We Texans are a mess, you bet. First, we send you George W. Bush, then we try to write the textbooks for all you non-God-fearing rabble.
A New York Times Magazine cover story by Russell Shorto (Feb. 14) puts the latter matter under the magnifying glass. Our "$22 billion education fund," Shorto explains, "is among the largest educational endowments in the country. Texas uses some of that money to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually -- which rather strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor their products to fit the standards dictated by the Lone Star State."
Here's the State Board of Education, then, considering how hard it might press publishers to emphasize the nation's Christian origins -- suggesting, according to Shorto's summation, "that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to Biblical precepts." If you don't at least suspect the reaction of New York Times readers to such an affirmation, you don't know the first thing about New York Times readers. The nearly-unanimous reaction, in reader replies to the magazine piece: : Yowwwwwwwwwwwwwww! -- a collective shriek of injury and indignation.
A few excerpts before I move on to the substance of the matter:
"These people are dangerous. Has Sarah Palin spoken for them yet?"
"These people are scary."
"Can't we simply return Texas to the Mexicans and terminate this national embarrassment? Why is Texas still part of the Union?"
"Fanatics and demagogues…"
"Jesus would have thrown the book at these phonies."
"There seem [sic] to be an unlimited supply of lunatics in America."
Now what I really enjoy here is the lofty tone -- the note of unruffled curiosity concerning a difference of viewpoint that gentlemen and ladies might wish to inspect if not necessarily respect. Yes, indeed: the hope for reconciliation and the reign of reason! The truth is, nothing so surely drives the secular-minded around the bend as does the assertion that for the last two millennia Western civilization lived by religious suppositions other than theirs.
These people really don't like Texans or Christians either one -- a taste I would hold to be sacredly guaranteed them but for the introduction into this context of such a word such as "sacred."
Here's what I am going to suggest: the attitude of secular hatred, or just plain old everyday contempt, for Christian viewpoints, right ones or wrong ones, is the explosive matter in fusses such as the New York Times Magazine starts over…over not very much, really.
None of which is to say the religious bloc on the Texas education board has its side of the controversy down letter perfect. There doesn't seem much evidence to the effect that the founders were prayer partners who believed themselves to be establishing a kind of church-nation. Then as now, there was a lot of diversity even among Christians. As Mark A. Noll, a prominent scholar of evangelicalism, writes, "Most of the leading founders were sincerely religious persons. At the same time, the most influential among their number practiced decidedly nontraditional forms of Christianity." The most religious of them were likelier to operate on the basis of political axioms instead of "the special insights of faith." On the eve of the revolution, the famous Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia had complained that "religion is at a low ebb among us…Vice and profanity openly prevail in our city. Our sabbaths are boldly profaned by the most open and flagitious enormities…Our young men are wholly devoted to pleasure and sensuality…" Hardly the best argument, some of this, for brushing in halos on the founders' portraits.
Why, then, the conservatives of the Texas education board as state fair midway targets for liberal baseballs -- two bits a throw? It's the condition the liberals themselves unconsciously prescribed when, in the aftermath of the U. S. Supreme Court's decisions outlawing bland prayers in public schools and elsewhere, they politicized the faith question. It was a kind of reverse reversion to the status quo of post-revolutionary times in certain states with established churches. Legislatures had eventually dropped those taxpayer-supported establishments. In time that wasn't good enough. Where churches and the state once overlapped, ministers now had to take their prayers and rituals out of public view with a haste and thoroughness that -- to church members -- called into question the truth of their teaching. It was insulting. Did secularists of the ACLU stamp think the religious were going just to kneel there and take it?
Those who did think in this manner should not have. For Christians seeking redress, it was off to court, off to legislative chambers , and -- in Texas -- off to state school board elections for redress. "Christian conservatives" constitute now, for various purposes, a bare majority of the state board's membership.
The people -- liberals chiefly -- who invoked the power of government to oust religion from public places found two could play at that little game. So it goes, on a parallel track, with abortion. Supreme Court arrogance in snatching a complex question from the jurisdiction of popularly elected legislators caused resentments to grow and tempers to flare and the controversy over unborn human life to drag on, world without end, Amen.
The best thing about the New York Times Magazine piece -- a not-bad job, I thought, that favored the board of education critics chiefly in the tonal sense -- was probably the clarity it brought to the dogfight over when, and how much, religion belongs in public school textbooks. The lofty Times' theoretically lofty readers came on like harpies or irritated middle-aged football fans with a little too much beer under their belts. They screeched, they howled, they dropped their pants in public. They reminded members of the Texas education board that nobody you would want your daughter to marry is listening to arguments as to the non-faith of the fathers. Nuts and screwballs -- that's what you folks elect down in Texas! Which isn't quite so, I am here to say with some confidence, speaking not only as a Texan but as a high-church Episcopalian.
Gentlemen, ladies -- remember yourselves. Please. Main thing to remember, maybe, is what happens when, by political hook or crook, you try to pry sensitive, complex questions, and the means of resolving those questions, from the hands of those who don't automatically acknowledge your intellectual superiority. The folks tend to resent it. They find ways of going around you.
Give me any day a Rev. Pat Robertson or even a Texas education board member over particular commentators on the New York Times Magazine blog, whom I could probably list in longhand assuming you've got two or three weeks to wait.