Teaching Americans Accurate History Can Be A Real Trial

I have occasionally written about my "hate mail." I get both old-fashioned paper letters as well as the newer electronic type. The format is pretty familiar to me: Americans United is denounced for its views on school prayer/vouchers/displaying the Ten Commandments at the courthouse, etc. The correspondent blows off a little more steam, often uses some unprintable words and wraps up with the assertion that we will be eternally damned. If the individual isn't feeling quite so grumpy, he or she may promise to pray for our souls.

But recently a "hate e-mail" arrived that caused even me to do a double take. It began by asking, "Why don't Barry Lynn and all of his supporters move out of this country?" This is pretty hackneyed stuff that people have been saying since the '60s. But, he continued, "I for one will contribute tremendously to the costs of ridding society of such pests."

Now, this is getting a little more constructive. Hate mail rarely includes the prospect of putting a down payment on a villa on the Riviera. But, then he continued with this capper: "If the founding fathers of this country were alive today, they would have Lynn on trial for witchcraft."

If I had been this guy's history teacher, I'd feel compelled to quit the profession. Now, it's true that not all of the Founding Fathers were great champions of church-state separation. Patrick Henry favored church taxes in Virginia, and Alexander Hamilton wanted to form a Christian political party. But even the most ardent advocate of church-state union in post-Revolutionary War America had given up on witch trials. I feel completely safe in asserting that by l789 I need not have feared the "dunking chair." My e-mail critic was way off course.

Over the years, I've heard Religious Right activists assert every manner of nonsense about the Founding Fathers -- that they were all "evangelical Christians" who would agree with TV preachers, that they never really supported separation of church and state, that they intended to establish a "Christian" government in the United States.

Religious Right groups have even taken to circulating phony quotes allegedly uttered by Founding Fathers to buttress their position. One, a statement by James Madison declaring that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of the U.S. government, was debunked years ago -- but that didn't stop Pat Robertson from using it in an ad for his graduate school last April. (I pity the students who are "educated" there!)

One group of individuals is on the front lines of combating this cascade of misinformation: the nation's social studies teachers. So I was delighted to accept an invitation to address a national gathering of state social studies specialists in Washington Nov. 15.

During my remarks, I reminded the teachers of the important role they can play in teaching the realities of the American experiment in religious liberty and the reasoning behind Supreme Court rulings in this arena. The old saying is true: A people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. A solid background in the social studies is the most effective tool to prevent this from happening.

Too many Americans today are not learning that lesson. History shows us, time and again, for example, that government subsidies for religion end up hurting, not helping, faith groups. Yet today many are eager to endorse the call for "faith-based" initiatives and demand that government get into the business of funding religious schools and social service ministries.

History shows us that when governments attempt to fashion and impose religious orthodoxy, disaster soon follows. Yet today TV preachers who call for a "biblical" government are often feted and welcomed as allies by top government officials.

Some Americans have learned about the theocracies of the Middle Ages but shrug it off, insisting that it can't happen here. This is perhaps the most dangerous attitude of all. Not only can it happen here, it does -- albeit in often less obvious ways.

In lieu of direct church taxes, for example, some today propose funneling government assistance to houses of worship to fund some type of "faith-based" program. Instead of forcing everyone to swear allegiance to the state-established church, some today would impose coercive forms of prayer on youngsters in public schools.

Modern mechanisms may be different, but the end result is the same: When people are forced to support religion against their will, financially, verbally or even symbolically, they are not free. Only separation of church and state can make them free.

That is one of the most important lessons of history. That is the lesson our nation's social studies teachers can take to a new generation. Sitting in on a presentation before my own, I was appalled to learn that many teachers must struggle to get social studies into elementary schools in any serious way. One lamented: "It's got to be more than a movie last thing on Friday."

Apparently my correspondent who wants to see the Founding Fathers try me for witchcraft never learned much about those Founders. He also obviously doesn't know that even though there was diversity of thought about the direction we should take, the separationists prevailed in America. In all the trials and travails of the last 200 years, the wisdom of their victory remains unadulterated.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.