Remember these names: David Barton and Rev. Peter Marshall. You should know these men because it is in good part due to their efforts that the Texas public school curriculum will soon, among other things, minimize the role of Thomas Jefferson as a contributor to the ideology of the American Revolution and the development of the U.S. Constitution. You see, they are the “experts” that the Texas School Board relied on to alter the recommendations of the scholars and historians involved in drafting the original proposed curriculum. The drafters celebrated Jefferson, but the Board voted to remove that information and talk about Moses as an inspiration instead. Vocal board member Dr. Don McLeroy (a dentist) believes that the notion that our founders wanted to separate church and state is a myth propagated by secular liberals. McLeroy rejects the work of professional historians and scholars and, instead, relies on that of Barton and Marshall to substantiate his claims.
Barton is a self-educated, self-published author on the Christian foundations of our country. Barton does not have a degree in history or theology, but he founded an organization (WallBuilders) to promote his work. He sells his books in church bookstores and online rather than through traditional public (read: secular) booksellers. Again, his books are not published by any noted press. Marshall, on the other hand, is the son of a former Senate chaplain who has an ivy league education. Marshall has theology — but not history — degrees from Yale and Princeton. He also has written books on the U.S.’s purpose as a Christian nation and God’s plan for America. Despite his notable education, Marshall’s works are not published by any important press either. Instead, his books are printed by a specialty Christian publisher. His works are similarly marketed to church people rather than the general reading public.
Because of the influence of these authors and the power of the conservatives relying on them who dominate the School Board, the Texas curriculum is being revised to accentuate the alleged Christian foundations of our country. It is not true that none of our founding fathers were religious men or that none of them believed in God. It is true that they referenced a Creator, talked about God, and opened sessions with prayers. It is also true that John Adams was a Unitarian who did not believe in God as a trinity. Thus, Jesus to him was an important prophet, but not God himself. Thomas Jefferson shared this view of the son of God — and, incidentally, it is from one of his letters that we get the phrase “separation of church and state.” George Washington was a member of the Anglican Church, but he refused to take communion. Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense, the pro-independence pamphlet that influenced many American revolutionaries, also wrote a book called The Age of Reason, in which he rejected all organized religions and referred to them as means for enslaving mankind. In other words, our founders held a mixture of various religious beliefs. It is disingenuous to claim that our founders were not influenced by Christianity. However, it is also incorrect to claim that they intended to establish a country where the Christian religion was intertwined with the political structure. Nothing proves this more clearly than the fact that they never passed any resolutions or laws establishing an official national church or churches. Those who claim that our country was designed to be a Christian nation conflate (some of) the founders’ personal feelings with their political work.
If Barton and Marshall have indeed done extensive research and have educated themselves well, as they claim, they know better than the things they advocate. And they certainly must know better than to try to minimize Jefferson in the story of the country’s ideological beginnings or to exaggerate the role of religion in the framework our founders established for our nation. Because of the influence they’ve had in shaping Texas’ — and therefore the nation’s — social studies curriculum, it is important to identify these men and to remove them from the anonymity of history. We should know who our historiographers are and their agenda.