There is no harm, per se, in teaching about religion in general or Christianity in particular, in school. Nor of teaching about the role of Christianity in our history. Indeed, much of history makes no sense without such an understanding. But there is a great gulf between teaching about the role of Christianity in the founding of America, and teaching that belief in Christianity is intrinsically linked to being an American, and teaching that Christianity is somehow more worthy than other beliefs.
These can be subtle distinctions, patricularly hard for Christians to draw (not for lack of wit, but because it is hard to get perspective on something when it's deeply bound up in your life), so permit me to share some deeply personal pieces of my own story to explain where the harm lies, and why it matters.
My mother comes from some sort of mid-western Protestant stock, I don't know which denomination. My father was a Catholic from the Netherlands, although, by the time I became aware of such matters, not a particularly observant one. Nevertheless, my parents made some kind of attempt to raise us good Christians. I spent much of my childhood overseas, in England and the Netherlands, going to schools that were not run with any separation of Church and State in mind, and indeed, considered indoctrination part of their duty.
When I was 10 or 11, I went to a school in England that was more diligent than most about this indoctrination: every student was required to keep their own Bible and hymnal in their desks, and participate in choir singing in church, and the day began with prayers and hymns, followed by an hour of Scriptures. I had recently come to realize that I didn't believe a word of it. Not God. Not Heaven and Hell. Not Jesus as Son of God. Not angels and miracles and Adam and Eve and Noah and Joshua. None of it. This came to me as an immense relief: as if something had been gnawing at the back of my head and troubling me for a long time, and was now gone; a burden shed. But it also came with an oppressive sense of being different and alone. My moment of epiphany, if I can call it that, came at the communion rail, a sharp place to learn you are not really of the community. I didn't even have the word for my unbelief until much later. And it was later still that I came to appreciate the value of ritual and community and could adopt a subtler view of participation in such rituals for a faith I didn't share. But these are not the thoughts of a child. To a child there is black and white. Belief and unbelief. You're with us or against us.
And here I was at a school where every morning started with prayers and hymns and an hour of Scriptures. Thus, for me, every morning began with a crisis of conscience. How could I allow myself to pretend to beliefs I did not hold? But how could I avoid it? I was already an alien in an alien land, did I need to mark myself as "other" further? But what if my secret were discovered? Wouldn't they hate me all the more for having pretended to be like them? I agonized over it every morning on the train to school. It consumed my thoughts as lay in bed at night. I approached the start of every school day with immense dread. Every day I faced the crisis of conscience and every day fear won over belief. And every day I cursed myself for a coward. Never have I felt so alone. Not even having the word "atheist" to cling to, not even knowing that there were others such as I, I suffered in my own head, and told no one. My mother, perhaps, saw that I was not happy in the school, but to the extent I admitted anything to her, it was to mumble about them "hating" me because I was an American. I cannot truly express the pain the few months at this school caused me; the depth of the wounds. It took me a very long time to get over it, and in some ways I never shall.
It was only much, much, much later that I came to understand that I had been put in an impossibly unfair situation. It was a hopeless burden to put on a child. It is something no child should ever have to handle. Coming into such a circumstance from strength of a community or family of (different) faith may have made it easier, I don't know, but atheists often come to their beliefs on their own, and have no community to support them. Certainly I did not. I vowed to myself that I would never allow any child of mine to go through what I went through.
So it matters, first and foremost, because children are vulnerable and easily hurt and isolated by difference, most especially when a person in authority is emphasizing that difference.
A second defining circumstance of my childhood came later. I went to middle school and high school at the American School in London. It was a forty minutes on the train. At this time, the IRA was engaged in one of their periodic upwellings of violence against the English: bombs in the Tower of London, bombs in pubs, bombs on trains. There came events that gave me a sense of having dodged fate: leaving the department store just ahead of the smoke from a firebomb; choosing not to back-track to Bakers Street to catch the British Rail train, to later discover that that train had had a bomb in in; emerging from an alley to find myself in the middle of a closed off section of Oxford Street with the bomb squad robot right in front of me. When most Americans spoke of living in fear of terrorism, they had no clue what that really means.
Then comes September 11th, and now all Americans bear a mental scar, and haved shared in the mindless, burning anger and hatred that follows a terrorist attack, that is, indeed, its very point. It is a seething rage I know well and despise in myself. It is the rage that led to the gross miscarriage of justice against the Birmingham 12. It is the rage that led and leads to the ever escalating carnage in Israel.
And now, being un-Christian is seen as not just vaguely un-American, which is painful enough, but as downright treasonous. With feelings and anger high, being non-Christian is therefore dangerous to life, limb, and liberty.
Every president since I started paying attention to such matters has, at some time or other, made a point of denigrating the patriotism of atheists. Some have done it by subtle insinuation, by making the counter-claim that Christianity is a part of patriotism. Many have done it in cruder and uglier terms, e.g. "I don't see how an atheist can be a good American, no." Look at Mr. Williams' list of "What great Americans have said about Christianity?" with the filter of "Is this telling non-Christians that they cannot be good patriots?" and you might see what I see in it. We see Christmas ornaments that link the American flag with the Prince of Peace. What are we non-Christians to make of this? That when it comes to love of country, only Christians need apply? All the rest of us our suspects?
So why it matters, part two, is: equating Christianity and patriotism puts non-Christians in peril in these most perilous of times. That it does so by undermining the ideals of religious freedom and tolerance under which the country was founded only makes for a painful irony. It encourages Christians to question the patriotism of non-Christians, and it encourages non-Christians to fear that, at the very least, their Christian brethren do not consider them real Americans.
My father chose this country because it values liberty and he made us all understand what those values were and why they were precious. I refuse to take a back seat on the patriotism bus. Religious diversity is at the core of our country's values. It is why Al Qaeda hates us.
The worst of all possible crimes for a teacher, therefore, is to teach American history by equating Christianity and patriotism. Most especially now. At a time when children most feel love towards their country and fear towards those who would harm us, what can be lower than rejecting their love of country because of their beliefs about God? What can be more painful and isolating? What, indeed, can be more damaging to the fabric of this republic?
As my daugher said of her experience with Mr. Williams "I would have argued with him about that stuff, but I was afraid he would give me a bad grade." How ironic it is for a man whose classroom motto is "learning without fear" to so utterly fail to understand the fear his actions engenders in those who don't share his beliefs.