By Jason Newell
1) The World is 6,000 years old—because the Bible says so. (Yeah, no.)
2) Carbon dating is an unreliable method (Not true.)
3) Moses inspired the Founding Fathers to establish a new government. (What?!)
4) The Founders Fathers were ardent Christians, and thus instilled Christian values into the Constitution. (Nope.)
5) The US was founded as a Christian nation and will forever remain a Christian nation. (Try again.)
6) Slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War—it was caused by “tariffs.” (Please, just stop.)
And no, these statements were not uttered in jest—in case you were wondering. Ok, so what? If individuals believe the aforementioned, farfetched statements, how does that directly impact my personal life? Let me explain: in the last few years, certain states, namely Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas, have attempted—or have implemented—theological alterations to public school curriculum in order to insert a particular religious slant into state funded education. This trend, at least to the average observer, should be perceived as objectively adverse to rational thinking.
When delving deeper to understand the justification of curriculum alteration toward more religious based themes, one must look to conservative interpretations of America’s formation. The claim, to those that subscribe to the “America was founded as a Christian nation” philosophy, is, for the most part, a suspect assertion. For one, while the majority of America’s Founding Fathers self-identified as Christian, in various denominations, a few of the most influential Founders were deists. Now, what is a deist? Deism can best be described as:
“Deism combines a rejection of religious knowledge as a source of authority with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.”
In sum, according to deists, individuals should not be controlled by dogmatic religious principles; and moreover, scientific observation trumps theological explanations of the Universe–some historians have even gone so far as to say that a few Founding Fathers were theistic rationalists, a belief where rationalism is prioritized. Now, how does this relate to the belief that Christianity was a key determinant behind the construction of the US Constitution? The Founders were not uniformly Christian; therefore, a unified belief system was absent.
However, Constitutional clauses pertaining to the practice of religion, e.g., the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, are open to judicial interpretation, and based on Supreme Court precedents, are, in a sense, in competition with one another. Nonetheless, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court held that religious prayer in public schools, directed by administrators, was an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause, and therefore, not permitted in state run schools. (A year later, in Abington Township School Dist. v. Schempp, the Court ruled that school-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional.) From the Engel decision (decided in 1962), until now, the separation of church and state exists in public schools; but some conservative states, based on quirky curriculum alterations, appear to not understand—or consciously reject—the intentions of the established legal precedent (i.e., banning government sponsored worship in public schools).
Last year, the Oklahoma legislative committee voted to ban AP U.S. History as a consequence of the course not adhering to a positive interpretation of American history (i.e., centering on American Exceptionalism, a philosophy with divine historical origins)—this is, without a doubt, a frightening precedent. This is, to some extent, comparable to the Germans refusing to inform students on the atrocities committed by the Third Reich—so, why must American children be shielded to the tragic realities of American history: such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Cherokee Removal (the only time in American history where a sitting president, Andrew Jackson, defied a Supreme Court ruling), or the barbaric enslavement of African Americans. Is this due to the fact that these historical stains erode the “pristine perception of American history?” Of course it is. To conservatives, American Exceptionalism should be the dominant subject taught in American history; obedient, jingoistic children are far easier to subdue–to them, the Socratic Method and comparative analysis are disobedient forms of logical reasoning that will morally corrupt American children.
If anything, offering two sides to the story, whereby both positive and negative historical events are open to interpretation, gives students the ability to form reasonable perceptions. Disappointingly, Oklahoma has chosen to prevent ambitious students from taking college credit during high school, and even more worrisome, the state has outwardly rejected critical thinking in favor of an unbalanced, overly-nationalistic view of American history.
But this sheer ignorance does simply stop at Oklahoma’s borders: the State of Texas chose to dumb down its teachings on American history as well. One such alteration intended to deprioritize the role slavery had as being the main catalyst of the Civil War, and thus placed it behind “tariffs” and “political, economic and social factors on slaves and free blacks” (even though it was later stricken) under primary causal factors. However, any person with a solid comprehension of the underlying causes relating to the Civil War will likely identify slavery as the core issue; and yes, economic disparities—such as the South being largely agrarian, while the North, in contrast, was industrialized—between the two regions formed bitter resentment, but this perceived disadvantage did not arise due to “tariffs.” The expansion of slavery with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (a violation of the Missouri Compromise), Lincoln’s desire to preserve the nation (through legal mechanisms), and Northern resentment against the South’s use of expense free labor—three of the primary reasons for the breakout of the Civil War–all relate to the issue of slavery. Without slaves, the South would have its economic way of life, a cost-effective one, destroyed. You see, slavery is intertwined in virtually every causal factor. And please, do not give me the state’s rights excuse—which, in reality, is a euphemism for permitting states to restrict human rights.
History is analogous to the morality of a human being: throughout life, our decisions, both good and bad, shape our moral palette, presumably for the better. If our character is not tested, we, at times, may stray into practicing morally questionable behaviors—and the same goes for a nation state. A nation (i.e. its citizens), like a person, needs to understand its historical triumphs, as well as its historical stigmas; a country shapes policy, and structures its morality, around what it learns from its morally reprehensible mistakes. Without constructive self-criticism, we may, as a nation, repeat historical atrocities—this, however, can be prevented with a balanced presentation of key historical events, whereby our children are exposed to both aspects of American Exceptionalism, and of course: instances of American moral failure.