AMERICAN ATHEIST NEWS (ATHEIST-L) for JUNE 8, 1995 RELIGION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS BY THE BACK

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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 students. 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 underpinning. 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 government." **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 EVANGELICAL RIGHT 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 political agenda. 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!" Who's History? In addition to David Barton's pseudo-scholarship, other religious ideas permeate the Christian evangelical view of history, including: **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 public square. **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 all. 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. --30-- __________________ __________________ Unless otherwise noted, articles appearing in American Atheist News are contributed by the staff of American Atheists. *********************************************************************** * * * American Atheists website: http://www.atheists.org * * PO Box 140195 FTP: ftp://ftp.atheists.org * * Austin, TX 78714-0195 * * Voice: (512) 458-1244 Dial-THE-ATHEIST: * * FAX: (512) 467-9525 (512) 458-5731 * * * * Atheist Viewpoint TV: avtv@atheists.org * * Info on American Atheists: info@atheists.org, * * & American Atheist Press include your name and mailing address * * AANEWS -Free subscription: aanews-request@listserv.atheists.org * * and put "info aanews" in message body * * * * This text may be freely downloaded, reprinted, and/other * * otherwise redistributed, provided appropriate point of * * origin credit is given to American Atheists. * * * ***********************************************************************

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