It's one thing to prohibit public schools from endorsing a particular religion, but does that mean that all references to Christian influences in our history should be expunged from our textbooks? Federal law is clear that schools may teach about religion, and schools are certainly not required to falsify history and delete Christianity from our heritage. Nevertheless, there has been a conscious decision to sanitize our history textbooks of information concerning the dominant presence of Christianity in colonial culture.
When Noah Webster wrote his History of the United States, published in 1832, he could state, "Almost all the civil liberty now enjoyed in the world owes its origin to the principles of the Christian religion... The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His Apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother or sister and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free constitutions of government." As a leading American educator of his time, he could rest assured that this view was also routinely taught in the schools. It is not taught today.
The New Jersey Department of Education removed references to the Pilgrims and the Mayflower from its history standards for school textbooks." The problem is that "Pilgrim" suggests religion, according to Brian Jones, vice president for Communications and Policy at the Education Leaders Council in Washington. Other historical events involving Christian worship or expression are also often taboo. "It's getting more difficult," said Jones, "to talk about the Bible and the Puritans"-or at least to talk about them accurately.
A study by New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz documented the purging of religion from public school textbooks." In examining sixty widely used social studies textbooks
(used by eighty-seven percent of public school students), Vitz didn't find one that imparted the spirituality of the Pilgrims. Vitz wrote, "Are public school textbooks biased? Are they censored? The answer to both is yes, and the nature of the bias is clear: Religion, traditional family values and many conservative positions have been reliably excluded from children's textbooks There is not one story or article in all these books in which the central motivation or major content is connected to Judeo-Christian religions In grades one through four these books introduce the child to U.S. society-to family life, community activities, ordinary economic transactions, and some history. None of the books covering grades one through four contains one word referring to any religious activity in contemporary American life. Vitz concluded, "Religion, especially Christianity, has played and continues to play a central role in our culture and history. To neglect to report this is simply to fail to carry out the major duty of any textbook writer to tell the truth."
One book had thirty pages on the Pilgrims, including the first Thanksgiving. But there was not a single reference to religion, even as part of the Pilgrims' lives. Another textbook described the Pilgrims simply as "people who make long trips." Another said that after their first year, the Pilgrims "wanted to give thanks for all they had," omitting that they were thanking God. Dr. Vitz said, "It is common in these books to treat Thanksgiving without explaining to whom the Pilgrims gave thanks The Pueblo [Indians] can pray to Mother Earth, but Pilgrims can't be described as praying to God-and never are Christians described as praying to Jesus..."
Indeed, many public schools now portray Thanksgiving as a multicultural harvest feast in which American colonists gave thanks to Indians. But this is "feel-good" myth. In fact, the Pilgrims' earliest thanksgiving celebrations, beginning in 1621, were expressing gratitude to the God of the Bible. When they landed at Plymouth in December 1620, the severity of the winter killed almost half of their people. But the next autumn's harvest was plentiful and in gratitude they held a three-day celebratory feast of thanksgiving to God. In 1623, Massachusetts Governor William Bradford set apart a day for prayer and fasting to praise God for the rain that had saved the colony's crops from a threatening drought.
President George Washington's first proclamation was the declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day, explicitly devoted to giving thanks to God. But Thanksgiving wasn't celebrated as an annual holiday until President Lincoln established it as such. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November as a national holiday he wrote, "I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
Despite the undeniable Christian origins and purpose of Thanksgiving Day, in 1995 the National Education Association passed a resolution affirming its belief "that Thanksgiving is the recognition of unity and the rich American diversity that was embodied in the settlement of America. This Association further believes that this national holiday must celebrate the coming together of peoples and the inclusion of all immigrants as a part of this great diverse country." Whatever the merits of celebrating "diversity," as the education establishment uses that term, there is no excuse for misleading students about the stated historical purpose of the Thanksgiving holiday. And such rewriting of history is dangerous. If Noah Webster is right that the source of our freedom is the Christianity that shaped colonial America, then to deny students that perspective is to make students less well prepared to defend our liberty, or even recognize when it is being infringed.
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