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Conservative Christian guide to nation's capital vows to tell what other tours won't

By: Sarah Pulliam Bailey The Washington Post
May 27, 2018 Updated: May 27, 2018 at 4:41 am
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A tour group from Tupelo Christian Preparatory School in Tupelo, Miss., stands around a cross on the grave of Robert F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Allison Shelley for The Washington Post.

The girls in red, white and blue plaid skirts and boys in khaki pants boarded the bus with their parents.

The 46 sixth-graders from Tupelo (Miss.) Christian Preparatory School were headed to the National 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 Christian educational nonprofit 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 tour guides 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.

The trips are a kind of calling, says McDowell, who has been organizing them for about 30 years. God has been ignored in the schools, government, media and official tours of these historic sites, he says. But if tourists can peel back the secular layers of government and media, they will behold a nation birthed by God, he says, and conclude that without Christianity, there would be no U.S.

"Watch for things the tour guides aren't going to tell you," McDowell told the students.

"What happened in 1492?" McDowell asked on the bus.

"Columbus sailed the ocean blue!" the students shouted.

Most people know that part, he said, but they don't know that Christopher Columbus wrote "The Book of Prophecies," which contained hundreds of scriptures and promoted the spread of Christianity throughout the world.

After Columbus opened the "New World" for exploration, what would become the U.S. was colonized in the midst of the Protestant Reformation with a focus on getting the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, McDowell said.

"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 at a large oil painting by John Vanderlyn of Columbus on a beach in the West Indies.

Another painting depicted the baptism of Pocahontas.

"She was the most famous convert. Her baptism is a reflection of why the colonies were established," McDowell said, having prepped his charges before the tour, during which the guide said Pocahontas was baptized so she could marry English settler John Rolfe.

Another painting shows 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 said, meaning there was divine oversight.

Many historians take issue with 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, an American history professor at Messiah College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania. "They cherry-pick. ... This is not how historians work."

At the Library of Congress, some students tapped out notes on their smartphones. "The first book printed on the Gutenberg press was what?" McDowell asked.

"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 on display.

The students and parents flocked to view the book encased in glass under a spotlight.

At the Supreme Court building, McDowell pointed out a statue of John Jay, the first chief justice. 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 under repressive governments, 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 next day, the group paused in front of the Marine Corps War Memorial, which shows six Marines raising a flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. McDowell focused instead on 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.

"You stand up and use force. People respect that," he said. "It's pertinent for struggles we're facing today."

The parents praised what the students were taught.

"We went to church, but in school we were never taught anything like this," said Dana Parker, whose 12-year-old son, Brayden, had red, white and blue-banded braces.

Parker's oldest son was in public school but started hanging around the "wrong crowd," she said, so she put him in the private school three years ago. The focus on faith during the trip was important enough to her to justify the $999 per-person fee, plus airfare.

"They'll always have (these ideas) instilled in them, even if they drift away," she said.

Many parents said McDowell's telling of history covers aspects that have been ignored.

"A lot of people are trying to rewrite history," said Brent Crumpton, a dentist with his 13-year-old son, Tucker.

Christianity is being "slammed" daily, Crumpton said, citing the "war on Christmas" and "The View" host Joy Behar's recent mockery of Vice President Mike Pence's faith. "Middle America feels like there's more tolerance for other religions apart from Christianity."

McDowell said the point of his tours is not 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."

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