November 2023 Church & State Magazine - November 2023

Lackluster video: PragerU materials are far-right, fundamentalist propaganda that promote Christian Nationalism, weird science and bad history — and they might be coming to your local public school

  Liz Hayes

Called “one of the most influential right-wing propaganda networks put into motion since Fox News” by a progressive media watchdog, Prager University may be trying to embed its propaganda in a public school near you.

In recent months, the education departments in Florida and Oklahoma have approved “PragerU Kids” curriculum for use in public schools, and there have been reports of Prager seeking similar partnerships with at least two other states.

Prager is not an accredited university offering fact-based, well-researched materials that teach universally agreed-upon education standards. Far from it: Prager is a conservative organization that exists to disseminate often-misleading propaganda to children, mainly through cartoon videos. Prager describes its mission as offering “a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.”

(Getty Images/PragerU Screenshot)

Prager University was formed more than a decade ago by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager, who has espoused various anti-LGBTQ+, anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-science views over the years. Well-funded by conservative donors, PragerU boasts that its videos have “7 billion lifetime views.”

Prager videos whitewash colonialism and the history of slavery and racism in America; promote skepticism of climate change and science; scorn feminism and gender fluidity; support the so-called “parental rights” movement that has attacked the freedom to learn in public schools, especially about race and LGBTQ+ issues; and promote other right-wing causes.

Several of the videos undermine church-state separation and advance white Christian Nationalism. That’s why Americans United announced in October that it was investigating how Florida and Oklahoma officials vetted Prager’s materials or if they reviewed them at all.

“Public schools are the building blocks of our democracy. We owe it to our children to ensure their public schools provide a high-quality education that is free from religious coercion and rooted in facts, not theology or political ideology,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United.

Laser said Prager was part of “a shadow network of Christian Nationalists and their political allies (who) are working to destroy public education and church-state separation. They’re trying to ban books; prevent public schools from teaching lessons about race, sexual orientation, gender identity and even menstruation; and encouraging teachers to pray with public school students while displaying the Ten Commandments and ‘In God We Trust’ in classrooms.”

It’s not entirely surprising that Florida and Oklahoma are the first states to approve Prager curriculum; both have been laboratories for Christian Nationalist policies. For instance, Florida schools have banned the third-most books of any state so far this year, according to the American Library Association, and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has signed into law legislation that limits classroom discussion of race, reproductive health and human sexuality.

In Oklahoma, the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board earlier this year approved the nation’s first religious public charter school, which AU and allies are challenging in court (See “Not OK!” in the September 2023 issue of Church & State). And Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has been in the national news regularly for promoting Christian Nationalism, including supporting school-sponsored prayer and the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

Walters touted Prager’s “pro-American” content when he announced the state’s partnership with Prager on Sept. 5. “We want Oklahoma students … to know about American exceptionalism, want them to know about those founding documents, want them to understand what made this country great … This is also going to be content that is factually based, with no left-wing indoctrination,” Walter said in an interview with an Oklahoma public radio station.

Over the summer, Prager announced Florida was the first state to “officially approve our supplemental curriculum,” a move the organization said “could change education in America!”

The Miami New Times reported that the Florida Department of Education said it “reviewed PragerU Kids and determined the material aligns to Florida’s revised civics and government standards.”

Marvin Dunn, professor emeritus at Florida International University and an author of Black history, told the weekly newspaper that the approval of Prager curriculum jibes with state officials’ efforts to infuse Florida’s public education system with Christian Nationalism. He’s particularly concerned with the state’s new Black history standards, which mirror Prager propaganda.

“We are being told that slavery wasn’t that bad, that it was every place else, that the slaves didn’t have it all that bad,” Dunn said. “I just see this as being extremely chaotic going forward because Black parents are not going to stand for this.”

Given the inaccuracies, bias and revisionism of Prager videos, it’s hard to see how the material could have passed muster for use in public schools. On Oct. 19, Americans United Staff Attorney Ian Smith filed formal public records requests with both the state education departments in Florida and Oklahoma, seeking all documents relating to the departments’ review or approval of Prager materials for use in public schools. That includes communications with Prager, and “any documents analyzing Prager materials and any documents that reflect conclusions, recommendations, cautions, or concerns raised by such analysis.”

Americans United is particularly concerned with public schools potentially using videos that undermine church-state separation and promote Christian Nationalism. Examples include:

In the video, “Craftory: God Bless America Ornament,” Americans’ right to religious freedom is described as being granted by the God of the “Hebrew and Christian Bibles.” The video further claims “America was founded on what’s called Judeo-Christian values” that are “at the very core of who America is.”

Another video, “Street Smarts: The Bill of Rights,” calls it a “fun fact” that the literal words “separation of church and state” aren’t in the Constitution a frequent talking point of Christian Nationalists who want to justify ignoring the principle that is clearly embedded in the First Amendment.

In “Leo & Layla’s History Adventures with George Washington,” the video presents two time-traveling kids meeting the country’s first president, who emphasizes the need for America to have “a religious and moral population.”

The video “Craftory: American Trinity Platter” presents the phrase “In God We Trust” as one third of the “trinity of American values,” alongside e pluribus unum and liberty. 

Several videos praise controversial historical figures like Christopher Columbus for their theological beliefs or because they spread  Christianity through colonialism.

Oklahoma City TV station Fox 25 also sought public records on Prager from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. So far, the department has coughed up some communications from Prager dating back to July, but no records originating from Oklahoma officials.

What the station did get were “dozens of PragerU emails to the state showing their aggressive push for a partnership not just with Oklahoma, but another state as well.” That state was South Carolina; Prager officials asked Oklahoma’s Walters several times for an introduction to South Carolina’s Superintendent of Education, Fox 25 reported. It’s not clear if Walters complied.

Prager also has apparently been trying to push its curriculum on Texas public schoolchildren. In August, Texas Board of Education member Julie Pickren starred in a Prager video that indicated Prager materials had been approved in Texas. But four other members of the Texas Board of Education swiftly spoke out, insisting Prager had not, and would not, be approved for use in Texas schools.

In both Florida and Oklahoma, even though the state education departments have approved Prager materials for use in public schools, it’s up to school districts and educators to decide whether to incorporate Prager videos into the curriculum. News reports have not found widespread use of Prager materials so far.

“A lot of educators who have a traditional education background, or they’ve been in the profession for a long time, they’re going to be able to recognize in those materials that PragerU is representing what we would refer to as a logical fallacy, meaning the material that you’re reading or listening to might sound like it makes sense,” Jessica Wright, a former teacher and the vice president of the nonprofit Florida Freedom to Read Project, told Florida public radio station WUSF. “But if you are educated on that topic, you would know that they came to a conclusion that’s not based on fact.”

Education experts concerned about the use of Prager materials in public schools have urged parents to be vigilant and let their public school officials know Prager propaganda has no place in the classroom. 

“Christian Nationalists are trying to use the machinery of the state to impose their religious beliefs on all of our children and to get taxpayers to fund this. Not on our watch,” AU’s Rachel Laser said. “We need a national recommitment to keep church and state separate our public schools and our democracy depend on it.”

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