Religion in history class? Why not?

Wow — it has been a LONG TIME since I have written anything out here!  And I must admit: I have been enjoying the break.  I have certainly had enough going on to justify not spending any time in the blogosphere!

However, this article caught my eye today as I wandered through the day’s news, and I thought it worth a mention, especially with my own experience as a teacher in the Texas public schools.

The article is “Texas Curriculum Review Sparks Debate About Religion” with the subtitle “Does Religion Have a Place in American History?”

The question forming the subtitle is easily answered: Of course.  The problem is with how both sides of the issue seem to want to twist the question.  And it is an issue with potential nationwide impact since, as the article points out, Texas is the second largest school system in the U.S. and its decisions have a great deal of influence on textbook makers.

Anti-religious fanatics see the inclusion of any talk of religion in history class as a violation of the “sacred” wall of separation between church and state.  This is absolutely ludicrous.  The fact is that history — even from a completely secular and 100% atheistic perspective — cannot be taught properly unless you include discussions of the religious motivations and worldviews of those who made that history.  Frankly, that should be uncontroversial.  And I have heard from many who are surprised when they learn how supressed discussion of religion is in some history classes in America.  (Actually, it’s usually “social studies” instead of “history” — something I have a strong opinion on, but which I will keep to myself for now.)  After all, if an explorer’s motivations for exploring were God, Gold, and Glory, then how accurate is out instruction if we are only willing to teach about the Gold and the Glory?  (Or, in a more watered-down form of nonsense: teaching about the Gold & Glory while including a token mention of religious motivations.)

Wouldn’t such an approach communicate a faulty sense of the tides and flows of history?  Wouldn’t it hamper the critical thinking and analysis that we are expecting of students, let alone pass along a false history?  Should American History be renamed American Fiction?

Now, I admit in this that there are those on the other side of the debate who would take things further than simply discussing and educating about the powerful influence of religious factors in the shaping of history.  Some would want to discuss God, Himself, as the Shaper and Shepherd of History.  Rather than discuss the religious motivations and ideologies that were actively brought into play in the creation of the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, some would rather the public classroom discuss the motivations of God, Himself, in bringing together the influences that crafted our nation.  Or, in a different take, some want to paint the Founding Fathers as if they were a religious monolith, unified in their religious beliefs and convictions as if they had all walked out of a modern Evangelical “worship service” together and decided, “Hey, let’s make a constitution!”  I exaggerate, of course, but hopefully the point is still made.

Do I think that the role God has actively played in history is essential to a complete understanding of history and to a full grasp of what history should teach us?  Absolutely.  But I suspect I would disagree with many a public (or private) school teacher’s ideas about the mind of God and Christ concerning the events of history.  That’s one reason, among others, why my wife and I homeschool our children.  I want to give them not only the Big Picture, but the Full Picture.

However, history teachers can surely teach about the religious beliefs of the explorers of our world, the kings of our kingdoms, the leaders of our wars, and the founders of our nations — beliefs which had, and continue to have, a POWERFUL influence on the direction of history AND the holding of which are often established historical fact demonstrable in the writings of the individuals involved — without claiming to divine the mind of the Divine, as well.  Right?  I understand the nervousness of some about the latter — what I don’t understand is the nervousness about the former.

For our family it’s simply an academic matter since, again, we homeschool.  But for those who do not, I encourage you to be a very active part of your child’s education: An accurate history education may truly require that you walk boldly in those places where public school administrators fear to tread.

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[In the event someone comes across this and is interested in some free booklets that might help in educating your children — such as our booklets
The Bible: Fact or Fiction or The United States and Great Britain in Prophecy — check out our website, www.tomorrowsworld.org.]

9 thoughts on “Religion in history class? Why not?

  1. Hello, bobbygee, and thanks for writing. However, I have to say that should you write again in the future, I would appreciate your comments rather than simply links to your own articles. And while I found your articles interesting and containing some good points, I also came away seeing them as a bit misleading, even if unintentionally so. While our Founding Fathers were certainly men motivated by religious principles, they were not all Christians, nor did they seek to create a Christian nation. (You may not be saying that they were, but I left your articles with that impression.) To say this was their goal would be a mistake, just like teaching about their actions and decisions while pretending their religious beliefs did not play a major role in their choices is also a mistake.

    God did not give America victory over England because the former was more “Christian” than the latter. Rather, He was — and still is — working out His plan and purpose among the descendants of Abraham. Part of that plan involved starting this nation off with men and women of incredible character and insight, to be sure, and for that we can be grateful. But part of the foundation of the problems we now see in this nation is due to the choices made 200+ years ago, and while recognizing that may be a bitter pill, we must swallow it nonetheless.

    Anyway, the point of the post is simply to say that one cannot teach history accurately without discussing the religious motivations and beliefs of the men and women whose lives and decisions created that history. To attempt to do so is to teach fiction and fantasy, not history.

  2. Ed Ewert

    I certainly agree with you, Mr Smith, about how deleting mention of religion must surely distort the understanding of historical events.

    Yet, knowing that history is increasingly taught with an eye to political correctness – making sure everyone feels good about themselves regarding what background they came from, and given the personal social/political agendas that teachers sometimes bring into the classroom, I think it might be better if not even the tiniest bit about religion entered the classroom. Wise parents should realize that their children will be propagandized with all kinds of false teachings, and they need to keep an eye out for this, so that they can carefully guide their children in their understanding.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Ewert, and I certainly understand — and share — the concerns you mention.

    However, the concerns we share should really not be relevant to whether or not facts concerning the religions of history makers should be mentioned in history class when they are relevant to that person’s actions or choices. Teachers may add judgments and their own opinions, but they would do that anyway. If we fear too much a teacher’s bias, how can we expect them to teach anything valuable. I agree, a teacher who is rabidly anti-Republican might fail to teach accurately and in an unbiased way about the role President Reagan’s policies played in the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet, it would be preposterous to expect a history teacher to accurately convey historical information without referring to political parties. And it is equally preposterous to expect them to communicate history adequately without referring to the role religious beliefs have played — whether it concerns Christopher Columbus, the Founding Fathers, the Crusades, or what have you.

    If we can’t trust teachers to discuss historical facts about the religious motivations of historical figures — usually well-established in their own writings — because it is material that is subject to bias, then we can’t expect them to teach about political parties or events like the Depression or the Vietnam War, etc., ad nauseam. Then we are really saying that it is impossible to adequately communicate historical information to students in the public school, so there should be no history classes at all. Does it really come to that?

    Mind you: I am NOT saying that children should be taught religion by their public school teachers. It is one thing to teach children Islam in school, it is another to teach them the proven role played by Muslim beliefs during the Crusades. Similarly, it is one thing to teach the doctrines of the Unitarians in school, but it is another to teach of the religion-related motivations & concerns of John Adams as described by his own words written in his own hand.

    In each of these cases, I am not saying that the former should be done, only that it is crazy to think that the latter can be avoided in any way that still allows us to pretend that “history” is being taught. And if we cannot trust teachers to communicate historical facts (which these are) with even a modicum of accuracy, then why allow them to teach children at all?

    If we are going to ask our teachers to avoid historical facts in history class, let’s not call it “history class” anymore — let’s call it “fiction class” and be done with it.

  4. Norbert

    A person would think teaching History should be rather simple and straightforward as asking the question, do you want to be a hypocrite?

    As you mentioned, “I am NOT saying that children should be taught religion by their public school teachers.” However History itself contains political viewpoints, “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” (George Washington). But nowadays the people aren’t sure as to exactly who God is. Is He the God of the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagawath Gita or that of science? The people don’t agree but they all believe in some greater power that supplies justice for all. It could be said, He is still the Unknown God.

    However, is the problem of how to teach History to the people being created by the Constitution itself?

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    How can a nation insure domestic Tranquility when George Washington fails to recognize the historical nature of what other religious viewpoints can contribute today? How does his opinion insure their general Welfare by seemingly denying others the happiness it brings when they can declare their god as the God? Indeed how can a nation secure the Blessings of Liberty and Posterity when everyone’s god seems different from the next? How is the nation, the children of the people going to be educated?

    The nation’s high priestess gave her answer, “There are many ways to God” (Ophray Winfrey), to do less would seem hypocritical of a person, even when it involves how someone teaches history.

  5. Carolyn

    “If we are going to ask our teachers to avoid historical facts in history class, let’s not call it “history class” anymore — let’s call it “fiction class” and be done with it.”

    My oldest daughter watched “Gone With the Wind” in her history class. The teacher thought the movie was “history” of the Civil War in America. Though some of the movie may have been fact…most was fiction.

    If you take away the facts about history, whether they are religious views, political views, racial views, etc. how can you teach what really happened. By teaching the whole history you become better equiped in continuing in the good things, and making sure the bad things don’t happen again.

  6. Thanks for you worthwhile thoughts, Norbert. Your first quote from George Washington illustrates exactly the point I am making. That belief was a vital part of the political philosophy of one of our Founding Fathers. How can we pretend to have an accurate sense of the thinking and influences at play in the founding of the nation when such knowledge is kept out, banned from discussion?

    A nation formed by such men will form differently under men who do not hold the same beliefs. Those beliefs are vital and powerfully relevant historical facts that belong in any program that wants to be considered a decent and adequate history education.

  7. When I was student teaching (many, many years ago), I went over a bit of Christian theology with my seniors before launched into “The Seafarer” and other Old English gems. This is because an understanding of the theological assumptions of an author shape how he sees the world, and thus, how he writes about the world. When I asked students to evaluate me, one student warned ominously that I shouldn’t be teaching religion. I explained to him the difference between proselytizing and providing necessary background knowledge. “If the author of ‘The Seafarer’ had been Muslim, we would have looked at Islamic theology,” I concluded.

    Even now, many years later and an avowed atheist myself, I teach religion a lot in my upper-level classes. Christianity has, for better or worse, formed the ideological basis for Western civilization: a basic understanding of its theology is critical to understanding why we are where we are. This last year, I had an Indian student in my class who was a Hindu. All of the Christian references (and thus, some of the deeper meaning of some selections) were lost on her.

    In that context, I proposed teaching world religion class for my required elective. I contacted the guidance department of my school about it. The response: “You need to the district head of the social studies division.” I did; I never heard from him.

  8. Thanks, gls, and I agree. In particular, your point about “the difference between proselytizing and providing necessary background knowledge” is well made. That’s what startled me, I suppose, is how certain ones either don’t see how important that background knowledge is or how they can’t seem to make the same seemingly obvious distinction that you have.

    Thanks for the comment!

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