Who’s afraid of Virginia’s Jefferson?

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A lot has been made recently, on both the right and the left, regarding the changes made last week by the Texas Board of Education in that state’s social studies curriculum and textbooks. A leader of the winning conservative faction on the board maintained that they were only adding needed balance to an already ideologically-charged curriculum, arguing that “academia is skewed too far to the left.” A leader of the losing liberal faction countered that “the social conservatives have perverted accurate history to fulfill their own agenda.” In particular, moderates and liberals on the board decried a decision by the conservatives to reduce the prominence of Thomas Jefferson in certain aspects of the history curriculum, given Jefferson’s authorship of the phrase “separation of church and state.”

So, what is going on here? Who’s right (and left), and who’s wrong (or ideological)?

It’s always good in these circumstances to consult some facts, historical and otherwise, but the problem these days is that there seems to be a growing epidemic of civic ignorance in our country regarding basic facts about America’s history and key political and economic institutions. Over the past five years, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has issued national reports documenting this failure on the part of America’s high schools and colleges to effectively teach the fundamentals of American history, government, and economics. For example, ISI has found that less than 60 percent of Americans, even college graduates at our most prestigious schools, can accurately identify things like the three branches of government; key passages and principles from the Declaration, Constitution, and Gettysburg Address; America’s significant wars and battles; and the essential elements of our free enterprise system (for more details about this stunning lack of civic literacy, visit http://www.americancivicliteracy.org).

Ironically, it was Jefferson himself who pointed out that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what was and never will be,” something that I would hope both liberals and conservatives would agree with. Still, rather than focusing on building up our young people’s straight-forward understanding of their nation’s past, it seems, if the Texas case is indicative of broader trends, that both sides are more intent on politicizing (first the left), and than re-politicizing (now the right) the history curriculum according to their own political and ideological preferences

Actually, the case of Jefferson’s now famous (or infamous?) “separation of church and state” phrase is illustrative of the danger when both sides ignore the historical record when there are oxen to be gored. First, let me share with you a question about the issue of church and state ISI posed to 7,000 freshmen and 7,000 seniors from 50 separate colleges in 2007, as well as to a random sample of 2500 adults, college educated and not, in 2008. The results were not pretty—in ’07 the freshmen got a 28 percent and the seniors a 31 percent; in ’08 adult college grads got a 26 percent; high school grads a 16 percent:

The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:

a. George Washington’s Farewell Address.

b. the Mayflower Compact.

c. the Constitution.

d. the Declaration of Independence.

e. Thomas Jefferson’s letters.

As you can probably guess by now, the correct answer is (d) – Thomas Jefferson’s letters.

Specifically, Jefferson used the phrase when extolling the virtues of religious liberty to a group of political supporters in Connecticut—the Danbury Baptists—who had been persecuted both politically and religiously by the dominant Congregationalist Churches in New England (who also happened to be allied with the Federalist Party, Jefferson’s partisan opponents). Jefferson was responding to a congratulatory letter the Danbury Baptists had sent him after his election as president in 1800, and he used the opportunity to not only demonstrate that he was a friend of this sect, but to also make clear his view that the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses were designed to keep the federal Congress (not the States) from interfering with an individual’s rights of conscience. Interestingly, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did not prevent him as Governor of Virginia from proclaiming a day of “publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God”. And it did not prevent him as President from appropriating federal monies to support churches and missionary work among various Indian Tribes. Nevertheless, Jefferson was a fierce opponent of established churches, and one of his proudest public achievements (and one of only three accomplishments he had listed on his tombstone, none of which included President of the United States) was his authorship of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom.

So, why the confusion about “the wall of separation”? Why do most Americans believe that this principle can be found in the U.S. Constitution?

Here, the conservatives in Texas have a more than valid point about liberal politicization. Starting with gusto in 1947 with the case Everson vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court, in their establishment clause jurisprudence, began to elevate Jefferson’s defense of religious liberty from rhetorical flourish to canon of constitutional interpretation. From there, it was easy for liberal scholars to transport a bit of judicial activism into social studies textbooks, especially since it comported well with their secular world-view, and the rest, as they say, is history. (ISI’s most recent study confirms this liberal world-view among college faculty, as well as its liberalizing influence on college graduates). Of course, stripping Jefferson’s phrase from its political, historical, and philosophical moorings allowed the left to remove the considerable nuance and complexity that existed in Jefferson’s own views and actions about the role of religion in the public square, but when one is hell-bent on bending the facts to suit your politics, then a little historical fibbing seems justified, especially when members of the Supreme Court are doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, instead of fighting politicization with the facts, the conservatives on the Texas Board of Education stooped to their opponents’ level by injecting some of their own politics into the debate. Assuming with the liberals that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” meant that the Sage of Monticello was a rabid secularist (this from the man who spoke in the Declaration about men being endowed by their “Creator” with certain unalienable rights, as well as “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”), the conservatives’ solution was to try to whitewash some aspects of Jefferson’s historical legacy simply because they didn’t agree with a strict and absolute separation of church and state. This makes the conservatives (rightly or wrongly) look like they are afraid of the historical record when it doesn’t go their way. History is complicated and messy, especially political history, and there will always be debates about how to interpret the facts, but that does not mean one should avoid or skew the facts because you are afraid they will hurt your cause.

The bottom line, in light of ISI’s findings about the wholesale lack of civic knowledge among Americans, is that what our schools desperately need, from kindergarten through college, is a lot less politics and a lot more rigor, and if I might add, a lot less centralized, top-down control of the curriculum. It will not be easy to rectify the situation, but a good place to start is improving the way we train our teachers. Teachers who don’t know their subject matter tend to rely too much on textbooks, which we have found are susceptible to all matters of ideological influence. America’s colleges of education tend to stress “how” to teach as opposed to “what” to teach, and the result has been a watering down of the content, especially in the humanities and social sciences. A better way to teach American history is to allow the characters of American history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—to speak for themselves through primary sources. It is in that way that history comes alive to students as compelling drama. At its roots, history is about the “story”, and if teachers knew the story better, then students would know their country better. And wouldn’t America be better off if that was indeed the case?

Dr. Richard Brake is Co-Chair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies, and to take the test on-line, please go to www.americancivicliteracy.org