THE BLOG
05/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

God, History And The Texas Public Schools: A Debate That Impacts All Of Us

The Texas State Board of Education is in the midst of a three-day conference assessing the state's social studies curriculum, which includes U.S. history, government, and much more. As the nation's second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, what gets decided in Texas actually affects many of the rest of us, regardless of the state in which we live. Not surprisingly, a big percentage of what is being debated is how much the curricula and the textbooks used should reflect the "Christian roots" of our nation and the Christian faith of our nation's majority.

The effort to move things in that direction is being led by advocates who not only want to see a greater appreciation of the role faith played in the story of our nation's founding and many important moments since -- it seems they want nothing less than curricula that tell students who God is, which side "He" is on, and that we are all doomed if we don't subscribe to particular beliefs. Forget crossing over the line; these folks don't even acknowledge that the line exists.

But I really don't blame religious zealots like Rev. Peter Marshall and David Barton, both of whom sat on the state's curriculum advisory panel. They are only doing what they think is best from the perspective of their particular theologies. They are evangelists and they are evangelizing -- that's what they do.

I blame the public officials who invited the participation of evangelists in a process that is meant to respect the ideas and needs of the larger public. These officials abandoned the public they are charged with serving to advocate for their own religious worldviews, and that is a complete failure of leadership for which they should be held accountable.

The issue is not whether they are entitled to their views or to advocate for them. But when public officials knowingly choose polarizing pastors to participate in setting public policy, they are worse than the pastors behind whom they hide. They willfully create havoc from which little good can emerge other than the thrashing of any citizens who oppose them. And, ironically, that is precisely what they believe a previous generation of secularists did to them, and to public school curricula, so they should know better!

I am also concerned about political advocacy groups like the Liberty Institute, which poisons the debate with purposefully provocative language that needlessly inflames an already combustible situation. It's not that I mind controversy, but no one is really well-served by the kind of comments made by Liberty's legislative director, who said:

"Texas teachers and parents have had enough of liberal fringe groups trying to radically change and rewrite American history. This liberal effort to infiltrate, indoctrinate, and saturate our students' schools with extreme liberal ideology will fail."

They may win this round with that kind of language, but in the end we will all lose when decisions are reached simply because one side was more effective at fanning the public's fears and resentments. Most Americans are somewhere in the middle on this issue, as we are on most of the so-called hot-button issues.

Even if we are believers, we know that there is a difference between teaching about the history of religion in America and preaching the Gospel to a captive audience of children in our nation's classrooms. Most people would like to see the former and reject the latter. But they need leaders who will advocate for that sane middle ground that neither turns teachers into preachers nor ignores the crucial role of religion -- and Christianity in particular -- in our shared history.

That history should be explored in the classroom as just that, history, not theology or religious practice. Students should know that among the founding fathers there were men of deeply traditional faith and that without their faith they would have accomplished far less. There were also deists who had no use for organized religion at all. There were people who believed that God ordained the keeping of slaves and the oppression of women, and others who understood that such actions were truly sinful.

Religion has animated many causes in our nation's history, and our children are entitled to hear the entire story in all its complexity. That is what it means to study the history of religion and its influence in America, which is what we should do rather than teach either theology or devotional religion in our public schools -- which, the last time I checked, was against the law.