Christian textbooks used in thousands of schools around the country teach that President Barack Obama helped spur destructive Black Lives Matter protests, that the Democrats’ choice of 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton reflected their focus on identity politics, and that President Donald Trump is the “fighter” Republicans want, a HuffPost analysis has found.
The analysis, which focused on three popular textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press ― looked at how the books teach the Trump era of politics. We found that all three are characterized by a skewed version of history and a sense that the country is experiencing an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies. Language used in the books overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.
Scholars say textbooks like these, with their alternate versions of history and emphasis on Christian national identity, represent one small part of the conditions that lead to events like last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol, an episode that was permeated with the symbols of Christian nationalism. Before storming the Capitol, some groups prayed in the name of Jesus and asked for divine protection. They flew Christian and “Jesus 2020” flags and pointed to Trump’s presidency as the will of God. The linkage between Christian beliefs and the violent attack on Congress has since pushed evangelical leaders to confront their own relationship with Trump and their support for the rioters.
“These textbooks made this brand of nationalism more mainstream,” said Kathleen Wellman, a Southern Methodist University history professor who is working on a book about the two Christian publishers. “I’m struck by how coherent of a worldview [the textbooks] promote and how thoroughly it resonates in current culture.”
Representatives from BJU Press and Abeka did not respond to inquiries about how many schools use their products. However, a 2017 HuffPost investigation found that about one-third of Christian schools participating in private school choice programs used a curriculum created by these two publishers or a similar company called Accelerated Christian Education, amounting to around 2,400 schools. The number of schools using these company’s products that do not participate in a voucher program likely amounts to thousands more. (Voucher programs allow students to use taxpayer funds to attend private schools.)
Both Abeka and BJU Press have ties to Christian colleges. Abeka was launched in the 1970s by Arlin and Beka Horton, who also founded Pensacola Christian College, a Florida institution that outlaws dancing and other “satanic practices,” such as astrology. BJU Press is affiliated with the evangelical Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, which famously lost its tax-exempt status after banning interracial dating in the ’80s, a policy it didn’t reverse until 2000.
“We unequivocally condemn any rhetoric that promotes illegal or violent behavior,” Amy Yohe, managing editor of Abeka Publishing, told HuffPost. “One of Abeka’s core goals is to teach constructive citizenship through textbooks that accurately represent the facts of history, enabling students to learn from the life lessons it teaches, both positive and negative.”
BJU Press did not respond to requests for comment.
However, scholars who study religion in America say that many of the ideas present in the publishers’ textbooks overlap with rhetoric heard from the rioters last week. Christian nationalists argue that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and has a special covenant with God, meaning that its citizens must implement a particular vision for this country or they will fall out of favor with God. The textbooks parrot these ideas, said Andrew Whitehead, associate professor of sociology and director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
“As we see in these textbooks, they’re afraid of outside forces or the U.S. won’t be what it should be,” said Whitehead. “There’s always a particular prescription ― they have to be on God’s good side. I think that’s a big part of it.”
Passages from the textbooks reflect an overarching worldview in which America is constantly moving away from a moral center, with Christians on the front lines beating back the forces of immorality.
One passage in an 11th-grade U.S. history textbook from Abeka states, “Although many false philosophies were popular in America before 2000, the new millennium heralded a dramatic acceptance of immoral ideology on a national scale. … Three such philosophies are globalism, environmentalism, and postmodernism.”
“Believing religion — particularly Christianity — to be divisive, globalists discourage its influence on public life,” it continues.
By parroting such conservative political views under the guise of Christianity, the textbooks give those views more legitimacy, making it difficult to distinguish between fact and opinion. While all textbooks, including the secular, cherry-pick narratives and have their biases, these ones fuse a religious worldview with Trumpian talking points using anti-media and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“Obviously it’s too simplistic to say these textbooks are causing people to think something, but they play a unique role in giving visual credibility to these ideas by having them be in a very traditionally trustworthy artifact,” said Adam Laats, professor of history and education at New York state’s Binghamton University. “There’s a sense that they couldn’t put it in a schoolbook if it wasn’t true.”
HuffPost’s previous investigation of these textbooks found that they also dismiss evolution as junk science, characterize Nelson Mandela as a “marxist agitator” who helped drive South Africa to “radical affirmative action,” and suggest that Satan hatched the idea of modern psychology. Many of the schools that use these books also ban LGBTQ students and families, and the books repeatedly condemn homosexuality. At one point in an Abeka textbook, slavery is described in purely economic terms, saying that “slaves seemed to be better investments than indentured servants.”
“I absolutely thought of these textbooks when watching what played out last week,” Wellman said. “It’s the anti-science culture, anti-elite, the identification of Christianity with military culture.”
When discussing protests against the Iraq War and President George W. Bush’s low approval rating at the time, the Abeka 11th-grade U.S. history book points the finger at the media in part, saying that “much of the war opposition in America was the media, supported by a large number of Hollywood entertainers,” and that “spurred on by the media, many Americans wanted a change from the policies of the previous eight years.”
When discussing President Obama, the textbooks accuse him and his administration of stoking racial divisions. Below is a passage from that Abeka history book:
“Many Americans’ views about race relations had improved at the time that Obama was inaugurated. Unfortunately, Americans’ views of race relations declined after Obama came into office. Race riots in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, greatly escalated racial tensions and worsened strife between minorities and local police. President Obama’s attempts to resolve these problems often seemed to make the situation worse.”
The books do not mention that such protests came in response to the deaths of unarmed Black men, including Michael Brown and Freddie Gray Jr., at the hands of police.
A high-school-level textbook from BJU Press also blames the Black Lives Matter movement for racial discord. It says:
“Despite President Obama’s call for racial harmony, his eight-year term of office saw an intensification of racial discord. Several controversial shootings of black men led to protests, some of which were violent and destructive with black communities bearing the brunt of most of the destruction. Groups such as Black Lives Matter sharpened the divide between police and citizens, and black and white, with divisive rhetoric. Mixed messages from the Obama administration, the Department of Justice in particular, seemed to increase the racial discord.”
The textbook does not mention that those “controversial” shootings were at the hands of police officers or explain the societal changes Black Lives Matter is trying to achieve with its supposedly “divisive rhetoric.” The book does not lay out for its teen readers what those “mixed messages” from the Obama administration were.
Other targets of the textbooks include “globalists,” environmentalists and “multiculturalists.”
“According to multiculturalists, advancing the achievements of western civilization was an act of hatred toward other cultures. They encouraged people to define themselves by race, sex, or sexual orientation rather than by the pillars of western civilization, such as nation, family, and God,” reads the Abeka American history textbook. “However, many conservatives and Christians within America have attempted to quell these philosophies and once again turn America into a united, moral nation.”
The textbooks don’t give a full-throated endorsement of Trump, noting his crude remarks and previously liberal positions, but they ultimately represent him as someone on the side of Christians who is fighting for their values. One description from the Abeka textbook reads:
“Contrary to the high hopes that Obama’s presidency would bring the country together, Americans were bitterly divided leading up to the election in 2016. The Democratic Party had become increasingly concerned with identity politics, which is the idea that a person’s race, sex, and sexual orientation form the most important parts of their humanity and that politics should reflect that belief. Republicans, meanwhile, believed that their politicians had been too compromising with the increasingly radical left and that they needed a political outsider who would not back down or compromise with the Democrats.
“... The Republican Party nominated real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump from New York, whose determination and bombastic mannerisms gave Republicans the fighter they wanted. As a businessman, Trump stated that he would ‘take the brand of the United States and make it great again.’ However, many conservatives were wary of Trump because of his occasional vulgar speech, his past immoral behavior, and his public support of homosexual marriage; but some were persuaded by Trump’s choice for his running mate — Indiana’s conservative governor Mike Pence.”
Evangelical Christians were one of Trump’s most important voting blocks. Though white evangelicals only represent about 15% of the electorate, they made up about 23% of the vote during the 2020 election, according to the Associated Press. About 8 in 10 white evangelical Christians voted for Trump last year.
Images from the Capitol riot felt more familiar than shocking to 28-year-old Mel Garman, who grew up attending evangelical Christian schools.
There were the Christian flags, like the ones she used to pledge allegiance to in school, waving alongside American flags. The rioters’ rhetoric, focused around saving the country, defeating enemies and promoting the will of God, could have come straight out of one of her childhood classrooms, where she said she was taught a distorted version of history with nods to white Christian supremacy. Last week’s insurrectionists could have been her classmates, her teachers, her pastors. She felt a wave of recognition as she watched the pictures on social media.
“Over the course of my life I can see how what I was taught in Christian schooling has impacted me, and the riots on Jan. 6 played into it. That whole belief system revolves around the idea that you want the rest of the world to think like you,” said Garman, who is now a social worker. “It’s a ‘the ends justify the means’ type of thing.”
Since Jan. 6, popular pro-Trump evangelical leaders have felt driven to judge the rioters’ actions, with some offering full-throttle condemnations and others issuing more temperate responses.
“The Secret Service had to escort the vice president of the United States to safety out of the Capitol building. Gunshots were fired. Tear gas was deployed in the Capitol Rotunda. People were killed. ... This was an assault on law. Attacking the Capitol was not patriotism; it was anarchy,” said Rev. John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio during his Sunday sermon, before going on to rally support for law enforcement, according to the Associated Press.
Miles away in Kentucky, Brian Gibson, pastor and founder of His Church, blamed the riot on antifa agitators, a conspiracy theory for which there is no evidence.
“You don’t get 2 million people together without having some radicals in the crowd or some simple people in the crowd that you could lead anywhere, right?” he said, also greatly exaggerating the size of the crowd that day.
In other places, teachers in public schools that don’t rely on Christian textbooks are struggling to explain to their students the dynamics that allowed such violence to occur. In Chicago, high school teacher Raven Althimer discussed the harsh realities of the insurrection with her students, who are Black.
“They think of when they had Black Lives Matter over the summer, peacefully protesting, and were tear-gassed. People are literally storming the Capitol and nothing is happening to them,” Althimer told HuffPost. “One of my students said, ‘If 20 of us had done that, we all would have been dead.’ I said, ‘No, 20 of you wouldn’t have even gotten that close.’”