Religious Arrogance and the Texas School Board

 Circleville Herald, July 10, 2010

Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas facing the imminent prospect of federal troops enforcing integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957 played the religion card. Governor Faubus trumpeted the following statement, signed by over eighty local clergymen: “We believe the best interests of all races are served by segregation. We resent the implication by certain liberal ministers that it is unChristian to oppose integration. We believe that integration is contrary to the will of God [and] is based on a false theory of the ‘universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man’. We believe that integration is not only unChristian, but that it violates all sound sociological principles and is not supported by scripture or biological facts.” (TIME Magazine, 6 October 1958)

Thank the Constitutional separation of powers for “activist” Supreme Court judges who ruled against segregation and for the separation of Church and state.  Thanks for President Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne troops that overruled “states rights” and “local control” in Little Rock and throughout the nation during the civil rights years.

The accurate teaching of our American history is at risk. As Texas buys such a large market share of school texts, publishers are under considerable economic pressure to cater to the Texas School Board standards. Ten conservative Christian Republicans on the Texas School Board would teach children that the Civil Rights era lead to unfortunate “unrealistic expectations” and that Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority that began the ascendancy of the Religious Right, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party was a more praiseworthy movement.   In fact, Rev. Falwell’s rise began by attacking Rev. Martin Luther King King as a communist and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as the “Civil Wrongs Act.”   (Falwell 1964 sermon “Ministers and Marchers”).  Later Falwell attacked the gay friendly Metropolitan Community Church in 1984 as a “vile and Satanic system” and “brute beasts” that will be ”utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in Heaven.” Rev. Falwell on the morning of 11 September 2001, just after the World Trade Center fell proclaimed “… gays and lesbians… the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them… I point the finger in their face and say: ’You helped this happen’”. 

Unfortunately, catering to civil and religious prejudice has been and remains a shameful  yet prominent aspect of our national discourse. The Democratic Party sought the support of Southern segregationists until 1964 when President Johnson bemoaned while signing the Voting Rights Act of 1964 “ We (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation.” Actor Ronald Reagan campaigned in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair 1980 openly appealing to those locals feeling abused by the Supreme Court rulings on integration and federal enforcement of civil and voting rights. At the time Reagan spoke promising to “restore to state and local governments the power that properly belongs to them” Baptist Minister Edgar Ray Killeen had yet to be convicted for planning the murders of three civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in June 1964. The site of their deaths was just a very short distance from where Mr. Reagan spoke praising local control. The State of Mississippi until 2005 refused to prosecute any of the Klansmen and Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office deputies responsible for the killings. It was only by the use of “activist” federal prosecution in 1967 that any conviction was obtained for violation of the civil rights of the three murdered men.

In one of the most shameless misuses of faith, can we forget that George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign accessed membership rosters of evangelical churches, sent out mailings indicating that Democrats would “Ban the Bible” while Karl Rove helped engineer the placement on the ballot in 13 states of anti-gay rights initiatives, thus turning out evangelicals who would then vote for Republicans? Robert T. Bennett, then Chair of the Ohio Republican Party said of the anti-gay ballot issues:  “I’d be naïve if I didn’t say it helped—and it helped most in the Bible Belt.” Mr. Bush himself stated “I believe God wants me to be President.” (Campbell, DE “The Religion Card: George W. Bush and the 2004 Presidential Election”, University of Notre Dame Press and “Republicans Admit Mailing Campaign Literature Saying Liberals Will Ban the Bible.” NY Times 24 September 2004)

Could it be this is why Thomas Jefferson lobbied, wrote and worked so hard for the separation of Church and state? We do know the Texas School Board has virtually erased Jefferson’s name from the history they would like our children to learn. Could it be that a less arrogant, kindlier view of faith as expressed by President Abraham Lincoln should guide our nation? Lincoln confessed “Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God’s blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices—saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.”  We shall examine in future columns exactly what Jefferson, Washington, Paine, Madison, other Founding Fathers really had to say about church and state.

 - - Brad Cotton