Pat Robertson, American History Textbooks, and Free Market Love

Editor's Note: This post was supposed to have gone up a while back -- apologies to John Fea for not posting sooner. This might also be read in tandem with my post from Friday on the Giuliani/Robertson alliance and the blogosphere's response to "The Evangelical Crackup."

Pat Robertson, American History Textbooks, and Free Market Love

John Fea

If you have not heard by now, Pat Robertson has endorsed Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008. The press is baffled. The rest of the Christian Right is baffled. The Christian left is baffled. I have yet to see a response from James Dobson and the rest of the Christian Right, but on the Christian Left Jim Wallis weighed in rather quickly on his Sojourners website. Wallis excoriates Robertson’s support of Giuliani, calling the endorsement “unprincipled hypocrisy.” Check out this scathing excerpt:

What exactly goes on in Pat Robertson's head has puzzled many of us for a long time. This endorsement ranks as one of the most unprincipled in recent political memory. Maybe principles never mattered much to Pat Robertson after all. Perhaps the pro-business economic conservatism of the Republican Party was always more important to the televangelist than saving unborn lives. Robertson's longstanding support of murderous Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and his diamond investments thanks to Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko speak louder than words when it comes to Robertson's ethic of life. And that's not to mention the more than $400 million Robertson's empire made when he sold his International Family Network to Rupert Murdoch, after building it on tax deductible contributions of thousands of CBN donors, many of modest means. He has been putting profits over principles for years.

Wallis may be right. Or maybe Robertson can’t bring himself to vote for a Mormon. Or perhaps his support of Giuliani is explained by the simple fact that he can’t stand Hillary. If I were a betting man I would say that the pursuit of political power might be involved somehow. (You think?) Indeed, the endorsement is as puzzling as Robertson’s claim to have leg pressed 2000 pounds.

But if Wallis is correct when he says Robertson’s endorsement is driven by his commitment to the “pro-business economic conservatism of the Republican Party,” it should not surprise us. Since its birth in the mid-1970s, the agenda of the Christian Right has been inseparable from traditional Republican issues such as tax cuts, free market solutions to social problems, and military defense. This is why it seems out of the realm of possibility that Robertson, Dobson, and company would support Hillary or Obama over Giuliani, despite the fact that both of these Democrats have been much more interested in integrating Christian faith and policy than the former New York mayor.

My intention is not to debate whether or not Republican economic principles are compatible with Christianity. (There are well-argued positions on both sides—some more convincing than others). What interests me here, however, is the way that the Christian Right uses history, particularly history schoolbooks, to educate their constituency in free market and other republican principles. Recently I have been reading through the colonial and revolutionary-era sections of American history survey texts published by some of the leading Christian Right textbook publishers. What I expected to find in these secondary school texts were unending references to the way God has providentially intervened in history on behalf of the United States. While there is plenty of this stuff there, I was also struck by the way the authors strongly push free market principles by weaving them into the historical narrative.

Because of time and space, just one example will have to suffice for now. In United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom, published by A BEKA, a subsidiary of the very conservative Pensacola Christian College, I found more passages pushing the importance of free market principles than I did references to God’s providential intervention in the nation’s affairs. (For those who are unfamiliar with A BEKA, it is one of the most popular publishers of home school and Christian school textbooks). Here are a few excerpts from the chapter on colonial America:

On the problems at Jamestown:
Jamestown’s biggest problem was the common-store system established by its charter. Under this communal system, each man was required to place the fruit of his labor in a common storehouse, and each was entitled to receive food and supplies from the storehouse according to his needs. In reality, the industrious workers were required to provide for the idle. With everyone benefiting from the common storehouse but few contributing to it, the food supply was quickly depleted. America’s first experiment with a form of communism failed miserably.

On the eventual survival of Jamestown:
The key reason for Virginia’s new prosperity was a chance in the basic economic system. Recognizing the failure of communal living, the leaders of Jamestown abandoned the common-store system and gave each man a parcel of land on which he could produce his own food. In essence, Jamestown adopted a system of private enterprise (capitalism). Under a capitalistic system, individuals are free to make a living and prosper on their own enterprise (initiative)…Private enterprise would become a cornerstone of America’s greatness.

On Plymouth Colony:
Plymouth grew and prospered under Governor Bradford’s leadership, particularly because of an important decision he made in the spring of 1623. The Pilgrims’ original charter had established a communal, or common-store, system, similar to the early system of Jamestown. This system had failed in Jamestown, where greedy men spent their time seeking wealth instead of working to produce food. But even in Plymouth, where most of the people had a deep Christian commitment, the communal system promoted a lack of diligence and efficiency and threatened to destroy the colony in its infancy. To solve the problem, Governor Bradford divided the land among the colonists and made each family responsible for itself, establishing a free enterprise system….. Americans learned from the experience of Plymouth that, even among the godly people, the free enterprise system is far superior to the communal system (Socialism or Communism). After Bradford instituted free enterprise in the colony, Plymouth began to prosper.

Granted, the first edition of the textbook was written in 1982 (I consulted the second edition, published in 1996, which no longer seems to be in print), so conservative Christians would have been concerned with distinguishing themselves economically from the Soviets, but these explanations for the success and/or failure of Jamestown and Plymouth are also obviously driven by a belief that the success of the colonies can be attributed to free market principles and capitalism no matter how anachronistic those terms might be to describe 17th century British-American life.

In the end, Robertson endorsement of Giuliani is “unprincipled” only if abortion and homosexual marriage, and stem cell research are more “principled” than tax cuts, free markets, and limited government. Wallis clearly thinks they are. So do Dobson and Southern Baptist spokesperson Richard Land. But with Robertson I am not so sure.

So Giuliani gets the nod. Something tells me that many viewers of the 700 Club—those liberty-loving free market Christians who learned their American history in home-schools and fundamentalist academies-- will not be too disappointed with the decision.


DEG said…
Just out of curiosity, John, how do those textbooks treat slavery?
John Fea said…
Since I have only focused on the pre-1790 portions of these texts, I cannot speak to antebellum slavery. But I can say that colonial slavery is mentioned, but plays no significant role in the narrative. It is basically an "and oh, yes, there were slaves too" sort of coverage. (Some of Bob Jones's texts, ironically, do a better job than others--especially one's written by Mark Sidwell). Some texts do not even mention slavery or servitude in the colonial Chesapeake section. There is very little coverage of the middle passage and virtually no coverage of colonial slave life. I should also add that there is not discussion of Godly intervention or "providence" in the slave passages in the same way that these ideas are applied to white settlers and revolutionaries. The only thing close to this was a passage in one of the texts (I think it was a BJU teacher's guide, but I don't have my notes in front of me) that prompted the instructor to start a discussion about how God, in his providence, has placed certain people into social classes.
Tim Lacy said…
Great piece!

And on slavery, well, they have to cover Lincoln at least, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates at a minimum. Why? Because many conservatives use the structure of those debates to teach on what constitutes a human. Yes, the Lincoln-Douglas debates are used to reinforce anti-abortion positions. - TL
Anonymous said…
I visited the 700 Club set a couple of years ago. During that day's show, Robertson hawked his diet program, in which he dumped vast quantities of protein into a blender. I presume that explains the 2,000-pound bench press.

Great post!

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