On May 21, Texas School Board member Cynthia Dunbar opened the board’s meeting with an invocation: “Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England, or the charter of Massachusetts Bay, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present—a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”1 The board then voted nine to five, along party lines, to adopt new standards that will be used to teach the state’s 4.8 million students—resisting the pleas of educators, historians, and even Rod Paige, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush. The new standards emphasize the role of Christianity in U.S. history and promote conservative values. A New York Times editorial pointed out that the Texas board did back down on a few of its “most outrageous efforts”—such as renaming the slave trade, the “Atlantic triangular trade”—but it nevertheless managed “to justify injecting more religion into government.” According to the Times, the curriculum differentiates between the Founders’ protection of religious freedom and “separation of church and state,”2 which it deplores.
Other states will feel the effects of the Texas decision, since the state is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks in the United States (behind California) and, as the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “national publishers often tailor their texts to Texas standards.”3 A California state senator responded by introducing a bill that would ensure his state would not be using any of the new Texas guidelines.4
The historian Eric Foner points out that the problem with the changes in the Texas standards is not the inclusion of the role that modern conservatism has played. His own textbook, Give Me Liberty! (2004), includes a chapter titled “The Conservative Resurgence.” Rather, he says, the problem is “what the new standards tell us about conservatives’ overall vision of American history and society and how they hope to instill that vision in the young.”5 Foner explains,
The standards run from kindergarten through high school, and certain themes obsessively recur. Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.”
Students in several grades will be required to understand the “benefits” (but none of the drawbacks) of capitalism. The economic system, however, dares not speak its name—it is referred to throughout as “free enterprise.” Labor unions are conspicuous by their absence… Clearly, the Texas Board of Education seeks to inculcate children with a history that celebrates the achievements of our past while ignoring its shortcomings, and that largely ignores those who have struggled to make this a fairer, more equal society.
The Textbooks’ Political Influence
Of course, children who learn from textbooks that teach these ideas grow up to be adults who vote, hold office, and make public policy. Thus, changes to public-school curricula have a broad impact. Significant numbers of homeschooled students raised on creationism and Christian revisionist textbooks have already entered professions such as law, education, and politics. In a 2007 article in the New Yorker, Hanna Rosin described Patrick Henry College, the first college founded specifically for the advanced education of Christian homeschooled students. It “trains young Christians to be politicians,” Rosin writes. During the George W. Bush administration, when the article was written,
Of the school’s sixty-one graduates through the class of 2004, two have jobs in the White House; six are on the staffs of conservative members of Congress; eight are in federal agencies; and one helps Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, and his wife, Karen, homeschool their six children. Two are at the F.B.I., and another worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority, in Iraq.6
A recent poll indicated that, even before the adoption of the new curriculum, nearly a third of Texans believed that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time, and skepticism about evolution has become widespread and mainstream throughout the United States.7 The website of Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch used to state unequivocally that “Man and dinosaurs lived at the same time,” and that man was given dominion over dinosaurs, until the statements drew attention from the press and the site was revised.8 During the most recent presidential election, three Republican candidates—Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, and Mike Huckabee—raised their hands during the first GOP primary debate to indicate that they do not believe in biological evolution.9 Texan Ron Paul, a medical doctor, did not raise his hand, but later clarified his beliefs in a campaign appearance, stating, “It’s a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don’t accept it as a theory.”10
Creationist beliefs such as these are having a direct impact on energy and food policies. Increasingly sophisticated “young earth creationist” texts and museums,11 which claim that the earth is only a few thousand years old, insist that coal, gas, and oil were formed in the relatively recent past, not over millions of years. Social science texts written from this biblical point of view, which are widely used by Christian homeschoolers and which promote the kinds of ideas that are found in the Texas curriculum standards, teach that the availability of natural resources to a nation depends on its righteousness or lack thereof. For example, the textbook America’s Providential History tells students,
A secular society will lack faith in God’s providence and consequently men will find fewer natural resources…The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie (there is only so much) that needs to be cut up so that everyone can get a piece. In contrast, the Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God’s earth. The resource are waiting to be tapped.”12
The worldview described in America’s Providential History is being expressed and acted upon in statehouses around the United States. Florida State Representative Charles Van Zant, during questioning on a bill that would allow offshore drilling as close as three miles to the Florida coast, said, of the idea that the world’s petroleum supply is limited:
Some people would like to think that. Estimates might show that. But that doesn’t mean that at all. We happen to worship a God who made it all out of nothing anyway. And if we ran out, I certainly believe he could make some more.”13
(Van Zant is the same legislator who proposed a sweeping anti-abortion bill in the Florida House this year, which would make any attempt to induce an abortion a first-degree felony.)14
State Senator Sylvia Allen of Arizona was captured on video by the Arizona Guardian, during a hearing about opening up uranium mining, claiming that “the earth has been here 6,000 years, long before anybody had environmental laws and somehow it hasn’t been done away with.”15 She argues, “It is time to focus on the technology that we have and look forward to the future.” What was once considered obscure revisionism by little-known Religious Right propagandists can now be heard regularly from politicians.
The Battle for the Social Sciences
Chris Rodda, a senior researcher at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, has collected hundreds of examples of “faux history” quotes that have been used on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Like creationism, the Right’s revisionist history is a not only a religious phenomenon but also an effort to control public policy. Evangelical and fundamentalist children are indoctrinated into what is sometimes referred to as “biblical capitalism,” 16 the teaching that an unregulated market system is mandated by God and dictated in the Bible. Textbooks that preach biblical capitalism blend free-market and religious fundamentalism and promote political activism. As Frederick Clarkson points out in his article “History is Powerful,” in the Spring 2007 issue of Public Eye,17 “the contest for control of the narrative of American history is well underway.”
Clarkson explains that the Reconstructionist theology of the late Rousas J. Rushdoony and his son-in-law, Gary North, provides the foundation for merging the “free market gospel” with biblical law to create biblical capitalism. Rushdoony, Clarkson says, believed that “God actively intervenes in and guides history, and that God’s role can be retroactively discerned, from creation to the predestined Kingdom of God on Earth.” In Rushdoony’s 1965 book, The Nature of the American System, he claims that the Founding Fathers were not men of the secular Enlightenment but rather were planning a “Christian nation.”
Considered the father of modern Christian homeschooling, Rushdoony believed that children should be removed from public schools and raised in pure environments, where they could be trained for a holy war against liberalism and secularism. North explains the strategy’s ultimate goal:
“So let us be blunt about it: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political, and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God. Murder, abortion, and pornography will be illegal. God’s law will be enforced. It will take time. A minority religion cannot do this. Theocracy must flow from the hearts of a majority of citizens, just as compulsory education came only after most people had their children in schools of some sort. 18
Undermining Public Education
Although parents may decide to homeschool their children for any number of reasons, the proportion of parents who homeschool in order to “provide religious or moral instruction increased from 72 percent to 83 percent” between 2003 and 2007, says the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).19 Such homeschooling has begun to take a bite out of the budgets of state education systems, because state support is based on number of enrolled students. As reported in Time, “The state of Florida has 41,128 children (1.7 percent) learning at home this year, up from 10,039 in the 1991 – 92 school year; those kids represent a loss of nearly $130 million from school budgets in that state.”20 And the percentage of students being homeschooled in Florida is actually well-below the national average: NCES estimates that the number of homeschooled students in the United States has increased from approximately 850,000 in 1999 (or 1.75 percent of the school-age population) to 1,508,000 in 2007 (or 2.9 percent).
The Alliance for the Separation of School and State,21 whose stated goal is the elimination of public education, claims that the numbers are even higher, with almost two million students being homeschooled. Signatories of the alliance’s proclamation, “I publicly proclaim that I favor ending government involvement in public education,” include such conservative notables as Rep. Ron Paul; Don Hodel, the energy secretary under Ronald Reagan; Dinesh D’Souza, a policy analyst under Reagan; Tim LaHaye, minister and the author of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels; Howard Phillips, the founder of the U.S. Taxpayer’s Party (now the Constitution Party); Joseph Farah, the editor of the conservative website Worldnet Daily; and John Rosemond, a syndicated columnist on child rearing.
The effect of all this? The Time article quotes Ray Simon, the director of the Arkansas Department of Education, who says,
A third of our support for schools comes from property taxes. If a large number of a community’s parents do not fully believe in the school system, it gets more difficult to pass those property taxes. And that directly impacts the schools’ ability to operate.
Looking at the Textbooks
In 2003, Frances Paterson, an associate professor at Valdosta State College in Georgia and an expert on religion and education, conducted a study of the texts published by A Beka Press, Bob Jones University Press, and the School of Tomorrow/Accelerated Christian Education,22 which are used by Christian homeschoolers, in adult education programs, and in “as many as 10,000 evangelical and fundamentalist Christian schools. (And you may be paying for them with your taxes. Paterson found that vouchers were being used to subsidize private schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland that used the texts she studied).23
Paterson describes the message of the texts: “Democrats are deluded, liberals are villains, and conservatives are heroes. This is part of a pattern where descriptions used for people, groups, and movements clearly imply that some are unacceptable.”24 Another theme she identifies is that “the lack of material progress in various Third World countries and among indigenous peoples can be attributed to their religious beliefs… All the texts are imbued with an arrogance and hostility toward non-Western religions that is truly breathtaking.”25 Paterson explained in recent correspondence with me that she now hears politicians repeating the fundamentalist teachings of the texts she studied. “No doubt they strike a resonant note with individuals who read the same ideas in their school books,” she said.
The A Beka texts are particularly popular. They are published by Pensacola Christian College, founded by Arlene and Beka Horton, who later added their publishing arm after becoming disgruntled with what they viewed as the secularization of teaching techniques by Bob Jones University.26 A Beka curricula are carefully written: “Entire lessons were scripted so that no open-ended discussion leading to questions that might challenge the Truth would occur,” said one critic. 27 A Beka advertises that 40,000 homeschool students were registered in their A Beka Academy programs in the school year 2009 – 2010. (This number does not include the homeschoolers who use A Beka texts but not its service program, which provides a structure for grading and transcripts; nor does it include private schools that use A Beka texts.28)
Building on Paterson’s research, I examined U.S. history and economics textbooks published by A Beka and others. Although most were originally published in the 1990s or earlier, they are still very much in use. My study, summarized in the accompanying chart, provides a window into the narratives of this worldview, which is also promoted by the Texas curriculum standards; the purposes that these narratives serve in determining public policy; and a warning of what we can expect in future battles over public school curricula.
Progressives watching Tea Party and antihealthcare-reform rallies may find it easy to poke fun at misspelled signs and racist outbursts, and to disregard the social and political potential of Christian nationalism. However, the attackers of public education are sophisticated, disciplined, persistent politicians, who have moved their battle from the schoolhouse to the statehouse and are continuing to expand their reach. They hope to transform our nation into the Christian United States, and their multiple, complementary tactics have brought them closer to their goal.
- “Politicized Curriculum in Texas”, New York Times, May 25, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/opinion/26wed4.html?src=mv.
- Katherine Mangan, “Ignoring Pleas, Texas Board Approves Controversial Curriculum Standards, The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/Texas-Board-Approves/65661/.
- “California Bill Takes Aim at New Texas Standards,” Washington Post Online, The Answer Sheet, May 22, 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/history/california-bill-t….
- Eric Foner, “Twisting History in Texas,” The Nation, March 18, 2010; http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100405/foner.
- Hanna Rosin, “God and Country,” The New Yorker, April 21, 2010; http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/06/27/050627fa_fact?currentPage=2.
- Ross Ramsey, “Meet the Flintstones,” Texas Tribune, February 10, 2010, http://www.texastribune.org/stories/2010/feb/17/meet-flintstones.
- The author has a copy of the original which can also be viewed at http://www.pamshouseblend.com/upload/Autumn/Saddlebackfamily.comSmallGr….
- Debate in 2007; http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/06/05/debate.evolution/index.html and http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2007/12/ron_paul_rejects_evolution.p…. Note that the Libertarian journal, Reason Magazine, covered the controversy over this video at http://reason.com/blog/2007/12/28/is-ron-paul-an-evolution-denier and http://reason.com/blog/2008/01/02/ron-paul-evolution-denial-update.
- Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America’s Providential History (Charlottesville, VA: Providence Foundation, 1989), 197.
- Bruce Ritchie, senior writer for the Florida Tribune monitoring the house floor on the Florida Channel; http://bruceritchie.blogspot.com/2009/04/quote-of-week-god-will-make-mo…
- Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen filmed by the Arizona Guardian, June 2009; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtzJhTfQiMA.
- For a definition and short history of biblical capitalism see http://www.talk2action.org/story/2010/2/10/223656/720/Front_Page/Biblic…
- Frederick Clarkson, “History is Powerful,” The Public Eye, Spring 2007.
- North, “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right,” pp. 24 -25.
- http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009030.pdf .
- John Cloud and Jodie Morse, “Seceding from School,” Time, November 11, 2001; http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101010827/cover.html .
- Frances R. A. Paterson, Democracy and Intolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice, and Public Policy, (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa, 2003).
- Rob Boston, “Troubling Textbooks: Why Vouchers Would Force You To Subsidize Hate,” The Wall of Separation, March 13, 2009; http://blog.au.org/2009/03/13/troubling-textbooks-why-vouchers-would-fo…
- Frances Paterson, “With God on Their Side,” Rethinking Schools Online, http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/16_02/god162.shtml
- Frances Paterson, “Teaching Religious Intolerance,” Rethinking Schools Online, http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/voucher_report/v_into1…
- Adam Laats, “Forging a Fundamentalist ‘One Best System’: Struggles over Curriculum and Educational Philosophy for Christian Day Schools 1970 - 1989,” History of Education Quarterly, Vol 50, Issue 1 , pp. 55 – 83
- Quote by Milton Gaither, author of Homeschool, An American History, at http://gaither.wordpress.com/2010/03/01/laats-on-a-beka-bob-jones-and-a….
- Russell Kirk, Economics, Work and Prosperity in Christian Perspective, Second Edition (Pensacola, FL: A Beka Books, 1999). Note that this edition was printed several years after Kirk’s death.
- United States History, 592.
- Maybury, 44.
- Terry Easton, “Can America Be Revived?” Human Events, April 13, 2010, http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=36482.
- Report for People for the American Way, http://www.pfaw.org/media-center/publications/david-barton-propaganda-m…
- “David Barton, Propaganda Masquerading as History,” Special Report of People for the American Way, 2006; http://www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/davidbarton.pdf. PFAW quotes Specter from the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
- Dan Gilgoff, “Newt Gingrich Steps Up Efforts to Mobilize Religious Conservatives,” U.S. News & World Report blog, March 20, 2009; http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/religion/2009/03/20/newt-gingrich-s…