It’s no secret that Americans’ collective historical knowledge is lacking — distressingly so. Myriad studies indicate that we don’t know when the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written, that we would fail our own country’s citizenship test, and that we don’t know who the president was at major points in history.
No country can preserve its institutions without an understanding of what those institutions are and how they came to be. Much of the blame for our ignorance falls on our nation’s public schools. Indeed, with social justice teachings proliferating in colleges around the country, it’s no surprise that basic civic and historical knowledge has been swept aside.
But we cannot blame all of America’s civic woes on public schools. In their efforts to counter the effects of woke education, some evangelical private schools have adopted curricula that butcher history just as badly. Similar to how Howard Zinn’s socialist work, A People’s History of the United States, frames American history in the context of how the oppressed interacted with their oppressors, some versions of evangelical history view American history through the lens of a godly Christian people interacting with (and conquering) heretical or pagan civilizations.
While there’s nothing intrinsically harmful about evangelical history and parents should certainly have the right to enroll their kids in schools that teach whatever they prefer, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many evangelically-oriented schools teach misleading history simply because it’s misleading on the other side. As the culture war has consumed education, many on the right assume that public schools teach history incorrectly while private and parochial schools teach history correctly. This assumption is a false dichotomy.
In some cases, the problems with evangelical history are factual. One textbook claimed that Protestant theologian John Calvin was a critical figure in the 18th century Enlightenment. Yet Calvin died in 1564, and if anything, the Enlightenment reflected a shift away from Calvinist thinking. Another textbook, published by Bob Jones University and meant for 8th graders, argued that the defeat of the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines was an example of God providing North America “as a place for the Protestant Reformation to flourish.” Regardless of one’s views on divine providence, the connection here is tenuous at best; England’s first successful North American colony at Jamestown would not be founded for another two decades.
Perhaps the most egregious example comes from a high school textbook published by Accelerated Christian Learning (ACE). They had the following to say about Reconstruction:
“Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south…In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.”Accelerated Christian Learning, 2011
The “great southern leaders” and members of the “old aristocracy” were men who owned hundreds of people, and fought a war that killed 600,000 Americans so they could keep owning people. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t founded to protect the South from anarchy, it was founded to restore a sociopolitical order rooted in slavery. (And they partially succeeded.)
It would be nice if we could dismiss these examples as isolated, but they aren’t. In fact, they reflect a far larger problem: that there are powerful evangelical historians who seem determined to make America’s founding something it wasn’t.
Some Christian historians, like David Barton, who was once vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, are determined to mine whatever sources necessary to determine that America was designed as a Christian state as opposed to a nation with Christian influences. As historian Barry Hankins put it, “[A]ny statement uttered by a Founding Father that is positive toward religion is used [by Barton] to show that they were all Christians and that they all intended the United States to be Christian.”
Hankins continued, “He makes little distinction between a statement supporting the basic moral program of Christianity, something even the unorthodox [Thomas] Jefferson could say, and one that would actually affirm the historic tenets of the Christian faith that made it unique, such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.”
That’s a distinction that matters. It’s one thing to support good Christian morality and another entirely to support a Christian state. Saying that the founders supported the latter oversimplifies the complexity of their religious backgrounds. In addition, the assertion completely ignores how immigration has stamped out any cultural homogeneity that may have previously existed.
These deviations from historical accuracy grow more infuriating with how much evangelical history has to offer. Classical Conversations’ curriculum has been a boon for homeschool families, and maintains an understanding of both American and world history that is firmly Christian while not misinterpreting historical events. There are dozens of scholarly works that do a good job grappling with America’s relationship with Christianity. Drawing on these would provide balance and intellectual honesty.
Evangelicals shouldn’t have to choose between faith and history. A combination is achievable. However, many have chosen to promote their faith at the expense of basic historical knowledge. We all know that woke education is problematic, but a dramatic swing to the “patriotic” or religious extreme won’t solve the underlying issue of civic illiteracy.