Should Texas students be taught that American democracy is based on the Bible? Most historians, political scientists, and religion scholars would answer no. I know I would. As a scholar of Christianity and politics, I agree with the consensus view: while the Christian Bible influenced our political system, it played a less important role than, say, ancient Greek or Enlightenment thought.
However, the myth of America’s “Christian origins,” which developed in the 19th century, could well be what students learn from the new history textbooks going into Texas classrooms this fall.
That’s because those textbooks had to satisfy social studies curriculum standards adopted by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2010. Back then, the board was controlled by a bloc of ultraconservative Republicans who espouse Christian Americanism — an ideology summed up in 2010 by then-SBOE chair Gail Lowe in The New York Times: “Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and…our founding documents had a basis in Scripture.” (In conservative Christian circles “Judeo-Christian” typically means “biblical,” sometimes combined with elements of later Christian tradition.) Lowe and her Christian Americanist allies used their power to make the social studies curriculum standards reflect their beliefs — despite the fact that those beliefs fly in the face of mainstream scholarship.
Case in point: the high school world history standard that expects students to “explain the development of democratic-republican government from its beginnings in the Judeo-Christian legal tradition and classical Greece and Rome” (my emphasis). In other words, students are supposed to learn that democracy wasn’t just influenced by the biblical tradition, but that it originated there.
Of course, Texas students interact with textbooks, not curriculum standards. So the success of the Christian Americanists’ move to mold young minds depends on how, and whether, textbook publishers meet the Texas standards.
Last year, the left-leaning grassroots nonprofit Texas Freedom Network asked me to review the six high school world history textbook packages up for adoption for use in Texas. I found that all six struggled to satisfy the “Judeo-Christian origins” requirement — not surprising, since the evidence for it is so thin. I’ll focus on two representative packages: Pearson’s World History Texas and McGraw-Hill Education’s World History, Texas.
On the plus side, both offer quite acceptable accounts of the role ancient Greece and the Enlightenment played in the development of democracy. The same cannot be said of their treatment of the alleged “Judeo-Christian origins” of democracy.
Of the two, the Pearson text makes the more radical claim. The authors declare that alongside “ancient Greek and Roman ideas about law and government,” Judeo-Christian teachings “became the basis for republican forms of government in the modern world that emphasized democracy and human rights and rejected the power of hereditary rulers” (my emphasis). The authors cite biblical teachings about free will and the value of the individual. At another point, they also mention the “Judeo-Christian” belief in equality before the law; however, an earlier section credits this belief to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
While such teachings probably did influence American democracy, the authors fail to show precisely how they were the basis for it. Instead, the Pearson authors gesture vaguely toward “some people” who “trace today’s democratic-republican forms of government to the teachings” of the Judeo-Christian tradition. They don’t indicate how few credible scholars hold that view or give the reader sufficient information to evaluate it for herself.
To their credit, the McGraw-Hill authors talk about Judeo-Christian “influence” rather than “origins” or “basis.” “Some observers,” they write, assert that the biblical tradition “has influenced the development of democratic-republican government in the Western world.” That’s true; but who are these “observers”? Are their arguments taken seriously by most scholars? The authors don’t tell us. As in the Pearson text, nothing here gives the reader sufficient evidence to decide for herself whether those arguments hold water.
The text does give two examples of this purported influence, but they only confuse the issue. The authors write that the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes applied the biblical notion of covenant to the relations between kings and subjects — that is, to monarchy. How that relates to democracy, the authors don’t say. They then note that the Puritans used “legal and political ideas” from the Bible to organize their American settlements. Yet the authors do not specify which ideas, how the Puritans used them, or how this has anything to do with democracy, since the Puritans sought to create a theocracy, not a democracy.
Students who know their Bible or who have a basic grasp of Christian history may see how weak these claims of democracy’s “Judeo-Christian origins” really are. (I can picture some sharp student asking: So where are all the biblical stories about free elections, anyway? And why did it take Christians over 1600 years to figure out that democracy might be better than monarchy?) But many other students may come away from these textbooks with a vague notion that American democracy is somehow essentially biblical.
That should concern all Texans who wish to preserve America’s tradition of church-state separation; the Christian Americanists’ claims about America’s past are really about America’s present and future.
Former SBOE member Cynthia Dunbar makes this crystal clear in her book One Nation Under God: How the Left is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great. Because the “underlying authority” for our government “stems directly from biblical precedents,” she writes, “the only accurate method of ascertaining the intent of the Founding Fathers … comes from a biblical worldview.” In other words, to find out what the Constitution means, you need to look in the Bible.
While none of the world history textbooks I reviewed go that far, their vague gesturing toward “Judeo-Christian origins” could leave Texas students ill-equipped to see through the mythmaking on which the idea of an essentially “Christian America” is founded.