The Christian Right and Public Education in Texas


Feb. 3, 2010

Years ago, Religious Right leaders made it clear that controlling what students learn in public schools was critical to their goal of changing the nation's political culture. Perhaps in no other state has that strategy advanced as far as it has in Texas. Conservative evangelical Christians set out to take control of the Texas State Board of Education in the early 1990s. After the elections in 2006, they finally captured effective control of the board. The result has been a series of sharp battles over the role of religious belief in the state's public schools.

For example, last year, the board adopted new science curriculum standards that will open biology classrooms to creationist arguments against evolution. The board did so against strong opposition from some of the nation's most respected scientists. In fact, three Nobel laureates in medicine and science–Alfred Gilman, Peter Agre, and Robert F. Curl–practically begged the board not to water down the state's science curriculum with creationism-based junk science.

The Texas Freedom Network joined with science education advocates to blunt the worst of the creationists' attack. We were partly successful. Gone from the science standards, for example, is a requirement that students learn the alleged "weaknesses" of evolution. Evolution deniers have used that requirement as a wedge to insert creationist arguments into classrooms in Texas and other states. Even so, the board adopted standards that suggest the fossil record and other established scientific evidence really doesn't support the theory of evolution.

Those flawed standards will make the adoption of new science textbooks–which could come as early as 2011–very controversial in Texas. Because, unlike Vegas, what happens in Texas doesn't stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks. The Texas textbook market is the second largest in the country, and so publishers often write textbooks for the Lone Star State and then sell the same books elsewhere.

Emboldened by their successes with the science curriculum, the board's far right faction has now turned its attention to social studies. Their first step was to appoint a panel of so-called experts to help guide the revision of the standards. Three of the six experts, however, are conservative evangelicals who believe that separation of church and state is not a constitutional principle, and one goes so far as to call church-state separation a "myth."

Two of these board-appointed experts argue that the Founding Fathers intended to create a Christian nation with laws and society shaped by biblical principles. One is David Barton, founder and head of WallBuilders, a Christian-right organization that promotes the idea of a "Christian America." The other is the Rev. Peter Marshall, head of the Massachusetts-based Peter Marshall Ministries.

Barton and Marshall are absurdly unqualified to serve on a panel of social studies experts. Neither even has a graduate degree in the social sciences. In fact, Barton's undergraduate degree is in religious studies–from Oral Roberts University. Yet both enjoy the blind loyalty of the State Board of Education's far right faction.

Also influencing the board is a constellation of Christian-right and other political pressure groups, such as the Texas affiliate of Focus on the Family and the Texas Eagle Forum. These groups insist that the Constitution and other founding documents were heavily influenced by the Bible and Judeo-Christian teachings.

Activists from these and other groups descended on the State Board of Education this month for a public hearing on the proposed social studies standards. Speaking from a single playbook, virtually all of them insisted students should learn that the United States is an exceptional nation–that is, superior to all others and holding a special place among nations as a protector of freedom. Some have gone so far as to argue that the United States is a divine creation with a special mission from God.

It took nearly a year for curriculum teams made up of teachers, scholars and other community members to write the proposed new social studies curriculum. Then over two days this month, the board's far right faction introduced a litany of amendments that threaten the education and religious freedom of public school students.

As a result, the current drafts of the standards extol the Judeo-Christian influences, including biblical law, on the founding documents. Though real historians and other scholars argue that such influences have been wildly exaggerated, the board opted instead to follow the lead of Barton and Marshall. (Actually, Barton wants the curriculum standards to go even further by having students learn that George Washington was saved from death in battle only by God's intervention. Curriculum writers resisted that suggestion, and there has not been a movement by the board to include it in the standards document…yet.)

In many other ways the standards are beginning to look more like a political manifesto than a curriculum document. One new standard suggests that Joseph McCarthy's smear campaign in the 1950s was justified. Another requires that students learn about Phyllis Schlafly, the Moral Majority and other conservative icons in the 1980s–not because of their historical accomplishments but because of the conservative philosophies they have promoted. Other amendments seek to downplay the accomplishments and results of the civil rights movement.

The board's far right faction appears to have the votes to ram through many of these and other alarming changes before the board takes a final vote on the standards in May. But there is some reason for optimism. While publishers will use the standards to write new textbooks for adoption in Texas schools, those textbooks won't be considered by the board for at least two more years. Voters will have the opportunity to elect a more reasonable board between now and then.

This year, in fact, several moderate Republicans are seeking the seats of three current far right board members. A number of Democrats have also thrown their hats in the ring. What used to be a sleepy corner of Texas government appears finally to be grabbing the attention of voters who are concerned that the education of their children has been hijacked by radicals promoting ideological agendas.

It's too early, of course, to know whether the rise of religious ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education has reached its high point. But even if it has, the work to reverse the damage already done will be long and hard.


(Dan Quinn is communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of religious and community leaders who support public education, religious freedom and individual liberties.)