Generally, when people ask me about my college experience at American University, I am a pretty proud graduate.
I tell some great stories about my favorite professors. I had the opportunity to take a class on juvenile justice taught by a federal judge, a class on gang violence taught by a state prosecutor, a course on modern feminist history taught by a museum curator and a number of classes on public affairs taught by a renowned constitutional scholar (and former National Advisory Council member of Americans United).
However, not all of the professors at American University are of that same caliber. Some of the most decorated, such as Prof. Daniel Dreisbach, last year's Scholar-Teacher of the Year, are, in my opinion, among the least legitimate.
I took Dreisbach's course on Religion and the Law my last semester in college. What a trip!
The man is a self declared expert on constitutional law, church and state, religion and society and the Religious Right. Yet, the semester-long course was one big propaganda campaign attempting to discredit the framers of our Constitution and its modern scholars such as Cass Sunstein, Barbara Forrest and Americans United's very own Rob Boston.
I keep my class notebook on my bookshelf here in the AU office and took a moment this morning to thumb through it. My notes include speeches by the framers on the importance of God and religion in creating a functional democracy, references to God found in the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence and discussions of the theological underpinning of the Constitution and its First Amendment.
Nowhere in my notes are the holdings in landmark law cases such as Everson v. Board Of Education. Nor are there significant references to James Madison or Thomas Jefferson. Anne Hutchinson isn't mentioned at all, and that's just the way the Religious Right wants American history taught.
Next month, hearings are going to begin in Texas by the State Board of Education about the materials that should be included (and excluded) in the public schools' social studies textbooks. The Board, sharply split between Religious Right activists and regular folks, appointed a panel of "scholars" to begin the process of writing a draft curriculum for the social studies program.
Experts such as Jim Kracht, a professor at Texas A&M; Jesus Francisco de la Teja, chairman of the history department at Texas State University-San Marcos; and Lybeth Hodges, a government professor at Texas Women's University serve alongside three representatives of the Religious Right: the Rev. Peter Marshall, our long-time foe David Barton and Dreisbach.
The scholars' panel, essentially split between academics and extremists, will become as Texas Freedom Network's Dan Quinn states, "a debate between radicalism and the mainstream."
As Don McLeroy, a state school board member aligned with the Religious Right once stated: "Somebody has to stand up to the experts." And stand up to the experts they shall.
Marshall, Barton and Dreisbach have all made it clear through their writings and their speaking engagements that they believe the wall of separation between church and state to be a myth. Marshall issued an assessment of a section of fifth-grade history in which the students were expected to study the accomplishments of William Penn, John Smith, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson.
"Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen. She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn't accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble," argued Marshall.
Responded AU's Boston in a Religion Dispatches interview, "Facts be damned. They have a purer form of knowledge that transcends facts; they believe they are on a God-given mission to bring those facts into the public sphere."
The debates over social studies and history classes promise to be just as heated as those over the science curriculum that happened in Texas last year.
"What they've done is the same thing they did with the science experts," explains TFN's Quinn. "They've packed the panel with ideologues whose politics they agree with.... All this plays into the idea that if you don't like this, then you're a leftist who hates Christians."
The religious agenda of Marshall, Barton and Dreisbach couldn't be clearer. We must make sure that the outcome of the hearings is a fair and balanced public school curriculum that recognizes the influence of religion on the framers but also respects the tenets of the First Amendment, the wall of separation and the great voices of democracy and religious freedom such as Anne Hutchinson.
I learned a lot from Prof. Dreisbach. I learned that separationists are facing a long, uphill battle against the Religious Right; a battle that is more important now -- for our generation and that of our children -- than ever before.
ADDENDUM: After posting this blog entry, we received a response from Dr. Daniel Dreisbach.
Dr. Dreisbach takes exception to my description of his American University course about Law and Religion. While I concede that I may have missed a lecture wherein a case, such as Everson, perhaps had been discussed, I continue to stand by my description of the course. In the interest of public discussion--that is indeed one of the many purposes of this blog--we post his observations below:
I regret that you found the course "Law and Religion" so unsatisfying. Every time I step into a classroom, I try to present to students material that is informative and accurate.
As you know or should know, your recent column regarding me ("Lone Star History Final," Aug. 12, 2009) contains assertions inconsistent with objective facts. After consulting the course syllabus, required course readings and class handouts, my lecture notes, and the notes of other students, I am certain I can marshal evidence, from diverse sources, that clearly and convincingly contradicts what you have written or suggested. A perusal of the course syllabus and other evidence confirm that more time and attention, by far, was devoted to Everson v. Board of Education than any other legal case we studied. Not content to have students read only the six-page excerpt in the textbook, the syllabus explicitly instructed (and I expected) students to read the entire case (both the majority and dissenting opinions). Students were directed to an on-line resource to read the published Everson opinions. The course readings, as indicated by the course syllabus, and my lecture notes make numerous references to the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. My quick count identified at least twenty documents by Jefferson or Madison in the required course readings. (This does not include additional materials related to Jefferson and Madison that students were exposed to through other course resources, such as on-line resources.) Students were instructed to read and then re-read about a half dozen of these documents from more than one source or in alternative versions. Indeed, students were asked to read more – considerably more – documents by Jefferson and Madison than by any other individuals. You may have failed to make mention of Anne Hutchinson in your notes, but her writing was among the required course readings. There are other factual inaccuracies in your statement. It is my sincere hope that you (and the organization sponsoring your statement) would not want these blatantly and demonstrably dishonest statements to remain uncorrected.