But what would Father(s) want?

527px-Cotton_Mather

Let’s return to one of my favorite hot-button topics, the role of religion in the public schools. Whether it sets a precedent or not, the question of how to teach religion in the Texas schools is roiling the State Board of Education, schools, and activists concerned either that religion isn’t getting a fair shake or that a certain viewpoint (read: Christian) is being promoted.

So, under the circumstances, it seems that reporters could give readers clear explanations of the issues and opinions. After all, many readers pay taxes for these schools and send their children to them.

Or maybe not. Maybe we could just have another spitting contest with the eeeevil conservatives on one side and the rabid secularists on the other.

Cynicism aside, as I’ve said, every time you push the church-state button, from local boards of education to the United States Supreme Court, you are getting into the realm of opinion, in which there isn’t a clear consensus. So it’s not easy for a reporter to mark out the landscape of battle. But adding to the confusion isn’t a great idea, either, as did this recent, uneven piece from the Houston Chronicle.

Texas schoolchildren should know how God and religion greatly influenced the country’s Founding Fathers more than 230 years ago, say some of the experts reviewing the state’s social studies curriculum.

It is a viewpoint that troubles others who worry that a controlling majority of conservatives on the State Board of Education may go too far in pushing Christianity in public schools.

To characterize the origins of this country as a Christian nation would be wrong, said Steven Schafersman, who routinely attends SBOE meetings as president of Texans Citizens For Science.

“It is absolutely false,” Schafersman said. “That kind of belief is dangerous.”

He is among several who argue that many of the Founding Fathers actually were deists — they believed in God as creator, who permits the universe to operate according to natural laws rather than continued intervention. As such, they did not believe the Bible or Jesus were divine.

Eh, this really isn’t about “God and religion.” To date, it’s apparently been focused on whether there is or can be a Judeo-Christian perspective (emphasis on the Christian) in teaching materials. Look at the Peter Marshall quote later in the article, and you’ll see that seems to be his perspective.

“Controlling majority” — is that another way of saying that this is a group of conservatives who have the votes? Who are they? Are they all in agreement or do they represent diverse points of view?

And Schafersman isn’t one of “several” who believe that many of the Founding Fathers were deists. Many of them were deists. Or is Gary Scharrer saying that Schafersman only one of several in the state of Texas who believe that? Some Christians believe that the Bible is without error, but they don’t believe it is divine.

And then we have Marshall, head of Marshall Ministries. I’d have a lot of questions as to how a clergyman and the head of a ministry organization got appointed to review curricula for a school board.

That’s not addressed here.

For some reasons there are scare quotes around “expert reviewers when Marshall is being quoted, but the lede mentions experts without the quotes. It’s possible that the reviewers all reflect Marshall’s point-of-view (I can’t believe that anyone is still teaching that Columbus “discovered” America), but it’s also possible that some of them could have added light to the controversy as well as heat. The Schafersman quote right after Marshall’s doesn’t explain what he means by “live and let live.” Or is he just spitting back?

And, by the way, is this Founding Father story only about the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence and crafted the Constitution, or does it include influential men like the Puritan Cotton Matther (see picture above)? It is certainly possible to argue that American exceptionalism is as strong a strain in public life as is the predominant deism of our founding documents.

Interesting that the end of the article is so much clearer and more compelling than the beginning. Readers might not agree with Cynthia Dunbar or Richard Hughes, but at least they might gain some greater understanding of the profound questions here. From what I can tell, the religion wars in the Texas schools are being fought on many fronts, and reporters are trying to keep up with changing battlegrounds. This week it’s the Founding Fathers — next week, it might be the faith of Abraham Lincoln.

Another, less concrete idea — I have the sense that the entire framework in which these stories are reported (secularists versus religious, right versus left, conservative Christians versus liberal Christians) really needs to be evaluated, and possibly tossed out — in the interest of truly educating readers, rather than titillating them. I’m not sure what would replace it, but I do think that as the American religious culture changes, journalists need to find ways to keep up with how to write about it.

Picture of Cotton Mather from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Jerry

    Your review has me up out of my chair applauding (the SF Chronicle used to do that for movie reviews) http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_EBmpqCL3evc/Sk5wjRH2PsI/AAAAAAAACdU/CddTrXAQoTk/s320/ba-littleman13_t_SFCG1236811956.jpg.

    There are two parts of your review I’d like to underline.

    One is that to limit the effect of religion in American history to the founding fathers is much too narrow a focus. That history dates back to the first settlers and continues through Martin Luther King. To ignore that history is to ignore a critical part of what makes the US the nation it is.

    I also really agree that the stories are not reported with the correct frame of reference. My amazing starting point is that reporters should be educated in American history and be able to spot spin and distortion from any side and accurately reflect reality in the stories they write. Of course, there is room for debate, but serious distortions from whichever side should be spotted and noted in news stories.

  • Dave

    I don’t think we need to search long for a framework in which to report such stories. Every church and state story becomes a story for a reason. Often the reason is that Christians in a position of power are trying to dominate some aspect of public life. When that’s the case, that’s what should be reported.

  • Hank

    Its the power of history is written by the victors, and often what’s taught in schools. The founding fathers beat back not only rule by a king, but domination by the king’s church. They were not about to let things revert.

    It is the power of the media to try to elevate Cotton Mather to a founding father. Perhaps the folks writing our constitution took a lesson from Mather – writing into law protection against future witch hunts and other dubious antics by religious leaders.

  • http://www.prophet666.com prophet666

    why not leave god and religion out of schools and not polute the mind of children


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