is the largest textbook distributor in the U.S., publishing companies tend to tailor their textbooks to Texas’ standards. Thus, the curriculum decisions made in Texas affect not only the students in that state, but almost all children in American public schools (one educator quoted in the article said that Texas “controlled” up to forty-seven states’ curricula). The biggest issue of contention is the board’s attempt to inject Christian doctrine into large parts of American history textbooks, to the point where one school board member commented, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!” Led by Don McLeroy, the school board head and the most outspoken Christian activist in that political body, the Texas School Board seems well on its way to putting Christianity back into American textbooks and restructuring the way an entire generation of schoolchildren understands American history.
Jabs at Christianity and political conservatism aside, the New York Times article brings up some challenging questions for American Christians. Though America definitely has a Christian history (the Pilgrims brought Christianity with them from England, the Founding Fathers were Christian, and one spark in the Revolution was tension over English religious oppression), at what point does searching and teaching history become evangelizing? When does the Christian cry for “the truth” actually distort “truth” itself?
Though I think McLeroy’s attempt to put Christianity back in the textbooks is a legitimate and partially well-intentioned one, what I, as a Christian, have a problem with is how far he’s taken it. I wonder how his attempt to rewrite American history (and, yes, a large portion of his amendments blatantly rewrite our history with a historically unfounded religious bent) affects our faith. I can’t help but question how rewriting an entire curriculum will win more people over to the Christian cause. Even if Christianity is written into textbooks, it will become more about fact and less about faith. Won’t the effect of the new curriculum be that an entire generation learn about Christianity as a historical fact rather than a plausible system of beliefs and life guidelines? Is that really what Christians want?
The biggest problem that I have with McLeroy’s form of evangelism is that it doesn’t really educate people about Christianity itself; though the textbook revisions may or may not prove that this country was founded on Christian principles, or that America is a Christian country that exists for the glory of God, changing history books does not further the Christian cause. Telling someone that John Adams was a Christian does not make a convert. Neither does making false references and connections to Mosaic law (even as a Christian, I can’t help but wonder where that proposal came from). Christians are commanded to actively share their religion, but I doubt that “sharing” means doing so by ignoring scholarly advice and research and manhandling history into a small group’s idea of the Christian universe. Christians have nothing to gain by deceiving people; should the school board turn more politically and religiously liberal in the next few decades, these changes could come back to haunt us. Christianity’s crusade would be powerless, its newfound enemies using the immoral and deceitful acts of a few to falsely characterize Christianity as a corruptive force and a significant source of deceit for an entire generation.
In the end, Shorto did concede that most of the amendments didn’t pass, and that the curriculum in its final form was much more moderate than he expected. However, he remained concerned about what was happening behind closed doors, as he reported that McLeroy and Co. continue to communicate with publishing companies and revise sections of the voted-upon curriculum that they still find “morally objectionable.” What is ironic is how “morally objectionable” has come to describe McLeroy; his zeal for evangelism and his misguided means have led him to the heart of the political and moral corruption that his new curriculum hopes to cure.