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The Appallingly Bad History Taught at Fundamentalist Schools | Righting America

by William Trollinger

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

If you know anything about history, this post will make you laugh and/or cry.

And/or make you angry. 

And the latter emotion is particularly appropriate.

In her book, Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters, Kathleen Wellman (Professor of History at Southern Methodist University) reports on world history textbooks produced by Abeka Books (published by Pensacola Christian College), Accelerated Christian Education [ACE], and Bob Jones University Press [BJU]. These textbooks are popular among fundamentalist homeschoolers and are often adopted at fundamentalist Christian schools. 

For example, the Answers in Genesis K-12 school, Twelve Stones Academy, uses the BJU text.

Wellman heroically examines these texts in great detail. Why did she subject herself to such a painful task? As she notes in her introduction, these fundamentalist textbooks

have an influence that has extended far beyond the confines of fundamentalism . . .  Their views, as indeed the textbooks insist, increasingly define American Christianity. These curricula’s narrative of Christian history has been grafted onto right-wing political and economic positions. And right-wing political interests have promoted these views. (2)

Here are just a few examples from Hijacking History:

  • “These textbooks label [ancient] Africa the Dark Continent . . . ‘the fear, idolatry, and witchcraft associated with animism’ [Abeka text] prevented African economic and cultural development” (74).
  • “The Abeka curriculum claims the Greeks made no progress in science, even though Greek scientific works set the standard for virtually every science for over fifteen hundred years . . . [More generally, Greek] civilization was fundamentally flawed, and their efforts ultimately produced no benefits.” (83)
  • According to ACE, “God never sanctioned communism. The early church practiced a limited form of socialism, but it was 1) voluntary, 2) short-lived, and 3) for a specific situation. Socialism promotes laziness which is definitely contrary to Scripture’ . . . [and] ‘private property and individual labor are parts of God’s plan for our lives.’” (160)
  • “In articulating the theology of the Mass, the early Christians became pagans, and so they remain until the arrival of Luther, as these errors ‘grew and developed into the false teachings and practices of the medieval church’ [Abeka text] . . . The early Christians were Protestants until they became paganized Catholics.” (88)
  • According to the BJU text, “Mohammed was inspired by Satan.” (89)
  • The ACE text “frequently prais[es] gender inequality in the past; it approves of the historical restriction of women to the domestic sphere to reinforce it in the present.” (104)
  • “The Middle Ages experienced a ‘distorted form of Christianity,’ and the Renaissance merely created beautiful art while promoting pagan philosophies. Only the Reformation would free Europe from Catholicism and revive biblical Christianity, ‘which had been suppressed though never destroyed by leaders of the Roman church through the Middle Ages’ [Abeka text] . . . These educational materials essentially dismiss 1500 years of history as little more than a waiting period between the earliest Christianity and the coming Reformation.” (106-107)
  • “The Abeka textbook [claims] that Isaac Newton was ‘a devout Christian’ who tried ‘to imitate in his mind the divine simplicity by which God governs the universe.’ Newton, an avid practitioner of alchemy, numerology, and other occult sciences, held heterodox religious views at the very least.” (129) 
  • ACE concludes [that] ‘in spite of his lip service to Roman Catholicism and his probably Jewish background, Christopher Columbus was very possibly a secret Christian.’ He lived up to his name ‘Christ-bearer,’ intending to bring Christ’s teachings to the lands he explored. Columbus thus becomes a proto-Protestant missionary to the New World . . . [More than this,] ACE continues to teach the patently false claim that Columbus was one of the few who believed that the world was round . . . contend[ing] that Columbus came to believe that the earth was round by understanding the biblical passage in Isaiah 40:22, ‘it is God that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.’ The Bible gave Columbus privileged knowledge unavailable to his contemporaries, particularly heretical Catholics.” (131-132)
  • “The stance of these curricula on the eighteenth century could not be clearer: the BJU history concludes its chapter by ridiculing the ‘age of reason’ for its irrational fashions; the Abeka text textbook declares unequivocally, ‘The Enlightenment was a new Dark Ages.’ That claim of a ‘new Dark Ages’ is more common and more insidious than one might assume, as its current use among white supremacists attests. It rests on the assumption that all modern-day problems derive from the end of the Middle Ages with its presumably white, homogeneous society in the West.” (152)
  • “Native inhabitants of the New World are scarcely mentioned. The BJU textbook merely notes the five tribal regions with ‘no knowledge of the one true God.’ The Abeka history claims that Native Americans had been dispersed in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel and ‘forsook the things they knew about God.’ Certainly, the colonists’ harsh treatment of Native Americans has no part of this heroic tale.” (163)
  • “Another tack these textbooks take is redefining the ‘revolution’ out of the American Revolution . . .  For the BJU curriculum, the success of the revolution was ‘due to its conservative nature, rather than a ‘rebellious’ nature.’ It further deradicalizes the revolution as a simple tax protest . . . In these textbooks, one would hardly know that a revolution against the British occurred. The Abeka textbook suggests that it was almost inadvertent: ‘George III proclaimed the colonists to be in rebellion . . . In effect, the American colonies were thrust out of the British Empire.’ Those who participated did so extremely reluctantly, [as they were guided by] ‘biblical values.’” (176)
  • “These textbooks . . . proselytize for a Christian nation by reducing the intellectual complexity of the period to a set of claims: (1) the founding of the nation was untainted by the Enlightenment except insofar as that movement can be Christianized; (2) the American Revolutionary War was a minor protest and not a revolution at all; (3) the leaders of the new nation were orthodox Christians who shared a vision of a Christian nation; (4) documents central to the nation’s founding reflect this commitment.”  (187)
  • According to Abeka, “religious revival made England’s economic success possible but for a bizarre reason. Before John Wesley, the English depended on astrology to know when to plant their crops, but Wesleyanism eliminated superstition and thus completely altered the economic terrain and ‘work was given a new sense of nobility.’” (191)
  • “The Abeka curriculum even claims that, because of the social and institutional benefits British colonialization provided, none of her colonies wanted [independence] but hoped instead to become ‘Little Britains . . . enjoy[ing] the Christian influence that made Victorian England great.’” (194)
  • The BJU textbook approvingly quotes William McKinley’s quote that “’the Philippines had dropped into our laps’ [and as] they were unfit for self-government . . . there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all [and] uplift and civilize and Christianize them.’ Unmentioned is the ensuing three years of war with approximately 200,000 civilian deaths.” (200)
  • “The BJU textbook uncritically describes slavery as integral to Southern culture. While noting the obvious disjuncture between slavery and ‘all men are created equal,’ it points out that, on the eve of the Civil War, ‘some even insisted the Southern slave culture cultivated the virtues of honor, courage, duty, and dignity.’ It also comments, ‘Slavery also provided educated Southerners the time to better themselves intellectually.’” (201)
  • “The Abeka history identifies Andrew Carnegie as a hero who understood the benefits of capitalism in terms reminiscent of modern trickle-down economics: ‘the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford.’ The efforts of robber barons ‘brought manifold benefits to others . . . they not only provided thousands of jobs but also stimulated other industries.’” (204)
  • “The BJU textbook insists unequivocally that the New Deal did more harm than good. It claims that, although it provided temporary relief, the New Deal was ineffective and failed to end the Depression or provide any real economic recovery . . . Roosevelt’s policies put the United States on the wrong path with ‘increased government involvement in economic and social matters, accelerating the trend in the United States toward a welfare state.’ It ‘introduced the United States to socialism.’” (240)
  • “These curricula largely exculpate Europeans who supported fascist regimes. According to the BJU history, most Italians were not fascists; they were simply tired of the unrest caused by labor unions and socialists. Many Germans were simply distressed by the economic situation, due to high government spending and the resulting government debt.” (242)
  • “These Christian histories have no quarrel with McCarthyism. The Abeka history commends McCarthy’s efforts to expose communists in government and Hollywood: ‘He came under severe criticism and personal attack, but many of his conclusions, although technically unprovable, were drawn from the accumulation of undisputed facts.’” (252)
  • “Despite the obvious and well-recognized injustice of [Rhodesia’s] practice of racial segregation and suppression of the Black majority, ACE essentially endorses apartheid: ‘Rhodesia was accused repeatedly of being an all-white, racist regime, which was totally false.’ It compares Rhodesia to the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution: white Rhodesians, with the virtues of early Americans, were subjected to ‘terrorist attacks by Communist guerillas.’” (259)
  • These textbooks “question the rationale and benefits of the US civil rights movement. The Abeka US history textbook notes that Southerners resented federal officials telling them what to do. ‘Segregation had become a way of life, and both white and black Southerners had a difficult time changing their ways,’ it explains. Furthermore, Black Americans ‘did not believe’ they were treated fairly. For these textbooks, social problems are based on the misperceptions of the aggrieved, who inaccurately believe they suffer and fail to understand sin as the source of their suffering.” (263-264)

What these textbooks are doing is very much in keeping with the dreadful 1776 Report

Quoting from Wellman’s powerful conclusion:

Bad history matters. It empowers, as these textbooks do, myths with powerful resonance in contemporary settings. Bad history refuses to tell truths that might embarrass a nation. It empowers nationalism at the expense of a patriotism grounded in a more capacious or measured understanding of a nation’s history. Bad history justifies actions that might otherwise be condemned as anathema: for example, repression of religious or ethnic minorities. The mythic founding of a Christian nation has been used to assert white nationalism and has incited hate crimes against Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and ethnic minorities. Neo-Nazis and the alt-right have put bad history from the Lost Cause of the Confederacy to anti-immigrant crusades of the nineteenth century and present-day America back on our streets.

Fundamentalism. The gift that just keeps giving.