On November 21, 2014, the Texas state board of education voted to accept controversial social studies textbooks promoting what analysts consider to be false and biased information about religion, among other issues. Predictably, the vote followed along party lines, with the board’s 10 Republicans accepting the textbooks, while the five Democrats gave the material thumbs down. This important controversy extends well beyond Texas, as that state is highly influential on the rest of the country’s school curricula. One of the contended claims in the approved textbooks is the representation of the biblical figure Moses as a “Founding Father” and influence on the American Constitution.
As Christian News reports:
Social studies textbooks that have been proposed for use by Texas students next fall are coming under fire by those who take issue with the positively Christian worldview therein, including suggestions that Moses and the Ten Commandments were an influence on the founding of the nation.
Countering this claim are numerous historians and secularists, as related by The Washington Post:
Academics and activists on the left have criticized the books for exaggerating the influence of Moses and other biblical figures on American democracy….
Critics said that some of the government and world history textbooks, for example, exaggerate the influence of biblical figures—such as Moses and Solomon—on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
Many people thus have spoken out against the textbooks, as at the meeting on the previous Tuesday open to the public, reported by MSNBC:
On Tuesday, the Board held a public hearing and preliminary vote. Dozens of historians protested the textbooks and the board refused to give early approval to the textbooks before seeing publishers’ final changes this week….
“Unfortunately, if that’s what’s students are going to be learning in Texas, students around the country will be learning it soon enough,” said one critic of the textbooks, Dan Quinn of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network (TFN). Because Texas is so large—it educates nearly 5 million students—the state’s textbooks are often marketed around the country by publishers.
The textbooks celebrate Christianity—downplaying things like bloody conquests—and overstating in particular the role of Moses and Judeo-Christian thinking in the foundation of American democracy.
The University of Texas’ Jonathan Kaplan, a Middle Eastern studies professor at the University of Texas who earned a PhD studying the Old Testament at Harvard, testified at Tuesday’s hearing and called the textbook’s perspective a “gross exaggeration.” He was quickly dismissed by Board members who said they felt Moses had greatly influenced the Founding Fathers and American democracy as a whole, even if he was not a Founding Father.
Later in the hearing, another professor, Jennifer Garber, testified on the same issue, delivering a letter signed by dozens of historians that says the “textbooks exaggerate and even invent claims about the influence of Moses and the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ on our nation’s founding and on Western political traditions.”
As “progressive secular humanist” Michael Stone observes:
Christian conservatives win, children lose: Texas textbooks will teach public school students that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the Bible, and the American system of democracy was inspired by Moses.
In sum, critics say the textbooks falsely declare that Moses was “the inventor of democracy” and “author of the Constitution.” Another critic, Robyn Pennacchia, rebutted the notion that the Constitution was based on the Bible’s notorious Ten Commandments:
I think the only thing that U.S. law has in common with the Ten Commandments is that stealing is illegal and so is committing perjury. Which are things that are common sense. I think that probably, someone before Moses figured out that lying and stealing are bad ideas. I’m also pretty sure that people who had never even heard of Moses were also able to come up with that without any help from him.
These salient concerns were dismissed by “far right” activists labeling these historians and others as “Moses deniers.” Yet, according to factual, historical and scientific evidence these textbook critics are substantially correct and possibly did not even go far enough in their “Moses denial,” as the biblical patriarch appears to have been not historical but mythical.
These skeptics include the head of the Texas division of American Atheists, an imposing man who goes by the name of “Aron Ra.” In September of 2014, Aron Ra had appeared before the state school board to speak against the contentions in the textbooks concerning Moses in particular, arguing that the biblical character does not even appear to have been a historical figure and that the Ten Commandments were not influential on the “laws of this land.” Aron also discounted the biblical Exodus as a historical event, citing the lack of scientific evidence.
To counter the textbooks claims, Aron contacted me about my book Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver, which he felt might contain information valuable to this textbook controversy. On November 20, 2014, Aron, his partner Mark Nebo of BeSecular.com and I had a discussion concerning this subject of Texas and Moses. After having studied a significant amount of the evidence I present in my book, Aron declared the tome an “impressive piece of work” and “definitive.” The information contained therein does indeed present a scientific case that Moses and the Exodus are mythical, not historical, which would mean that the Texas textbooks indeed are misrepresenting “history.”
Evidently exasperated following the school board vote, Aron remarked on his blog (11/22):
Our students and teachers will be stuck with erroneous textbooks for 10 years!
In order to address this contentious issue, a number of petitions have been created, including one entitled, “Repeal Biased History Text Book Decision!”
A Great Moral Compass?
Even if the American Founding Fathers themselves were not “Moses deniers” to the extent that they perceived him as a myth—although there is evidence that some of them questioned the historicity of another biblical figure, Jesus Christ—the textbooks overemphasize Moses’s role in the American Constitution and omit the horrors represented biblically in his name. These atrocities attributed to Moses include wanton slaughter of thousands of non-Israelites such as the 30,000 Midianite men, woman and children in Numbers 31.
According to the Bible, Moses inquired of his men whether or not they had killed all the women and taken the virgin girls for their sex slaves, ordering them to do so:
Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (Num 31:17-18)
This instance of genocide, misogyny and sex slavery is only one of several attributed to Moses and/or the early Israelites (see also Exod 17; Jos 6, 8, 10). To teach school children that the orchestrator of such violence and bigotry is a “great man” and an American Founding Father seems to critics to be egregious. In consideration of this fact, some might argue that being a “Moses denier” is a good thing.
Texas state school board member David Bradley, a Republican, echoed the views of many Americans, when he stated in defense of the textbooks:
“[L]et us not forget the religious character of our origin,” American statesman Daniel Webster declared during his famous “Plymouth Oration” in 1820. “Our fathers were brought hither for their high veneration for the Christian religion. They journeyed by its light and labored in its hope. They sought to incorporate its principles with the elements of society, and to diffuse its influence through all their institutions, civil, political or literary.”
How “Judeo-Christian” the American Constitution truly is, however, has been the subject of a massive debate for decades and likely will not be settled by forcing children to learn what analysts argue are palpably false representations of history.
There is hope on the horizon for separation-of-church-and-state advocates, as the school board agreed to continue reviewing the materials in question, according to NPR:
Some members complained that they didn’t have enough time to review all the changes. So the board decided to accept all revisions submitted by 5 p.m. Thursday and to review subsequent changes in February. And one national publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, withdrew a U.S. government textbook at the last minute. In a statement, the publisher said the book was for a “national program” and didn’t meet all of the Texas standards.
While Republican religious fundamentalists may have won Round One, some critics say the debate is far from over, and lawsuits may need to be filed challenging the constitutionality of the textbooks.
In the meantime, this controversy underscores the need for critical, scientific analysis of religion to be taught in our educational system, rather than proselyting religious doctrine of any kind. Unlike the Ten Commandments, this secular stance is provably Constitutional yet not Mosaic: In reality, the Constitution uses the word “religion” only twice, once in the First Amendment disallowing laws from “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and once in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests for public office.” In fact, were such a figure as the biblical lawgiver real, he would disapprove of our “godless” Constitution and assuredly would not claim authorship of it.
Coming soon to a classroom near you: Texas conservatism
Texas Hits the Books
Texas Textbooks Under Fire for Suggesting Moses Influenced Founding Fathers
Texas OKs most new controversial history textbooks amid outcry
Texas approves social studies textbooks criticized as inaccurate and biased
Texas schoolbooks declare Moses the inventor of democracy, author of the Constitution
Publisher Withdraws Controversial Textbook In Texas
Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver
Whodathunkit? Moses the actual inspiration for American government
Texas approves textbooks with Moses as Founding Father
The Ra Men podcast EP10 – Did Moses Exist? with D.M. Murdock
What is a mythicist?
Aron Ra on KRAFtKASt radio
Separation of Religion and State
Did you know that American law is not based on the Ten Commandments?