Upon passage of HB 87 Texas will require students to read Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which the third President states the principle of the separation of church and state and proclaims “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions”. At the same time this law prohibits teachers from telling students that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States”. Such head-spinning duplicity could be explained glibly by wondering if Texas Republicans ever read Jefferson’s missive to the Baptists. But much more is revealed by taking this and other similar bills moving through state legislatures throughout Red America as deliberate and serious expressions of modern conservatism.
Texas’ bill, and similar GOP legislation elsewhere, began as a knee-jerk reaction to the popularity among educators of the New York Times’ 1619 Project and right-wing media click-bait stories of the horrors of multicultural workshops and diversity training. Conservatives have lumped all these approaches to analyzing the dynamics of racism under the umbrella of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) which Idaho has legally condemned for “inflame[ing] divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation”. When the legislative template for these bills was crafted it came to reflect certain novel aspects of the conservative mind as it has been shaped by evangelicalism, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, Fox News, Trump, and Q-anon.
Texas’ HB 87 declares that the purpose of social studies education is to “develop each student ’s civic knowledge” of “the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations of the American experiment”. The key word here is “the”, as in “the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations”, strongly implying that there was some unity, some sort of consensus about moral and political principles at the founding. To view American society in 1776 as having anything approaching agreement about what constituted morality or the proper basis of government requires ignoring the deep factional fights within patriot ranks that eventually festered into America’s first party system, the many dissenting religious groups, and the views of the one in five Americans who were legally property. Lurking in this idea of “civic knowledge” is a mandate to consider only land-owning whites as constituting “the American experiment”.
This content originally appeared on CounterPunch.org and was authored by Timothy Messer-Kruse.