The Times, 25 July 2009


The battle lines have been drawn in Texas. First the religious right tried to force Christianity, or their rather warped view of it, into Biology lessons. Scientists of every creed and none protested, but they pressed ahead regardless. The US courts have now limited the extent to which creationism can masquerade as science in schools, but this has merely redirected the attention of the loony-tunes evangelists to the rest of the curriculum. Their new target is history.

A panel of experts has been appointed by the state's education board, to revise the history curriculum. According to David Barton, one of the panel and the founder of a Christian Heritage group, the curriculum should reflect the fact that the US Constitution was written with God in mind, and 'government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual'.

His fellow panellist is Reverend Peter Marshall, a man who preaches that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for sexual promiscuity and tolerance of homosexuals. I suppose Texan schoolchildren should consider themselves lucky that he isn't revising the meteorology curriculum as well.

Lest you think him only interested in the weather, however, rest assured that he has strong opinions on history, too. He preaches that defeat in the Vietnam War was also the result of promiscuity and gay-tolerance. I think the best part of this argument is the necessary correlation that the Vietcong won the same war, presumably as God's reward for being monogamous, and intolerant of homosexuals, even the nice ones, who aren't a bit like Brüno.

One wonders where the evangelical gaze will fall next. Perhaps budding Chemists will find themselves trying to understand how the chemical symbol for wine is H2O. Physicists will be struggling to explain that the surface tension of water is equal to the surface tension of pavement. Home Economics will be teaching a generation of ready-meal eaters that five loaves and two fishes go quite a lot further than they might think. And the poor Mathematicians will have it hardest of all, wrestling with the equation, 1 + 1 + 1 = 1.

Whether we are religious or not, we should be extremely nervous that the territory for Rev Marshall's 'all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America' is the classroom, somewhere children might be hoping to learn in peace. When faith began to creep in to Biology lessons, we were rightly shocked. Science is about testable, disprovable theories, and that jars unhappily with belief, or faith.

History is rarely about absolutes: the speed of sound is much more definable than the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. But historians, like scientists, need to have a dispassionate, questioning attitude. School History lessons teach children, among other things, to question the bias of various competing sources. They learn to read conflicting texts, interpret fragmentary evidence, and guess at motives. They shouldn't have to guess at the hidden agenda of the curriculum too.