Finitude, contingency, transience. These three linked words signal basic elements of what it is to be a human—and especially to be a historian. David Tracy, noted theologian and next door study-neighbor, taught me this connection, and I’ve let it color my life and scholarly preoccupations.
If Americans of a certain age know anything about Puritanism, it is probably because they read something by the (atheist) historian Edmund S. Morgan, the great Yale scholar who died July 8. His bookThe Puritan Dilemma—which used the life of John Winthrop to describe the Puritans’ religious and political project in America—was widely assigned in high schools and colleges.
I had the good fortune decades ago to take a graduate class from Morgan on American colonial history.
David Barton is what I call a “faux historian.” With only a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University, Barton has written widely on American history, remaking it into his own image. He’s been called upon as an “expert” by the Texas Board of Education, the Republican Party and the likes of right-wing talking head Glenn Beck.
Many conservatives love Barton’s historical revisionism, particularly his arguments that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that the founders did not share our notions about the separation between church and state. Mike Huckabee said he wished every American had to listen to a simultaneous telecast of David Barton lecturing—even if at gunpoint.
Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, has drawn criticism from a wider group than the usual liberals and professional historians.
In high school I was taught that the Earth is about 10,000 years old. But I also learned the basics of evolution from my evangelical teachers. School administrators knew that students taking Advanced Placement biology exams and heading off to state universities needed to understand secular scientific reasoning, if only to combat it properly.
As we approach the turning of the calendar to the year 2000, there is likely to be intense speculation among some Christian groups about the end times. Many will be inspired by the Book of Revelation to look for particular signs of the end.
Amateurish historians often tell us that we must study the past to avoid repeating its mistakes. Such efforts rarely work out well. Laurie Maffly-Kipp, by contrast, offers an unusual, complex and thoughtful approach to history.
In January, almost a year after its heated debate over the science curriculum, the Texas State Board of Education started meeting to revise the state’s social studies program. The board’s once-a-decade decisions on curriculum are nationally significant. As the nation’s second-largest textbook market, Texas shapes the content of textbooks sold throughout the country.
Our children expect peculiar vacations. While their friends go to Disney World or the beach, we go to monasteries and rare book libraries, making a holiday out of castles and forests along the way and returning with odd bits of nature or history for our display case.
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