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For the Love of God -- and Country

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You remember the picture-books through which you first learned history in as a kid: Columbus bravely sailing the ocean blue, the kindness of the first settlers to the Native Americans, the happiness of Pilgrim and Indian at Thanksgiving, the God-inspired wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the manifest destiny of westward expansion, the heroics of the Alamo, and more.

2013-06-24-ChristopherColumbusKids2.jpgGrowing up, many of us were taught a sanitized version of U.S. history that painted our beginnings as a nation (and the "discovery" of the Americas) as a God-ordained, fortuitous, almost biblical story. The narratives were always with glowing descriptions, not far from the picture-books mentioned above. There was never a reason to question anyone's motives or agenda, because, after all, we're Americans! (Ahem, cough. Pardon our geographic illiteracy, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Western Hemisphere).

But then you began to read some books, and study a bit of history. And you quickly realized there is much more to the story, and it is far less pretty.

We've had some course corrections from people like Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States and James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen rightly states, "Not understanding their past renders many Americans incapable of thinking effectively about our present and future." Zinn notes the problem with never questioning the received story: "I'm worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel -- let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they're doing. I'm concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that's handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers."

And as you studied more of our history, you also thought to yourself, "I'm so glad no one teaches U.S. history in that rose-colored way any more."

Except they do.

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Mike Huckabee is giving away a history lesson video, on behalf of his organization called, "Learn Our History." The DVD is titled: "One Nation, Under God." Someone suggested this to me for my own children, apparently unaware that I'm trying to teach my kids a more balanced historical narrative.

Mike Huckabee. U.S. History. For children. Nervous? Skeptical? Me too.

But let's give it a chance, and peek at the trailer for this wonderful new educational resource for children:

It begins with a black screen, and these words appear: "Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance." Psalm 33:12

Anyone spot a problem here?

This verse, from perhaps 2500 years ago, was speaking about the Israelites. The idea that this verse is speaking of the United States is plainly false. The verse from the Psalms uses a classic case of Hebrew parallelism here, meaning the concept is repeated for emphasis: the nation whose God is the LORD is also the nation that God, according to the biblical narrative, had chosen. There is no way possible to construe this as speaking of any other nation at that time, or today, or any other time. To think that God has chosen the United States as his inheritance is fraught with problems, and is simply not true.

Yet the video, aimed at children, tells us it is telling us the "true story" of our nation.

After displaying this Psalm, the video says: "God was the reason the first among us came to America."

This could be taken a couple of ways: God 'called' the first settlers and the revolutionaries to America, or, people left Europe because of religious intolerance. The latter is obviously closer to the truth, though the video, conveniently, allows the viewer (a child) to make up his or her own mind.

After a short cartoon scene in England, the identification of America with Israel quickly escalates: the video shifts to a scene of revolutionaries in Boston. One says: "We will bring the plague upon our British oppressors." The plague? A clear allusion to the Exodus, the formative event for the beginnings of the nation of Israel in the Bible.

But just in case the viewer doesn't make the connection between the United States and Israel, the speaker adds: "Just as Moses did in ancient Egypt." And another states: "And we will win the same freedom." Could we be further from reality at this point?

Then, a George Washington cartoon figure, speaks, unsurprisingly, on Christmas Day, Dec 25, 1776: "We fight for the idea that we can make something great here. God's Spirit compels us forward. Men, the time to fight is upon us."

And the narrator then notes: "And when He delivered us, we created a nation that honored God like no country before."

So God delivered us from our British oppressors, just as he did the Israelites from Pharaoh, and even better than the Israelites, we created a nation unlike any other in history.

In other words, America is the best thing that ever happened to the world. Never mind what Zinn and others remind us is also our history: slavery, racism, the massacre of Indians, the exploitation of working people, the expansion of the United States at the expense of the first inhabitants and people in other countries. If these things are honoring God like no other country has before, well... God must have some pretty low standards.

The video trailer next shows a woman quoting the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The irony of a woman quoting a text which excluded women, slaves, and the first Americans is certainly lost on Mike Huckabee and the producers of the video.

In case we couldn't get any farther from actual history, the video then invites the viewer to join "five time-traveling teens to witness the incredible true story of our One Nation, Under God."

But wait, the best is yet to come:

Suddenly we fast forward to November 4, 1980, and find ourselves at a Republican election day rally in Los Angeles, CA, where Ronald Reagan is speaking: "I believe that faith and religion play a critical role in the life of our nation and always have. And without God, democracy cannot, and will not, endure. If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, we will be a nation gone under." The conflation of the political Right, conservative Christianity, and a naïve history will surprise no one, but to see it put so starkly in a video aimed at indoctrinating children is a bit disconcerting.

Thomas Bailey has said, "Old myths never die--they just become embedded in the textbooks." And apparently the DVDs.

The viewer is then invited to "Learn our history: take pride in America's past."

Now, I don't disagree with this conclusion. We do need to learn our history, and there is much to be proud of. I'm grateful to be a part of a nation which has done and is doing some great things in the world. But let's not fool ourselves: we are not God's chosen nation, and our history is as agonizing and terrible as it is great. As James Baldwin has put it: "What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors."

Let's forge an identity for our children that isn't afraid to have some new heroes. Zinn, in A Young People's History of the United States, suggests the Cherokee Indians who resisted removal from the lands on which they lived, and Mark Twain, who denounced President Theodore Roosevelt after Roosevelt praised an American general who had massacred hundreds of people in the Philippines, and Helen Keller, who protested against President Woodrow Wilson's decision to send young Americans into the slaughterhouse of the First World War, and Harriet Tubman, who literally risked life and limb to bring slaves to freedom. We could add to that list the countless unnamed and forgotten workers, slaves, dissidents, and draft dodgers, who acted against the status quo, who dreamed not only of a better nation, but a better world.

For the love of God and country, let's own our history -- all of it.