The Christian Nation (and the AP Test)

One of the ongoing issues in America’s blue state-red state culture war (along with evolution, abortion, and gay marriage) is the notion that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian nation. I suppose I should state here that I stand on the “liberal” side of all of these issues, although I respect the sincerity of those who don’t, and I can’t stand the condescension regularly served to them by the vast majority of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Still, any fair examination of the primary sources indicates that the founders of this country were for the most part Enlightenment Deists, trusting in providence to guide them, but in no way motivated by the earlier, Puritan notion of a City on a Hill, or any resurrected idea of a sacred covenant between God and his people. (I remember flipping through television channels once and pausing briefly on a religious one; the show being aired suggested that we needed to “look beyond” the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to some backwoods New England preacher who claimed that God’s blessing was upon the new American enterprise, presumably because Jefferson and Paine were effete cultural elites while the Rev. Backwoods represented “the people.”) But what can you do? I suppose that if you’re really religious you need to explain America’s power somehow – nothing happens without God letting it, so how else could the US have gotten this way? (The reverse of: Something bad happened to you? What did you do to deserve it?) On a more mundane level Christians surely take comfort in the idea that their faith is endorsed by the history and the government of their own country. But as a historian I am compelled to follow primary sources and not any theological ideas about what is supposed to have happened, and as a Christian, I think that government endorsement of Christianity is generally a bad idea, ultimately corrupting and enervating it.

So I must say that I am not particularly thrilled to read that “Oklahoma Lawmakers Vote Overwhelmingly To Ban Advanced Placement U.S. History”:

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced “emergency” legislation “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” Fisher is part of a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which argues “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.” The group attacks the “false wall of separation of church and state.” The Black Robe Regiment claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

This article, from Think Progress, is definitely written in an unsympathetic spirit, and I would be interested in reading what exactly Fisher objects to in the AP curriculum, and what he proposes replacing it with. But if this article is essentially true, it’s rather depressing. Yes, professional historians have their own biases and blind spots. But I trust them more than I trust the Black Robe Regiment, whose use of the word “indoctrinating” is a shining example of the word “projection.”

(Although, I will say that they do have one thing right, if for the wrong reasons. It’s not that AP courses are “liberal,” it’s that they exist in the first place. From the article:

Advanced Placement courses are actually developed by a private group, the College Board, and are not required of any student or high school. They are the primary way that student can earn college credit in high school. Taking advanced placement course can save students money and are generally seen as a prerequisite to admission to elite colleges.

In my day, and in my country, high school courses were high school courses, and university courses were university courses. If you got credit for one, you didn’t get credit for the other. You could place out of a university course if you had mastered the material, for sure, but there were no opportunities for double-dipping. Alas, each university is compelled to participate in this system, because all the other ones do.)