The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Uncovering Suppressed Facts in the Textbook Debate

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"ArtIm:

The chairwoman of the Texas school board makes the point that the seven Christians on the board are not trying to inject into the historical record what isn’t there but rather to uncover facts that have been suppressed (see related article). “I don’t know that what we’re doing is redefining the role of religion in America,” says Gail Lowe. “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.”[1]

As you can imagine, there are those who disagree. There’s Dr. James Kracht who served as an expert adviser to the board in the textbook-review process. Kracht is the Executive Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University. He told the committee that, “I think the evidence indicates that the founding fathers did not intend this to be a Christian nation.” For Kracht, the founders are a minority of men who happen to agree with secular values. Brooke Allen calls them the “Moral Minority.”[2] Allen is correct: They were a minority. The title of her book of the same name implies that a majority did believe that Christianity formed the governmental basis for the founding of America, a founding that began 180 years before the Constitution was drafted.

Here’s a question I would like to ask Dr. Kracht: Would the following be permissible for students to recite in the Texas public schools?:

I believe in the existence of God; that he made the world, and governs it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.[3]

These are the words of Benjamin Franklin. While he is a praised “moral minority” who is often used as a club against religion in general and Christianity in particular, his credo would not pass muster in any public school in America. And neither would his words at the Constitutional Convention where he declared that “God governs in the affairs of men.”

The Founders inherited a nation built on “the general principles of Christianity,” as John Adams put it in an 1813 letter to Thomas Jefferson:

Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God.[4]

Part of the problem with Dr. Kracht’s argument is that he views America’s founding as a determined fixed point in time, and he picks the point most convenient for his argument.

The colonists who created the first colonial governments that became the states that created the national government would object to the claim that the founding of America was either in 1776 or 1787. In fact, there are still remnants of America’s early religious founding circulating in documents, posted in buildings, and repeated in ceremonies that organizations like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have made their living trying to eradicate.

There was a worldview prior to 1787 that did not pass into oblivion when the Constitution was finally ratified in 1791 with the added Ten Amendments. Many of the state constitutions were specifically Christian, and all were generally religious. In fact, today the 50 state constitutions mention God using various designations with “Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” “Creator,” “God,” “Divine Goodness,” “Divine Guidance,” “Supreme Being,” “Lord,” “Sovereign Ruler of the Universe,” “Legislator of the Universe,” and “Almighty God” as the most common and most biblical phrase (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; etc.).

This is why Russell Shorto, the author of “How Christian were the Founders?, could write: “There is . . . 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.” Actually, they have a lot of history on their side.

Similar to the way Christians want the theory of evolution thoroughly examined, Christians should not object to America’s religious history being scrutinized. Not all the founders were Christians. Jefferson certainly wasn’t. He was the most skeptical of the “moral minority” bunch. Franklin mellowed in his later years. John Adams and James Madison did not espouse orthodox Christian beliefs. Even so, what they did believe about religion could not be taught in public schools. Too many things they wrote sound like things Christians would say and the ACLU would attack. For once I agree with Martin Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History. “In American history, religion is all over the place, and wherever it appears, you should tell the story and do it appropriately. . . . The goal should be natural inclusion. You couldn’t tell the story of the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Dutch in New York without religion.”[5]

Dr. Kracht rightly states that the founders “definitely believed in some form of separation of church and state.” The key phrase is “some form.” Of course they did since a jurisdictional separation of church and state was common knowledge long before Jefferson is said to have coined the phrase. The Bible itself spells out such a separation. “Martin Luther (1483–1546) wrote of a ‘paper wall’ between the ‘spiritual estate’ and the ‘temporal estate.’ In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin (1509–1564) asserted that the ‘spiritual kingdom’ and the ‘political kingdom’ ‘must always be considered separately’ because there is a great ‘difference and unlikeness . . . between ecclesiastical and civil power,’ and it would be unwise to ‘mingle these two, which have a completely different nature.’”[6] Connecticut, Anglican divine and theologian Richard Hooker (1554–1600) described “walls of separation between . . . the Church and the Commonwealth” in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. While no one can be sure whether Jefferson borrowed the phrase from Hooker, we do know that Jefferson owned a copy of Ecclesiastical Polity, and “it was among the volumes he sold to the Library of Congress.”[7] The phrase was also used by Roger Williams (1603?–1683), the founder of Rhode Island as well as the Scottish schoolmaster James Burgh (1714–1775).[8]

The wording of the First Amendment is preferred rather than Jefferson’s substitute language from his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. Since the states insisted on the language of the amendment, it’s incumbent upon 21st-century interpreters to understand their particular concerns. They did not want the national government to intrude on their laws as individual and sovereign states.

There’s a lot of history for the Texas school board to digest. The precedent they set could serve as the model for other public schools. Of course, the best solution is for Christians to pull out their children and educate them with their own money in their own schools with the choice of their own textbooks.

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in Russell Shorto, “How Christian were the Founders?,” New York Times (February 11, 2010): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14texbooks-t.html?em
[2]
Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [2006] 2009).
[3]
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. John Bigelow (Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1868), 20.
[4] John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, June 28th, 1813. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 338–340.
[5]
Quoted in Russell Shorto, “How Christian were the Founders?
[6] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 72.
[7] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, 76.
[8] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, 76–82

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