President Donald Trump speaks during the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on September 17, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

On September 17, President Donald Trump announced he was establishing “the 1776 Commission,” a plan to “promote patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum.” Trump defined his commission against critical race theory and The New York Times Magazines 1619 Project, which examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. He claimed that such projects “teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” To teach critical race theory to children, in his view, was tantamount to “child abuse.” Instead, he declared, the 1776 Commission would develop a curriculum “that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”

The truth, according to Donald Trump, is that the United States is “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” That claim is more surprising than it might seem. Five years ago, he flatly denied that America was exceptional and described the idea as insulting. He told no histories of America (apart from the vague sense that it was once great), never talked about the Pilgrims, never compared America to a “city on a hill,” and did not hearken back to 1776 or the idea of America’s “immortal principles.” Instead, Trump based his first campaign on the idea that America was falling behind the rest of the world. “America First” portrayed the nation as a place of carnage needing a savior to set it straight.

Now, as Trump tries to “Keep America Great,” he has turned his cry of “America First!” back toward the language he once opposed. In particular, Trump has pitched his weight behind exceptionalist histories of the nation that bring him almost full circle to the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.

In the last political speech of his presidency, President Reagan called for an “informed patriotism” with “more attention to American history.” Like Trump, he worried about parents who refused to teach their children an “unambivalent appreciation of America.” Like Trump, he laid the blame on modern, leftist indoctrination in schools: “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion,” Reagan said, “but what’s important.” The “fashionable” was any history unappreciative of America; the “important” stuff was whatever made it great—or at least, whatever Reagan thought made it “great” (his two examples were the Pilgrims and Jimmy Doolittle).

In his new pitch for a patriotic education, Donald Trump is also clearly pandering to his white evangelical base, which came into its own as a political force during the Reagan years. Many white evangelicals have long been suspicious of public school education. And polls show that white evangelicals are the least likely among religious groups to believe in systemic racism—which the 1776 Commission aims to debunk. Just as importantly, many white evangelical leaders embrace a history of this nation that sees it not just as great, but as sacred.

Such language could not be missed in Trump’s remarks establishing the 1776 Commission. He called the National Archives “the sacred home of our national memory.” He claimed to be defending “the immortal principles of our nation’s founders.” He called for a curriculum that would teach “the miracle of American history.” He said the nation’s youth should learn “to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” And he promised to “save this cherished inheritance for our children, for their children, and for every generation to come.”

All these lines parallel Scripture. In Exodus 12, God calls on the Israelites to remember their deliverance and pass it on to their children and to their children’s children in the Promised Land. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus commands, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Trump’s speech redirects this language of religious devotion, usually reserved for God, to the nation.

It might seem counterintuitive, but that is what so many in his white evangelical base want. It is no accident that Vice President Mike Pence likewise rewrote Scripture to commend a sacred love of the United States. Many evangelical leaders, as they progress through their careers, turn their attention to (false) retellings of history that baptize the American founding and portray American citizens as God’s chosen people, elected to uphold the truth of Christianity through the power of the United States. A career that may begin with writing useful devotionals and books about Scripture or Christian living eventually becomes one that speaks primarily to American history and politics. If a male, white evangelical leader has enough followers, sooner or later he feels compelled to write a history of 1776.

This pattern is not new. Francis Schaeffer, for example, began his work founding the L’Abri community in 1955 in the Swiss Alps and writing on all kinds of topics—theology, ethics, art, and more. That was not enough. Eventually he had to write A Christian Manifesto (1981), a book almost wholly lacking in accuracy or scholarly rigor, which claimed the formative influence of Samuel B. Rutherford on the American founders. Through Rutherford, Schaeffer argued that the civil government of the United States had formed largely under the auspices of Christianity. As always, the consequences were clear: A loss of Christianity in the broader culture meant the loss of America itself. Schaeffer was taken to task by evangelical historians like George Marsden and Mark Noll—reminding us that evangelicals are not all alike and that Christian historians regularly rise against false history—but this pattern for popular evangelical writers has often been repeated.

These days we see it playing out in evangelical leaders like Eric Metaxas and Os Guinness. Most know Metaxas today as the firebrand “court evangelical” propping up Trump while writing inaccurate histories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and—of course—the American founders. But Metaxas actually began his career not with history but with a book called Everything You Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask). As his influence rose, he turned to history. Os Guinness spent a lifetime writing thoughtful books to Christian audiences about all kinds of subjects, including the church, community, vocation, and Scripture. These days he’s writing about—you guessed it—American history.

The trajectory traced by leaders like Schaeffer, Metaxas, Guinness, and others is common enough to raise a basic question: Why do so many white evangelicals link a love of God to a particular view of American history? Why does the nation itself need to be rewritten as sacred in order to shore up the church?

The answers are many, including business interests (as Kevin Kruse has written about), the legacy of a Cold War binary with an atheistic competitor, and evangelical views of gendered power (as Kristin Kobes Du Mez has recently described so well). The origins of American religious nationalism go back a long way (as Sam Haselby shows), but the idea of a basically sacred nation, Christian at its core, remains an essential plank in the creed for many white evangelicals today.

Now, as a large number of white evangelicals have come to define Trump’s power base—and as the president has pitched his rhetoric and campaign primarily toward shoring up that base—Trump, like so many evangelical leaders, has turned to American history.

The extent of that transformation can be seen in Trump’s RNC speech in August. Comparing Trump’s major speeches from 2016 to the present day shows just how much he has shifted toward American exceptionalism. Yet even as he embraces Reagan’s rhetoric, his re-telling of American history is—incredibly—even whiter and less multicultural than Reagan’s. Reagan at the very least talked of immigrants from all lands seeking America’s shores. He touted the United States as a place of asylum. He described John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor, as looking for freedom in the same way as a refugee in the South China Sea. No one could claim that Reagan embraced critical race theory, but his speeches now and then recognized that multiple races make up the fabric of American history.

As Trump rounded out his long RNC speech, his exalted rhetoric did no such thing. “Our American ancestors,” he declared, “sailed across the perilous ocean to build a new life on a new continent.” The enslaved, we learn, are not part of this tale. After arriving, Trump continued, “our” American ancestors “picked up their Bibles, packed up their belongings, climbed into covered wagons, and set out West for the next adventure.” Native Americans, we learn, are not part of this tale. Once out west, Trump persisted, “our” heroic, Bible-wielding ancestors staked a claim “in the wild frontier,” building “beautiful homesteads on the open range.”

Again and again, Trump’s history of America includes only the deeds of white people (and only some deeds at that). A new life on a new continent. An open range. A frontier “wild” with a faceless foe. And all of it tamed, settled, and built by heroes with Bibles in hand, establishing churches across the land. The 1619 Project is not without its problems. But to counter the 1619 Project, Trump has begun telling a history of the U.S. that reveals exactly why we need it in the first place. In Trump’s telling, “our American ancestors” are largely Christian and largely white—just like his base.

What we see in Donald Trump’s recent embrace of American exceptionalism, in other words, is that evangelicals have reshaped Trump as much as Trump has reshaped them. The influence has gone both ways. In 2016, as I have noted elsewhere, the phrase “city on a hill” drove a wedge between the Reagan remnant and the tribe of Trump. In 2020, the tribe of Trump has turned him back to Reagan’s rhetoric of a Christian America embraced by his evangelical base.

There are many reasons that so many evangelicals remain committed to Trump. Most commentators have talked about the way evangelicals love a bully who will stand up for their cause. But as much as Trump is the evangelicals’ bully, he has also become their puppet.

Abram Van Engen is Associate Professor of English and an affiliate faculty member in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. His most recent book is City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism.