Kathleen Wellman on How the Religious Right Hijacked History

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, textbooks, religious right, teaching history, Christian Nationalism

Kathleen Wellman is Dedman Family Distinguished Professor of History and Altshuler Distinguished Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern Methodist University. She is also the author of Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2021). You can read my post on this terrific book here. We at rightingamerica are very pleased that Wellman was willing to be interviewed about Hijacking History. 

1. What prompted you to research and write a book on what is taught in high school history textbooks produced by fundamentalist publishers? I gather from your introduction that Texas – particularly, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards – played a role in your decision to conduct this research. Could you also say something about that?

Hijacking History was not a book I would have ever imagined writing. I am an early modern Europeanist. My earlier scholarship focused on intellectual history, the history of science, and the history of women in early modern France. But every ten years the State Board of Education of Texas establishes standards for instruction. Some standards for world history of the periods of history I know best were simply bizarre. One standard stipulated that Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin be discussed as important Enlightenment figures who had a profound impact on the founding fathers—a claim both inaccurate and anachronistic. Other standards insisted that Moses was a prime influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that Mosaic law is fundamental to our laws. When the Texas Freedom Network, a non-partisan organization committed to religious freedom, individual liberties, and public education, recruited scholars to evaluate educational material produced to conform to the standards, I discovered that publishers had actually not been able to figure out how to incorporate Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin beyond listing them as important religious figures, which of course they are. They did, however, claim Moses as a significant source of the crucial documents of the American founding and of American law. When I began to investigate possible sources of these rather bizarre ideas about the eighteenth century, I became familiar with the fundamentalist textbooks published from the 1970s onwards—the focus of my book. They not only repudiate the Enlightenment but also affirm the importance of Moses and John Calvin to the founding of America. According to these textbooks, Moses provides a bedrock for the Christian-nation thesis and John Calvin a foundation for the Founders’ deep sense of sin, which meant they realized that human society was irremediable. Most importantly, these textbooks defined a consistent but disconcerting historical narrative. Their market has expanded from Christian schools, to homeschooling, and increasingly to publicly funded voucher programs, making them even more significant than their fifty-year history suggested.

2. How do these textbooks understand and present “history,” and how is their approach at odds with what historians actually do?

These histories proudly differentiate themselves from others: they claim to present the Truth. Historians would not do so. They understand that their work explores the past by raising new questions about it and uncovering new evidence. They also understand that the present shapes historical investigation. Just one example: changes in climate have led to more intense exploration of environmental history. Historians study change over time and appreciate that their work contributes to a development or change in our knowledge of the past. Historians do not begin with tenets of faith, unlike these textbooks, which proclaim their authors’ faith as crucial. History, according to them, tells the story of how God has dealt with human beings through time. They trace a series of God’s providential relationships with His Chosen People from the Jews of the Bible, to Reformation Protestants, to present-day Americans. Their faith allows the writers of these textbooks to differentiate the godly from the sinful through biblical “proof-texting.” That is, history is a narrative of faith corroborated by the Bible—the crucial key to historical interpretation. These textbooks, unlike the work of historians, dismisses much of human history and denigrates most human accomplishments. Only human efforts undertaken to support “biblical truth,” meaning evangelical Protestantism, are godly and have any value; all others reflect sinful “humanism.” Therefore, the ancient world, except for Jews of biblical times, is of little interest, the Middle Ages dismissed as heretical, and modern culture denounced as secular or evil. These histories also make judgments about the past from the perspective of current religious and political right-wing ideas and values, which they consider both unquestionably Christian and as reflections of unchanging biblical truth. The writing and teaching of history thus becomes religious and political proselytization rather than a historical investigation of the past. 

Read entire article at Righting America