Textbook Writers: Their Pluses and Minuses

[Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has won four different teaching awards. He is preparing a short American political history, From Sea to Shining Sea. It roots the past story of the United States in an expansive Protestantism.]

... If professional historians are religious, they mostly hide their religion under a bushel. They are much more likely to proclaim that they are feminist or politically liberal than that they are believers. There is plenty of religious history served up in most texts, but in comparison to the other forms of history that are "privileged," as we say, in texts, religious history takes a back seat. Professional historians think, rightly I believe, that if you study religion you are probably religious, and the profession frowns upon this. Thus, again comparatively speaking, the texts devalue religious history.

Unto a Good Land is different. It self-consciously makes religious history much more central among the specialties included in its pages than do most texts. I bet you the six authors who have written it are themselves religious, though since I don't know any of them, I may be wrong. I also think the space given to religion here is a more accurate reflection of the importance of religion in American history than one gets in the typical texts, though this is a treacherous judgment to make. I should add that Unto a Good Land covers all the standard topics adequately and without noticeable bias. Indeed, the treatments are often excellent. I found some of the writing on European empires in America in the 16th and 17th centuries confusing—a standard failing in texts. But Unto a Good Land is outstanding, for example, on the Revolutionary War and on 20th-century political developments.

So let me here at once make a summary evaluation. Teachers at religiously oriented schools could not do better than Unto a Good Land; teachers at other schools will not find the book deficient or partial in any way.

In fact, my principal criticism of this text is that it is too much like other texts. The authors make an astonishing statement. They say the United States "has never been a Christian nation." On the contrary, the United States has in its essence always been a Christian nation, and this should be apparent to anyone with half a brain. In the passage that follows their mind-boggling statement, the authors argue that their "stance" is one that makes religion, and not Christianity in particular, central. In actuality what they do is to offer proportionately more religious packets of information in their book. That is the only significant way Unto a Good Land differs from other texts. It is at least 100 pages longer than the other four texts I have at my disposal, and the discrepancy is just that there are 100 extra pages on religious issues. The authors barely have a "stance," except that as professional historians they are committed to force-feeding students this enormous quantity of data.

I will go even further. The United States is a Protestant nation. There are certainly other ways to organize the story of the nation—a text by Pauline Meier and others, Inventing America: A History of the United States (2003), does for technology what Unto a Good Land does for religion. Economic opportunity and the growth of enterprise strike me as another organizing principle. But Protestantism is right up with these. Look at the influences in England propelling colonists to the shores of the New World. Examine the spiritual foundations of politics during the Founding period. Consider the rationale for expansion in the 19th century; the background of Progressive era reformers; the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and his righteous descendants from George Kennan and Dean Acheson to George W. Bush; the black religiosity of the Civil Rights movement; the crux of the culture wars of the last forty years. If you want an organizing principle, for God's sake, what better one could you ask for? My problem with Unto a Good Land is that it really does not want a theme; it wants to be like other texts....

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