Sunday, March 14, 2010

Textbook Politics

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There is something afoot in the State of Texas, and it's not mainstream- anything.

An individual who blogs as "TFN" at the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as "a mainstream voice to counter the religious right," apparently is monitoring the proceedings of the Texas Board of Education. As has been noted- but insufficiently- in the media, conservatives have overtaken the Texas Board of Education, which sets curriculum standards for the entire state. Consequently, the State of Texas has become the second largest purchaser of school textbooks in the country and guides the decisions of major publishers.

Clearly, what happens in Texas is unlikely to stay in Texas. The Board, currently composed of ten Republicans and five Democrats, voted over the course of three days this past week to impose a far-right agenda upon Texas school districts and, perhaps, the nation. This included a plank requiring students to learn about " the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association."

More disturbingly, the Board now requires not only economic theorists Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Adam Smith be taught, but also free-market cheerleaders Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. Perhaps they didn't realize that Adam Smith was a laissez-faire champion- or perhaps they did and merely wanted to stack the deck.

The Texas Freedom Network spent one day live-blogging the proceedings during which, among other actions, the Board voted to: replace Thomas Jefferson with Sir Thomas Aquinas, Reformation giant John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone as influences on the Englightenment; emphasize the right to bear arms (presumably leaving out the precondition of "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State"); eliminate “free enterprise (capitalist, free market)” in favor of "free enterprise."

But there was another interesting tidbit:

12:28 – Board member Mavis Knight offers the following amendment: “examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.”

How to interpret this? The mainstream conservative argument regarding the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been: the framers did not intend to discourage religious expression, nor even to prevent government from favoring religion. Rather, so it is claimed by the right, the framers meant merely to prevent government from favoring one specific religion over another.

I don't buy this argument; it is likely that the men putting together the Constitution intended the government to remain neutral, or nearly so, on the matter of religion. Still, the standard conservative argument is legitimate (reasonable) and has at least a little merit. Yet, the far-right Texas Board of Education finds even this interpretation of the establishment clause to be overly restrictive, liberal, or just plain unacceptable. It is uncomfortable with the idea that government shouldn't promote or favor "one specific religion over another." It is an extraordinary, extreme stance.

But the dangerous conflation of cultural and economic conservatism is best reflected in the statement, made to The New York Times in February, of Board member Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist who describes himself as a Christian fundamentalist. He argued

The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.

The theory that "the men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible" merits more space and time to refute, as has been done by others. The framers typically were affiliated with one Christian denomination or another. But a fundamentalist or an evangelical should know better than most that mere identification with a denomination does not a "Christian" make. A commitment to faith in the man for whom "Christianity" is named is vital. And it's hard to understand why someone would want to claim slaveholders (as some of the Founders were) as "Christian."

Similarly, one could write a book examining the superficiality of claiming "our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible (and) the wesetern develpment of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles." For now: the Head of the church said to a young man "if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor...." and to his disciples "only with diffiulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus was not an unabashed Marxist but he hardly gave a ringing endorsement to acquisitive, unrestrained capitalism (or "free enterprise") when

he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons.

As Texas goes, so goes the nation? Not if common sense prevails.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I agree that the actions by the Board are outrageous and are not giving a fair version of history.

Still, your claim that keynes, adam smith, and karl marx are legitimate "economic theorists" and Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek are "free-market cheerleaders" and somehow not legitimate is unfair. Both men influenced policy, policymakers, and economics greatly, especially under Reagan. Both won nobel prizes in economics. They both are as much economic theorists as the others, even if you disagree with them.

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