Yesterday was the Texans for Truth rally, urging elected officials to fight back against the revisionist history being proposed by the conservatives on the state’s Board of Education.
They had a lot of supporters there and some very positive coverage in the local media:
As the video points out, the revisionist history that’s being proposed would deemphasize Thomas Jefferson, among other things.
Christopher Hitchens wasn’t present at the rally but he did send along a message, which was read out loud:
We know of no spectacle more ridiculous — or more contemptible — than that of the religious reactionaries who dare to re-write the history of our republic. Or who try to do so. Is it possible that, in their vanity and stupidity, they suppose that they can erase the name of Thomas Jefferson and replace it with the name of some faith-based mediocrity whose name is already obscure? If so, we cheerfully resolve to mock them, and to give them the lie in their teeth.
Without Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence, there would have been no American revolution that announced universal principles of liberty. Without his participation by the side of the unforgettable Marquis de Lafayette, there would have been no French proclamation of The Rights of Man. Without his brilliant negotiation of the Louisiana treaty, there would be no United States of America. Without Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, there would have been no Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and no basis for the most precious clause of our most prized element of our imperishable Bill of Rights — the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
We make no saint of Thomas Jefferson — we leave the mindless business of canonization and the worship of humans to the fanatics — but aware as we are of his many crimes and contradictions we say with confidence that his memory and example will endure long after the moral pygmies who try to blot out his name have been forgotten.
As Abraham Lincoln died, after a cowardly shot in the back from a racist traitor, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sighed and said: “Now he belongs to the ages”. Or did he say “Now he belongs to the angels”? In a roomful of highly literate and educated officers and physicians, in an age of photography and stenography, and with newspaper presses around the corner on Pennsylvania Avenue, there was no agreement among eye-and-ear witnesses as to what Stanton had actually said.
Those of us who write and study history are accustomed to its approximations and ambiguities. This is why we do not take literally the tenth-hand reports of frightened and illiterate peasants who claim to have seen miracles or to have had encounters with messiahs and prophets and redeemers who were, like them, mere humans. And this is also why we will never submit to dictation from those who display a fanatical belief in certainty and revelation. They try to tell us that to do otherwise is to collapse into “relativism”. But it is they who wish to promote the life and work of Jefferson Davis — an advocate of slavery, backwardness, treason and disunion — to an equality with Lincoln, who suffered agonies of doubt, who never joined a church, who was born on the same day as Charles Darwin and who introduced his colleagues to the work of Thomas Paine — and who was the last brave casualty of a war: a war begun by devout and fanatical Christians, that preserved our Union and in the end led to the striking of the shackles from every slave. It was inscribed in the documents of the Confederacy that the private ownership of human beings had a divine warrant. And so it did — to the everlasting shame of those who take the Bible as god’s word.
It is notorious that the news of the Emancipation Proclamation was kept from the people of Texas and not celebrated until “Juneteenth”. There may be those in Texas now who believe they can insulate their state — a state that had its own courageous revolution — from the news of evolution and from the writing in 1786 of a Constitution that refuses to mention religion except when demarcating and limiting its role in the public square. But we promise them today that they will join their fore-runners in the flat earth community, and in the mad clerical clique of those who believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Yes, they will be in schoolbooks — as a joke on the epic scale of William Jennings Bryan. We shall be fair, and take care to ensure that their tale is told.
As President, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from a concerned group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. These people were the objects of persecution and the victims of discrimination, and they beseeched Jefferson to uphold their liberties. Of whom were they afraid? It should be remembered, and taught in our schools, that these poor Baptists were afraid of the Congregationalists of Connecticut, who subjected their fellow-Christians to insult and insecurity. Thus it was the secular and unbelieving Jefferson who insisted that, by means of a “wall of separation” between religion and government, all faiths and communities could take shelter under the great roof of the godless Constitution. From that day to this, the only guarantee of religious pluralism has been the secular law.
We inherited these principles and these freedoms and we here highly resolve that we shall pass them on, as we will pass on an undivided Republic purged of racism and slavery, to our descendants. The popgun discharges of a few pathetic sectarians and crackpot revisionists are negligible, and will be drowned by the mounting chorus that demands: “Mr Jefferson! BUILD UP THAT WALL”.
— Christopher Hitchens
American Atheists president Ed Buckner gave a speech as well:
I’m Ed Buckner, the President of American Atheists, and I was educated in Texas — junior high in Webster, TX, high school in League City, TX, college in Houston — and my Daddy, a conservative and, unlike me, a Christian, was a school board member for the Clear Creek Independent School District. He died in 1996, but if he were alive now I know he’d be appalled at the Texas State Board of Education. Many things are wrong with the curriculum changes they’re considering, and I’m going to address one major problem, but the overall problem is simple — they want to indoctrinate the students of Texas, not educate them. They’re afraid of letting scientists and historians decide what science and history to teach. They want their anti-scientific, religious, and political prejudices taught, not real science and history. To which we say, Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES!
You may have heard of that revolutionary American writer who was also this nation’s third president, who wrote Notes on Virginia, who won fame as an inventor, an architect, an agricultural expert, and a writer of thousands of letters, who was Governor of Virginia (which included then the area now called Kentucky), who also served us as Ambassador to France and as Secretary of State, who as president doubled the size of the USA with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, under whose administration America won its first military victory against Islamic terrorists — pirates in the Mediterranean — and whose face is on every American nickel and on every two-dollar bill. This man — Thomas Jefferson, of course — is being downplayed by the Texas State Board of Education because they don’t like his religious views or his role in the separation of church and state. Jefferson was not a god or anything like a perfect man. He hated slavery but he owned slaves. He was, like most men of his time, a racist and was probably as much of a sexist as Phyllis Schlafly. Jefferson was called an “atheist” by his enemies, and he was indeed no orthodox Christian — he wrote that he did not accept that Jesus was divine, did not believe in the resurrection or atonement, etc. — but he did believe in an afterlife and in a designer god. Jefferson died 33 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, so in Jefferson’s lifetime there was no reasonable, well-supported theory of human evolution. But the truth is what matters and no one — including the Texas State Board of Education — should try to rewrite history. Jefferson was a genius and he was easily America’s most original and revolutionary thinker and writer. The Texas State Board of Education doesn’t want to emphasize the real Jefferson; they want indoctrination. To which we say, Indoctrination, NO! Jefferson, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Jefferson, YES!
Now, if Thomas Jefferson did not focus primarily on being President or enlarging the nation geographically or winning wars, what did he care about, and how do we know? We know because he wrote out, very specifically, what achievements should be put on his grave marker — and he listed three — and only three — things. First, he was the “author of the Declaration of American Independence,” the thing he is most famous for writing, the document known worldwide for changing the world’s understanding of freedom. People all over the world “hold these truths to be self-evident” because Thomas Jefferson wrote about them so eloquently, so stirringly. The Texas State Board of Education wants less independence and more indoctrination. To which we say, Indoctrination, NO! Independence, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Independence, YES!
Jefferson listed second on his marker something else that he was proud of having written, something not nearly as well known but maybe even more important: “The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.” That Virginia law declares among other things, “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” That law, written by Jefferson but passed mostly with James Madison’s leadership while Jefferson was in France, became widely famous in the late 1700s and is usually regarded as the key basis for the First Amendment to the US Constitution — the foundation of separation of church and state that is so despised and misunderstood by the Texas State Board of Education. They want indoctrination. To which we say, Indoctrination, NO! Religious Freedom, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Religious Freedom, YES!
And the third thing Jefferson asked to be remembered for was as “Father of the University of Virginia.” That university was the first secular one in America, a university that Jefferson founded and that he proudly declared would not have a theology department. He wrote to a colleague that he expected strong opposition to the university from “the priests of the different religious sects, to whose spells on the human mind its improvement is ominous.” Like the Texas State Board of Education, those opponents wanted indoctrination. To which we say now, as Jefferson did then, Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES!
So, in summary, Jefferson wanted and worked for what we want, what we demand today: Independence — individual rights and political liberty; Religious Freedom — including the freedom to not be religious; and Education, real education. Finally, I’d like to call your attention to some words of Jefferson that are prominently displayed at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. These are words from Jefferson, in a letter he wrote when he was about to become president, a letter to his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, about what Jefferson called “the irritable tribe of priests” whose schemes of establishment, of government support for their religious ideas, he despised. They feared, he wrote, that he would oppose them. And, said Jefferson, they believed rightly. He wrote these words, words which could just as well have been written for today’s Texas State Board of Education: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” To which we, even those of us with no belief in any altars or any gods, say Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES! — Indoctrination, NO! Education, YES! Thank you.
— Ed Buckner
Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But this isn’t an atheist issue. We need more support from religious people. We need support from everyone who cares about children getting a decent education.