Jeff Sharlet: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeff Sharlet is a Contributing Editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine, “Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s Most Powerful Megachurch,” appeared in the May 2005 issue.]

We keep trying to explain away American fundamentalism. Those of us not engaged personally or emotionally in the biggest political and cultural movement of our times—those on the sidelines of history—keep trying to come up with theories with which to discredit the evident allure of this punishing yet oddly comforting idea of a deity, this strange god. His invisible hand is everywhere, say His citizen-theologians, caressing and fixing every outcome: Little League games, job searches, test scores, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the success or failure of terrorist attacks (also known as “signs”), victory or defeat in battle, at the ballot box, in bed. Those unable to feel His soothing touch at moments such as these snort at the notion of a god with the patience or the prurience to monitor every tick and twitch of desire, a supreme being able to make a lion and a lamb cuddle but unable to abide two men kissing. A divine love that speaks through hurricanes. Who would worship such a god? His followers must be dupes, or saps, or fools, their faith illiterate, insane, or misinformed, their strength fleeting, hollow, an aberration. A burp in American history. An unpleasant odor that will pass.

We don’t like to consider the possibility that they are not newcomers to power but returnees, that the revivals that have been sweeping America with generational regularity since its inception are not flare-ups but the natural temperature of the nation. We can’t conceive of the possibility that the dupes, the saps, the fools—the believers—have been with us from the very beginning, that their story about what America once was and should be seems to some great portion of the population more compelling, more just, and more beautiful than the perfunctory processes of secular democracy. Thus we are at a loss to account for this recurring American mood....

The Christian nation of which the movement dreams, a government of those chosen by God but democratically elected by a people who freely accept His will as their own, is a far country. The nation they seek does not, at the moment, exist; perhaps it could in the future. More important to fundamentalism is the belief that it did exist in the American past, not in the history we learn in public school and from PBS and in newsmagazine cover stories on the Founders but in another story, one more biblical, one more mythic and more true. Secularism hides this story, killed the Christian nation, and tried to dispose of the body. Fundamentalism wants to resurrect it, and doing so requires revision: fundamentalists, looking backward, see a different history, remade in the image of the seductive but strict logic of a prime mover that sets things in motion. The cause behind every effect, says fundamentalist science, is God. Even the inexorable facts of math are subject to His decree, as explained in homeschooling texts such as Mathematics: Is God Silent? Two plus two is four because God says so. If He chose, it could just as easily be five....

The first pillar of American fundamentalism is Jesus Christ; the second is history; and in the fundamentalist mind the two are converging. Fundamentalism considers itself a faith of basic truths unaltered (if not always acknowledged) since their transmission from Heaven, first through the Bible and second through what they see as American scripture, divinely inspired, devoutly intended—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the often overlooked Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which declared “religion” necessary to “good government” and thus to be encouraged through schools. Well into the nineteenth century, most American schoolchildren learned their ABCs from The New-England Primer, which begins with “In Adam’s Fall/We sinned all”—and continues on to “Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments.” In 1836, McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers began to displace the Primer, selling some 122 million copies of lessons such as “The Bible the Best of Classics” and “Religion the only Basis of Society” during the following century.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, the most irreligious decade in American history, that public education veered away from biblical indoctrination so thoroughly that within a few decades most Americans wrongly believed that the nationalism of manifest destiny—itself thinly veiled Calvinism—rather than open piety was the American educational tradition. The movement now sees that to reclaim America for God, it must first reclaim that tradition for Him, and so it is producing a flood of educational texts with which to wash away the stains of secular history.

Such chronicles are written primarily for the homeschoolers and the fundamentalist academies that together account for at least 2 million of the nation’s children, an expanding population that buys more than half a billion dollars of educational materials annually. “Who, knowing the facts of our history,” asks the epigraph to the 2000 edition of The American Republic for Christian Schools, a junior-high textbook, “can doubt that the United States of America has been a thought in the mind of God from all eternity?” So that I would know the facts, I undertook my own course of homeschooling. In addition to The American Republic, I read the two-volume teacher’s edition of United States History for Christian Schools, appropriate for eleventh graders, as well as Economics for Christian Schools, and I walked the streets of Brooklyn listening to an eighteen-tape lecture series on America up to 1865 created for Christian college students by Rousas John Rushdoony, the late theologian who helped launch Christian homeschooling and revived the idea of reading American history through a providential lens. [1]...

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James Renwick Manship - 10/18/2007

What facts did you come to know from your homeschooling course?

You mention that "course" at the end of your article, and are critical at the beginning of your article.

Do you accept or reject the facts you learned in this homeschooling course you took?

Chris Cook - 10/10/2007

It sounds like Mr. Sharlet has a bone to pick with Christianity. Instead of a thoughtful, balanced look at Christians and education, this article seems like a platform for him to vent and flame religion in general.