Righting America

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Hijacking History: An Interview with Kathleen Wellman | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Book cover for Kathleen Wellman’s Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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. 

3. One of the things I love about Hijacking History is its attention to detail, with thirteen chapters organized chronologically from “The Beginning of History” to “The Righteous Right.” Surely there were moments in your research when it was painful to record the appalling nonsense (my phrase) that these books convey. How did you muster the intellectual and emotional stamina to do this work?

I grant you that the historical narrative I relate from prehistory to the present is often disconcerting and cumulatively quite disheartening. While it is full of “appalling nonsense,” as you call it, even the most bizarre particulars contribute to a coherent world view that was fascinating to uncover. I was intrigued by what I learned by putting the claims these textbooks make into historical context and tracing their development over time. Studying them gave me an opportunity to explore the history of religion in America from the Puritans, through the First and Second Great Awakenings, through the preeminence of Protestantism in American public life in the nineteenth century, through the separation of fundamentalists from evangelicals, to the political mobilization of the religious right at the end of the twentieth century. As these textbooks map the evolution of evangelical and fundamentalist ideas onto their world history, it was important to explore that history. I also investigated the history of education in the United States, particularly the curricular wars fought over the teaching of history. These curricula played a vital role. Created to serve the so-called “segregation academies” of the 1970s, which were created in response to desegregation and Supreme Court rulings against Bible reading and prayers in school, these textbooks subsequently appealed to parents who wanted to protect their children from the counterculture of the 1960s and more recently from multiculturalism. I studied how conservative politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders forged a symbiotic relationship post-World War II: politicians used religion to repudiate social programs that might dilute their political power or wealth; religious leaders used politics to advance their vision of a Christian nation as well as their political influence and wealth. I wanted historians and American citizens to know about this narrative because of its serious threats to our democracy. It rejects religious toleration and pluralism and the separation of church and state. It urges acceptance of political leaders as God’s anointed and the status quo as a sign of His will. It even rejoices in natural disasters as eagerly awaited signs of the apocalypse. The need to tell this story gave me a sense of urgency; it seemed to offer a specific but useful vantage point from which to view our contested present. Since the publication of the book in October 2021, some ideas these textbook promote, which initially seemed surprising or even nonsensical, have become more widespread in public discourse, reflected primarily in overt assertions of Christian nationalism.

4. In this regard, could you mention two or three “historical” details that you found most disturbing?

There are so many disturbing “historical” details that it is hard to pick just two or three, but here are a few. The commitment to elements of the Lost Cause myth with the idealization of the Confederacy and white Southern culture, with its concomitant downplaying of slavery and endorsement of white supremacy, is especially disturbing. As a historian who studies France, I could not overlook their deep antipathy to France, which they denounce as heretical (read Catholic), sinful, socialist, and the antithesis of virtuous, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon (read white) England. It was particularly jarring to have disastrous events explained as punishment for sins, most notably that World War I and World War II were divine punishments for the adoption of biblical modernism by German Protestant theologians. Finally, despite the obvious political stance of these educational materials, I was taken aback by how overtly partisan they are, especially in treating the period after the religious and political right allied. They describe Republican presidents as strong leaders who advance effective foreign policies and moral values; Democratic presidents are weak, their policies undermine the status of the United States and the moral standards of its citizens.

5. I am particularly struck by the moral callousness that comes through in these textbooks, particularly (but not only) regarding slavery, colonialism, and capitalism. But notwithstanding this moral callousness, these textbooks purport to be Christian. Do you have some explanation of this? How do these textbooks understand Christianity?

Moral callousness is an apt term to characterize the stance these textbooks take and cultivate in students. Their discussions of slavery and colonialism most forcefully reveal it. Those specific examples define how Christians should see those most unlike them in race and religion. These textbooks foster a kind of Christian superiority vis-à-vis other peoples and cultures. They presume that God shares their religious and political views. They erode empathy and cultivate intolerance, while, at the same time, urging the conversion of individuals and the imposition of their version of Christianity on the world. They connect Christianity explicitly (and rather unbelievably) to capitalism: God condemns socialism and endorses capitalism. The study of world history then reveals a divinely-ordered playing field where God determines economic success or failure. Christianity thus construed is loosely tied to Calvin’s notion of the elect and to his presumptive signs of election but deployed to harshly condemn the unsuccessful as ungodly. These economic arguments have roots in the division among nineteenth-century evangelicals.. Some were deeply committed to social action and public charity. Others, primarily in the South, rejected the Social Gospel largely because it would threaten the social structure of the segregationist South. These histories align with the earlier views of Southern evangelicals and attack every measure taken to provide for the poor as subverting God’s plan for man, from Roman “bread and circuses” including every American social program from the New Deal to the Great Society to the Affordable Care Act. They condemn movements for workers’ rights, civil rights, and women’s rights. Redress of social ills is not the proper concern of Christians. To claim that the Bible has no social message and that Christians must not intervene in the social and economic reality God has constructed profoundly distorts Christianity. Nonetheless, these are the essential political and economic positions these textbooks take. And while Christianity is harsh, judgmental, and uncharitable, Christianity affirms American exceptionalism: America was founded as a new Christian nation; God’s favor blesses America’s foreign interventions and sanctifies (or whitewashes) its domestic history. Even these few examples reveal connections between the Christianity of these textbooks and the moral stance they cultivate—complacency at best, complete callousness at worst. 

6. Where else do you see this fundamentalist history in other discussions of education? What purposes does this fundamentalist education serve in contemporary politics?

When I began to work on this book, I thought the Texas standards for history were anomalous. As I explored these curricula, I found aspects of their narrative being promoted in contemporary politics, largely because they so successfully fuse their ideas about Christianity to the political right. Recent attacks on the teaching of history in public school and upon certain books in libraries directly conform to positions these textbooks advance. State legislatures and school boards assert with ever greater vehemence that America is a Christian nation and should be again. The recent Supreme Court ruling in Makin v. Carson required Maine to use public funds for explicitly religious education. The furor over critical race theory, a legal theory not taught in any American public school, allowed parents to object to teaching about slavery or race relations in American history, and state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting it and any subject that makes students uncomfortable! Florida is paying public school teachers to attend a “civics education” program, essentially an indoctrination in Christian nationalism. The 1776 project, initiated under Donald Trump to contest the 1619 Project’s insistence on the preeminence of slavery and African American culture in American history, instead largely excised slavery from American history. The founders, according to this history, opposed slavery and intended to establish a Christian nation. Hillsdale College developed school standards based on the 1776 Project for states, which will impose essential tenets of these textbooks on public schools that adopt them. Proposals for voucher programs intend to both advance this history and to defund public schools offering a counternarrative. Efforts to privatize education serve the financial interests of the political right, by creating opportunities for private investment of public funds. All of these measures will expand the diffusion of these textbooks, as have existing voucher programs, with this unorthodox history. Its wider diffusion serves right-wing political and religious interests by promoting as “Christian” a history which idealizes Republican economic policies. It will allow this history to define “real” Americans and “real” Christians—categories increasingly significant in American public discourse.

7. As I noted in my post about your book, you make a powerful argument that “bad history matters” (298). And then you conclude Hijacking History with suggestions as to how we might combat the effects of this “bad history.” Could you say a little more about what we might/should do?

The perniciousness of this narrative demands refutation, especially since the implications of the Christian-nation thesis, according to some of its proponents, require that only Christians hold public office and that Jews and non-Christians be excluded from public life. Historians can and should confront this narrative wherever it occurs. Historical studies of Christian nationalism, its roots and its dangers to democracy, have begun to appear, but they need to be better known.  Journalists too have made the Christian Right a more frequent topics of op-ed pages. But their views need to garner as much attention as those generated by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and incredibly effectively disseminated through right-wing media. His two most noteworthy attempts to generate cultural outrage in advance of the midterm elections include the purported crises of sexual education as “grooming” and teaching about slavery as CRT. Similar media savvy should be deployed against the Christian-nation argument and its attendant claims.

Educators at all levels and others opposed to the imposition of this historical narrative should pay attention to politics at the local level. They need to be aware that school board elections have long been a focus of the Republican party’s efforts to undermine public education and impose historical narratives like these. Well-organized local opposition can thwart even well-funded efforts. A national commitment to campaign finance reform could reduce the role of money in politics and thus diminish its role in local elections.

Christians, Christian churches, and religious leaders should resist efforts to redefine Christianity in ways that conform to these curricula. They should repudiate the political use of churches by the Republican Party, which includes church-issued voting guides and sermons giving explicit instructions on how to vote. While the “big tent” notion of evangelicalism makes criticizing other Christians or specific pastors or churches particularly difficult, they should recognize the existential threat this politization of religion poses. Christianity is being redefined in ways that make it deeply unattractive to those who reject the values and ideas of these curricula. To the extent that Christianity becomes Christian nationalism and its adherents “real Christians,” the message of the Gospel is subverted and Christianity distorted into a political message fueled by grievance and hatred. This prospect should galvanize a concerted rejection of this message by Christians and their leaders.  

8. What research project(s) are you working on now? Are you staying with the Christian Right, or are you taking a break?

I remain interested in participating in public discussions of efforts to spread the narrative advanced in these textbooks. I recently analyzed a draft of world history standards proposed for consideration by the State Board of Education and was pleased to see that the draft standards are both more inclusive and less tendentious than the former standards. I see the issues surrounding history teaching as a focus of my on-going advocacy and political engagement but not of another scholarly project, at least not at this point. Instead, I am returning to my earlier research interests in eighteenth-century medicine and philosophy to study how a group of French physicians contributed to the emerging Enlightenment movement in France.