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'Dividing America Through Trashing Our Past'

Tim Goeglein | Author | Updated: Feb 06, 2023
'Dividing America Through Trashing Our Past'

'Dividing America Through Trashing Our Past'

Editor's Note, February 6, 2023: This is an excerpt from Tim Goeglein's book, Toward a More Perfect Union. Visit to buy your copy.

Back in 2019, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave an extraordinary speech in which he provided one of the most robust defenses of religious freedom in a generation. He said of the increasing and dangerous trend to silence and punish religious faith, “If you rely upon the coercive power of the government to impose restraints [on faith], this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.”

His remarks could not have come at a more opportune time. Churches and religious organizations, as well as our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage, are coming under more attack now than ever before in our country’s history. Politicians now routinely call for the abolition of tax-exempt status for religious organizations, including churches, synagogues, and mosques that do not kneel at the altar of the political Left. An example of this has occurred with the Biden administration taking power with slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and increasing the attacks through legislation such as the “Equality Act,” a bill that belies its name, stripping Americans of the religious liberty established in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As George Orwell said, “He who controls the language controls politics.” Convincing Americans “equality” demands we treat religious individuals and organizations worse than others is a masterstroke of language manipulation.

The Equality Act would redefine houses of worship as “public accommodations,” lumping them in with football stadiums and shopping malls—an Orwellian twist that ignores religious, and therefore protected, elements of these faith-based organizations. The act states that if a church opens its doors to anyone but its members, it is subject to federal civil rights laws—which the act amends to include sexual orientation and “gender identity.”

The Equality Act cements in law a profound misunderstanding of the right to religious freedom protected in the First Amendment. The right guarantees people of all faiths—and no faith—will be free to practice their faith, both publicly and privately, without fear of government censorship or coercion. Under the First Amendment, no one should be coerced to go against their conscience. Our nation’s founders understood that a society where every person was treated with dignity and respect required freedom of religion. When the government feels justified in repressing religion, it feels justified in repressing conscience—and when the government can compel people to violate their conscience, true freedom and true human dignity are impossible.

Unfortunately, Americans no longer understand that sequence: freedom of religion leads to freedom of conscience, which leads to respect for human dignity. They think we can dismantle the foundations—freedom of religion—but leave the building standing—respect for human dignity. Clearly, that is impossible. Once we allow the government to repress and punish people for their religious beliefs, we remove the boundary protecting the individual conscience from government coercion and leave defenseless the whole concept of human dignity.

It is no coincidence even as religious freedom in America comes under fierce attack, we are experiencing an increasing clampdown on personal freedoms and greater governmental control in all aspects of our lives.

For centuries, American leaders have acknowledged the importance of religious liberty in maintaining our other beloved freedoms. For example, both Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech and John F. Kennedy’s remarks on religious freedom when he faced anti-Catholic bigotry spoke to this issue. Roosevelt cited as one of his four freedoms, the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.”

But religious freedom is not merely a passive foundation for other freedoms. It serves as an active check on our worst tendencies—both as individuals and as a society. Attorney General Barr went on to speak about this, saying, “Unless you have an effective restraint, you end up with something dangerous—licentiousness—the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is another form of tyranny, where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of healthy community life crumbles.

That statement sums up present-day America. Community life has crumbled, pushing people online to social media to find even a semblance of relationships. But social media is a destructive force magnifying the most extreme voices and permitting people to associate only with the people they already agree with—their “tribe.”

In towns and cities, neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and there is no shared purpose to bridge the ideological divide. And everywhere, licentiousness is celebrated: our entire culture sends a message of if you want it, you are entitled to get it! You do you! Ubiquitous pornography: socially permitted disposal of “useless” or “inconvenient” individuals through abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, the examples go on and on of how our culture trains us to use, abuse, and dispose of anything—or anyone. Meanwhile, those who try to uphold morality face ridicule and, perhaps soon, criminalization.

Barr went on to say, “In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.... They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.”

America’s founders knew religious faith plays a vital role in creating and sustaining a self-governing, well-ordered society. Faith made people fit to exercise liberty. This concept is central to all our nation’s founding documents.

One of those founders, John Adams knew this to be true, saying in 1798 in an address to the Massachusetts Militia, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Without the moral goalposts religion provides, liberty becomes licentiousness, and regard for human dignity is replaced by the elevation of self.

The founders understood that removing religious freedom in a society creates a vacuum tyranny and oppression will fill. History has proven John Adams correct: When people abandon a moral or righteous foundation, societies collapse. The foundation may still be in place, but the building atop it has become rotten and, thus, becomes easy to topple as soon as the winds start to blow.

Many of the ills we presently face as a nation—incivility, broken families, drug abuse, urban violence—are the manifestations of this. We have replaced the blueprint bequeathed us through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with a blank document each person is told to fill in for himself or herself.

The contemporary hatred of religious morality is so intense people are willing to dig the foundations out from under their own feet. They are willing to defame goodness, truth, and beauty simply because it is associated with religion—even if that means all they have left is evil.

Instead of extending grace and mercy, Left-wing radicals try to damn anyone who does not live up to their own rapidly changing standards, standards that at any other time in history would have been unimaginable.

No person—past, present, or future—can live up to the standards of the radical Left. That is why we witness the frequent “cancellation” of people who were previously praised; no one can maintain a perfectly “woke” attitude at all times because the values of “wokeness” are constantly changing. What was acceptable yesterday may be damning today.

But radicals refuse to acknowledge the impossibility of their own standards. Instead, they are constantly engaged in an ongoing revision of history. Just as George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Every book has been rewritten, every picture repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered,” today the woke among us are constantly changing our society to fit this ever-shifting narrative—and applying the narrative backward in an after-the-fact condemnation and erasure of the past.

Orwell’s novel famously describes the “Ministry of Truth,” whose mission is to rewrite the past. Usually, the Ministry demonizes historical figures to advance the regime’s current agenda, but in the novel the Ministry recasts historical events several times, sometimes praising them, sometimes condemning them—and everyone simply accepts the current narrative, even if it blatantly contradicts yesterday’s telling.

Orwell’s prophetic warnings are starting to become reality. In early 2020, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed the government establish a truth initiative that did not agree with the current cultural orthodoxy. While Orwell might have had the year wrong, he definitely nailed the threat—eventually only one version of “truth” would be allowed and anything that does not affirm that “truth” either must be rewritten or erased.

No surprise should be shown after the DHS secretary announced in an April 2022 congressional hearing the formation of the Disinformation Governance Board. The details and inferences of this new government agency resonates from the pages of 1984.

All the rewriting, renaming, and altering of history comes at great cost—the loss of a common history and heritage.

Jarret Stepman writes in his book The War on History, “There is a spreading belief that the men who built this country were oppressive and their values irredeemable. The purveyors of this view argue that we must transcend the ugly ideas, principles, and even people of the past to perfect our society. We must transform America by wiping out previous generations celebrated as exceptional, but we know to be damnable.”

Yet, it was those previous generations who created what, over time, became the freest country on earth. Those generations fought for the end of slavery, brought an end to human genocide of the Nazis, and guaranteed religious freedom for all. But now, because of the “new” standards, nothing they did is acceptable in the eyes of the “woke.”

Historian Harold Holzer, director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House of Public Policy Institute, says, there’s a danger in applying 21st-century moral standards to historical figures of one or two centuries ago. We expect everyone to be perfect. We expect everyone to be enlightened. But an enlightened person of 1865 is not the same as an enlightened person of 2021.” If we hold people from history to our own contemporary standards, we gain nothing, but we lose access to a vast store of wisdom and experience.

In July 2020, George Washington University announced it established committees to consider requests for the school’s nickname, “the Colonels,” to be retired. This nickname was meant to honor George Washington, but it has come under fire as “glorifying colonialism,” which is defined as a system allowing white men to possess slaves. Some George Washington University students feel Washington is a “negatively charged figure” with “too deep a connection to colonization,” and honoring him “glorifies the act of systemic oppression.”

On June 15, 2022, the committee announced that, in accordance with the school’s board of trustees that the “Colonels” nickname, in their words, “can no longer serve its purpose as a name that unifies.” They went on to say that the committee “found that the Colonels moniker does not adequately match values of GW…” and that when the name was first adapted in 1926, those who selected it lacked “thoughtful university-wide consideration.” The committee then added, “Colonials mean colonizers who stole land and resources from indigenous groups, killed or exiled Native peoples and introduced slavery into the colonies” and a moniker must “unify our community, draw people together, and serve as a source of pride” and they looked forward to “the next steps in an inclusive process to identify a moniker that fulfills this aspiration.”

There is so much here that is off-base that it is hard to know where to start. But first of all, I doubt those who chose the name in 1926 sat around the table and thought about the possible “thoughtlessness” of their nickname selection. In 1926, George Washington and the colonists who fought for our freedom were heroes to be honored – and respect for the sacrifice they made – unified, instead of divided our country. It has only been after the leftist takeover of our educational system that our national heroes – who are now expected to be in tune with “woke” theology of 2022 or be cancelled – are seen as villains.

Secondly, it is actions such as this, for a relatively innocent moniker like the “Colonels” which further divide our country, rather than unify it. For the left, unity means you have to absolutely agree with them. No disagreement is possible. That is totalitarianism, which is on full display with this action by the special committee and Board of Trustees at George Washington University.

Washington is not the only figure being targeted. Activists at the school also filed requests to rename campus buildings named after James Madison, James Monroe, Francis Scott Key, Senator William Fulbright, and Winston Churchill. As one student said, some historical figures “don’t deserve to be on campus anymore.”

It is telling that those who wish to radically change our society do not advocate for improved, deepened, or broadened history curricula. They do not advocate for a more thorough telling of America’s story; one considering the experience of groups as diverse as Chippewa, Irish, Ojibwe, Russian, Senegambian, Mexican, Spanish, and the countless others who have met and mingled in this land; one that includes our founders’ faults and hopes side-by-side and situates them and their aspirations within a balanced historical context.

They would probably find a great deal of enthusiasm for this project across the political spectrum. Many conservatives would also appreciate a deeper historical look at America’s founding, one that does not gloss over atrocities like the egregious treaty that drove the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in Georgia but instead tells those stories alongside stories of goodness, virtue, and partnership between Europeans and other groups, including indigenous peoples.

But today’s radical activists are not interested in improving our collective understanding of our past. They are not interested in a deeper knowledge of where we as a people come from. They are only interested in erasing our past, bulldozing our heritage, and demolishing our culture, so they can set up a new one—one with no ties to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and no homage to God-given rights.

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Michta writes about another way cancel culture shatters the unity of American culture. He writes how radicals have turned race “into a lens through which to view the country’s history” in order to “identify and separate these groups that deserve affirmation, in their view, and those that do not.” The result is the resegregation of America.

Segregation was the social (and often legal) system establishing separate societies for Black and White Americans—and punished Black Americans who infringed on what were perceived to be “white” areas or privileges. The system perpetuated the injustices of slavery for more than a century after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, keeping Black Americans from the rights and responsibilities justly theirs as citizens of our country. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was focused on ending segregation in all its forms and giving Blacks and other minorities access to the same opportunities to flourish as White Americans.

Segregation was an aberration from the American ideal; in other words, it was quite simply a violation of the principles laid out by Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. When our founders wrote that all men had unalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they set in motion a political system defending all human beings’ equal access to the rights and privileges that come with being human. Segregation spurned that vision.

That is why civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., T.R.M. Howard, Rosa Parks, and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson are seen as American heroes: these individuals saw American failing to meet its own standards and pushed our country to reject injustice and strive for the equality written into our founding documents.

But now, as radicals are tearing apart the principles undergirding equality and justice—and just as you would expect, leading to a new form of the segregation the civil rights movement fought to overcome—and as children and university students are being taught that rather than living together in unity, we must instead focus on the perceived grievances we have against each other.

There is another way forward. Instead of tearing down statues, destroying legacies, erasing memories, and dividing our nation, there is a way to move forward in unity. Instead of wiping out the past, we can look at it even more closely and learn from it. The past can divide us, but it can also reconcile us.

This brings me to the “1619 Project,” promoted by the New York Times and named after the year the first Black slaves supposedly arrived in JamestownThis project is an attempt to radically rewrite American history and advance the narrative that America was first and foremost—and continues to be—an oppressive slave state motivated and sustained by racism.

One of the presuppositions of the 1619 Project is the War for Independence was not fought to escape British tyranny but instead to preserve slavery. The 1619 Project is the Trojan Horse, disguised under “academic inquiry,” to indoctrinate an entire generation to radically change America.

In its feature on the 1619 Project, the Times wrote its intent was to show “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

The problem is this: The author of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for it, freely admits the project has nothing to do with history. The presupposition of the project—the Founding Fathers were willfully deceptive about their motives for the Revolutionary War—flies in the face of the Founding Fathers’ actual accounts. This, matched with the utter lack of evidence for the presupposition, should have made the project unviable. But Hannah-Jones neatly sidestepped the problem of history by saying, “I’ve always said the 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative, and therefore, the national memory. The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past.”

What Hannah-Jones is doing with the 1619 Project is, in other words, a reading of the past through the lens of the present. It is not an attempt to better understand a complex, challenging moment in history by digging into the vast trove of historical evidence we have. Rather, Hannah-Jones discards historical evidence in favor of contemporary feelings. And, despite her assertion the project is not “a history,” that is how it has been portrayed: as the true history of America. In its leading story on the project, the New York Times said the project “aims to reframe the country’s history.” When this is the opening salvo, later claims by its advocates that the 1619 Project is not a history ring false.

The assertion the 1619 Project is not a historical project, but a journalistic one, allowed Hannah-Jones to sidestep the baseline requirements of historical research: evidence and accuracy. This is a neat loophole: Hannah-Jones was able to savage America’s founding, gut America’s ideals and principles, and accuse our founders of running a deep con by cloaking their desire to preserve the slave trade in the robes of a War of Independence; but when critics question the blatant inaccuracies and gaps in her research, she merely has to say her project was not intended to be “historical” but “journalistic.”

And there are plenty of inaccuracies to criticize in the 1619 Project. For instance, the central premise of the project, in Hannah-Jones’s own words, is this: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

This is so blatantly false a historian who helped fact-check the 1619 Project for the New York Times raised concerns before the project was even published. The Times reached out to Dr. Leslie Harris, a historian at Northwestern University who specializes in Black life and slavery in the pre-Civil War era, for input on the exact claim quoted above. Harris explained, Hannah-Jones’s claim was completely untrue. So, she was shocked when the Times ignored her and ran Hannah-Jones’s claim with no caveats or corrections. Harris wrote in an article for Politico, published seven months after the release of the 1619 Project, “I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.”

When Dr. Harris published her piece in Politico, Hannah-Jones finally tweaked the false claim—seven months after the original publication. Dr. Harris’s essay pointed out other errors in the 1619 Project, specifically, “[T]he paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.”

As of this book’s publication, Hannah-Jones and the New York Times have yet to respond to these criticisms.

Even the title of the 1619 Project is wrong. As Michael Guasco pointed out in Smithsonian Magazine in 2017, years before the 1619 Project was even published, the first slaves arrived in America in 1526, not 1619. Guasco cautions against fixating on 1619, as this ignores the slaves who streamed into American for nearly a century before that year. Arbitrarily picking 1619 as a key year for American history, Guasco says, “effectively erases the memory of more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will, aided and abetted Europeans in their endeavors, provided expertise and guidance in a range of enterprises, suffered, died, and—most importantly—endured.”

Hannah-Jones admitted as much when she said, “The fight over the 1619 Project is not about history. It is about memory.”She then went on to illustrate the dangers of relying on memory, not on facts, by claiming, “I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history.” This is simply not true; just months earlier, Hannah-Jones said on social media, “The 1619 Project is American history, not black history.”

But an individual’s memory may be faulty. That is why we do not rely on memory when we study history. Instead, we rely on written texts and recorded facts: memories set down in writing and in deeds can therefore be verified and studied. When we disassociate history—and memory—from facts, we are lost.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger warned about this when he said, “History is to the nation much as the memory is to the individual. The individual who loses his memory doesn’t know where he came from or where he’s going, and he becomes dislocated and disoriented.” The kerfuffle about the 1619 Project, the various retractions, criticisms, restatements, and unhelpful “clarifications”—nothing describes the situation as well as “dislocated” and “disorienting.”

The 1619 Project debacle shows just how unimportant facts are to progressives in their quest to rewrite history.

Despite its historical inaccuracies and blatant misinformation, the 1619 Project has gained immense popularity. As the editors of National Review wrote, “In the blink of an eye, the 1619 Project reoriented the discussion about American history.” It earned Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize. And, even though it is based on unsound scholarship, it is being taught in more than 4,500 schools nationwide. The 1619 Project fits the narrative of those who want to disassociate America from its founding principles. Therefore, it is a useful tool for molding impressionable young people, regardless how distorted it is.

This is the substance of the Left’s efforts to indoctrinate young Americans: to dislocate, disorient, and indoctrinate them with new “memories” with no basis in fact. To create a new reality, one that can be continually shaped and molded to meet the ever-changing demands of contemporary wokeness.

This is the indoctrination our children face in public schools—even though parents and school boards do not approve. A recent Heritage Foundation survey found 57 percent of parents and 65 percent of school board members do not support teaching children the false narrative that America was founded to preserve slavery.

Despite this, the 1619 Project is being taught in thousands of schools across the country, and President Biden’s administration cited the 1619 Project as an exemplary piece of work in the new guidelines for Department of Education grants.

Those pushing the reinterpretations of our history have gone as far as threatening teachers with fines and punishment if they do not comply. This is what happened in Loudon County, Virginia, after the school district adapted a program to “enhance the low level of racial consciousness and racial literacy” of its faculty. The district included a list of punishments for any teacher who questioned the policy, even in a private capacity. This same school district went on to “cancel” Dr. Seuss because one possible reading of some of his books does not conform to the current cultural orthodoxy.

Even the nation’s number one high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia, has gotten into the act. Parents were not allowed to have any input in a new curriculum and only found out about its radicalism when their children came home and told them about it. The curriculum, meant to shame students who have been successful, advances a false narrative pitting groups against each other rather than bringing them together. After the school told concerned parents the curriculum change was a student-led initiative, parents did some investigating. They found out the curriculum was mandated by school officials who simply informed the students it would be implemented.

This kind of top-down enforcement of curricula parents, students, and school boards alike do not want should come as no surprise.

Progressive school officials and activists see parents and school boards as the enemy and are determined to drive a wedge between parents and their children. Far too many parents are unaware of what their children are being taught in school. Then parents are mystified when children reach their teens and reject the values their parents tried to instill in them. If somehow a young person makes it through K-12 with her respect for her parents intact, she is then handed over to a public university that sets about convincing her to reject the values and beliefs of her “close-minded” parents.

The British journalist, poet, and novelist G. K. Chesterton once said, “About half the history now taught in schools and colleges is made windy and barren by the narrow notion of leaving out the theological theories.... Historians seem to have completely forgotten two facts—First, that men act from ideas; and second, that it might, therefore, be as well to discover which ideas.”

Citing Chesterton, Joseph Pearce wrote in The Imaginative Conservative:

Properly understood, history is a chronological map that shows us not only where we have come from but also where we are, and how we got here. It is also possible to project where we are likely to be going in the future by drawing the line of knowledge on the chronological map from where we have come from to where we are now and extending the line into the realm of future possibilities. In this sense history can also be a prophet. It increases our knowledge of the past, present, and future. This, however, is only true if the chronological map is accurate. If it has been drawn by those with prejudiced perceptions or a prejudiced agenda, it will only succeed in getting us lost. There are few things more dangerous than an inaccurate map, especially if we find ourselves in perilous terrain. ...

The tragedy of modern education, perceived with such brilliance by Chesterton, is that it has left us perilously ignorant of who we are, where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. We are lost and blissfully unaware that we are heading for the abyss. Such is the price we are doomed to pay for our blind faith in nothing in particular.

Without that chronological map or without an accurate chronological map, we, as a nation, have no direction. We know neither where we have come from nor where we are going. We wander aimlessly from one theory to another, getting more and more lost and disoriented when, if we would only stop and look backward—honestly and humbly—at where we came from, we would be able to decide where we are going.

In my book, I attempt to offer that type of map, to help guide our society back on course, particularly the next generation of American citizens who are currently in our educational system. I believe that if equipped with the proper historical information, Americans can do a course correction and receive a historical education that fairly and fully looks at our triumphs and failures with a critical, but clear vision, that unites, rather than divides us as a nation.

Visit to buy your copy of Toward a More Perfect Union.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: Toward a More Perfect Union/©Fidelis Publishing

Tim Goeglein champions God’s welcomed role in the public square. His years of public service and private initiative have been devoted to faith, freedom, and family. Tim is the vice president for External and Government Relations at Focus on the Family in Washington. He is married to Jenny, and they have two sons.

'Dividing America Through Trashing Our Past'