Right now, Florida is experiencing a backlash to the larger cultural shifts across the United States. In Tallahassee this legislative session, lawmakers are passing bills reflecting unfounded fears of transgender students, restricting women’s legitimate reproductive choices and creating barriers to legal public protest. Just as importantly, although not making the news, there is an agenda-driven and revisionist view of U.S. history and civics taking hold.
In 2019, the governor signed into law House Bill 807, which triggered a comprehensive review of Florida civics courses. One organization cited as a resource in the law is Hillsdale College, a small, Michigan-based, private Christian college that is considered one of the most conservative colleges in the country.
One of the particularly troubling new standards in the draft that is currently open to public comment is SS.7.C.1.12, which requires students to “recognize how Judeo-Christian values influenced America’s Founding ideals and documents” while also promoting solely a “Protestant work ethic.” SS.7.C.1.10 emphasizes only “Hebraic and Christian” religions while ignoring all others. It even perpetuates the myth that U.S. laws are somehow based on the Ten Commandments.
The standards go beyond the typical American exceptionalism and will teach our kids “Judeo-Christian” exceptionalism. Contrary to the misconception that the foundational principles of American governance are somehow “Judeo-Christian,” this term was actually first penned in the 1930s in order to co-opt various Jewish and Christian beliefs and traditions. The term is used today to create a veneer of inclusivity all the while establishing Christianity as the dominant political, social, and cultural force.
Under these proposed standards, students are required to learn the Ten Commandments, but which Ten Commandments should they be taught? There are four different sets in any bible, and different versions and translations interpret them differently. In the version most of us know, Exodus 20, the First Commandment reads “you shall have no other gods before me.” But isn’t this exactly the opposite of the First Amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”? Nothing could be less “civic-minded” than denying the First Amendment.
If these curriculum changes are not pushing religion on our schoolchildren, why do so many of the standards focus on religion — and a particularly narrow religious viewpoint at that?
Moreover, these and other items were added without removing other benchmarks. Florida teachers are already working hard to reach existing benchmarks. These additions notably increase the volume of material as well as the length of end-of-course exams.
There is also the increased workload for administrators when students and parents mount legitimate constitutional challenges to religious instruction in a civics class. And how will schools ensure that overzealous teachers don’t take this too far and push their own religious agenda onto students? Christians have been trying to teach religion in science class for nearly 100 years; why not civics class as well?
By injecting greater religion into public education while attacking reproductive healthcare and undermining LGBTQ equality, extremists hope to give a narrow, religiously conservative viewpoint legitimacy and the opportunity to thrive using the machinery of our secular government. We need to remove these religiously centered benchmarks.
There is no need to include the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew Bible, Judeo-Christian values, and the Protestant work ethic in Florida civics education. That is, of course, unless we want our students to be taught that other religious groups don’t have a similar work ethic or the same values as everyone else.
Rewriting history and indoctrinating children into these false, Christian nationalist narratives undermines a fundamental American principle that actually should be in these standards; the separation between state and church. Because without freedom from religion, there can be no freedom of religion.
Jocelyn Williamson is a director of the Central Florida Freethought Community, based in Oviedo.