The problem is a knotty one because in one sense the fundamentalists are right: the textbooks of the past 30 years have slighted the role of religion in American history. The books I used in my youth left me with the impression that the abolitionist movement was some kind of secular moral crusade, when in reality it was explicitly and almost entirely a religious movement, its language saturated with talk of god and sin.
But the fundamentalists are not, of course, interested in teaching the truth about the past. They want to see American history taught as the unfolding of a divine destiny, in which true Christians fled from a corrupt Europe and prospered in the wilderness because their deep faith won them the favor of God:
One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great.This is theology, not history. On the other hand it is a historical fact that many Americans from the Mayflower Pilgrims onward have seen themselves and their nation in exactly that way.
The flashpoint of the conflict is the Revolution, the writing of the Constitution, and the vision of the "founding fathers" for the new nation. The current conflict in Texas concerns questions like whether the Constitution was influenced by Mosaic law and whether the founders' conception of human nature was "Biblical." Consider this statement from the Reverend Peter Marshall, one of the activists:
Marshall also proposed that children be taught that the separation-of-powers notion is “rooted in the Founding Fathers’ clear understanding of the sinfulness of man,” so that it was not safe for one person to exercise unlimited power.Now this exact argument was made by several leading politicians at the time. But essentially the opposite argument had been made throughout the Middle Ages, that is, that because people are so sinful they cannot rule themselves, and so should submit to a divinely annointed king. And some of the more intellectual founders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, followed John Locke in thinking that people were not born with original sin but as "blank slates" -- an idea usually presented these days as a secular foray into the nature vs. nurture debate, but seen in the 18th century largely in theological terms, as an explicit rejection of original sin.
One reason textbooks have stayed away from religion is that the issues involved are so complicated. The eighteenth century was a time of theological ferment, when a great deal of intellectual energy was spilled on debates about grace, sin, predestination and the like, and many new sects were founded. It would take pages just to explain what these arguments were about, and what high school student is going to read it? The founders wanted to keep the national government out of religion partly because religious questions were so hotly contested at the time.
But notice -- and for me this is key -- they thought they could build a national government that was neutral in religious issues. Not because they did not think religion was important for people or their communities, but because they believed that people of disparate religious views could nonetheless agree on basic matters of law and governance. They believed that Baptists and Quakers and Unitarians and Congregationalists and Anglicans could agree on trade policy. They intended to keep the national government out of the kind of questions where religion had to come up, such as what kind of history to teach in schools.
The authors of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence certainly wanted the United States to be a country within which religion would flourish, and many of them saw what they were doing as part of God's plan -- "Providence", as George Washington always put it. But they were not fundamentalists, and the Bible was only one part of their intellectual heritage. In times of crisis they tended to quote the great Romans rather then the great Hebrews, and their political views were shaped more by the struggles between Parliament and the king in England than by Saul and Solomon. The current fundamentalists are also guilty of some very a-historical Biblical interpretation, especially their insistence that democracy, human rights, and capitalism are Biblical in origin. And yet I despair over explaining to high school students why this is not so, and what the actual place of the Bible in the development of these ideas was.
The more I think about it, the wiser it seems to me to just sweep the whole question under the rug.