Who says the culture wars are over?
Russell Shorto (who I had the pleasure of meeting recently in Amsterdam) just wrote a fantastic piece for The New York Times Magazine on the battle over the content of textbooks in Texas. Essentially, according to Shorto’s reporting, a group of Christian conservatives occupies a critical mass of seats on the Texas State Board of Education and votes into the curriculum items they like (the Moral Majority) and excludes items they don’t (Edward Kennedy).
It’s easy to caricature the two prominent sides in this debate.
On one side, generally associated with the “Christian Nation” movement, are those who want copious amounts of religion (which means Christianity) taught in public school classrooms.
On the other side are the church/state separationists who want to keep religion out of the classroom.
The inclusion of religion in textbooks doesn’t have to be a political football. The fact is, religion has been a big part of this nation’s past, plays an important role in its present, and will undoubtedly be a force in its future. As Martin Marty is quoted as saying, “The goal should be natural inclusion. You couldn’t tell the story of the Pilgrims or the Puritans or the Dutch in New York without religion.”
One of the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, built a hall for the purpose of providing a space for anyone from the diverse religious communities in Philadelphia to speak. He said, “Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Thomas Jefferson, had enough respect for Islam and Muslims that he owned a copy of the Qur’an.
Here’s how I see it. The “Christian Nation” movement and Martin Marty have a point that religion must be included in the American narrative. But the very point that makes our story so compelling is lost when we ignore the diversity of people from the four corners of the earth coming together. In my view, there are few things on earth as moving as the American story. I just think that everyone should be able to participate in the aspiration, not just people from one religion.
I think we should even go one step further. Call me a hope and change guy, but I have no problem making the American narrative inspiring. Not only should education about religions be inclusive, but it should be aspirational; we can use education about religion as an opportunity to hold up great American values of religious freedom, religious tolerance, and interfaith cooperation.
Moreover, we need to study the times when America failed to live up to its promise – not as a means for highlighting America’s wrongs, but as a way for the next generation to help America get more right.
Perhaps George Washington encapsulates the best of America in his 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Rhode Island:
America gives bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance.