Most troubling is the fact that the new curriculum still clearly reflects a political agenda. Like the old version, it seems to Christianize America and Americanize the Bible. It continues to recommend the resources of WallBuilders, an organization devoted to the opposition of church-state separation, and it still advocates showing that group's video, Foundations of American Government, at the beginning of the course. This video, narrated by the founder of WallBuilders, David Barton, argues that the Founding Fathers never intended for church and state to be separated and that America has descended into social chaos since devotional Bible reading and prayer were removed from public schools.
By Mark A. Chancey
Department of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
When Texas Freedom Network released its report on the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) on August 1, 2005, the National Council's response was clear and unequivocal. The NCBCPS alleged in an August 4 press release that the TFN report was erroneous and had been produced by "far left, anti-religion extremists" who were promoting "totalitarianism," becoming "the biggest censor in the state of Texas," and trying "to ban one book--the Bible--from public schools."
In the weeks that followed, representatives of the NCBCPS repeatedly made similar claims to the media. The TFN report provided numerous verbatim quotations from the March 2005 version of the NCBCPS curriculum, The Bible in History and Literature that demonstrated that it reflected a clearly recognizable theological perspective, that of American fundamentalist Protestantism; the NCBCPS denied any sectarian bias. The report detailed serious factual errors in the curriculum; representatives from the NCBCPS characterized such claims as minor scholarly disputes and "much ado about nothing." The report revealed that nearly a third of the curriculum had been reproduced from other sources, many of them uncited; the NCBCPS denied having committed plagiarism and (somewhat contradictorily) insisted that in every case it had permission to reproduce those sources. A Texas representative of the NCBCPS told the Dallas National Public Radio affiliate that anyone concerned about this curriculum "must be fringe" (some people heard "French"; the audio is unclear), a statement that would presumably apply to the more than 180 scholars from colleges, universities, seminaries, and divinity schools across the nation who have thus far endorsed the TFN report. Representatives of the NCBPS claimed that its curriculum exhibited no problems more serious than an occasional typographical error and a missing footnote or two.
As early as August 12, however, the NCBCPS was mailing school districts a revised edition of its curriculum, along with a letter urging them in bold, italicized, underlined letters to "please discard any previous editions of the curriculum that you may have." On September 9, at a Washington, D.C. press conference, the National Council announced the official release of a new curriculum. Actor Chuck Norris spoke on the organization’s behalf. Why a purportedly problem-free book that had been published only five months earlier needed to be completely replaced was not explained.
It is clear that the NCBCPS relied heavily on the TFN report in producing its new edition. Many of the revisions correspond exactly to the report's critiques. Changes include:
- addition of frequent reminders (including an introductory section) that all material must be presented in an objective, nonsectarian manner
- greater attention to the differences between Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish Bibles (though references to Eastern Orthodox churches are still conspicuously missing)
- supplementation of the name "Old Testament" with the phrase "Hebrew Bible."
- rewording of some passages so that they no longer make claims about the historicity of biblical stories, particularly those involving miracles or supernatural intervention
- deletion of claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Christians, inclusion of New Testament documents, suggestion that Jesus was the only Jew in history who could prove he was the messiah, and proof that the Hebrew text underlying the King James Version had been preserved without variation since antiquity
- removal of recommendations to use resources from the Glen Rose, Texas Creation Evidence Museum that argued for a 6000-year-old Earth, a literal 6-day creation, and the simultaneous co-existence of humans and dinosaurs
- deletion of the claims that "there is documented research through NASA that two days were indeed unaccounted for in time" and that these missing days corresponded to events described in Joshua 10 and 2 Kings 20 (despite the clear meaning of the deleted statement, a NCBCPS representative denied that the earlier curriculum portrayed this urban legend as fact on August 3's MSNBC Coast to Coast)
- deletion of creation science arguments reproduced verbatim from Grant R. Jeffrey's book, The Signature of God
- deletion of some plagiarized materials, such as the commentary from Adam Clarke's early 19th-century commentary and articles from Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia
- in many cases, clearer acknowledgements about the use of sources
- more careful editing, fewer typos, and reformatting for improved readability
The NCBCPS should be strongly commended for these changes. The September 2005 edition is indeed an improvement over the March 2005 edition.
Unfortunately, citizens, educators, and scholars have good reason to remain concerned about the NCBCPS. Though many of the curriculum’s most egregious errors and sectarian statements have been removed, it is not free of problems. The new edition, like the older one, does not identify any author. Though it claims that it has been reviewed by "primary scholars," not a single one with a full-time academic position is named. Similarly, it continues to rely heavily upon popular-level (rather than scholarly) resources written primarily from a conservative Protestant perspective. Some of these resources are idiosyncratic, such as the writings of Robert Cornuke, who claims to have identified the biblical Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia. Much of the content, such as almost the entire chapter on "Biblical Art," is still reproduced word for word from Internet sources. It remains unclear why a curriculum containing so much material available online for free costs $150.
In addition, there are still problems in content. For example, discussion of Jesus’ last week reflects a problematic harmonization of the Gospels, and the consideration of the dating of the Exodus is still murky. "Action Statements" for the Dead Sea Scrolls still imply that the view that the Dead Sea Scrolls directly link Judaism and Christianity is more widespread than it actually is (very few scholars hold this position) and that the scrolls prove that the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is equivalent with the "original text." Some typographical and factual errors remain.
Most troubling is the fact that the new curriculum still clearly reflects a political agenda. Like the old version, it seems to Christianize America and Americanize the Bible. It continues to recommend the resources of WallBuilders, an organization devoted to the opposition of church-state separation, and it still advocates showing that group's video, Foundations of American Government, at the beginning of the course. This video, narrated by the founder of WallBuilders, David Barton, argues that the Founding Fathers never intended for church and state to be separated and that America has descended into social chaos since devotional Bible reading and prayer were removed from public schools. The curriculum's disclaimer that the video is just "one perspective" and "one historian’s viewpoint" (page 11) that should be balanced with other perspectives does not alleviate the problem, especially since no other perspectives are even discussed. Despite the curriculum's characterization of Barton as a historian, he is neither an educator nor an academic. He is a political activist who is highly influential on a national level. Foundations of American Government is not an educational video; it is political propaganda. Another Barton video with similar content, America's Godly Heritage, was banned from classroom use in Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District (N. D. Miss. 1996).
Unit 17, "The Bible in History," contains fewer direct quotations from Barton's books and has been reorganized, with some parts rewritten entirely. The unit still goes well beyond a discussion of the Bible's influence on American society to make a broader argument for an increased role of religion in public and civic life. There is simply no other explanation for the new content on pages 237-240 entitled "Observations of the Supreme Court," which discusses the legality of civic nativity scenes, congressional prayers, Thanksgiving holiday, the motto "In God We Trust," and the phrase "One Nation Under God." The following pages (241-250) duplicate material from the previous edition of the curriculum, with numerous quotations--some of them spurious--on the importance of the Bible and Christianity set against the backdrop of images of the American flag and soldiers. Both this unit and Unit 6 ("Hebrew Law") include out-of-context quotations from the Founding Fathers that imply that the idea of separation of church and state is misguided. Since no quotations from famous figures supporting church-state separation are included, the curriculum's own position is quite clear--and it is the position of the NCBCPS’s endorsers and advisors, the belief that America was founded as a distinctively Christian nation and should remain so.
The NCBCPS has long been charged with being a secretive organization, and it continues to demonstrate a lack of transparency. Though it claims its curriculum is in use in more than 300 public school districts in 37 states, it continues to refuse to identify those districts. Journalists have repeatedly expressed puzzlement about the unwillingness to release such basic information. Also, access to the curriculum itself remains limited. The bookstore section of the NCBCPS website, www.bibleinschools.net, offers the curriculum for $150, but whether orders placed there are being filled is unclear. On September 27, Amazon.com officially cancelled the order I had placed on June 27, saying that the curriculum was "unavailable from any of our sources at this time." Reporters and educators have repeatedly told me of their inability to obtain a copy. If the NCBCPS offered a discounted version for scholars--even if only a photocopy, which could be produced for well under $40--it would go a long way towards assuaging concerns of a hidden agenda.
Abandoning its tactic of making misleading and even false claims to its supporters and the media would also greatly benefit the NCBCPS. The TFN report specifically notes that "Bible courses taught in a nonsectarian manner by academically qualified teachers can be an enriching part of public education" (page 1) and identifies me as a church-going United Methodist. Both the staff and members of TFN include people of faith, including a large clergy network. The report itself has been endorsed by more than 180 scholars, including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews; dozens of Roman Catholics; and a wide range of Protestants. In light of these facts, the NCBCPS’s repeated public statements that the report was produced by and reflects the views of "anti-religion extremists" who are attempting to ban the Bible from public school are indefensible.
Similarly, the NCBCPS should retract its claims that the curriculum has never been contested in court and that no one has ever expressed concern about it. In Gibson v. Lee County School Board (M. D. Fla. 1998), the Court ordered that Lee County, Florida, schools cease teaching the New Testament portion of the NCBCPS course, citing problems similar to those noted in the TFN report. In 2000, the state of Florida adopted more stringent guidelines for Bible classes, prompted in part by the problematic nature of courses based on NCBCPS materials. People for the American Way has long noted inappropriate aspects of the NCBCPS course. A simple media database search reveals other examples where parents and educators have expressed reservations about the NCBCPS.
The NCBCPS apparently wants to be treated as an educational organization, but it still has every appearance of being a political group that hopes that introducing a Bible course into public schools will serve the larger agenda of dismantling the wall of separation of church and state and increasing the role of religion (or, more specifically, a certain form of Protestantism) in public life. The spotlight is on the organization now, but I cannot help but wonder what future editions of the curriculum will look like when public and media attention have turned elsewhere.
The improvements the NCBCPS has made to its curriculum are an important step in a more productive direction. Increased transparency, improved access to the curriculum, more accurate representation of both itself and its critics, reliance on more academically informed sources, the cessation of attempts to use a Bible course for political purposes--these are all additional steps that would win the NCBCPS great praise. In the meantime, it continues to network with church and religious groups to increase adoption of its product. In North Carolina, for example, its state coordinator has reportedly lined up churches that are willing to donate the curriculum to any school district willing to adopt it. Concerned parents, citizens, educators, scholars, and clergy who are committed to the appropriate treatment of religion in public schools would do well to continue to monitor the group's activities.