Despite Reversal on Hillary and Hellen Keller, ‘Christian Americanist’ Bias Remains in Texas Curriculum

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Despite Reversal on Hillary and Hellen Keller, ‘Christian Americanist’ Bias Remains in Texas Curriculum

David R. Brockman

This year’s streamlining process managed to nudge the standards in the direction of less biased coverage of the world’s religions, but much work remains if Texas students are to receive balanced instruction.

Long dogged by controversy, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) made national headlines again this month over efforts to “streamline” the state’s curriculum standards for social studies. Earlier this year, there was much ado about a recommendation to remove the language “all the heroic defenders” from a standard discussing the Alamo. But most coverage has focused on the controversial decision to remove Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from a list of historically important persons. Though the board ultimately reversed that decision, it also inserted language stressing Arab responsibility for Middle East conflict, and included Moses as a purported influence on America’s founding documents. Perhaps it’s no surprise that one commentator ridiculed the revised standards as “the perfect curriculum for the Trump age.”

But another, equally important story went underreported: the effect of the streamlining process on religion coverage. As I wrote in RD four years ago, the social studies curriculum standards adopted in 2010, in what RD’s Lauri Lebo called, in her aptly titled piece, the “Texas Textbook Massacre,” encouraged an emphasis on Christianity over other religions, fostering an uncritically positive version of Christian history, and promoting the idea that the United States is an essentially Christian nation.

This year’s streamlining process—officially described as an effort to “produce fewer and clearer standards that are teachable in the time allotted without diluting the rigor of the standards”—constitutes the first revision of the social studies TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, often pronounced “teeks”) since 2010. That’s when, as I wrote in a 2016 study, a bloc of ultraconservative Christian Republicans on the board pushed through radical revisions in the standards “to reflect their own ideology, Christian Americanism … the belief that America is an essentially Christian nation in which the Bible should be normative for law and public policymaking.”

In the intervening years, the makeup of the politically-elected SBOE has changed substantially. Though the board is still majority Republican and conservative, most members of the 2010 Christian Americanist bloc have left. Current chair Donna Bahorich, who took over in 2015, displays less of an appetite for the Christian Americanist agenda or the culture war street fighting encouraged by her predecessors. And other board members have generally gone along with Bahorich’s more moderate approach.

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This shows in the streamlining process. Whereas in 2009 and 2010 board members often “passed over credentialed field specialists in favor of ideological allies with little or no [academic] credentials,” this year’s streamlining work groups were composed principally of classroom teachers and education professionals.

And, although improving religious balance was not an explicit goal of the streamlining process, the work groups corrected some of the most glaring signs of Christian Americanist bias in the TEKS. Surprisingly, the SBOE approved many of these changes—though, unfortunately, not all.

The most significant changes related to coverage of world religions are in the TEKS for high school world history, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.*

The Good News …

In a standard on major historical turning points from 600 to 1450 CE, students are now required to learn about “the spread of major world religions,” instead of “the spread of Christianity,” as the 2010 TEKS required. (A move by some board members to restore the 2010 language was abandoned after education agency staff noted that the standards cover Christianity’s spread elsewhere.) The work groups also removed uncritical pro-Christian language in another standard. The 2010 world history TEKS, as I wrote in a 2014 piece for RD, “expect[ed] students to explain how Christianity was ‘a unifying … factor in medieval Europe,’ but not how Christianity was also a divisive factor” (for instance, the Inquisition). The work groups removed the problematic term “unifying,” and the revised standard now requires students to focus on developments in Christianity as “social and political factors.” The SBOE approved both changes.

The work groups also corrected a particularly objectionable example of Christian Americanist bias—again with board approval. 

A 2010 world history standard for the period 500 BCE to 600 CE required students to “describe the major political, religious/philosophical, and cultural influences of Persia, India, China, Israel, Greece, and Rome, including the development of monotheism, Judaism, and Christianity” (emphasis mine). The work groups found the italicized phrase redundant and deleted it. Apart from the fact that monotheism, Judaism, and Christianity had little bearing on Persia, India, and China during that period, any reasonably thorough discussion of religious/philosophical influences on ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome would already cover those religious phenomena. The rubric simply isn’t needed. Indeed, its sole purpose seems to have been to emphasize the Christian Americanist belief in the centrality of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” in human history.

… And the Bad

Unfortunately, board members overruled two improvements that would have cut Christian Americanist claims from the standards. First, the work groups deleted the highly questionable claim that democratic government has “its beginnings in the Judeo-Christian legal tradition.” This is a common Christian Americanist tenet: for instance, former SBOE member and outspoken Christian Americanist Cynthia Dunbar contends, in her book One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made us Great, that the Constitution is based on “biblically-derived principles.”

While biblical ideas likely influenced the development of Western democracy, the assertion that democracy has “its beginnings” in the Judeo-Christian tradition flies in the face of current scholarship on democracy’s origins, which may well lie prior to ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome. Noting that a related rubric already includes the Jewish Ten Commandments and Justinian’s Code of Laws as influences on contemporary political systems, the work groups removed the assertion of “Judeo-Christian” origins for democracy. However, the board rejected the change.

The board rejected a similar change involving another Christian Americanist tenet, the claim that trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and equality before the law “originated from the Judeo-Christian legal tradition and in Greece and Rome.” The streamlining work groups deleted the entire phrase, noting that “there are multiple influences to these ideas.” Once again, while Jewish and Christian ideas no doubt influenced these legal concepts, the claim of “Judeo-Christian” origins doesn’t reflect current scholarship.

Broadening this standard, one work group wrote, would have “allow[ed] teachers to cover these important concepts while considering a wide variety of origins including Judeo-Christian legal traditions”—a manifestly sensible position. The board, however, rejected the change, though they did moderate the language a bit, replacing “that originated from the Judeo-Christian legal tradition” with “including the Judeo-Christian legal tradition” (emphasis mine). While that’s an improvement, the Christian Americanist bias lingers.

As I noted in an earlier RD article, the 2010 world history TEKS mentioned Christianity (and related terms) 14 times, far more than any other world religion. After the board finished amending the streamlined TEKS this month, the number of Christian references stands at 11, though Hinduism is mentioned only twice, while Buddhism, Confucianism, and Sikhism receive only one mention apiece.

And the revised standards still require students to learn about Christianity’s major divisions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism), but not those of other major religions such as Islam (where the Sunni-Shia divide still plays a vital role in current events). This disparity shows just how Western-centered—and Christian-centered—the world history TEKS remain. Indeed, one of the streamlining work groups made this very point early in the review process, noting that “much of the TEKS … weigh heavily in favor of western and European civilization and history.”

So whereas this year’s streamlining process managed to nudge the social studies TEKS in the direction of less biased coverage of the world’s religions, much work remains to be done if Texas public school students are to receive the balanced instruction about religion they need to thrive in today’s more ethnically and religiously diverse America.

And the larger question remains whether a politically-elected SBOE will ever be able to accomplish that work.

***

*For those interested, the work groups’ recommendations for streamlining the high school TEKS are available here. The final version, reflecting changes made by SBOE board members, is available here.

**For instance, Mike Macnair notes that the origins of trial by jury are “the subject of an extensive debate” (“Vicinage and the Antecedents of the Jury,” Law and History Review 17:3 (Autumn 1999) : 537). François Quintard-Morénas locates the origins of presumption of innocence in the Code of Hammurabi and ancient Roman law, rather than biblical sources (“The Presumption of Innocence in the French and Anglo-American Legal Traditions,” The American Journal of Comparative Law 58:1 (Winter 2010) : 110-14).