Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Christian Were the Founders?

This article, “How Christian Were the Founders,” examines an issue that has been prevalent in class discussions thus far this semester: the relationship between religion and public schools. Last month the Texas State Board of Education received numerous petitions for changes to be made to the current social-studies curriculum guidelines. Along with such petitions, the members of the state board of education also submitted their own proposed changes to the current curriculum. Members of the Texas State Board of Education, one of the most influential as well as conservative boards in the nation, have put forward a number of new amendments, that all seem to contain the underlying factor of religion. The members of the board, by altering the curriculum, wish to allow Christianity to play a larger role in the instruction of American history. Board members believe that the Framers were Christian men, who in fact intended to make the United States a Christian nation; and that the idea of separation of church and state is a myth. Therefore, they believe that the curriculum should display to students the “truth” concerning the history of the United States; and that the current curriculum ignores and masks the role religion played in the founding and development of the United States. Those opposed to these curriculum changes fear, that due to the influential power of the state board in Texas, that such changes will be made by other states as well, following the lead of Texas.

These changes proposed by the board clearly present several difficult questions that must be addressed. The first question that comes to mind is: Did the Framers actually intend for the United States to be a Christian nation? One might also ask: Does altering the curriculum to focus more on the role played by Christianity in the history of the United States violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Lastly, one might also inquire as to why these particular individuals on the board, who are not in any way avid historians, have the ability to dictate what the “truth” is concerning the history of the United States?

In response to the first question I would say, first and foremost, that it is certainly true that the Framers were Christian men. As to their intentions to make this nation a Christian one I would have to disagree. Religion did play a role in the founding of the United States; and some individuals did argue for some sort of state-support for religion, as was seen in Patrick Henry’s Bill. However, ultimately I believe that the Framers created the religion clauses of the First Amendment to ward against the government encroaching in on religion and vice versa. Although the commonly referred to “wall of separation” is not found in the Constitution this does not mean that the Framers intended for their new nation to be a Christian one. Jefferson was the one who wrote those words and clearly he was aware of the intentions behind the framing of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Also the Framers deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution, and instead resorted to the use of more neutral language. If the Framers really meant for the United States to be a Christian nation, then why would they have included the religion clauses at all; and why would they have left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution entirely?

In regard to the second question, I believe that it is perfectly acceptable for public school curriculums to include the role religion has played in history. An examination of the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation etc. would require a textbook to address the role played by religion. So too should U.S. history books include the fact that the Framers were Christian men. The readings, for example, that were done for the first week of class, “The American Experiment in Historical Context,” and “The Colonial Roots of Religious Liberty,” would be acceptable additions to a U.S. history curriculum. These readings simply included the background and evolution that led to the final decision made by the Framers concerning religion. To have a textbook that declares that the intention of the Framers was to create a Christian nation is, however, a violation of the Establishment Clause. This seems to go beyond mere history, to a curriculum that is actively promoting one religion over another.

In response to the last question, it is my opinion that biased, politically motivated, board members should not have the role of determining historical “truth.” In Cantwell v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting solicitation without a license because the licenses, according to the law, had to be granted based on the opinion of a state authority. It seems that the Texas board, similarly to the law in Cantwell, is using its own subjective opinions to create a public school curriculum without an appeal to an impartial expert.

In summation, I believe that public school curriculums can, and should, include the fact that the Framers were religious men; however, going beyond that, and asserting that the Framers intended to create a Christian nation is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “My attitude is this country was founded by a group of men who were Christians but who didn’t want the government dictating religion, and that’s exactly what McLeroy (member of the board) and his colleagues are trying to do.”


Lauren P said...

I agree that it is acceptable to include the role that religion played in the founding of our nation in social studies courses, but unconstitutional to create a curriculum which states that the intention of the Framers was to create a Christian nation. In addition, it is important that a story focusing on religion should be offset by other stories. I think Steven Smith (from our reading in Feldman) was correct when he noted that a dominant story can become oppressive. People who disagree with the dominant story (such as religious people of other faiths) may feel oppressed. Therefore, if the Board decides that Texas schools’ history course curriculum should incorporate, in detail, the effect of Christianity or Judeo-Christian values on the writing of our Constitution and the founding of our nation, then I think it is imperative to also include various other stories as well.

Kerry S said...

Like Lauren and Abby have said, I also agree that the religious motivations of the Founders is an important aspect of our history. However, to say that the Founders were seeking to create a Christian state is applying a biased attitude towards the founding of our country. While for the most part, the Founders were very religious men, and some might have supported a Christian state, they made the conscious decision to leave God out of the Constitution. Additionally, this country was founded out of a desire for religious freedom, and the First Amendment is a result of that. I also agree that if the School Board wants to change the version of our history currently being taught, they should acknowledge the other viable alternatives to their preferred story. I think this issue is tricky because if the school board were to successfully pass their changes, it is not as though they are actively teaching Christianity, they are just highlighting the role it played in the formation of our country. It is also unnerving that the school board would have enough power to alter the curriculum so much so that the students in Texas might be learning a different history than the rest of the country. To me, that seems to defeat the purpose of the public education system.