Many Christian nationalist leaders are keenly interested in U.S. history – more accurately, they’re interested in distorting U.S. history for political purposes. They know if they can teach a mythical version of our past, it will aid their efforts to base our laws today on narrow theological underpinnings. After all, if America was founded to be a “Christian nation,” efforts to demolish church-state separation today can be justified as getting us back to our founding ideals.
The barrier to Christian nationalists, of course, is that America wasn’t founded to be a Christian nation. Our Constitution makes this clear. Christian nationalists’ views have nothing to do with tradition. In their embrace of theocracy, they seek not a return to the founders’ vision but a repudiation of it. Thus, to succeed, they must first rewrite American history.
Their campaign isn’t new. As Kathleen Wellman, the Dedman Family Distinguished Professor of History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, noted in a recent column for Religion News Service, it goes back to at least the 1950s, when conservatives began to push for “textbooks that promote capitalism and attack communism, that denounce civil rights, feminism and resistance to the war in Vietnam.”
Most recently, Wellman notes, far-right activists have resisted any effort to teach an accurate view of our country’s troubled history over race. They distort the term “critical race theory” (CRT), using it as an all-purpose bogeyman to scare parents.
CRT, an effort to examine institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded in many social institutions, does exist; however, it is usually confined to colleges and graduate-level courses.
Public schools aren’t teaching CRT, but many of them are trying to do a better job examining issues like chattel slavery, Reconstruction-era racism, the legacy of Jim Crow laws, the treatment of the native population and others. This can be an uncomfortable history for many people, but it is our history nonetheless – and it must be faced squarely.
Wellman, author of the new book Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters, argues that Christian nationalists and their allies would rather teach a fallacious story found in the textbooks produced by fundamentalist publishers for use in private Christian academies and by conservative Christian homeschoolers.
“These textbooks,” Wellman writes, “describe how God has acted through time, favoring his chosen people, from the Jews of the Bible to modern American Protestants. Conveniently, God endorses policies conservatives espouse, from low taxes to rigid gender divisions (women control the household, men the public sphere). They disparage non-Christian civilizations and denounce support for the poor or public works as ‘socialism.’”
Wellman adds, “Students whose history education is reduced to a mythic, religiously and politically partisan pseudo-history will be ill-prepared to understand the complexities of their nation or to thrive in the world they will inherit.”
If students walk away from a study of history convinced that America has never done anything wrong, that we’re God’s favorite nation and everything we do meets with divine approval, chances are they didn’t study “history” at all – they got a course in Christian nationalist propaganda.
They probably also failed to grasp the central reason we study history: not to make ourselves feel superior but to honestly explore what happened in our past and to realize that a mature, confident nation can celebrate its achievements even as it acknowledges its mistakes.
A sober look at where we’ve been can prevent us from repeating those mistakes – and, if we’re lucky, even pave the way for a better future for all of us.