KAthleen Wellman’s new book begins with a quote from historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “History is to the nation what memory is to the individual,” he wrote in the New York Book Review in 2004. “As a person deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so a nation deprived of a conception of its past will be unable to manage its present and its future.”
We see echoes of Schlesinger’s words in the school board’s current fights over book bans and the critical race theory debate. Those words also remain relevant, Wellman argues, because conservative Christian activists and organizations have worked for decades to revise American history ideologically and impose their version on hundreds of thousands of school children. His book, Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teach History and Why It Matters, examines a series of popular right-wing programs designed specifically for this task.
Wellman is the Dedman Family Professor Emeritus and Altshuler Professor Emeritus of History at Southern Methodist University. She is a specialist in the history of science and culture in modern France. His previous books include Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France and Make science social. Eric C. Miller spoke with Wellman about the book on Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: Your book focuses on the “polemical” use of history by the Christian right. What is the Christian right and why is its approach to history controversial?
Kathleen Wellman: The Christian Right is a coalition of political-religious activists for whom religion and politics are inextricably linked. The argument advanced by the Christian right is that one really cannot be a Christian without espousing the political positions of the right. In many cases, the main spokesmen of this movement have sought to ground their work in history, and their approach to history has therefore necessarily been polemical. Examples of this date back to the turn of the 20th century with attacks on Darwinism and European social welfare measures. It has become particularly pronounced in recent decades, when the Republican Party decided to use Christianity as the centerpiece of its political strategy, asserting that capitalism and patriarchy are Christian values and that feminism and protection programs social are antithetical to them. These positions have found a receptive audience among evangelicals. Christianity’s religious message has therefore become increasingly distorted by contemporary political issues.
R&P: Your project concerns a trio of editors in particular. Who are they and why did they catch your eye?
kW: The publishers are Bob Jones University Press, Abeka Books and Accelerated Christian Education. I was brought to these three publishers when I became involved in the Texas state standards discussion that our Conservative Board of Education mandated for 2014 textbooks. I am a historian of the modern Europe and I was appalled that all of a sudden John Calvin was inserted into state standards as one of the key figures of the 18th century Enlightenment, which makes absolutely no sense. Thomas Aquinas, too, received a very special place of honor. When I reviewed some of the textbooks being reviewed for the Texas market, I learned that Moses was a key figure in all of the founding documents of the United States. I realized then that clearly these standards were constructed to advance a very particular understanding of history, but I had no idea where these views might have come from. When I found all three programs, I was able to connect some dots. As my book shows, the materials produced by these three publishers provide a fascinating window into how history is reshaped and deployed in the service of conservative politics.
R&P: What are other examples of statements made in these texts that you found to be ahistorical or motivated by a partisan agenda?
kW: Although published by conservative fundamentalists, these documents present themselves as generically Christian sources, presenting the Christian understanding of history. Much of their narrative is ahistorical because it intends to tell a clear and coherent story of the emergence of “biblical truth” during the Protestant Reformation. Thus, all previous civilizations are in default; they are heretics and doomed to failure. When “biblical truth” triumphed over previous civilizations and other religions, God’s favor fell first on England, then on the United States, as evidenced by its economic success and international hegemony. In their treatment of recent history, these programs serve an explicitly partisan agenda as they make it clear that these positive developments, as well as God’s continued favor, are due to the alliance of “Biblical Christianity” and the Republican Party.
R&P: Do we have an idea of the number of students who have learned this subject?
kW: These programs have been around since the early 1970s, when the three publishers first entered the high school market and then expanded into K-12. Originally developed in opposition to desegregation, they flourished in the segregation academies which opened, sometimes several a week, at that time. They persist today because they are popular both in Christian schools and within the homeschooling movement. We have no idea how big this movement is, because many states don’t require homeschoolers to report the programs they use. Several journalists tried to obtain this information. Rebecca Klein of HuffPost attempted to investigate schools in Florida where vouchers are used to support private education with public funds and found that these are the programs primarily used at these schools. The same is true for North Carolina. We don’t have hard numbers because publishers don’t share them, the nation doesn’t compile them, and the largest states, like Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York, don’t require reporting. There are a number of legal entities devoted to the “parental rights” movement, which have explicitly committed themselves to preventing states from acquiring this information. Another feature that makes these programs meaningful is that they are multi-generational at this stage. Some kids who went to school in the 70s learned this material for the first time, their kids probably learned it a few decades later, and their kids can learn it now too. There is substantial penetration depth at this point.
R&P: How do these texts deal with issues of race in American history?
kW: It is no coincidence that these programs came out of the South and were first adopted by the segregation academies of the South. Their treatment of slavery and the Civil War still includes elements of the Mythology of the lost cause– slaves were treated well and exposed to Christianity, Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were heroic men of honor, etc.
Recall that the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party has been shaped by racist whistles dating back to Richard Nixon and his southern strategy. The recent panic over critical race theory should be understood in this context. Some right-wing organizations and candidates have worked to stoke fears among white parents, apparently, that a candid presentation of American history will hurt their children’s feelings. It is a response to the emphasis on slavery in The 1619 Projectthe history of America as well as the completely ahistorical response in the Project 1776. It plays on fundamental questions about what America is and about history to teach school children. I really don’t know what these parents are so afraid of, but the undeniable power of their fear suggests that this has been a brilliant PR move for the right as we approach the halfway point.
R&P: In all of this, the curators seem to have constructed a meta-narrative about history and their own importance within it. Do you see it gaining traction in the public sphere beyond the classroom?
kW: Absoutely. Some of the strongest positions taken by these programs are widely publicized in school board meetings, on the floors of state legislatures, in the sermons of megachurches and the speeches of political candidates. They include assertions that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that Christianity should have a privileged public position, that any social program is socialist and un-American, that America is exceptional and that its history is quite admirable. Many of their views are central to the rise of Christian nationalism, which maintains these arguments as approved by God and supported by the Bible.
R&P: What concerns you about the popularity of this material in the future? What kind of problems do you see on the horizon?
kW: Too many, frankly. Every Christian should be concerned about the concerted attempt to reduce Christianity to a right-wing fundamentalist message, and that is exactly what these programs are designed to do. The complete rejection of any notion of charity, collective responsibility or commitment to the common good as the foundation of Christianity is deeply troubling, and its ramifications for a society are equally dangerous. The fact that these programs are so skeptical of science pays off in our failure to respond adequately to the Covid-19 pandemic. This belief that the United States was chosen by God, that God works through a chosen nation, and that therefore everything that nation does or has done is indisputable, is perilous. I think any curriculum that hopefully leans toward the “end times” can only hurt our collective response to global crises like climate change. In short, this type of teaching is bad for all of us, from children to parents to citizens to politicians to the nation as a whole.