In his rather pedestrian article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine on the Texas social studies textbook wars, Russell Shorto seek to give the devil his due:
There is, however, one slightly awkward issue for hard-core secularists
who would combat what they see as a Christian whitewashing of American
history: the Christian activists have a certain amount of history on
He then recalls the story of the Danbury Baptists who in 1801 wrote to newly elected President Jefferson to solicit their help against the Congregationalist standing order in the Nutmeg State–thereby eliciting the letter in which Jefferson famously expressed the view that the two religious clauses of the First Amendment had built a “wall of separation” between church and state (but which, at the time, applied only to the federal government). The principal lesson Shorto draws from the episode is that it “suggests — as the Christian activists maintain — how thoroughly the
colonies were shot through with religion and how basic religion was to
the cause of the revolutionaries.”
Huh? No hard-core secularists I know–much less mainstream American historians–contend that there wasn’t a lot of religion floating around America in the early years of the Republic. But if the exchange between the Danbury Baptists and Jefferson holds a lesson for the Texas Board of Education’s efforts to insure a pro-Christian reading of the American past, it’s that the evangelical activists of their day were as powerfully devoted to separation of church and state as the deist president to whom they were appealing. And that just as they were eager for Connecticut to stop using tax money to help pay even for their own religious affairs, so they would have vigorously opposed the state including what amounts to religious instruction in its public school textbooks.