Last week, Florida approved an overhaul of its African American history standards, including guidance that middle schoolers should be instructed that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Outrage ensued, including from Vice President Kamala Harris, who blasted the standards, saying, “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us.”
She’s right. But I think the project underway in Florida is far larger, and far more consequential than many comprehend. The insult to Black people — and to the country — is incidental.
In the same way that Donald Trump made his bones as America’s white nationalist in chief, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is trying to make his as the country’s chief Christian nationalist, a subset of white supremacy that holds that God has ordained America as a Christian nation, and that its ideals must be protected from the encroachment of pluralism — racial, religious or otherwise.
In February 2022, in a speech at Hillsdale College, a private Christian school in Michigan, DeSantis said:
“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here.”
In November, DeSantis released a political ad in which the voice-over announcer bellows: “On the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’” The ad goes on to convey that DeSantis is that protector — that he’s the Christian warrior of American politics.
It almost seems like DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, is banking on Christian nationalists being in a separate category of voters, but Trump has already captured them, particularly with his appointment of three conservative Supreme Court justices.
On top of that, the vocabulary of Christian nationalism often is too pedantic and distant, even among people who follow the philosophies in practice, to propel DeSantis ahead of Trump.
A survey published in October by Pew Research Center found that most American adults had never heard anything about Christian nationalism, and almost one in 10 who’ve heard “at least a little” about it didn’t know enough to offer an opinion.
One survey respondent described Christian nationalism as “patriotic Christians who believe in God, family and country, morality and kindness.” And I suspect that many people just think of Christian nationalists as patriotic white people who go to church — akin to the definition of white nationalism that Senator Tommy Tuberville was recently trying to sell.
But Christian nationalism isn’t merely “patriotic Christians” and it’s not Christianity, but rather, as the University of Oklahoma sociologist Samuel Perry put it, can be understood as “an impostor Christianity that uses evangelical language to cloak ethnocentric and nationalist loyalties.”
And DeSantis is a paragon among the impostors. His anti-woke crusade is a manifestation of the intolerance and battle-thirst of Christian nationalism, and Florida’s distortion of Black history and its attempt to rehabilitate the image of slavery is part of it.
Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, reviewed scores of textbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries for his book, “Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity.”
As he told me on Wednesday, American textbooks, especially those published before the middle of 20th century, are notorious for being rife with the idea that “people of African descent were brought to America as a benevolent act on the part of whites.”
Slavery was missionary work that, in these distorted accounts, brought Black heathens into contact with white people’s Christianity and civilization.
Some of these books outrageously positioned the enslaved as the main beneficiaries of slavery while white people were cast as having been saddled with the burden of it. Some books even papered over the horrors and mass death of the Middle Passage.
This worldview never fully went away. A 2021 analysis of American textbooks by The Guardian found that “private schools, especially Christian schools, use textbooks that tell a version of history that is racially biased and often inaccurate” including those that “whitewash the legacy of slavery.”
This is a shadow educational approach that people like DeSantis want to reestablish as the dominant one.
Florida’s standards recast slavery as a beneficial training ground, a school of sorts, and that is the way that many would refer to it. A great danger, of course, is that the people oppressed by this notion can absorb it.
In Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” he wrote, “We must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally and religiously, than is true of an equal number of Black people in any other portion of the globe.”
DeSantis and other conservatives constantly complain about indoctrination, but indoctrination, political mythmaking, is precisely what Christian nationalism aims to do.
Insulting Black people may be an effect, but it’s not the ultimate aim. As Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America,” told me, Christian nationalists don’t care about insulting Black people; they’re on a mission to establish a “pretension of naïveté” to absolve whiteness of guilt.
As she put it, “We are just pawns to their narrative of how they want to make ‘greatness.’ ”
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