Earlier this week my mom forwarded me this link about a resolution that has been brought forth in the Oklahoma Senate. To summarize, the resolution would ban the United States History AP test due to its failure to promote American Exceptionalism and its greater focus on the experience of minorities, who have often been treated badly in US history. A similar resolution was introduced in Georgia recently, as well, in response to a new version of the AP test, which lawmakers feel presents a “radically revisionist view of American history.” An additional 3 or 4 states have experienced controversy about this test in the last year.
The articles about the resolution sent me into full rant mode. There’s so much I could say about the dangers of only teaching a version of history that promotes patriotism and a view of America as a superior, Godly country. In efforts to narrow my ranting, I want to discuss this issue in terms of my faith as a Christian, my passion about the importance of history, and why (perhaps ironically) I think that pushing the idea of an exceptional, Christian America is significantly un-Jesus-like.
The very basis of American Exceptionalism goes against Jesus’ teachings. Part of the revolutionary aspect of the gospel was that God’s love was unbiased and not limited to a chosen people. By stating that Americans are consistently in the moral right because of our religious traditions acts as if to say that ours is a chosen nation and therefore we can do whatever we want. This is incredibly dangerous thinking; thinking that has led to a vast number of atrocities committed in the name of Democracy and Christianity, despite the fact that Christ himself preached non-violence, self-sacrifice, and taught us to love our enemies.
The lawmakers’ concern about the “radically revisionist view of American history” being presented in the AP course material problematically privileges one view of American history over all others and promotes it as “true.” My first thought was that clearly none of these lawmakers could have studied history any time in the last 40 years. One of the first things I learned about history in college is that there is no single “true” version. There are facts, there are events, and no matter what your source, these facts and events will always be presented through the lens of someone’s bias. “Revisionism,” until recently used as a dirty word, is the process of going back and looking at the facts and events we have long been taught through a different lens. This lens is often that of women, minorities and the poor– people who could not control how their history was preserved at the time. One of the Oklahoma lawmakers, Representative Dan Fisher, is part of a group that further objects to the AP History test on the basis that it embodies a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective” (Source). In Proverbs 31:8-9, we are told to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” How then, is an inclusion of the stories of women and minorities an exclusion of the Christian perspective? By seeking to bring silenced voices and their stories into mainstream historical consciousness, revisionism promotes compassion and a deeper understanding of the complex nature of history.
However, complexity is scary for many of us. It leaves room for questions to which there is no right answer and stories in which no one is really the hero. It’s simpler to believe that things are black and white, and if we believe that then the impulse to write ourselves in as the heroes is incredibly strong–because the only other option is that we’re the villains. This, I believe, causes incredible amounts of anxiety about teaching “the right” history (that’s a pun, by the way, think about it). Here is another way in which, I believe, Jesus’ teachings play into this question of simplifying and censoring our history. I believe that Jesus calls us to something so much bigger than what we can perceive, that there is no room for fear to drive our actions. Attempts to restrict what is taught so that only what we believe will make “patriots” out of our students is a fear driven action and doesn’t promote the understanding or reconciliation that Jesus taught us to pursue.
Finally, if we teach our children that America is a wonderful, Christian nation that always does the right thing in the end and erase the histories of hundreds of thousands of people in doing so, we do not build for ourselves a future in which we can live in harmony with members of our own communities, let alone with people all over the world. Stories are one of the most powerful tools we have to effect change, if we silence the stories of those who experience injustice at our hands, we give up the opportunity to do the right thing and embrace change. If we only tell ourselves what we want to hear then we never grow. This is not what Jesus calls us to. We are called to compassion and growth, to be free from fear and able to embrace the complexity of life on Earth.