Hijacking History – A Conversation with Kathleen Wellman

ECM: Your book is interested in the Christian Right’s “polemical” use of history. What is the Christian Right and why is its approach to history polemical?

KW: The Christian Right is a coalition of religious-political activists for whom religion and politics are inextricably linked. The argument advanced by the Christian Right is that you truly cannot be a Christian without espousing the political positions of the Right. In many cases, the key spokesmen for this movement have sought to ground their work in history, and so their approach to history has been necessarily polemical. Examples of this date back to the turn of the twentieth century with attacks on Darwinism and European social welfare measures. It became especially pronounced in more recent decades, when the Republican Party decided to use Christianity as a centerpiece of its political strategy, maintaining that capitalism and patriarchy are Christian values and that feminism and social welfare programs are antithetical to them. These positions have found a receptive audience among evangelicals. The religious message of Christianity, then, has become increasingly distorted by contemporary political issues.

ECM: Your project focuses on a trio of publishers in particular. Who are they, and why have they drawn your attention?

KW: The publishers are Bob Jones University Press, Abeka Books, and Accelerated Christian Education. I was led to these three publishers when I got involved in the discussion around Texas state standards that our conservative Board of Education mandated for 2014 textbooks. I’m an historian of early modern Europe, and I was appalled to see that, suddenly, John Calvin was being inserted into state standards as one of the key figures of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Thomas Aquinas, too, very peculiarly received pride of place. When I looked into some of the textbooks under review for the Texas market, I learned that Moses was an essential figure to all of the founding documents of the United States. I realized then that, clearly, these standards were being constructed to advance a very particular understanding of history, but I had no idea where these views could have come from. When I found the three curricula, I was able to connect some of the dots. As my book documents, the materials produced by these three publishers provide a fascinating window into how history is being refashioned and deployed in the service of conservative politics.

ECM: What are some other examples of claims made in these texts that struck you as ahistorical or as motivated by a partisan agenda?

KW: Though they are published by conservative fundamentalists, these materials 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 consistent story of the emergence of “biblical truth” during the Protestant Reformation. Thus all prior civilizations are found wanting; they are heretical and destined to fail. When “biblical truth” triumphed over earlier civilizations and other religions, God’s favor fell first on England, and then on the United States as manifest in its economic success and international hegemony. In their treatment of recent history, these curricula serve an explicitly partisan agenda as they make clear that these positive developments, as well as God’s continued favor, are due to the alliance of “biblical Christianity” and the Republican Party.

ECM: Do we have a sense of how many students have been taught this material?

KW: These curricula have been in circulation since the early 1970s when all three of the publishers entered, first, into the secondary school market, and then expanded into K-12. Initially developed during opposition to desegregation, they flourished in the segregation academies that were opening, sometimes several per week, around that time. They persist today because they are popular both in Christian schools and within the homeschooling movement. We don’t have any idea how extensive that movement is because many states do not require reporting from homeschoolers about which curricula they use.Several reporters have tried to gain that information. Rebecca Klein of HuffPost has tried to survey schools in Florida where vouchers are used to support private education with public funds and has found that these are the curricula predominantly used in those schools. The same is true for North Carolina. We don’t have hard numbers because publishers won’t share them, the nation doesn’t compile them, and the largest states, like Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York, don’t require any reporting at all. There are a number of legal entities devoted to the “parental rights” movement, which is explicitly committed to preventing states from acquiring this information. Another feature that makes these curricula significant is that they are multigenerational at this point. Some kids who went to school in the 70s first learned this material, their kids probably learned it a couple of decades later, and their kids may now be learning it as well. There is substantial depth of penetration at this stage.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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