FL civics training ignites questions of religious indoctrination, separation of church and state

‘Christian nationalism is fundamentally opposed to pluralist democracy’

By: - July 1, 2022 4:55 pm

Volunteers unfurl a giant banner printed with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

A non-profit organization is concerned that new civics-education training for Florida teachers may push Christian nationalism and endanger the separation of church and state.

The organization, Americans United For Separation of Church and State, said Friday that it wants to investigate whether the training was influenced by “conservative Christian groups like Hillsdale College and the Koch-founded Bill of Rights Institute.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted his administration’s effort to boost Florida’s civics education, including revamping the civics standards in 2021, but some teachers claim that new civics training materials are skewed towards Christian and conservative ideology.

The organization is starting out with a public records request with the Florida Department of Education, but may it may not end there.

“Americans United is considering all options. We’re not going to sit by while politicians smuggle white Christian Nationalism into public school curriculums under the guise of good citizenship,” Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said in a press release.

Earlier this week, the Miami Herald reported that some teachers from Broward County being trained to implement the new standards found the materials “infused with a Christian and conservative ideology.” The news organization shared the PowerPoint slides from a three-day training session.

News4Jax reported that a St. Johns County teacher shared similar sentiments.

‘More fire beneath that smoke’

Andrew Seidel, vice president for strategic communications of the church-state separation advocacy group, told the Phoenix the organization has been following Florida’s civics curriculum for some time. The Florida Department of Education adopted new civics standards for K-12 schools in 2021.

“The training itself, to implement this curriculum, was alarming, so that suggests to us that there’s a lot more fire beneath that smoke,” Seidel said.

The PowerPoint slides from the training claim, for example, that there is a “misconception” that “the Founders desired a strict separation of church and state and that the Founders only wanted to protect Freedom of worship.”

Seidel is the author of “The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American.”

“The separation of church and state is a concept that is woven into the very fabric of our Republic and our Constitution,” he told the Phoenix. “There is no freedom of religion without a government that’s free from religion.”

‘Provide that foundation’

DeSantis claims that if more people understood civics, there would be less “division.”

“I’m confident that if we provide that foundation, these students as they become adults, they’re gonna be able to navigate a lot of the things that are going on, and make sense of a lot of the things that are going on, much better than probably my generation or certainly in more recent years,” DeSantis said during a press conference Thursday in Sanford.

“And that’s gonna pay a lot of dividends,” he continued. “I mean, quite frankly, if we did a better job of doing civics education, I don’t think we’d have as many divisions in our country as we have. Because there’s a lot of people that you know that — you don’t have a common understanding of our constitutional structure, of our founding principles, and it makes it a lot harder to agree on different types of issues.”

Much of DeSantis’s political image revolves around keeping so-called “woke ideologies” out of Florida schools, and he frequently recites the motto of “education, not indoctrination” during his appearances.

DeSantis added during the Thursday press conference:

“History is good and bad. There’s all kinds of things that happen, but I think that the story is, is that because that we were founded differently on different ideas — about God-given rights and the way the government, uh, the proper role of peoples lives, people have been able to triumph over a big, big challenges.”

‘Existential threat’

Seidel says his group’s investigation will look into whether the civics training for teachers integrates Christian nationalism, which he says is an “existential threat to our republic.”

“Christian nationalism is fundamentally opposed to pluralist democracy and, if we are teaching that to children in the public schools we aren’t raising good citizens. It’s the opposite to what DeSantis claims it the goal of this program,” he said.

Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teacher union, the Florida Education Association, also discussed the civics training.

“As I understand it from those teachers who attended that first training that they had on civics was that it wasn’t just teaching about religion — it was teaching in one way skewed to a specific religion,” Spar told the Phoenix.

“And it really mischaracterized the founding of this country, where it said the founding of this country is based on religion. The founding of this country was actually based on escaping religious persecution,” he continued.

“You know, I think our founding fathers were very deliberate in talking about religion not being so central in how our government functions. So you know, it is concerning.

“And it’s also concerning, and interesting, that, you know, this is coming from the governor’s administration where he keeps accusing teachers of indoctrinating kids but then clearly seems to wanna put out a civics class in which he’s indoctrinating kids.”

Not everyone sees the civics training as a red flag yet.

Bob Holladay, an adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College, told the Phoenix that “he is not worried about what he has seen so far” regarding the civics training PowerPoint slides.

“Unless, and let me emphasize, unless K-12 teachers actually start getting penalized in some way for teaching, for emphasizing something different here. If that starts happening, you know, then there’s some concern,” Holladay said. “I don’t really see much evidence of that yet.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.