The “Texas Schoolbook Massacre” – the term given by the media to the action in May by a conservative majority on the Texas State Board of Education to rewrite the social studies and history guidelines for state textbooks – has attracted a storm of negative commentary from historians, scholars of religion and politicians.
Speaking as a Baptist churchman and a professional historian, I fired off an e-mail to the Texas board expressing my dismay at how these guidelines would pervert students’ understanding of American history.
Also stirring a renewal of my interest in the topic of distorting history for right-wing purposes was the essay by Robert Kunzman in Religion Dispatches about a civic education organization for homeschoolers called “Generation Joshua.”
It promotes an ideologically based agenda “to help America return to her Judeo-Christian foundations” and textbooks to teach students “to recognize the hand of God in history.”
The historical narrative is a reframing of America as a chosen nation, one that was founded on Christian principles by devout believers, but over time was perverted by secularists, multiculturalists and non-Christians. The burning need today is to restore the nation to its godly roots.
This “special providence” approach to American exceptionalism is nothing new. One hears it constantly repeated by Fox News commentators, preachers in fundamentalist and evangelical churches, and letters to the editor of local newspapers.
I have followed it for decades and possess a whole shelf of books espousing the view. It is such standard fare in Christian secondary schools and homeschooling programs that friends of mine teaching history at prestigious Christian colleges tell me they have to engage in an “unlearning” process with many of the products of these educational forms to broaden and correct their misunderstanding of the role of Christianity, especially the Protestant variety, in the founding and development of the American nation.
Perhaps the godfather of this “holy history” was Southern Presbyterian C. Gregg Singer, who taught at Wheaton College in the 1940s and spent the remainder of his career at various colleges in the South.
His Calvinistic-based “A Theological Interpretation of American History” (1964), which is still in print, set the standard for the many subsequent works on Christian American exceptionalism: Godly founders created an ideal republic that was a light to the nations but gradually the forces of secularism and liberalism eroded their creation, leaving us with a totalitarian-collectivist state that deviated far from the original vision. America must repent and return to God.
Purveyors of this imaginary Christian history of America have included Verna M. Hall, Rosalie J. Slater and Benjamin Hart. But the most successful have been two preachers in Massachusetts – Peter Marshall and David Manuel – and a Texas politician and self-taught history buff, David Barton.
The former are best known for their book “The Light and the Glory” (1977), followed by “From Sea to Shining Sea” (1986) and “Sounding Forth the Trumpet: God’s Plan for America in Peril 1837-1860” (1997), all of which maintain that God chose America to be a shining example to the world and he intervened repeatedly in the nation’s early history to achieve his intended purposes.
Barton has generated a raft of books and videos through his WallBuilders organization that focus on America’s founding as a specifically Christian nation and the undermining of that birthright through the “myth of separation” of church and state.
None of these men is a trained and credentialed historian, yet the Texas State Board of Education employed both Marshall and Barton as consultants in the effort to rewrite the textbook standards. Rather than draw upon the expertise of trained and competent American historians, of which Texas is blessed with an abundance, the board looked to quacks, as the medical profession would label such amateurish interlopers in its field, for guidance.
This pseudo-history has so infected the public discussion of America’s past in conservative religious circles that parishioners are fed a gruel of platitudes and nonsense.
A short essay cannot begin to analyze and refute the nonsense that is out there, but I would recommend a two-part article by Stephen M. Stookey, titled “In God We Trust: Evangelical Historiography and the Quest for a Christian America,” in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, spring and summer 1999. His 60-page treatise deserves to be published as a booklet and widely disseminated to counter the historical propagandists of the right.
He identifies the major personalities and their books and shows the pervasiveness of “theonomist” and “dominionist” thinking in these. He dissects such themes as presuppositional methodology, the role of the Puritans, illusions about the orthodoxy of the Founding Fathers, the use of spurious and phantom quotations from them, the apocryphal stories of their prayer and piety, and the misunderstanding of “original intent” in the founding documents. The many pious authors quote each other as sources and provide the most exasperating examples of circular reasoning.
For them, the story of Christian America is one of a covenant gained and lost. They issue a clarion call for us to reclaim the original covenant. If this is done, all will be well in America again.
The problem is that the message they preach is false. There is no golden age to which we can return. The use of this sort of political action to save the nation, as the Texas schoolbook revisers are now trying to do, cannot accomplish its goal.
Instead of facing the realities of our time, acknowledging our national limitations and striving to change our country so that its benefits may be made available to all, the Christian Americanists seek to draw us back to a past that never really existed. Their falsification of history in the name of Jesus is an ends-justifies-the-means approach that is doomed to failure, and we are all the worse off for their misguided efforts.
Richard V. Pierard is professor of history emeritus at Indiana State University. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C.