AMERICAN ATHEIST NEWS (ATHEIST-L) for JUNE 8, 1995 RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY THE BACK
AMERICAN ATHEIST NEWS (ATHEIST-L) for JUNE 8, 1995
RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY THE BACK DOOR?
By Advocating "Voluntary Prayer," Proponents of Religious
Indoctrination in Public Schools May Have a New Tactic.
Religion May Be Taught As a New Revisionist History.
(Part One of Two)
by Conrad F. Goeringer
When the Christian Coalition presented its "Contract
With the American Family," it echoed a sentiment that appears to
enjoy widespread support throughout the religious
community in the United States. Calling for a "Religious
Equality Amendment," the Contract declared that it would "not
restore compulsory, sectarian prayer or Bible-reading
dictated by government officials." Instead, there was to be
"voluntary, student and citizen-initiated free speech in
noncompulsory settings," presumably such as school graduation
ceremonies and sports events.
But for advocates and opponents of school prayer, the
distinction is a minor one. Both sides would agree that the
Religious Equality Amendment has the effect of moving
religious instruction into the public schools. For school
prayer advocates, it is an ingenious strategy to emphasize
religious freedom and exercise.
Even with "voluntary prayer," initiated by students and in
"noncompulsory" settings, however, there are new and even
more dangerous possibilities for sectarian religious
indoctrination. It has become a mantra of the fundamentalist
Christian right wing that government has become "hostile" to
religious exercise in the public square and that the
separation of morality from religious belief has contributed to
the disintegration of American society. On April 24-25, for
instance, a group of 34 Christian and Jewish religious figures
met in Massachusetts for a discussion titled "The
Role of Religion in Politics and Society." An official with
Concerned Women for America supported a constitutional
amendment to allow student-initiated prayer in the schools and
blamed a wide range of social problems on the separation of
government and churches. Craig Parshall, described by
"Christianity Today" Magazine as "a Christian constitutional
attorney," was another school prayer booster, suggesting that
"children would learn about religions through exposure to the
prayers of others." Other speakers suggested that religion should
be a "formal" teaching to middle and high school
While they may disagree over the school prayer issue,
religious leaders appear anxious to see religion taught as
"history" or in some form of comparative religions framework.
Prior to the Massachusetts symposium, on April 13, a handbook
titled "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of
Current Law" was released representing the sentiments of
numerous religious groups. The Joint Statement had grown out of a
meeting between religious representatives and U.S.
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley on March 31, 1995.
The statement outlined situations where religious
discussion and ritual were permissible in public schools,
such as before classes or in conversation involving students and
teachers. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Joint
Statement was the way in which it supported a dangerous and
invasive tactics being used by conservative Christian
activists to inject religious indoctrination into schools;
religion, said the statement, could be taught as history.
Ironically, many of the groups behind the statement
enjoy the reputation of being skeptical of school prayer and
other overt religious exercises in the classroom setting.
They include the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith
International, Baptist Joint Committee, National Council of
Churches, Friends Committee, even "liberal" organizations
such as People for the American Way and the American Humanist
Association. These pillars of the American religious
establishment, along with the "loyal opposition," sat down with
the Church of Scientology, North American Council for Muslim
Women, Christian Science Church and even the Christian Legal
Society in suggesting that everything taught in public schools
from art, literature, social studies, music and
history may be infused with religious themes. And more: even
major events in our history, including anti-slavery, women's
rights and the civil rights movements may be discussed in
terms of their alleged religious motivations and
Christian Revisionist History?
When Christian conservatives met last March with U.S.
Representative John Istook to begin crafting the Religious
Equality Amendment, the roster of participants included David
Barton, a Texas-based religious activist whose influence in
right-wing evangelical groups is often missed. Barton has
done more than perhaps even Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson in
shaping and articulating the set of peculiar historical
assumptions that grounds right-wing perceptions about America and
the world. They include:
**America is a religious, indeed a Christian nation whose
founders were "orthodox, evangelical Christians."
**The Founders meant only to prevent the establishment of an
official, national church -- not separate churches and
their influences from the affairs of government.
**Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" between the
church and the state was diaphanous, one-directional,
assuring that "Christian principles will always stay in
**The "wall of separation" if not a true legal principle;
religious activities in schools were never challenged before
court cases in the 1960s.
Barton's theories regarding the history of religion in
America and interpretations of the First Amendment circulate
widely throughout the evangelical Christian network. A number of
religious right-wing groups have promoted his book, "The Myth of
Separation" and his video-documentaries like
"America's Godly Heritage." Barton has spoken at meetings of the
Christian Coalition and appeared with James Dobson of the "Focus
on the Family" group and Pat Robertson. Coalition
materials have quoted Barton maintaining "The Separation of
Church and State is (1) Not a teaching of the founding
fathers; (2) Not a historical teaching; (3) Not a teaching of law
(except in recent years); (4) Not a biblical teaching."
Barton also promotes the idea that a variety of social
problems stem from the U.S. Supreme Court action which barred
prayer and Bible recitation in public schools. In "America: To
Pray Or Not to Pray" he writes: "In July 1987, God
impressed me to do two things. First, I was to search the
library and find the date that prayer had been prohibited in
public schools. Second, I was to obtain a record of national SAT
scores (the academic test given to prospective college-bound high
school students) spanning several decades. I don't know why, but
I somehow knew that these two pieces of
information would be very important."
In Barton's demonology of contemporary historical events, the
banning of prayer in school classrooms wrecked havoc on the
American social landscape, resulting in crime,
alcoholism, even falling academic performance scores. But his
pseudo-sociology, while simplistic and betraying extreme
fundamentalist prejudice, was not as dangerous as his
theories on American history and the Constitution. David
Barton wanted to show that the First Amendment principle of the
separation of government and religion was a myth. And a
credulous, receptive audience was ready to believe.
(End Part One of Two)
AMERICAN ATHEIST NEWS (ATHEIST-L) for JUNE 8, 1995
RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS HISTORY ACCORDING TO THE
A "Religious Equality Amendment" Promises More Than Prayer in the
Classroom. It Could Result in Our Kids Learning Pseudo-History
(Part 2 of 2)
by Conrad F. Goeringer
A major goal of the Christian Coalition and other
evangelical organizations is a "Religious Equality Amendment"
emphasizing religious teaching and ritual "in the public square."
The exact wording on the amendment is still under consideration.
According to statements and documents like the Coalition's
"Contract With the American Family," one function of the
amendment would be to permit "student initiated" prayer in
classes on a voluntary basis. Critics are sure to focus on this
part of the legislation when hearings begin probably during the
summer. But the threat to state/church separation may be much
more substantial than any posed by legal problems inherent in
"voluntary" prayer. In April, a wide range of religious
organizations from the Mormon church to the American Humanist
Association and the Christian Legal Society released a document
titled "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of
Current Law." It purported to delineate the guidelines on
religion and public schools as established by the courts.
If anything, parts of the statement clearly show that a
"Religious Equality Amendment" is not needed, and that the First
Amendment gives adequate protection for religious and non-
believing individuals alike. Indeed, court decisions such as
Lemon v. Kurtzman establish guidelines proscribing government
from advancing religion, preferring one religion over another, or
taking actions which result in excessive entanglement between
state and church.
But it is documents such as the statement and suggested drafts
of a Religious Equality Amendment which emphasize teaching
religion in a historical context which may hold the most
substantive dangers to the separation of government and religious
ideology. Critics have already pointed out a number of issues
where history may end up as a vehicle for unsubstantiated
religious claims and beliefs. Included are questions regarding
the historicity of Jesus Christ and other persons or events
described in the Bible, a "creationist" view of both biology and
history (especially relating to ancient and prehistoric peoples),
the role of the United States, and the status of state/church
separation in the American experience.
The existence and divinity of Jesus Christ is a crucial
assumption to the Christian religion. Even biblical
archaeologists and other scholars, however, debate whether such
an individual really existed, or was perhaps the personification
of expectations by a small band of religious believers. A number
of historians participate in a "Jesus" Conference, but even they
express serious doubt or disagreements with each other.
Creationism is the doctrine holding that the events
describing the creation of the universe and life on earth are
described literally in the Bible, especially in Genesis.
Creationists accept the notion of a "young earth," one no older
than 6,000-8,500 years created in a span of seven days and with a
number of species ranging from man to dinosaur coexistent in
time. While appropriating the language and veneer of science, and
attempting to undermine modern evolutionary theories concerning
the origin of life and development of species, creationism is
less scientific method and more religious bias. There have been a
number of cases where biology teachers (mostly at the high school
level) have tried to teach creationism as an "alternative" to
standard evolutionary theory. In fundamentalist circles, the
enthusiasm for creationism has waned in favor of other causes
(including the Religious Equality Amendment). Creationism could
possibly enjoy a resurgence, however, especially if it is
presented under the banner of "religious liberty" and as an
"alternative" for religious students.
It is the field of history, though, and specifically
American history, which promises to be the most fertile and
controversial area for religious proselytizing. The Christian
evangelical right has propagated its own form of "historical
revisionism," in some ways akin to the revisionists who question
the existence of gas chambers in Nazi Germany. By selectively
emphasizing certain events and removing them from their
historical context, Christian revisionists have fabricated a
pseudo-theory of history which serves to advance a religious and
A number of groups promoting the "Religious Equality
Amendment" such as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the
Family echo and promote ideas advanced by individuals such as
David Barton, whose videos and book "The Myth of Separation" are
sold in Christian bookstores throughout the country. Much of the
material in the book is used by the religious right, particularly
in matters related to state/church separation. Barton, for
instance, maintains that the Supreme Court used the phrase "wall
of separation between church and state" quoting from a speech
given by Thomas Jefferson in 1801; but that Jefferson later
added: "The wall is a one directional [sic] wall. It keeps the
government from running the church, but it makes sure that
Christian principles will always stay in government." But it was
in a 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that
Jefferson first mentioned a "wall." No mention was made of a "one
directional wall," and the letter was later quoted in court
decisions such as Reynolds v. United States, which ruled that
Mormons do not have a religious freedom right to practice
polygamy. And in 1824, Jefferson wrote to John Cartwright that
"the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans,
at a time when they had never heard the name Christ pronounced,
or knew that such a character existed. What a conspiracy this,
between Church and State!"
In addition to David Barton's pseudo-scholarship, other
religious ideas permeate the Christian evangelical view of
**The United States is a Christian nation founded upon
biblical and religious principles.
**America is a nation "ordained by God" with a "special
purpose" and role in world affairs.
**That we are being "punished by God" for removing prayer from
public schools and "kicking religion" out of government and the
**That there are distinctly American values inherent in our
social organization, including the heterosexual nuclear family,
which derive from a (Judeo) Christian heritage.
**That the Founders never intended for there to be total,
absolute separation of church and state.
Parts of this message find a wide audience at times. Supreme
Court Justice Rehnquist , for instance, has stated that the "wall
of separation" as outlined in cases such as Lemon v. Kurtzman,
Murray v. Curlett, and others is a "myth." Justice Antonin Scalia
shares this view as well.
All of which should give us concern over the teaching of
history in schools, and how the history of religion is to be
taught. A number of evangelical Christian groups have argued that
religion is not emphasized sufficiently in school texts. One
might even find that "sufficient emphasis" consists of portraying
religion in a favorable light, especially if it is the Christian
variety, even if this requires ignoring certain facts and
fabricating others. How would schools deal with the Inquisition?
Or the involvement of the Roman Catholic church in anti-Semitic
pogroms? Or the role of fundamentalist Protestantism in
oppressing Blacks in the South? Or the longstanding hostility of
Christianity to women's rights? A history sufficiently palpable
to the widest religious community would really be no history at
If the fetish of the religious right concerning textbooks
dealing with human sexuality and biology are any example, a
"Religious Liberty Amendment" encouraging the teaching of
religion in a historical context can only lead to bickering,
litigation, and possibly the capitulation by school boards to
religious groups. The teaching of religion through the vehicle of
history threatens to become a new "politically
correct" obsession, especially in those communities where
churches are politically organized and active. The Christian
Coalition claims the support of a network of 60,000 churches,
with the goal of another 40,000 in the not-too-distant future.
That is a lobbying presence which few school districts, and fewer
text book companies, dare challenge.
Ironically, the scariest part of the "Contract With the
American Family" was in the section marked "Conclusion." Readers
were informed that the Contract "is the first word, not the last
word, on a cultural agenda." And "The ideas included in this
document (the Contract) are "suggestions, not demands." Is it the
painful elaboration of the obvious? Or is the "last word" going
to be something other than a friendly suggestion? History may
well depend on that "last word" from groups like the
Christian Coalition, because it is the winners who ultimately
write that history.
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