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Historical Revisionism: Why All the Fuss?

“History is a conflict between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’” That was the theme of history, my young friend earnestly explained, as she had been taught it at the local community college. Without realizing it, she had soaked up a simplistic albeit common interpretation of history and had accepted it as fact.

  • Roger Schultz,
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“History is a conflict between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’” That was the theme of history, my young friend earnestly explained, as she had been taught it at the local community college. Without realizing it, she had soaked up a simplistic albeit common interpretation of history and had accepted it as fact.

Everyone approaches history with some assumptions, biases, and preconceptions. Even the most objective and detached historian must make judgments about the material to be studied and the facts to be analyzed. Those judgments are anchored in fundamental presuppositions about truth, historical significance, and the meaning and direction of history.

For the Christian historian, the ultimate meaning of history is tied to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16–18). For the homosexual historian, the deepest issues of the past involve sexual liberation and gay identity. For the atheist and secularist, religious issues can never be genuine—they simply mask economic, political, and psychological issues. For all, basic presuppositions guide the study and understanding of history.

Liberal Orthodoxy

Unfortunately, the reigning orthodoxies of today’s historians are liberal and humanistic.

Fifteen years ago, a Christian member of the local public school board asked me to review history textbooks. The district was adopting new texts, and the board member did not want to purchase books hostile to Christianity. I developed a rubric for evaluating the texts. How did they treat the Puritans? (Usually negatively.) How much attention was given to the Salem witch trials? (A lot. The twenty lives lost at Salem pale in comparison to the millions of lives lost to abortion, but you wouldn’t know it from the comparative treatments of Salem and Roe v. Wade in school textbooks.) How much attention was given to religion in general, or to the Awakenings in particular? (Not much.) How was the fundamentalist movement depicted? (Usually with derision.) Textbooks reveal much about the worldview of modern statist education.

The biases and bizarre speculations of higher education are even worse. For years I have attended meetings of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, the largest organizations of professional historians. Papers and panels often feature weird topics. At one conference, for instance, the unsuspecting historian could witness the following curiosities: “Latina Butch/Femme: The Reemergence and Submergence of an Urban Marginal Identity”; “Endocrine Perverts and Derailed Menopausics: Homophobia and the Creation of Lesbian Citizenship in Debates over Federal Maternal and Infant Care, 1917–1929”; “Hillbillies and Queers: The Southern Lesbian-Gay Experience”; and “Lies My Teachers Told Me: The Multicultural Challenge to Traditional Texts.”

I watch for these strange sessions—and accordingly I encounter strange people. As near as I could tell, I was the only heterosexual attending a frisky session dealing with gender and transgender identity at one academic conference in San Francisco. I was one of the few males in a session on “feminist pedagogy”— where a scary lead paper was presented by the butchy dean of a prestigious school of education.1 I attend these sessions purposefully, believing that they represent the cutting edge of humanist theory and the direction of the history discipline. What is now considered bizarre will in a decade or two be accepted as normal.

These strange approaches often reveal the influence of Marxist thought. While few academics embrace all of Marx’s dogmas, many have absorbed a neo-Marxist or Marxisant view of history.2 These Marxist-influenced perspectives see an ongoing struggle for liberation against various bourgeoisie forces—economic, cultural, sexual, and religious. Communism may be dead, but in academia communist types still abound!3

Some leftists try to make their quirky views mainstream and mandatory. The attempt to impose new National History Standards in the mid 1990s is a frightening example. The Standards were marred by sloppy scholarship, a liberal bias, and multicultural exuberance. Critics noted a lack of balance (multiple references to Harriet Tubman, but no reference to Robert E. Lee) and a fixation with darker elements of American history (the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism). Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney led the charge against the Standards, and Pat Buchanan referred to the authors as a “sandals-wearing group of leftover sixties radicals.” The U.S. Senate eventually voted 99-1 to deny funding for the leftist initiative.

A leader of the Standards movement was liberal historian Gary Nash, a university professor in California, and I heard him speak shortly after the debacle. Though wounded by the opposition, he joked about Buchanan, lifting up his trousers so that he could set the record straight: he was wearing shoes—not sandals! It is a sobering thought: a decade ago, the United States came close to having a California-twist on history made national historical orthodoxy.

Secular Gatekeepers

Believing that spiritual realities do not matter, liberals often ignore Christian dimensions of history. “Having lost faith in a personal God,” Rushdoony notes, “man’s view of reality today is basically impersonal. As a consequence, he sees history, not in terms of a personal God, and personal man and his faith, but in terms of impersonal forces and drives.”4 Spiritual questions are dismissed. Anti-religious presuppositions inevitably push history in a secular direction.

Iain Murray begins Revival and Revivalism with an observation on historical methodology. One historian, attempting to distance himself from the providential interpretations of earlier generations, pledged himself to interpreting revivals in “purely secular terms.” Murray notes, “This is tantamount to saying that if God is in history at all that the fact lies outside the bounds of serious historical discussion.”5 In essence, the “objective” historian embraced an agnostic and deist view of God. God might be out there somewhere, but He cannot be involved in history, and His hand and influence cannot be traced. The focus on “secondary causes” and the exclusion of God’s historical working characterizes the secularist approach.6

The humanistic worldview is especially prevalent in the humanities and social sciences. I recently attended a historical conference, where a group of young, conservative academics voiced concerns. All had recently earned history Ph.D.s. All were frustrated with liberal hegemony. “There is no place for an alternative perspective,” one noted, to the general agreement of the group, “as academia and publishing houses are dominated by leftists.” Another added: “There is no discourse. Academia is like an echo chamber. The liberals only hear themselves talking, and they are all saying the same thing.” It was an excellent summary of academia: an echo chamber of the Left.

Secular academics serve as gatekeepers and bouncers of the historical profession. As I completed my doctoral degree, I asked a professor to proofread my curriculum vitae. The man was a lefty, but he was a good professor and had always been helpful. “You might want to take this out,” he said, noting the line in my professional experience indicating that I once taught at a Bible College. “I probably shouldn’t say this,” he continued, sheepishly, “but if a committee knew you taught at a Christian college, it would probably prejudice them against you in a job search.” The message was clear: secularists were not interested in hiring Christians—and certainly not those serious about the faith.7

The Embattled Christian Heritage

New movements in academia are particularly hostile to Christianity and the West. In 1993, I was a Jesse Ball duPont fellow at the National Humanities Center, participating in a seminar on multiculturalism. The seminar included college and university faculty from around the United States and focused on different world religious traditions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The seminar was interesting and offered excellent insight into other cultural traditions.

The seminar also offered insight into the pluralistic drive of modern liberalism. Christianity was compared unfavorably to other religions, and the Western civilization was invariably depicted as corrupt. Monotheism was particularly bad because it stressed “one god” and “one truth” and was intolerant of other traditions. Hinduism was a far better paradigm for the postmodern world, the seminar leader instructed us, because it had “many gods” and “many truths” and was thus more tolerant and flexible.

Seminar fellows were encouraged to be “political” as teachers. Since education is a vehicle to raise consciousness and empower people, it should push goals of “the equitable distribution of wealth” and “ecological sensitivity.” This thinly veiled appeal for socialism and the Green Party activism resonated with the assembled professors. Christianity, with its emphasis on private property and Biblical dominion over the earth, was considered the enemy of the reformist pedagogue.8

When Christian history is not vilified, it is simply ignored. Rushdoony once commented on the lack of primary source material available for the great American patriot John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon was long-term president of Princeton and “his teaching guided a generation or more.” Yet his works were rarely available in university libraries; Witherspoon had slipped into the dustbin of history.9

Sometimes historians even tinker with the documents of the past. Religious elements simply vanish. The Treaty of Paris (1783), for instance, officially concluded the American War of Independence. For decades, a standard documentary reference work on American history was Henry Steele Commager’s Documents of American History. Most any college professor or student doing historical research would check Commager, whose entry for the Treaty of Paris says, “… ART. I—His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States [a listing of the several states follows] to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such …”10 The ellipsis before “ART. I” indicates that something has been left out—and presumably it is something unimportant. For decades those consulting Commager would consider the Treaty of Paris to be a secular document.

The complete document, however, gives a different sense. The Treaty begins: “In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity. It having pleased the Divine Providence to dispose the heart of the most serene and most potent Prince George the Third … to forget all past misunderstandings and differences …”11 Britain’s recognition of American independence not only begins with a reference to the triune God, but it specifically states that God disposed the king’s heart to reconciliation and American independence.

I don’t know why Commager left out the religious language. He may have deliberately suppressed evidence of the Christian past. Or, as I suspect, he may have believed that the Trinitarian language was unimportant—simply filler verbiage that could be excised without consequence. Whatever his motivation, religious terminology was edited out, and a portion of America’s Christian past was obscured.

Reviving Christian History

Over the past quarter century, Christians have become more active, writing about the past and reclaiming their history. The Internet has made primary sources widely accessible. Homeschooling has allowed students to learn history without a secularist cant. Excellent resources are now available.

M. Stanton Evans’ The Theme Is Freedom, for instance, focuses on religious influences in America’s founding history. In “The Rise of Neopaganism” Evans notes the impact of materialism, naturalism, and economic self-determinism. With a clear indebtedness to Rushdoony, Evans argues that “always and everywhere, the governing system that is adopted will reflect the underlying religious presuppositions of the culture.” Evans closes his work with a strong appeal for renewed Christian commitment.12

A surprising affirmation of America’s Christian history was made in 1954 by Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Warren was no conservative, but he knew American history: “I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Saviour have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first Charter of Virginia … or to the Charter of Massachusetts Bay ... or to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut … the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles … I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their express belief in it … I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so no great harm can come to our country.” Even the arch-liberal Warren was honest enough to recognize America’s Christian roots.13

Early in 2007, I participated in a conference at the University of Virginia with a political scientist from the University of Milan. The Italian professor was not a Christian (as far as I could tell), and he was hostile to Calvinism and New England Puritanism. Yet he insisted that America is “the last thoroughly Christian nation.” Europeans are “statist,” he argued, seeing “salvation coming from the government.” Americans, especially those in the South, are Christian, judging by obvious factors like church attendance and religious profession. There is a “fundamental difference between America and Europe.” It is strange that a foreign professor could state what American academics are unable to see.

Christian “Revisionism”

Secularists now disparage Christian historians as “revisionists.” Christians rewrite history, secularists charge, to sacralize the past, bolster “American exceptionalism,” and promote a Christian “city on a hill.”

Yale religious historian Jon Butler has made this charge and has minimized America’s Christian past. As I was coming to the end of a course on colonial history in graduate school, I realized that the professor had never mentioned the Great Awakening. Why? “It never happened,” the professor replied, referencing Butler’s 1983 work “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction.” Using this as a justification, my professor quietly erased a major event of America’s religious and cultural history.14

Evangelicals on the left have also attacked America’s Christian history. In 1983, three leading historians collaborated on The Search for Christian America. They argued that “early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctively or even predominately Christian.” They further argued that “the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept, which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society.” Eager to separate themselves from the Christian Right (the Reagan administration, the Moral Majority, and Jerry Falwell), the evangelical-lefties became vocal advocates of an unChristian America.15

They were especially hard on John Witherspoon, who was something of a hero to the Christian Right. Because Witherspoon was a Christian patriot, unChristian America historians berated him as a hyper-patriot whose political zeal eclipsed his interest in the gospel.16 “In his zeal for American rights Witherspoon was making the new American nation a supreme value in violation of the Christian’s obligation to put first the Kingdom of God. He allowed self-righteousness to triumph over charity.”17

A careful reading of Witherspoon’s “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” a famous political sermon in 1776, shows a different picture. While Witherspoon was obviously committed to the cause of American freedom, his primary concern was spiritual and evangelistic.18 While temporal and political concerns were important, they were nothing compared to eternal salvation. In short, historians on the left, eager to disparage Christian historians and debunk the Christian Right, committed colossal blunders in doing history.

Recently Harper’s Magazine focused on the new Christian reconstruction of the past. “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history” warns about fundamentalist “maximalism”—the desire to “conform every aspect of life to God.”

The chief culprit was Rousas Rushdoony, who had “laid the right cornerstone of modern homeschooling” in his books and “Christian jihadi lectures” on American history. Here is how Harper’s describes it: “Rushdoony took the vague sentiments of early twentieth-century fundamentalism and found sources for them in American history, creating an intellectual foundation for the movement’s political ambitions … The Christian conservatives of his day, Rushdoony believed, had let themselves be bound by secularism. They railed against its tyranny, but addressed themselves only to issues set aside by secularism as ‘moral’—the best minds of a fundamentalist generation burned themselves to furious cinders battling nothing more than naughty movies and heavy petting. Rushdoony did not believe in such skirmishes. He wanted a war, and he summoned the spirits of history to the struggle at hand.”19

Presuppositionalism and History

The greatest concern in the Harper’s article was that Christians were reclaiming history through a presuppositional approach to the past. Drawing upon Cornelius Van Til and Abraham Kuyper, Rushdoony emphasized “presuppositionalism, which maintains that everybody approaches the world with set assumptions, thus ruling out the possibility of neutrality.” As Kuyper had put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human experience over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’”20

Rushdoony’s own words are instructive: “Behind the writing of history is a philosophy of history, and behind that philosophy of history are certain pre-theoretical and essentially religious presuppositions. There is no such thing as brute factuality, but rather only interpreted factuality. The historian’s report is always the report of a perspective, a context, a framework; man is not, like God, beyond time and circumstance, condition and place.”21

Historians do have presuppositions. Some will candidly acknowledge the framework that informs their research and colors their perspective. Historians readily note the philosophical and cultural commitments of other historians. Some have researched the cycles of historical interpretation and the shifting topical approaches in textbooks.22 Everyone approaches the past with basic assumptions and judgments.

But the Christian historian is unique. He readily admits that he views history from the lens of faith. He can be clear about his presuppositions, the commitments of his worldview, and the scriptural source of his standards of justice and truth. He believes that there is a sovereign God who rules over nations and their destinies (Acts 17:26). He believes that all history works toward God’s foreordained ends and that history culminates at the judgment seat of Christ (Acts 17:31). He believes that history is meaningful because it is ordained by God for His purposes and His glory.

Dr. Schultz is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and is the homeschooling father of nine children.

1. This was the weirdest session I’ve ever attended. What made it “scary” was that I was the only conservative, Reformed Christian in a roomful of rabid feminists and New Agers. The butchy dean pantomimed kneeing a man in the groin. I was rather glad they didn’t know who I was! The chairman of my division wanted to attend this session, saying that what I heard seemed far more interesting than what he was sitting through. But when a Latina professor stood up with fists clenched saying that “the Revolution must continue!”my chair made a hasty retreat from the session and didn’t hear the papers.

2. For a good discussion of Marxist and quasi-Marxist approaches, see Ronald Nash, “The New Face of Marxism,” The Meaning of History (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998).

3. In the early 1990s, shortly after the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, I read an article by a revolutionary homosexual activist who had obviously been influenced by Marxist categories. The author called for a revolution against “heterosexism.” Heterosexism was “the exploitative, oppressive and inherently violent subordination of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and other sexual minorities by the non-gay elite, as by rewarding heterosexuality and bashing homoeroticism. It is thus an emergent structural phenomenon endorsed, legitimized and buttressed by cultural homophobia. As such, heterosexism is the fundamental form of inequality; from this elementary form, all other forms of oppression are constructed.” The author urged “womyn” and other oppressed minorities to revolt and work for “heterosexist patriarchy’s destruction.” Dahmer murdered, dismembered, and devoured his homosexual companions, and the revolutionary gay community somehow managed to blame heterosexuals for the crime.

4. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 128.

5. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750–1858 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), xx.

6. Scripture gives frequent examples of God’s working in history and explains His purposes. Outside of scriptural accounts, however, historians must deal cautiously in describing divine purposes. In Luke 13:1–5 Jesus talks about two calamities—one a human atrocity and the other a natural disaster. Jesus warns his listeners not to guess about God’s overarching purposes (judgment on sinners), but instead to use these disasters as an opportunity for repentance and salvation. For a new book dealing with God’s judgments in history, which argues for the possibility of knowing God’s work in history, see Steven Keillor, God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (IVP: 2007). I don’t know if I agree with Keillor’s approach, but I am encouraged to see a professionally trained historian tackling the issue. A Reformed Christian, Keillor is not as well-known as his brother Garrison of Lake Wobegon and A Prairie Home Companion fame.

7. When I went for my first interview, the dean asked several questions about my Bible College background. Even though I was applying for a position at a Baptist-affiliated institution, the dean didn’t want someone who was too religious. (This was not at Liberty University, but a different school.) My experience was mild compared to what happened to a friend, who was a graduate of Bob Jones University. An outstanding teacher and scholar, my friend was ostracized because of his connection with the fundamentalist school.

8. I also learned about the horrifying limits of multicultural toleration. The seminar discussion one day centered on the lingering African practice of female circumcision. It is a barbaric custom, and I expected the most vocal feminist in our seminar to be enraged by the discussion. Instead, she refused to condemn the practice, arguing that we must respect other cultures, even though we might have some reservations about their practices. A short while later, however, she admitted that she despised “rednecks” and expressed her loathing for Pat Robertson, who contributed to the oppression of women. Unfathomable as it seemed, this multicultural apologist refused to make a judgment of the most brutal third world practices, involving the ritual mutilation of young women, but didn’t hesitate to savage Robertson’s Christian views.

9. Rushdoony, 129. I have been frustrated in the past by the lack of availability of Witherspoon’s materials, even in major research libraries. Lloyd Sprinkle is reprinting Witherspoon’s Works, and they are available from various online sources.

10. Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History.

11. “The Paris Peace Treaty of 1783” (accessed January 26, 2007).

12. M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom: Religion, Politics and the American Tradition (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1994), 118, 323. Evans lists excellent sources for further study, and he specifically notes his indebtedness to Rushdoony (pp. 346–347). Evans’ conclusion: “Recovery of our religious faith and its teachings must be our first and main concern. Without it, nothing much by way of practical improvement can be accomplished. With it, all the rest might readily be added.”

13. Roger Schultz, “A Christian America: Earl Warren and Our Christian Roots” Chalcedon Report 451 (April 2003), 21–22.

14. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction,” Journal of American History, 69 (1982–1983), 302–325. My Ph.D. qualifying exam in colonial history dealt exclusively with the Butler article. (I think my professor wanted to see if I had read it, and I am glad I had.) In 1992, at a joint meeting of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History, Butler spoke to a packed auditorium on the topic of “Born Again History.” Butler’s thesis was clear—the significance of religion in American history has been overrated. Historians have exaggerated the influence of evangelicalism, he insisted, creating a “born again” history of America. The chief culprits were evangelical historians, such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who forged a “neoconservative, consensus view of American religion.” Evangelicals, then, had been conspiring to create a Christian version of the past and had distorted history.

15. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1983), 17.

16. There is a special appendix on the historical methodology of the unChristian America historians in Roger Schultz, “Covenanting in America: The Political Theology of John Witherspoon” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction 12:1 (1988), 260–268.

17. Ibid., 90.

18. Read Witherspoon’s “Dominion of Providence”—especially his evangelistic application. It is available online as sermon 17 in Ellis Sandoz’s Political Sermons of the American Founding Era

19. “Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history,” Harper’s Magazine The article is filled with errors. Francis Schaeffer is listed as Rushdoony’s student. Van Til is identified as a Dutch theologian. The article does point to the growing influence of Reformed writers.

20. Ibid.

21. Rousas John Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1978), v.

22. For a look at how history textbooks have changed, based upon the presuppositions of historians of an era, see Frances FitzGerald, America Revised (New York: Vintage, 1980).

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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