Happy History

To Religious Right Groups, The United States Is God's Favorite Nation — And It Has Never Done Anything Wrong

It’s May, and for many high school students that means one thing: It’s time to take Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

The barrage of testing is something of a springtime ritual for many high school students across the land. Teenagers take AP exams to prove that they are able to handle the more challenging work they will encounter in college. In some cases, students can earn college credit while still in high school by taking AP courses.

AP exams, therefore, are rigorous, and the task of preparing students to pass them now supports an entire industry. Raising the stakes even higher, AP success is often essential to winning a coveted slot at an elite university.

But if some ultra-conservative groups have their way, that could change very soon.

Most people, when they think of public school curriculum battles, focus on science education – and with good reason. The campaign to teach “intelligent design” in addition to evolutionary theory has long been a staple fight for Religious Right activists.

Now, they’re increasingly expanding that campaign to include the study of U.S. history. Spearheaded by controversial figures like David Barton – a man responsible for a history of Thomas Jefferson so slanted and inaccurate that its Christian publisher, Thomas Nelson, pulled it from shelves – they’re pushing for a new version of American history. This faux history supports the assertion that the United States is a “Christian nation,” and it’s based on concepts closely tied to the idea of “American exceptionalism,” the assertion that the United State has a unique relationship with God and that its endeavors are therefore blessed.

That perspective doesn’t lack critics. But it’s still popular in far-right circles, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Barton and other figures affiliated with the Religious Right. And it has begun to influence education policy.

AP courses cover topics such as science, the arts, math, English and world history. But it’s the U.S. history course that has sparked a right-wing rebellion.

Conservative legislators in several states have launched a series of attacks on the College Board’s new AP U.S. History (APUSH) framework. These critics claim the standards aren’t accurate because they exaggerate negative moments in American history and downplay the influence of Christianity. Some want to ban the courses entirely.

The backlash is so extreme that the College Board, the private, independent entity that develops the courses, did edit the curriculum late last year. But those adjustments haven’t satisfied everyone.

Among the discontents: the Georgia Senate.

Voting on strict party lines, Georgia state senators passed a resolution in March recommending that the state immediately ban all APUSH courses from public school. SR 80 is necessary, sponsors claim, because the College Board’s revamped curriculum promotes a left-wing, “radically revisionist” perspective on American history.

In an opinion column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, State Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) slam­med the new standards for having a “leftist” slant and defended SR 80 as a noble effort to “depoliticize” classroom instruction.

“While the previous APUSH course defined the theme of Identity as ‘[v]iews of the American national character and ideas about American exceptionalism,’ the new Framework omits American exceptionalism and instructs teachers to pay ‘special attention… to the formation of gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities,’” he wrote. “This theme – oppression of and conflict among identity groups – is the lens through which much of American history is taught. Gone is America as the great melting pot; it is the boiling pot.”

Ligon has allies outside Georgia. The Oklahoma House Education Committee passed a bill this year that would eliminate state funding for the AP classes and allow schools to replace the curriculum with alternative materials deemed sufficiently patriotic by state legislators.

“In essence, we have a new emphasis on what is bad about America,” carped state Rep. Dan Fisher (R-Oklahoma City). Fisher has an al­t­ernative vision for history education in the state: In place of APUSH, Fisher proposed that students read the Ten Commandments, the sermons of Puritan minister John Winthrop and the speeches of President Ronald Reagan. (The speeches of Democratic presidents were not included in the bill.)

In interviews with the Guardian, several Oklahoma high school students objected to the bill’s characterization of APUSH classes.

“I don’t believe that the government should be censoring what’s taught in history because you want strong leaders, and the future presidents of tomorrow are probably currently in AP U.S. history – or will take it at some point – and you want to emphasize the negative parts [of history] so they know what to fix,” student Moin Nadeem told the British newspaper.

Fisher is now reworking the bill in response to a backlash, but it’s still up for a vote before the full House and observers believe its final version is unlikely to be friendly to the College Board.

In Texas, the State Board of Education (SBOE) also came out swinging against the standards. One board member, Ken Mercer, accused the College Board of “censoring things.”

“A word search of the entire 98-page document will not find one military commander or one Medal of Honor recipient. Our best and brightest students will thus learn nothing of the heroism and sacrifices of Americans in uniform,” Mercer wrote on TexasGOPVote.com, a Republican web­site, last year. “For today’s patriots, this is our Valley Forge and our D-Day – this is the Revolution of 2014!”

Mercer published his online rant just weeks before the SBOE held a series of public hearings on proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools.

As previously reported in Church & State, critics like Americans United claimed that the Texas texts already over-emphasize America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” and assert that Moses had directly inspired the Founding Fathers. The SBOE itself is responsible for that controversial content; in 2010, it passed standards requiring textbooks to praise capitalism and question the concept of separation of church and state.

In the midst of these hearings, the SBOE passed a resolution calling on the College Board to once again revise its framework, leading some observers to conclude they hoped to hold APUSH to the same standards they established for regular social studies instruction.

Legislators in Nebraska and Tennessee have also launched attacks on APUSH. North Carolina’s state school board is taking a critical look at the curriculum, and in Colorado, the Jefferson County School Board just halted its own investigation into the course’s content. According to The Washington Post, school board members had originally hoped to make sure that the course promoted “citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” The school board now insists that the College Board’s edits to the original framework have satisfied its concerns, which makes it something of an outlier.

But what does the framework actually say?

Church & State conducted a comprehensive review of the edited guidelines, which yielded no evidence that students are required to hold, and subsequently defend, a left-wing perspective on historical events. Below are excerpts taken directly from the framework, which is publicly available on the College Board’s website. (It’s notable that in Section II, which outlines the curriculum’s learning objectives, the College Board takes an explicitly apolitical stance.)

“Note that these thematic learning objectives are written in a way that does not promote any particular political position or interpretation of history,” it states.

The guidelines also state that the historical concepts presented in the course are “open to differences in interpretation” and added that the AP’s free-response sections “frequently give students the flexibility to ‘support, modify, or challenge’” concepts at will.

As for specific topics: The framework does recommend lessons on colonialism and its impact on indigenous people. That includes instruction on the various misdeeds committed by European colonists. In fact, it’s considered one of the course’s “key concepts” to grasp. Students are asked to consider the following information: “European attempts to change American Indian beliefs and worldviews on basic social issues such as religion, gender roles and the family, and the relationship of people with the natural environment led to American Indian resistance and conflict.”

The framework also addresses the civil rights movement in some detail, and that forms the basis of another recent criticism.

Georgia’s Ligon used his op-ed to take aim at the College Board’s “exclusion” of Martin Luther King Jr. “In the first version of the Framework, we [legislators] protested the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King was excluded from the section on Civil Rights while the Black Panthers were included,” he asserted.

But there’s one problem. The framework doesn’t specifically recommend the exclusion of any historical figure, let alone King.

“For example, AP teachers reviewing the concept outline clearly identified which concepts called for inclusion of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but they were uncertain what examples might be effective for the teaching of Concept 8.2.III.C (attacks on postwar liberalism),” it explains, “Therefore, the Committee inserted a gray box for that concept, suggesting the examples of Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. In no way does this signal that it is more important to teach the Black Panthers than Martin Luther King, Jr.” (Emphasis added.)

Even though there seems to be little factual basis to support their claims, the critics of the AP U.S. History course aren’t backing down. That’s partially because national groups are stoking an ongoing fight as another front in the culture war over public schools.

The anti-APUSH campaign appears to be based primarily on a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in August last year. That resolution asked the College Board to delay implementation of the curriculum. It also pressured state legislatures to investigate the matter in greater depth.

There’s also support for the campaign in the private sector, primarily from one conservative group. The American Principles Project (APP) vocally opposes the APUSH standards and has appeared frequently in coverage of the subject. Its rhetoric also strongly resembles that of the RNC. On its website, the APP calls the new guidelines a “leftist polemic that presents American history in a relentlessly negative light.” Staffer Jane Robbins complained that “every trace of American exceptionalism has been scrubbed” from the course.

The APP has strong ties to the Religious Right. It was founded by Prince­ton University’s Robert P. George. George, a conservative Cath­o­lic, serves as the chairman of the U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom and has publicly attacked abortion rights and marriage equality. Maggie Gallagher, who co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, also serves as a senior fellow.

But some experts disagree with the APP, the RNC and other APUSH critics.

Dr. Ben Keppel, an associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, told Church & State that he has reviewed the standards and supports both their content and the framework’s learning objectives.

“I do not object to any of it,” Keppel said. “I think that to have this be defunded or considered a threat to good teaching and good citizenship is wide of the mark.”

Keppel, who worked with Oklahoma’s Department of Education to help design the framework, also called it “sophisticated” and argued that the suggested lessons are a realistic introduction to the study of history.

“History is a process,” he added. “It’s not just a matter of memorizing key texts, memorizing the names of people.”

To Keppel, the curriculum’s content appropriately reflects American history. Lessons about the impact of colonialism on Native American tribes aren’t included to promote a political agenda, he said, but aim to teach facts about the North American continent’s often turbulent history.

“This has always been a multicultural, multiracial society,” Keppel explained.

As this issue of Church & State went to press, the College Board hadn’t indicated whether it will make further edits to the framework but supporters of secular public education, like Keppel, remain troubled by the possible implications of the anti-APUSH campaign.

“I’m afraid that if AP is weakened and defunded, these groups that come after general education would be even stronger,” he said.

And he warns that the rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” isn’t far removed from the “Christian nation” narrative.

“I think the issue of American exceptionalism has roots in the idea that America was founded by God, and has a unique place in the history of the world,” Keppel said.

Proponents of this view “want to believe that America is the center of the universe – God’s country,” he added. “It’s a rigidly theological approach to American history.”