“Every generation needs a new revolution.”
-Thomas Jefferson

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Staceyann Chin, National Equality March 10/10/09 photo: Ed Needham

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dear God, what's the deal with Texas? (No, really, what's up?)

In the Texas State Board of Education's quest to save the future of Christianity, US history, education and our democracy, - they must crucify each.

How you ever seen, read, or been exposed to something and been so viscerally offended on multiple levels that you simply do not know where to begin? I get that every once in a great while when something comes into my purview and I sit aghast, mouth agape, unable to find the words to communicate my disappointment with the human condition.

This, my friends, is one of those times. Except, here, my repulsion is matched by my sense of duty (ie. ego) to shine whatever meager light I might muster on this train wreck of a truly American moment.

In his article in The Times Magazine last week, Russell Shorto brings us inside the Texas State Board of Education, it's members, and current undertakings. For many of us who follow issues at the nexus of the US church/state relationship, the mere mention of the Texas State Board of Ed (TSBE) is enough to make your knees knock. It is an ongoing and bloodied battlefield between those who would preserve the separation of church and state and those who are driven to rewrite American history, utilizing the state's public school system to indoctrinate children (aka, the future leaders of America) in a human, national and world view skewed to a grotesque misrepresentation of Christianity.

What's the big deal with what Texas decides to do? Because it is a very, very big deal. The Texas public school system is the largest single unified state school system in the country. (California's has the most students but the school systems within the state have more diversity in their approaches to curriculum.) As the biggest market for the country's multi-billion dollar textbook industry, Texas, essentially, gets to decide what goes in them. And the rest of the states get to buy them. As a long time player in the textbook industry put it in the article "Texas governs 46 or 47 states." Ouch. It seems, in terms of our children's education in this country, as goes Texas, so goes the nation.

The TSBE boasts a cohesive minority of seven (out of fifteen) self-proclaimed "christian fundementalists" who have a clear and very public agenda and are as serious as they are dangerous.  While the Times article focuses on the recent campaign to revise American history to integrate the "Christian "truth"(sic) of America's founding," the much publicized recent history of the board's contemplative work includes the expected - failing to insert creationism into the science curriculum by one vote, schools now must teach evolution as a theory with scientific "strengths and weaknesses"; to the surprising - the banning of books by Bill Martin, Jr, author of the subversive classic "Brown Bear Brown Bear, What Do You See?" and nearly three hundred other childrens titles. How did this latter decree get passed down? Not through voracity of research. It seems a TSBE board member was informed by another member of a book entitled "Ethical Marxism", "who suggested that anyone who wrote a book with such a title did not belong in the TEKS [ie. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or the states official curriculum guidelines. -ed.]." The author of this book was Bill Martin. No relation to Bill Martin Jr, but, apparently, close enough for the board to pass the amendment along with hundreds of others it considers with great, but not precise, dexterity.

This year's initiative for the TSBE Christianist voting bloc is history. U.S. history to be precise. The pile of amendments attempt to re-write American history to portray the founding of our country to be an emphatically Christian endeavor. Unsurprisingly, they rarely refer to the Declaration of Independance and never the Constitution. Why? Because, as nearly the unanimous community of history scholars point out, while the majority of this country's founders identified themselves as Christian, they intentionally refrained from using any Christian of biblical language in the either the Declaration or the Constitution. At the core of religious freedom, they believed, was the prevention of a state religion. But the TSBE has a well documented history of not letting facts stand in their way of truth, as though saying something repeatedly and with conviction will eventually make it true.  From the article: "Gail Lowe, who became chairwoman of the board after McLeroy was ousted and who is one of the seven conservative Christians. “Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation.”

Instead, the revisionists point to other documents such the The Mayflower Compact and from there draw their evidence. As Shorto writes "The language in the Mayflower Compact — a document that McLeroy and several others involved in the Texas process are especially fond of — describes the Pilgrims’ journey as being “for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith” and thus instills the idea that America was founded as a project for the spread of Christianity. In a book she wrote two years ago, Cynthia Dunbar, a board member, could not have been more explicit about this being the reason for the Mayflower Compact’s inclusion in textbooks; she quoted the document and then said, “This is undeniably our past, and it clearly delineates us as a nation intended to be emphatically Christian.” See? "Emphatically."

While the Christianists operate with impressive zeal around the assumption that "the true picture of America’s Christian founding has been whitewashed by 'the liberal agenda,'" there continues to be an equally zealous community holding them somewhat accountable to reality, namely, historians. A casualty of the situation has been the subject of religion in our schools. Where the Board and it's theocratic counterparts haven't succeeded into injecting their warped view of Christianity into the country's textbooks, there is little material on the subject as a whole. The topic is such a lightening rod, textbook publishers have opted to stay away from the subject completely except when pressured to do so by the folks who write the checks. This is a pity. The subject brings with it exceptional insight into the history of our country and other cultures. It is truly ironic that the work of a small group of evangelicals to weave their beliefs into the fabric of the country has resulted in the misrepresentation of one religion and the exclusion of the others. But for now, that irony is lost on the Texas State Board of Education and it falls to us to "save" them (and our children) from themselves.

click here for Russell Shorto's piece in The New York Times.

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