Mark Chancey on Biblical Curricula in Texas Schools

The Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group that monitors religious freedom and public education, commissioned Mark Chancey, an associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, to produce a report on the implementation of a 2007 that required school districts to incorporate the study of the Bible’s influence on history and literature into their curriculum. Although the law did not mandate a specific course on the Bible, 57 school districts and 3 charter schools chose to comply with the law by providing Bible courses rather than by incorporating an examination of the literary and historical significance into exiting and literature and history courses.  The law provided guidelines aimed to improve the quality of the Bible courses after a 2006 Freedom Network documented academic and constitutional problems with the 25 Bible courses taught at that time. Although many of these original courses are no longer offered, the new report found that, with few exceptions, these new courses also lack academic rigor and promote a promote a distinct bias that favors conservative Protestant Christianity.

The report attributes the deficiencies to the failure of the state legislature to enforce the guidelines. The State Board of Education disregarded the legislature’s mandate to development content-specific curriculum. The broad outlines adopted by the State Board of Education provide little guidance for what should be taught or how it should be taught. Teachers with no professional training in teaching Bible must therefore rely on what they have learned in popular culture and from their own religious background to develop a curriculum.

These teachers often come from conservative Protestant Christian backgrounds. In fact, some school districts have not assigned the courses to teachers; rather, they recruited ministers to teach courses. The sectarian bias is reflected in the material chosen.  Many schools taught the material provided by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which Chancey describes as replete with “shoddy research, factual errors and plagiarism” is designed to encourage students to adopt a conservative Protestant beliefs.  The sectarian bias of the materials is reinforced by the choice of conservative Protestant translation of the Bible, which translation choice is driven less by concern for historical accuracy and more of a concern to conform scripture to a particular theology.

In addition to a promoting conservative Protestant Christianity, the materials promote a negative and historically inaccurate view of Judaism, pseudoscience, and the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Although no material the report found that no material was explicitly anti-Semitic, it depicted Jews in the Bible as parochial and self-righteous,  advocated a super-cessionism—the belief that god replaces  Jews with Christians as His chosen people—and regards the Hebrew Scripture as little more than a collection of prophecies for the coming of Jesus Christ.

The material presents the Bible as having legitimate scientific authority. Evolution is denigrated as a mere theory and alternative creationist theories as suggested as legitimate alternative material. The report describes one chart used by Amarillo ISD entitled “Racial origins Traced from Noah,” which identifies the origin of the human races with the three sons of Noah. This theory, which identifies the progenitor of the “African race” as Ham, Noah’s stupid and disgraced son, was used to justify slavery.  A slideshow used by Ector Count IDS, entitled “Moses and the Red Sea Crossing: Truth or Fiction” includes the claim: “Sad to say mainstream anti-God media do not portray these true facts in the light of faith. But prefer to sceptically [sic] doubt such archaeological proofs of the veracity & historicity of the Biblical account, one of the most accurate history books in the world.”

The material also describes the Founding Fathers as conservative Protestants who sought to establish a Christian nation. Belton ISD, for example, passes out to its student a pamphlet titled “One Nation Under God” that begins “The United States was founded on the principles of liberty in the Holy Bible and the reverence of the Founding Fathers” and later follows with, “Would you like to place your trust in Jesus Christ and receive Him as your Savior from Sin?'” Authentic quotes from the Founding Fathers are divested of context, distorting their original meaning and set alongside fake quotations. The effect of this teaching, Chancey laments, is particularly pernicious because, aside from it historical inaccuracy, “figure[s] prominently in attempts by some to guarantee a privileged position in the public square for their own religious beliefs above those of others.”

Chancey concludes that the majority of the courses violates the constitution and fall far short of accepted academic standards. The courses do not encourage students to engage critically with the Bible and the literature it influenced. Instead, they exhort students to adopt a conservative Protestant beliefs on the basis of wildly inaccurate, disingenuous, and biased material.

The report can be accessed here. Mark Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Volume IIIChancey is associate professor of religious studies at SMU who, aside from pursuing an interest in American civil liberties and public education, is also a New Testament scholar. He recently co-authored with Eric M. Meyers Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, a book length-study of archaeology in Palestine from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., published by Yale University Press.

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