A Bible course in a public school must be taught in a non-sectarian manner and it must be academically informed. The National Council on Bible Curriculum claims that its curriculum passes these tests—but it actually falls far short. My investigation discovered numerous troubling aspects of both the organization and its course.
By Mark Chancey
Department of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
Until recently, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) was a little-known group that had managed to fly under the radar of most scholars in biblical, theological, and religious studies. Now that the organization has come to our attention, however, scholars throughout the field are concerned. As the author of a recent report on the NCBCPS for Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a religious and individual liberties advocacy group based in Austin, I have been asked many times about the NCBCPS and its curriculum, the situation in Texas, and how I became involved. This article provides a brief answer to these questions; for more details, see the report itself at www.tfn.org/religiousfreedom/biblecurriculum.
In the spring of 2005, a group of citizens in Odessa, Texas began urging the Ector County Independent School District to offer an elective Bible course—specifically, a course based on the NCBCPS curriculum, The Bible in History and Literature. Official representatives of the NCBCPS went to Odessa to rally followers, and the council’s supporters gathered a reported 6000 signatures. On April 26, the school board voted 6-0 to offer an elective Bible course—beginning not in the fall of 2005, but in the fall of 2006. Despite local public pressure to use the NCBCPS curriculum, they left the choice of curriculum open, to be decided later.
Not all Odessa citizens were enthusiastic about this turn of events. One concerned parent was a Jewish man named David Newman, whose daughter attends public schools. Newman knew that his daughter would be affected by this course, regardless of whether or not she herself took it, and when he began investigating the National Council on Bible Curriculum, he became even more concerned.
Newman made his opposition to the course clear, and the media noticed. The Odessa American, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, CNN, and other outlets ran stories on the situation. Texas Freedom Network monitored the situation and sent out e-mails across the state, letting the public know what was happening.
I read TFN’s e-mails and the stories in the media. I was particularly moved by David Newman’s comments in the Dallas Morning News, where he said that his daughter was already sometimes uncomfortable with her classmates’ questions. Newman said, "They'll ask her why 'your people' killed Jesus. Or if she knows that Jesus is her savior . . ." He continued, "I don't think it's hate. It's just kids being kids."
With my devotion to Jewish-Christian relations, my background in biblical studies, and my support for public education, I wanted to know more about the NCBCPS curriculum, which had never been reviewed by a biblical scholar. Texas Freedom Network and I exchanged e-mails and phone calls, and they obtained a copy of the curriculum and sent it to me for review.
From the very beginning, TFN and I were on the same page on crucial issues. Neither they nor I dispute the legality of Bible classes in public schools. The issue, as another commentator has put it, is not whether the Bible can be taught in public schools, but how it is taught. A Bible course in a public school must be taught in a non-sectarian manner, and it must be academically informed. The National Council on Bible Curriculum claims that its curriculum passes these tests—but it actually falls far short. My investigation discovered numerous troubling aspects of both the organization and its course.
The NCBCPS is a Greensboro, North Carolina-based organization that was founded by Elizabeth Ridenour in 1993. It claims that its curriculum is used in 1000 schools nationwide—over 300 school districts in 37 states. The group has been endorsed by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, and a host of similar groups and figures. The Board of Directors and Board of Advisors Advisory Committee are a who’s who list of the Religious Right. The Board of Advisors does include one Jew: Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who heads an organization called Toward Tradition that is closely connected with the Christian Religious Right. The Advisory Board includes no biblical scholars.
The NCBCPS has withheld a considerable amount of information from the public. The curriculum itself is very difficult to obtain. It costs $150 from the NCBCPS website—if they decide to ship it to you. Amazon.com remains unable to fill my order for the curriculum, which I placed 2 months ago because the NCBCPS will not send it a copy. The curriculum is apparently not in libraries and so is not available through inter-library loan. The Council has not identified the author of the curriculum. Though it claims that over 1000 schools use it, it will not identify those schools. It claims that the curriculum has been approved by hundreds of lawyers, but it has named only a handful, and it claims the curriculum reflects biblical scholarship, though the identities of involved biblical scholars are largely unknown, too.
Rabbi Lapin and a few Roman Catholics aside, the individuals behind this curriculum are Protestants, and the curriculum is basically an introduction to the Protestant Bible. The curriculum tries to explain the differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles by talking briefly about the books Protestants call the Apocrypha, but it is not very successful. Eastern Orthodox Christians are almost entirely absent from the book’s discussion. The curriculum is even less successful at highlighting the distinctive characteristics of the Bible used by Jews. The curriculum nowhere uses the word Tanak, nowhere describes the organization of the Tanak, and does not even make clear that Jews do not regard the New Testament as scripture.
The curriculum does make occasional efforts to be non-sectarian, but all too often, the theological assumptions of its creators are very evident. In particular, the curriculum reflects fundamentalist beliefs in the Bible’s literal, historical, and scientific accuracy. Miracle stories are often presented as factually accurate, with no other view discussed.
The curriculum also recommends showing videos from the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. These videos advocate a literal six-day creation, a 6000-year-old earth, and the simultaneous co-existence of humans and dinosaurs. When I visited there two summers ago, it was collecting donations to fund the construction of a biosphere that would replicate the atmospheric conditions before Noah’s flood.
Much of the course appears designed to persuade students and teachers that America is a distinctively Christian nation. This belief that America is a Christian nation that should be governed by Christian principles is sometimes called "dominion theology." Several of the National Council’s advisers and endorsers—such as D. James Kennedy and David Barton--are very active in the dominion theology movement.
One need not even open the book to find this agenda. The cover is decorated not with biblical or archaeological imagery, but with a photograph of the Declaration of Independence and an American flag. The title pages of most units depict similar images. Visually, the curriculum seems to Americanize the Bible and Christianize American symbols.
The book relies heavily on the thought of David Barton, a member of the NCBCPS Board of Advisors. Barton is the founder and president of WallBuilders, an organization based in Aledo, Texas that argues against the separation of church and state. Barton’s video, Foundations of American Government, is suggested viewing for students even before they begin reading Genesis. This video argues (among other things) that increases in sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, divorces, and violent crimes can be attributed to the Supreme Court’s 1962 church-state separation ruling in the school prayer case (Engel v Vitale). Almost an entire unit of the curriculum is based on Barton’s books, which argue that the Founding Fathers intended to found a distinctively Christian nation. The curriculum says, "In fact, some have even conceded that ‘historians are discovering that the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our Founding Document.’"
In addition to its sectarian nature, the book also contains a surprising number of factual errors. Archaeological findings are misrepresented, kings’ reigns are misdated, the Jewish calendar is erroneously described, even biblical stories are misread. The book is also full of typographical errors, misspellings, and unclear writing.
One of the curriculum’s factual errors is now famous. Page 117 suggests that the class "note in particular the interesting story of the sun standing still in [Joshua] chapter 10. There is documented research through NASA that two days were indeed unaccounted for in time (the other being in 2 Kings 20:8-11)." It then directs the class towards a web page titled the Sun Stood Still. When the type of urban legend that would normally circulate by e-mail ends up in a public school curriculum, it’s a problem.
The curriculum also often relies on extremely idiosyncratic, non-scholarly literature. On page 170, for example, the curriculum says, "Respected scholar, Dr. J. O. Kinnaman, declared: 'Of the hundreds of thousands of artifacts found by the archeologists, not one has ever been discovered that contradicts or denies one word, phrase, clause, or sentence of the Bible, but always confirms and verifies the facts of the Biblical record." This quote clearly reflects the book’s attempt to convince students that the Bible is 100 percent historically accurate.
Here Kinnaman is said to be a "respected scholar," but most scholars are unfamiliar with him. Kinnaman argued in his 1940 book Diggers for Facts: The Bible in Light of Archaeology that Jesus and Paul visited Great Britain, that Joseph of Arimathea was Jesus’ uncle and dominated the tin industry of Wales, and that he himself had personally seen Jesus’ school records in India. According to an article by Stephen Mehler, director of research at the Kinnaman Foundation, Kinnaman reported finding a secret entrance into the Great Pyramid of Giza, in which he discovered records from the lost continent of Atlantis. He also claimed that the pyramid was 35,000 years old and was used in antiquity to transmit radio messages to the Grand Canyon. The National Council’s August 4 press release, available at bibleinschools.net under the link titled "NCBCPS responds to attack," defends Kinnaman’s stature.
One additional problem also deserves special mention: much of this curriculum is plagiarized. The entire last chapter, for example, is reproduced word for word from uncited art history web sites. Other pages come from Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Even the discussion of "Thou shalt not steal" is plagiarized. It comes from a commentary, now available online, written by Adam Clarke between 1810 and 1825. Use of an early 19th century source explains why the curriculum notes that "Thou shalt not steal" applies to slave trading. The NCBCPS is apparently charging school districts $150 for a curriculum that includes large portions written by other, often uncited, parties.
NCBCPS has responded to the report by spreading misinformation to its followers and the media about me, Texas Freedom Network, the report, the curriculum itself, even its own web site. Its August 4 press release, mentioned above, dismisses the TFN report as the product of "radical humanists" and "anti-religion extremists" who are "attempting to become the biggest censor in the State of Texas," "desperate to ban one book—the Bible—from public schools," and are advocating "totalitarianism." More recently, a representative of the NCBCPS told the press that "anyone who's against this [curriculum] has just got to be French."
The TFN report has now been endorsed by dozens of scholars, largely because of efforts like those of https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/ to get the word out. Read it for yourself at www.tfn.org/religiousfreedom/biblecurriculum. After all, the NCBCPS has announced an effort to step up adoption of its curriculum in public schools throughout the country. It’s not just in Texas.