By Hannah Santos
Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters by Kathleen Wellman, Oxford University Press, 384 pp.
Textbooks do not contain God-given truths. From drafting, to editing, to adoption into the classroom, each step in the textbook production process is subject to social, political and economic influences. Nowhere is this truer than in history classes. History textbooks represent a collective memory – defining who we are as a nation and who we should strive to be – making them an eternal battleground for contentious culture wars.
In her recent book, Hijacking History: How the Christian Right Teaches History and Why It Matters, Kathleen Wellman investigates the presentation of World History as characterized by the textbooks of three Christian publishers – Abeka, ACE and Bob Jones University Press. Wellman, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University, analyzes the implications of their messaging, arguing these textbooks, which are commonly used in private Christian academies, present oversimplified histories crafted to serve contemporary conservative interests and fail to provide students with rigorous historical analysis
More specifically, Wellman asserts these textbooks codify a “fixed beliefs mindset” in which God is the singular historical causation. By cherry-picking historical narratives and oversimplifying nuanced issues, these Christian publications boil down all historical conflicts to a rejection of biblical inerrancy, or the belief that scripture is infallible. This incomplete education, she warns, has wide-reaching ramifications for political, economic and social conflicts within the U.S. The so-called truths embedded within these histories fuel contemporary debates including but not limited to increasing skepticism of scientific expertise, threats to social welfare, the rise of Christian Nationalism and, of course, the separation of church and state.
Wellman begins her analysis by considering the baseline theological assumptions made within these textbooks. What does it mean to be a “Christian” textbook? Whose Christianity is being represented? Although the authors claim to speak from a nondenominational Christian perspective, Wellman reveals their significant bias towards Protestantism. Their historical narratives consistently delegitimize and demonize other forms of Christianity, especially Catholicism, upholding Protestant theology as unequivocally true.
One of the most central theologies affirmed throughout these textbooks is the Calvinist claim “God works through human history to achieve His ends.” This assertion alarms Wellman. Academic historical analysis traditionally draws upon multiple perspectives of causation, leaving room for critical debate. In these textbooks, however, biblical inerrancy is the foundation on which history is built, meaning all historical accounts that do not complement scripture are deemed illegitimate.
In other words, the history presented by these Christian publishers subverts academic historical analysis by relying upon a singular notion of historical causation – God. As a result, history class becomes a proselytizing experience.
In the subsequent chapters, Wellman walks her reader through the World History textbooks, beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending in the modern United States. Her analysis illuminates how the authors use popular myths, biblical text proofing and excessive abridgement to simplify nuanced histories into one-dimensional narratives that directly serve contemporary conservative interests.
One such interest is the condemnation of scientific discoveries that contradict biblical claims. When discussing the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, textbook authors judge scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, not by the merit of their discoveries but by their personal religious piety. According to these authors, all scientific efforts not made in pursuit of biblical inquiry should be dismissed. If a discovery conflicts with biblical inerrancy, it is deemed illegitimate. Simply put, “science is possible only if the scientist is a Protestant.”
Wellman is also concerned about the characterization of the American Revolution, namely the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Textbook authors depict the Founding Fathers as devout Christians, despite ample evidence many of them were “religious liberals, deists, … or deeply suspicious of religious enthusiasm.” Promulgating these highly selective caricatures upholds conservative interests in Christian American Exceptionalism, attributing America’s economic and political successes solely to God’s intervention. This mythical characterization not only erases the religious diversity of the country but encourages students to view America as a Christian nation whose progress is only due to the religious devotion of God’s elect.
Embedded values of Christian American exceptionalism reemerge in depictions of U.S. foreign relations. The United States is portrayed as the global model of God’s elect – a City on a Hill. As God’s chosen nation, U.S. interventions abroad are considered, by definition, morally righteous.
For example, U.S. interventionism, particularly missionary work, is depicted as “entirely and unquestionably positive.” By celebrating these foreign relations without any acknowledgment of the legacy of violence, economic devastation and genocide linked with American colonialism, these Christian publishers erase generations of trauma in favor of a recklessly distorted history.
Additionally, these textbooks assign moral judgment upon foreign nations entirely depending on their accordance to American (and, by extension, Protestant) policies and values. From Russia to Rome, nations that do not adhere to the “correct” Christian values are condemned. In Wellman’s words, “whether a country and their leaders adhere to the social agency of Christian conservatives determines whether they are good or evil.”
The most worrying takeaway, however, is these textbooks’ unequivocal praise of capitalism coupled with the demonization of social charity. According to these curricula, capitalism is God’s means to reward and punish, meaning economic poverty is a result of personal sin rather than systemic inequality. To offer charity or social aid – through personal donation, tax reform and even international aid – is thereby interfering with God’s plans and should be discouraged. Social charity, according to the textbooks, is unbiblical and will only lead to socialism and Satan.
By perpetuating the notion that only God can respond to social ills, these textbooks encourage apathy and inaction in the face of injustice. Any challenge to the capitalist system is interpreted as a challenge to God’s authority. This mindset, Wellman asserts, upholds racist and classist hierarchies, yet is taught to children without critique.
Wellman ends her book on a call to action, insisting that “bad history matters.” These textbooks do not simply exist in the private sphere. These lessons are being preached to our youth who will soon take leadership roles in our society and perpetuate harmful ideas grounded in false narratives. From pop culture to policy, this “bad history” directly fuels the most virulent strains of Christian Nationalism in our country.
Hijacking History is an ambitious project that covers a vast amount of historical content while staying grounded in contemporary issues. At the end of each chapter, Wellman concisely connects the historical narratives presented in the textbooks to modern policy debate. While her expertise shines through her analysis, she writes in language accessible to those without a history or religious studies background. Her close readings and conclusions are concise, insightful and often sobering.
One avenue of further exploration that would bolster Wellman’s argument is an examination of the negative space within these narratives. In particular, how do Christian publishers’ exclusion of certain historical characters reflect and perpetuate patriarchal and racist power structures? Who is missing from these histories? What individuals, communities and events do Christian publishers deem unworthy of a World History textbook? What does this absence implicitly claim about whiteness and masculinity, and how might these claims serve contemporary conservative interests? Although Hijacking History gestures toward these issues, substantial engagement with narratives that deify whiteness and masculinity would enhance and reinforce Wellman’s claims.
With the nation having just passed the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, this is a powerful book for our moment. Wellman expertly exposes the dangers of these histories and urges Americans to stay alert about unconstitutional examples of religion in public school curricula. Christian nationalists are keenly aware of the efficacy of education to expand their power through indoctrinating a new generation. We cannot allow false histories to go unchallenged. There is no time to lose.
Hannah Santos is a member of Americans United’s Youth Organizing Fellowship. She is a current Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School and holds a B.A. in religious studies and history from Brown University.