The girls in red, white and blue plaid skirts and boys in khaki pants climbed aboard the bus with their parents before it pulled away from the Red Lion Inn in Arlington, Va.
The 46 Mississippi sixth-graders from Tupelo Christian Preparatory School were headed to the Mall for a conservative “Christian history” tour — a theme that stands out in largely liberal, diverse Washington, even given the city’s role as host to tours for practically every interest.
“We are a nation founded by people who put their trust in God,” said Stephen McDowell, co-founder of the Providence Foundation, the right-leaning Christian educational nonprofit group in Charlottesville that sponsors the tours.
“What’s our motto?” McDowell called out to the students.
“In God We Trust!” they yelled back in unison.
“America is exceptional,” McDowell continued. “This nation was unlike any in history.”
The tours attempt to explain the buildings, monuments and symbols in the nation’s capital through a Christian lens, as visible proof of religious foundations upon which the country was built.
McDowell, who has been organizing the trips for about 30 years, describes them as a kind of calling. God, he says, has been ignored in the schools, in the government, in the media, and in official tours of our nation’s historic sites. But if tourists can peel back the secular layers of government and media, they will behold a nation birthed by God, he maintains, and thus be compelled to conclude that without Christianity, there would be no United States.
“Watch for things the tour guides aren’t going to tell you,” McDowell told the students, by now in Washington and preparing to tour the Capitol, the first of many stops over three days that would include Arlington National Cemetery and George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
“What happened in 1492?” McDowell asked the students on the bus.
“Columbus sailed the ocean blue!” they shouted back.
Most people know that part, he said, but they don’t know that Christopher Columbus toward the end of his life wrote something called “The Book of Prophecies,” which contained hundreds of biblical scriptures and promoted the spread of Christianity throughout the world.
After Columbus opened up the “New World” for exploration, what would become the United States was colonized in the midst of the Protestant Reformation with a focus on getting the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, McDowell noted.
“Latin America was founded by the Catholic Church, which neglected the Bible,” he said. “America was founded by Protestants who focused on the Bible.”
Inside the Capitol Rotunda, the group paused to look at a large oil painting by John Vanderlyn that depicts Columbus on a beach in the West Indies.
Another of the paintings by various artists depicted the baptism of Pocahontas.
“She was the most famous convert. Her baptism is a reflection of why the colonies were established,” McDowell had prepped his charges before the official tour, during which the guide noted that Pocahontas was baptized so she could marry English settler John Rolfe.
Another painting showed the Pilgrims praying before embarking on their journey to New England. The rest of the eight paintings, one of which shows the signing of the Declaration of Independence, illustrate “providential events,” McDowell had declared — meaning there was divine oversight.
Many historians takes issue with the idea of a tour that focuses at looking at national history solely through a conservative Christian perspective.
“People like McDowell get some facts wrong, but my real issue with them is the way they try to spin the past to promote their present-day political agenda,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College, a Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “They cherry-pick. … This is not how historians work.”
The political leanings of the Christian history tour group were apparent.
For example, the students and parents watched Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) give an address in the Senate chambers about labor rights for Native Americans and his opposition to President Trump’s stance toward Russia and the recent tax reform law.
“He sounded like he was from somewhere in the North,” Julia Jane Averette, 12, said over lunch. “I wish a Republican had been talking when we went through.”
Averette said she is inspired to become president some day. “I would lower taxes and spend money on things that are useful, like protecting the country, not what Obama did,” she said.
The girl’s mother, Jennifer Averette, said it was her first trip to Washington and that she had heard the monuments were strategically placed to form a cross. (Historians say Pierre L’Enfant did not employ this concept when he planned the city in the early 1790s.)
“The Bible should shape policy, because that’s how America was founded,” she said.
The group visited the Library of Congress, where some students tapped out notes on their smartphones. “The first book printed on the Gutenberg press was what?” McDowell asked the students.
“The Bible,” they yelled back.
“It’s important we have it on display because the Bible is the bedrock upon which our nation rests,” McDowell said, noting the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible that sits on display in the library.
The students and parents then flocked to view the book encased in glass under a spotlight.
The group made its way to the Supreme Court Building, where McDowell pointed out a statue of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States. Jay once wrote that “it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
“Today that would bring an apoplectic rage among liberals,” McDowell said.
The tour ended its first day at the National World War II Memorial. McDowell described the war as a struggle against evil Nazism, drawing parallels between Christian faith and liberty. Jesus’ message that “The truth will set you free” is at odds with constraints imposed under repressive forms of government, he said.
“Unfortunately, academia stopped seeing traditional Christianity as a source of liberty,” McDowell said. “It’s hard to combat evil if you don’t recognize God.”
On the second day of the tour, the group paused in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial, which depicts six Marines raising a flag on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during World War II. McDowell focused instead on an earlier war called the First Barbary War, from 1801 to 1805. He said Americans fought what would be called “Muslim terrorists” today who were capturing merchant ships and enslaving their crews. (Although the pirates came from Muslim states, many historians do not believe religion was a motivating factor.)
“You stand up and use force — people respect that,” McDowell said. “It’s pertinent for struggles we’re facing today.”
The parents on the trip had only good things to say about what the students were learning.
“We went to church, but in school we were never taught anything like this,” said Dana Parker, whose 12-year-old son, Brayden, one of two African American students on the trip, had red, white and blue-banded braces on.
Parker’s oldest son was in public school but started hanging around the “wrong crowd,” she said, so she decided to put him in the private school three years ago. The focus on faith during the trip was important to her, enough to justify the tour’s $999 per-person fee, plus airfare.
“They’ll always have [these ideas] instilled in them, even if they drift away,” she said.
Many of the parents said they appreciated McDowell’s telling of history because they felt it covered aspects that have been ignored.
“A lot of people are trying to rewrite history,” said Brent Crumpton, a dentist who joined his 13-year-old son, Tucker, on the trip.
Christianity, Crumpton said, is being “slammed” on a daily basis, citing the “war on Christmas” and “The View” host Joy Behar’s recent mockery of Vice President Pence’s faith. “Middle America feels like there’s more tolerance for other religions apart from Christianity,” he said.
As the bus made its way through the city, McDowell noted that the historic Post Office Pavilion is now the Trump International Hotel, but the president was never named in his talks. Later, McDowell described Trump as “better than the alternative,” though “certainly not the biblical model.”
The bus made a quick stop for photos in front of the White House, where McDowell told the group a state dining room fireplace includes the inscription, “I pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and on All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”
At the Lincoln Memorial, McDowell said he believes Abraham Lincoln was a Christian, though his “theology wasn’t developed.” (Lincoln biographer Allen Guelzo says Lincoln appeared to believe in God, although there is no evidence to suggest he accepted Christian teaching about Jesus. Nonetheless, he famously quoted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in his second inaugural address and suggested that God was punishing the nation for slavery.)
The group finished the tour in Washington by visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
McDowell described a satellite image showing South Korea (where Christianity has thrived) as lit up at night, in contrast to North Korea’s darkness. “Liberty produces prosperity,” he said.
The point of his tours, McDowell said, is not about the facts and figures.
“Churches have become less influential. Schools have become influenced by secular humanism,” he said. “The bigger purpose is to show people that biblical ideas are necessary for us to live free.”