Outside the Spring Church of Christ, a large roadside sign says a lot about the prevailing sensibility in this cordial town. It reads: “Support New Testament Morality.”
This is the home and powerbase of Terri Leo, a state Board of Education member representing 2.5 million people in East Texas.
At the urging of Leo and several other members -- who describe themselves as Christian conservatives -- the board this month approved new health textbooks for high school and middle school students after publishers said they would tweak references to marriage and sexuality.
One agreed to define marriage as a “lifelong union between a husband and a wife.” Another deleted words that were attacked by conservatives as “stealth” references to gay relationships; “partners,” for example, was changed to “husbands and wives.” A passage explaining that adolescence brings the onset of “attraction to others” became “attraction to the opposite sex.”
Leo said she pushed for the changes to combat the influence of “liberal New York publishers” who by “censoring” the definition of marriage were legitimizing same-sex unions.
Some education advocates have criticized the board’s decision.
“This was never about defining marriage,” said Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that opposes what it calls religious “extremism.” “It was an effort to get anti-gay propaganda in the books.”
Gilbert Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council -- an independent organization that reviews textbooks -- also criticized the Texas-approved books’ promotion of abstinence-only sex education.
Such programs are “naive and confused,” said Sewall, who described himself as an “educational conservative.”
Research, much of it conducted by the federal government, has raised a host of questions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs in preventing disease and pregnancy. Teenage girls who are taught in the programs do wait longer before having sex, many experts believe, but are less likely to use protection when they do -- causing them to contract sexually transmitted diseases at the same rates as those who have sex earlier.
“I have very little use for this religion-driven curriculum,” Sewall said. “This confuses sex and moral education.”
Texas is the second-largest buyer of textbooks in the nation, after California. Books purchased here wind up in classrooms across the nation, because publishers are loath to create new editions for smaller states.
As a result, five social conservatives on the 15-member Texas board, frequently joined by five more moderate Republicans, have enormous clout -- and often control the content used to teach millions of children.
Publishers have no choice but to heed many of the group’s wishes, said Don McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher and Texas Board of Education member.
“They’ve got to sell books,” he said. “It’s business.”
Conservatives’ efforts over the years to edit textbooks are legendary here. In a nod to those who believe God created the Earth 6,000 years ago, a sentence saying the ice age took place “millions of years ago” was changed to “in the distant past.” Descriptions of environmentalism have been attacked as antithetical to free-enterprise ideals; a passage describing the cruelty of slavery was derided as “overkill.”
The pace of such efforts to alter curriculum is expected to increase because Christian conservatives are “emboldened” by the Republican gains on election day, Leo said.
The board’s stance on the health texts, some observers said, speaks to a critical factor in the GOP’s recent success: a recognition by evangelical conservatives that all politics is local.
The political ascendance of Christian conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s was fueled by their coordinated effort to win seats on school boards, city councils and other local bodies. A leader of the Christian Coalition said at the time that he would be willing to train an evangelical to run for dogcatcher.
Conservative forces began targeting the Texas Board of Education in the 1990s. Some, including Leo, ran for election unopposed.
Success at the local level has been used as a springboard to national power, said Robert Simonds, president of California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education; the group, which helped train the first wave of Christian conservative candidates, recently has lobbied for the withdrawal of Christians from the “secularist” public school system.
“It’s like an athlete,” Simonds said. “If you want to be a top-level baseball or football player, first you have to learn to run. So we ran.
“The secular world has jumped on it, but only after seeing so much success in Christian education and the like.”
But Evan Wolfson, director of Freedom to Marry -- a New York group that seeks marriage rights for gays and lesbians -- said that the conservatives’ drive to control local and state political boards might not look smart in the long run if their agendas were seen as mean-spirited.
“It does not help our kids to use them as pawns for divisive social agendas,” he said. “It might be astute in the short term, but not in any meaningful sense for our kids or our country.”