Sundays With The Christianists: Ineffectual American History Textbooks That Meant Well
Never mind the post-2000 copyright dates on our two U.S. history textbooks aimed at the rightwing Christian school and homeschool market. The most important thing you need to know about them is that they are very much products of the explosion of Christian Right publishing that arose while Ronald Reagan was president and the Moral Majority was still a going concern. It shows, especially in the books' discussion of the weakest, most pathetic President of the United States, or indeed any president in the universe, James Earl Carter. Reading these books, you almost get the feeling that they're still trying to get Reagan elected.
Our 8th-grade textbook, America: Land I Love (A Beka, 2006), has this thumbnail introduction of Jimmy Carter:
By 1977, Americans were ready for a change and elected James (Jimmy) Carter, a farmer and former governor of Georgia who had no ties to Washington politics. Jimmy Carter was the first man from the Deep South to win the Presidency since Zachary Taylor in 1848. Carter’s active involvement in his church as a Sunday school teacher showed that he was a man of good intentions, but he often lacked discernment of character and failed to recognize the sinful nature of man. This weakness quickly became evident in his foreign policy and his confidence in the United Nations.
Yep, those Southern Baptists like Carter were such wide-eyed innocents. Hey, the man knew all about man's sinful nature, having admitted to lust in his heart and everything. But that's nothing, considering his far greater sin -- thinking the UN meant anything. And in fact, according to the foreign policy geniuses who wrote Land I Love, that willingness to treat other nations as if they mattered had dangerous and immediate consequences:
In 1977, President Carter followed the desire of the United Nations and negotiated the surrender of the Panama Canal Zone to the military dictator of Panama. This gave Communists around the world the idea that the United States had given up on its policy to protect Central America from Communism, which led to increased terrorism in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
We kind of love that this version has the United Nations as the originator of the Panama Canal treaty, as if the government of Panama hadn't been pushing for a change in the status of the US-owned Canal Zone for most of the 20th Century. And of course, the internal politics of Central American nations were all pretty much determined by whether America had a stiff enough military erection. Now, you'll probably never unearth a quote from Daniel Ortega saying that the Sandinistas were motivated by the "surrender" of the Canal, but that's just because those leftists lie all the time.
Our 11/12th-grade textbook, United States History for Christian Schools (Bob Jones University Press, 2001), offers a bit more context, and also gets the great hero warming up in the wings, by noting that in 1976, President Ford "was not even the preferred choice of many in his own party," who far preferred "Former California governor Ronald Reagan, the hero of the Republican conservatives who dominated the party" and almost beat Ford in the primaries. In one of those weirdass little bits of trivia that sometimes make us love U.S. History, the book adds that
One Democrat, noting Ford’s plight, said gleefully, "We could run an aardvark this year and win."
Of course, it's also not exactly the most flattering way to introduce Jimmy Carter, either; of the fellow who taught Sunday school classes in 1976 and still does today, we learn that he was pretty much a fake Christian:
As a further contrast to the dishonesty of the Nixon years, Carter claimed to be a "born-again" Christian who wanted a government "as filled with love as the American people." After the trauma of Watergate, Americans were attracted to a candidate who said plainly, "I’ll never tell a lie."
OK, but how could he really be a born-again Christian and yet not have voted for Ronald Reagan, huh? Sleazy faker.
U.S. History does at least try to give a sense of why Carter seemed new-n-different:
Carter entered office professing his desire to be a "people’s president" with an open, honest, and compassionate administration. He surprised and delighted the American people by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration instead of riding in the usual armored limousine. He made televised addresses wearing a sweater instead of a suit; photographs often showed him relaxing in blue jeans.
Ah, but behind that public persona was an obsessive control freak:
Like James Polk, he was a compulsive worker who tried to control every aspect of running the government; as a result, the president often found himselftbogged down by details that could have been delegated to subordinates.
OMG, just like James K Polk. Yeah, they went there. We suppose one advantage of not leaving everything up to subordinates is that you're a lot less likely to be "surprised" when you find out that some of them have been selling missiles to Iran and then sending the profits to the Contras. But these are mostly inconsequential details of management style. And OK, even as Carter fans, we'll have to give another style point to U.S. History for including former Sen. Eugene McCarthy's comment on Carter's speaking style, which he said had the "eloquence of a mortician."
On the Canal Treaty, U.S. History at least has the decency to mention that the negotiations began not in the shadowy corridors of the UN, but under the Nixon and Ford administrations, and that "Carter merely completed the process" when he finalized the treaty in 1977, and that even many Republicans pointed out that the Panama Canal was no longer as vital to commerce and security as it had been, since it was too narrow for supertankers and aircraft carriers. U.S. History wags its finger at Carter for naïvely thinking that human rights were more important than geopolitics:
The cornerstone of Carter’s foreign policy was the defense of human rights, protecting people from oppression by their governments. However, President Carter learned -- just as Wilson had -- that morality is more easily preached than imparted. Communist nations, some of the worst violators of human rights, were impervious to Carter’s pressures ... The United States could influence only friendly nations concerning human rights. An example of the shortcomings of Carter’s foreign policy was Nicaragua. The Carter administration began to pressure a friendly but dictatorial regime in that Central American nation to improve its human rights record. Eventually revolutionaries, with the American government’s quiet approval, overthrew the Nicaraguan dictator. Afterwards, a Marxist government which was just as repressive as the previous government but far more hostile to the United States took power. The human rights doctrine seemed to typify Carter’s foreign policy: high ideals, low performance.
Silly Jimmy! Strange that they don't mention the name of that "friendly" dictator, Anastasio Somoza; perhaps he just wasn't worth putting on the quiz. And we'll let you discuss the relative human rights records of Somoza and the Sandinistas in the comments. (No, we don't think the Sandinistas were "just as repressive," thank you...)
Land I Love is especially dismissive of Carter's refusal to support the beautiful, clean, well-run nuclear energy industry, which could have completely eliminated America's energy woes if he had just put a nuclear reactor instead of solar panels on the roof of the White House. Heck, the industry only had one minor, non-fatal reactor meltdown during his presidency, the trivial incident at Three Mile Island:
Although no one was injured in the accident, part of the plant was contaminated with radioactive material and the entire facility closed down. Careful safety precautions and advanced technology made it impossible for a reactor to explode or contaminate a wide area, but environmentalists insisted that nuclear plants were dangerous. With new environmental regulations, the atomic energy program was cut back, and private industry stopped building nuclear plants.
We remember when "TMI" referred to a nuclear disaster and not someone over-sharing on Facebook (we are sooooo old, please just kill us).
Both books give Carter a tiny bit of credit for the 1978 Camp David Accords -- Land I Love gives that treaty a full two sentences, while U.S. History gives it a much more substantial paragraph -- but they also give far more attention, as is only right and just, to Carter's failure to Git Tuff on the Islamic revolution in Iran. As usual, Land I Love explains that it occurred because "many nations had begun to regard the United States as a weak nation," and characterizes the Shah only as "anti-Communist" without mentioning that he was just a little bit of a tyrant who was placed in power by the CIA in 1953. Instead, we learn only that rebels under Ayatollah Khomeini took the U.S. Embassy personnel hostage, and that "President Carter and Congress failed to help the Shah restore his government and secure the release of the American hostages." Which shouldn't be a bit surprising, since he unaccountably refused to give Iran any missiles.
U.S. History at least gives a bit more detail, noting that
Carter, with few options open to him short of military invasion, vainly tried using economic sanctions, negotiations, and world opinion to move the Iranians to release the hostages. In April 1980 an attempted military rescue of the hostages turned into a fiasco. Two American helicopters collided in the desert of Iran, and eight American soldiers died without ever getting near the hostages. As the weeks dragged on, part of the American public’s frustration and anger turned from Iran to the president himself. The whole nation seemed to be asking, "Why doesn’t the president do something?" Carter’s inaction -- which was perhaps not entirely his fault considering his limited choices -- made him seem weak, indecisive, even spineless.
Happily, everything worked out OK, and Ronald Reagan freed the hostages simply by getting elected:
Significantly, the hostages were finally released after 444 days of captivity on January 20, 1981 -- the day Americans inaugurated a new president who promised to bring the United States back to world leadership.
And then everything was all better, and America was a great nation once again. We even sent Sylvester Stallone to go back and win the Vietnam war in a movie.
Next Week: Meet the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being who's ever been President.