This review of the hellish situation in Texas, where a bunch of school board members are waging war on the Enlightenment through textbook standards, could have been a lot more interesting than it is. But for some reason, writer Russell Shorto actually tries to establish some sort of reason to a group of fundamentalist Christians arguing for teaching that America is a “Christian nation”, even though the very same group of people believe the planet is only 10,000 years old and Margaret Sanger was some sort of Satanic prophet of a birth control religion. Shorto doesn’t go as far as to suggest that the attempts to rewrite history to villainize any kind of progress from secular government to the labor movement are in any way, shape, or form anything short of ridiculous, evil propaganda, but in his eagerness to muddy the waters with a little “both sides” crap, he makes some specious arguments.
There is, however, one slightly awkward issue for hard-core secularists who would combat what they see as a Christian whitewashing of American history: the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on their side…..
In his reply, Jefferson said it was not the place of the president to involve himself in religion, and he expressed his belief that the First Amendment’s clauses — that the government must not establish a state religion (the so-called establishment clause) but also that it must ensure the free exercise of religion (what became known as the free-exercise clause) — meant, as far as he was concerned, that there was “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This little episode, culminating in the famous “wall of separation” metaphor, highlights a number of points about teaching religion in American history. For one, it suggests — as the Christian activists maintain — how thoroughly the colonies were shot through with religion and how basic religion was to the cause of the revolutionaries.
It’s an enormous stretch to take an episode where Jefferson went out of his way to argue for a secular government that takes no stance on religion is in fact evidence that the fundies have a point in the slightest about how America is a “Christian nation”. It’s misleading your audience to play footsie with ideas like this. Shorto takes way too seriously some of the fundie kicking around of historical facts they’ve gleaned here and there—such as the fact that the Puritans seemed to be interested in god and some states had official religions in the early days of the nation. That they aren’t completely illiterate doesn’t make them intellectual in the slightest; they weave together selectively picked facts to create a narrative about our country’s history that has no grounding in reality, in order to argue for theocracy, which directly and obviously goes against even the softest reading of the First Amendment.
It’s all well and good for Shorto to argue that religion played a role in our nation’s history, but to suggest that there are “hardcore secularists” who deny this is pure straw. Most “secularists”—i.e. people of various private beliefs who think the government should not favor one religion over others or over non-belief—that I know of would happily agree that it’s cowardly not to talk about the way religious rhetoric played out in American politics and culture at various points in time. Passages like this mislead the audience about what’s really going on here:
In fact, the founders were rooted in Christianity — they were inheritors of the entire European Christian tradition — and at the same time they were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason.
Okay….. but I get the impression Shorto is trying to find some “in-between” space between meanie civil liberties types and moronic fundamentalists. But this statement above isn’t anything that even hardcore atheist activists would disagree with. We would just point out that the Enlightenment was about stepping away from allowing religion to define every aspect of life, from knowledge-gathering to government. No one is suggesting we whitewash the impact of Christianity on Western culture and American culture. Nor should we pretend the Enlightenment wasn’t a step towards secularism.
Overall, this article was really interesting reading and I highly recommend it. But like it or not, this issue isn’t as complicated as Shorto is making it out to be. The fundies on the Texas School Board reject the Enlightenment, and are trying to deny outright the impact it had on the Founding Fathers and our nation’s development. They may have fancy degrees or be able to bullshit to reporters with the best of them, but at the end of the day, they’re Bible-thumpers who aren’t really interested in history, except as a source of figures to exploit to confuse the issue. Their main goal is to make history classes so confusing that your average voters don’t understand that there’s a separation between church and state—or how said separation actually protects most religions right along with protecting atheist and agnostic belief.