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Vail Daily column: Reagan replaces Jefferson in U.S. history re-write

Jack Van Ens

Political conservatives re-write U.S. history to make Thomas Jefferson a bit player. Ronald Reagan stars in the lead role. The right wing co-opted this strategy from the Texas Board of Education. Douglas and Jefferson counties in Colorado have boards of education whose majority rubberstamps the Texas gameplan of downplaying Jefferson’s role. Instead, they hype Ronald Reagan’s presidential achievements.

Why are they negative toward Jefferson?

He proposed a comprehensive plan for public education. Reagan never budged from local control of secondary school curriculum. Jefferson built a wall of separation between church and state. Reagan breached that wall, promising conservatives constitutional amendments for prayer and Bible-reading in public schools. Jefferson believed in our nation’s moral base but objected to religious dogma steering our ship of state. Reagan used evangelical rhetoric to suggest a cozy relationship between church and state.



Siding with Reagan, the Texas Board of Education casts him as lead actor in our nation’s historical drama. Because Jefferson questioned colonial conservatives’ values, the board, through curriculum changes, has reduced his role in our nation’s birth.

Dumping big bucks into publishers’ coffers, the Texas Board of Education calls the shots on what goes into public school textbooks. After Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election, the religious right has inserted a record of their political victories. Now social science texts include the clout of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” gets press alongside his closure of the federal government. So does conservatives’ opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Now the National Rifle Association gets rapid-fire coverage in U.S. history texts, too.



However, Thomas Jefferson erects a huge barrier blocking conservative political agendas. The Texas Board of Education is determined to diminish his role.

Since 2010, the board has re-written textbooks in order to “straighten what’s crooked.” “History has been skewed,” complained a board member trained as a dentist, not a historian. He asserted that “academia is skewed too far to the Left.” The result: no longer does “Enlightenment” describe 18th century intellectual achievements that celebrated scientific advance and scorned religious superstition. Conservatives promote the “free enterprise system” in their texts instead of using the word “capitalism,” which Liberals have stained, they say.

Conservatives bump-up Reagan as No. 1 on the historical scorecard, banishing Jefferson as an also-ran. They move on three fronts when cutting Jefferson from texts.



First, conservatives laud Reagan because he favored local control over textbooks. Seeking the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, Reagan excoriated the National Education Association for working toward a “national education system.” He ridiculously compared the N.E.A. to Nazis who ordered Germans to shun anti-Nazi literature. “They changed their academic system to suit the rule of the dictator (Hitler),” Reagan declared. “When [Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels] said burn the books, they burned the books.”

Jefferson proposed an expansive system of public education in Virginia that anti-tax conservatives shot down. The epitaph Jefferson wrote didn’t cite his record as two-term president. Rather, he described himself as “Father of the University of Virginia,” the first secular college in the U.S. Conservatives called it “godless.”

Second, by inviting evangelical leaders to Oval Office photo ops, Reagan conned them into assuming he’d overlap church with state. At a New Jersey high school graduation, Reagan declared, “No nation which has outgrown its God has ever lived to write additional pages of history. This nation is in need of a spiritual awakening and a reaffirmation of trust in God.”

In contrast, Jefferson distanced himself from organized religions that branded the U.S. with a Christian identity. Jefferson’s church/state separation peeved some conservatives who pressed for a Christian prologue in the Constitution.

Third, Regan endeared himself to conservatives because he aligned his speech to their dogma. He appeared to support constitutional amendments calling for prayer and Bible-reading in public schools. Reagan didn’t script them into constitutional acts, however. Speaking at a Dallas prayer breakfast, he blew an evangelical trumpet, “If we ever forget that we are a nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.” Neat play-on-words. But Reagan didn’t translate them into constitutional amendments on prayer and Bible-reading.

Jefferson didn’t endorse a specific Christian platform based on sectarian dogma. Writing to nephew Peter Carr at the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he advised developing a curious religious mind. “Question with boldness even the existence god,” Jefferson advised his nephew, “because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” That is, cultivate an alert intellect. Base it on broad-minded morality rather than provincial religious superstition.

In the past, evangelical Christians suspected Jefferson wasn’t religious enough. Today, they excise him from the national script and fill in the blanks with Ronald Reagan. Theirs is bogus history.

Jefferson shines as the intellectual light of our Republic. Lesser lights can’t extinguish him, even though the Texas Board of Education’s conservatives keep trying.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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