I think five different people mentioned the same article to me earlier this month: "How Christian Were the Founders?" from The New York Times Magazine. Russell Shorto's long and generally balanced piece examines how one institution, the Texas State Board of Education, exerts tremendous power over the interpretation of such contentious issues as creation/evolution and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. It is a story full of ironies, not unlike American history itself.

Texas is a big state, and it orders a lot of textbooks. Textbook publishers cannot afford to tailor their products to every potential audience, so they often aim at the large target under the Lone Star. As a result, 15 people in Texas help determine the curriculum for much of the country. Who knew that an elected body including high school teachers, administrators, real estate agents, lawyers, and a dentist has more direct influence over public schools in this country than do the presidents of Ivy League universities?

Reality as the opposite of what you would expect is one kind of irony. Irony as unintended consequences, and irony as the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, are also on display in Shorto's piece. Both appear in his discussion of the fabled wall of separation between church and state.

First, the unintended consequences. In 1801, a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to newly elected President Thomas Jefferson for some help on a church-state matter. Jefferson was no orthodox Christian—he famously excised everything he didn't like from his Bible—but all the Danbury Baptists cared about was that he was no friend of the established (state-supported) Congregationalist churches in New England. What the letter-writers wanted was the protection of the state from other Christians. This Jefferson assured them, based on his reading of the First Amendment, in which he saw provision for "a wall of separation between Church & State." Short-term, the Baptists got what they wanted. The wall would become less comforting, though, as Baptists grew in number and stature over the next two centuries.

For the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, I refer to some of the quotations Shorto gathered from people who write on American religious history. According to David Barton, the leader of the WallBuilders ministry who was called in by the Texas board as a consultant, " ‘Separation of church and state' currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant." He's right. The First Amendment has two clauses related to religious freedom, the establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …") and the free exercise clause ("… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). As both the Danbury Baptists and Jefferson understood, the two clauses aimed primarily at allowing Americans to pursue their religion without interference. People were afraid of too much control over religion. Now, many Americans fear that religious forces are too strong, so it's the state's job to protect a neutral public sphere from being overrun by the faithful. Agree or disagree with either fear, they are decidedly different.

In opposition, Barnard College historian Randall Balmer dismissed the idea "that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation." He's right, too. A nation where the free exercise of religion is protected is not necessarily a "Christian nation," even if the religion being practiced is overwhelmingly some form of Christianity, as it was in the early American republic. The framers emphatically did not want to copy the "Christian nations" of Western Europe, with their numerous formal connections between political and ecclesial authority. On the other hand, the framers approached Christianity with reverential deference in comparison to French revolutionaries, who waged all-out war on the church. So the framers did not intend America to be a Christian nation, as they understood that category, but they didn't intend it to be an un-Christian nation, either. Probably, the latter notion would have horrified and baffled more of them than the former would have.

Finally, a quote from University of Chicago historian emeritus Martin Marty: "I think ‘wall' is too heavy a metaphor. There's a trend now away from it. … In textbooks, we're moving away from an unthinking secularity." Note that—textbooks are already moving, even without the firm guiding hands of the Texas State Board of Education. As an example, the U.S. History survey text I use, published by W.W. Norton, just added more religion coverage in the eighth edition. A collegiate text, it is not subject to the state-level adoption process. Instead, this update reflects shifts in the discipline of history, where religious history recently overtook cultural history as scholars' top specialty. And so the battle of religious activists versus the godless educational establishment turns out to be deeply complicated. No wonder Reinhold Niebuhr's 1952 masterpiece The Irony of American History remains a classic.