Matthew received a $1,000 award from FFRF for his second-place essay.
The year was 1998. I was 12 and starting seventh grade at Dayton Christian Middle School, a nondenominational institution determined to provide children with an education saturated with evangelism and religious dogma.
My first class was social studies. History had always been one of my favorite subjects, and I was excited to make a good first impression. Mr. Tatum opened his first lecture by asking us what the word “history” meant, and my hand shot up through the air. I’m sure that I grimaced with the kind of squirmy know-it-all impatience only fellow bookworms can relate to (and that we quickly learn to suppress in high school).
When Mr. Tatum called on me, I was confident in my response: “History is a Greek word that means ‘inquiry’ and ‘learning through investigation.’ ” Mr. Tatum looked at me for a second, and in a moment that has forever burned itself into my memory, curtly and rhetorically rebutted, “Sure, but what does it really mean? History really means ‘His story!’ ”
He went on to describe how the linear progression of our culture’s historical development had been guided by the Christian god, how the United States was an exceptional nation, a new Israel of chosen people, and that to understand the past we had to study it through the lens of a “biblical worldview.” This was a much different kind of social studies than what I was used to, having only left public school the year before. Taken aback and a bit frustrated, I became reluctant to participate in later discussions throughout the year, preferring instead to simply read “worldly” books.
While freethinkers might interpret this anecdote as a radical anomaly only possible at a parochial school, this is not (and has never been) the case. From the execution of Socrates for (among other things) his blasphemous questioning of the gods to the Texas Board of Education’s recent obsession with Christianizing our nation’s history, educators have been under constant pressure to incorporate mainstream religion into the curriculum.
Omitted, of course, are any texts related to state-church separation.
This is, perhaps, most obvious and contentious in science classrooms, where the teaching of climate change, plate tectonics and evolution have been loudly challenged. Yet science education, steeped in empirical methods and facts, has a distinct advantage over religion, forcing many religious leaders to reject and/or alter their ideologies in an effort to incorporate their beliefs into a freshly rediscovered natural world.
Nearly everyone today accepts that the sun is the center of our solar system, and many religious denominations work to ease the tension between science and their bibles by adopting tolerant political worldviews and by constructing pseudo-scientific doctrines such as “long-day creationism.” Indeed, the authority of science is so deeply ingrained in our culture that, rather than reject it, religions have begun to steal its terminology to justify their beliefs.
But that is not the case with history. While grounded in primary sources, archival material and records, history also depends on oral testimony, recollection and, perhaps most of all, written material. How we understand the past is driven by the historical narratives we are taught, and these narratives can often be extremely difficult to demystify or disprove.
When history education in public schools emphasizes only the religious beliefs of some of our nation’s founders and fails to disclose Thomas Paine’s skepticism or the role of religion in perpetuating the Atlantic slave trade, secular teaching transforms into religious advocacy.
Politicians are well aware of this, and many are more than happy to pass legislation meant to impose contemporary Christian evangelicalism onto the pages of history textbooks. A recent North Carolina bill called for schools to display “objects of historical significance that have formed and influenced the United States’ legal or governmental system.” One example offered in the bill is the Ten Commandments. Omitted, of course, are any texts related to state-church separation, even though many of our nation’s most powerful political ideologues (such as Thomas Jefferson and Roger Williams) advocated for just such a division. In Texas, the State Board of Education chairman proclaimed that history textbooks should reflect his belief that “America was built on biblical ideas.” That insistency forced him to initially call for Thomas Jefferson to be replaced by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin in a section devoted to great political thinkers.
Secular school battles
Such lunacy is nothing new. When public schools first began to secularize in the mid-19th century, the Religious Right responded similarly to their modern-day successors: by ostracizing those calling for freedom of thought and by attempting to infuse their already dominant beliefs more deeply into the political framework.
The Cincinnati public school system in 1869 decided to ban bibles, prayer and hymns. As more and more European immigrants moved to the city, many of whom had just fought in the Civil War, it became harder to label their “Romanism, Atheism and Infidelity” (as one newspaper put it) as “un-American.” Regardless, Cincinnati’s fundamentalist Protestants took the issue all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the school board in 1872 and led the way to secularization for countless other school districts.
In fact, one of my favorite freethinkers, J.B. Stallo, was a German immigrant who served as a lawyer for the school board during its Supreme Court battle. He was also a political philosopher who, in a lecture entitled “State Creeds and Their Modern Apostles,” delivered in a local church during the Cincinnati uproar, claimed that, “Government can protect and help to maintain religion, as well as everything else which constitutes the life of the soul, only in one way: by guarding the freedom of its development. Whoever asks it to do more is seeking to convert it into an abominable engine of tyranny and oppression.”
I like to imagine it was with this in mind that Stallo made his case for a United States that “at least ought to be, not a Christian, but a free people.” That phrase certainly wouldn’t be welcome in a Texas or North Carolina history textbook.
Religion may, indeed, be co-opting scientific language to further its own ends and force its way into science education, but it looks to recast history in its own image. The racism, misogyny — remember, it’s “His story!” — and cultural chauvinism inherent in the history of our national state was, at times, deeply tied to our nation’s adherence to religion.
To ignore that — to, in effect, only show the mixture of religion and government as positive — is willfully misleading. Educators, and especially history teachers, should certainly be discussing the role of religion in their classrooms, but to approach that topic from a “biblical worldview” is to do our past a grave disservice.
Students, teachers, and our national community would be much better off worrying less about “His story” and focusing more on our own. Only then can we truly fulfill the meaning of history — an honest and open investigation in which skepticism, critical thinking and questions are preferable to biblically mandated answers.
Matthew Mingus, 25, is a native of Catawba, Ohio, and has a B.A. in history, philosophy and political science from Ashland [Ohio] University and an M.A. in European history from the University of Florida, where he’s pursuing a Ph.D. in the same field. His primary focus is the cartographic redevelopment and occupation of post-World War II Germany. Matthew is interested in modern German history, European intellectual and cultural history, maps and the history of cartography. He lives in Gainesville, Fla., with his partner, Lindsey, and his dog, Dixie.