Kathleen Wellman’s new book begins with a quote from historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “History is to the nation as memory is to the individual,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books 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 denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.”
We see echoes of Schlesinger’s words in the current school board fights over banning books and debating critical race theory. These words also remain relevant, Wellman argues, because conservative Christian activists and organizations have been at work revising American history in ideological fashion for decades, and imposing their version on hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. Her book, Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why it Matters, examines a series of popular right-wing curricula designed specifically for this task.
Wellman is the Dedman Family Distinguished Professor and Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Southern Methodist University. She specializes in the history of science and culture in early modern France. Her previous books include Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France and Making Science Social. Eric C. Miller spoke with Wellman about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: 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?
Kathleen Wellman: 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.
R&P: 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.
R&P: 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.
R&P: 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.
R&P: How do these texts handle matters of race in American history?
KW: It’s no accident that these curricula have come out of the South and were first embraced by Southern segregation academies. Their treatment of slavery and the Civil War still includes elements of the Lost Cause mythology—the enslaved were well-treated and exposed to Christianity, Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were heroic men of honor, etc.
Remember that the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party has been shaped by racist dog whistles dating back to Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy. The recent panic stoked over critical race theory should be understood against that backdrop. Certain right-wing organizations and candidates have worked to gin up the fears of white parents, apparently, that a candid presentation of American history will harm their children’s feelings. It’s a response to the emphasis on slavery in The 1619 Project’s history of America as well as the completely ahistorical reply in the 1776 Project. It plays on basic questions of what America is and what history school children should be taught. I’m really not sure 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 heading into the midterms.
R&P: In all of this, conservatives seem to have constructed a metanarrative about history and their own importance within it. Do you see it gaining traction in the public sphere beyond the classroom?
KW: Absolutely. Some of the strongest positions these curricula take are widely diffused in school board meetings, on the floors of state legislatures, in the sermons of megachurches, and the speeches of political candidates. They include claims 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 its history entirely admirable. Many of their views are central to rising Christian nationalism, which maintains these arguments as endorsed by God and supported by the Bible.
R&P: What concerns you about the popularity of this material going forward? What sort of problems do you see on the horizon?
KW: Entirely too many, frankly. Every Christian should be concerned about the concerted attempt to narrow Christianity to a right-wing, fundamentalist message, and that’s exactly what these curricula are designed to do. The complete rejection of any notion of charity, or collective responsibility, or commitment to the common good as a foundation for Christianity is deeply disturbing, and its ramifications for a society are dangerous as well. The fact that these curricula are so skeptical about science is bearing fruit in our failure to respond adequately to the Covid-19 pandemic. This belief that the United States has been chosen by God, that God works through a chosen nation, and that therefore anything this nation does or has done is beyond questioning, is perilous. I think any curriculum that looks hopefully toward “end times” is bound to harm our collective response toward global crises like climate change. In short, this sort of teaching is bad for all of us, from kids to parents to citizens to politicians to the nation as a whole.