A Short Interview with Professor Mark Chancey

Mark Chancey is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University. Professor Chancey specializes in biblical studies, although his some of his latest work has focused on the study of religion in modern North America. His most recent books are Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Alexander to Constantine: Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Yale University Press, 2012), co-authored with Eric M. Meyers. We thank Professor Chancey for taking time out of his day to sit down and speak to us about his upcoming article in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, which is titled “Religious Instruction, Public Education, and The Dallas High Schools Bible Study Course (1923–1985).”

How did you come across the topic of your article?
I came across the topic of this article back in 2005. I noticed news reports of a controversy over plans to implement a Bible course out in a west Texas town named Odessa. I followed that controversy pretty closely and, looking around at the scholarly literature on public school Bible courses, found that there was not much that had been written on the topic. The next year, a civil liberties advocacy and watchdog group asked me to do a study on every Bible course currently taught in Texas, which was very interesting. They used open records requests to get Bible course materials from twenty-five school districts, thousands of pages of course materials in all, that I went through. From these materials, I discovered that there was still a school district using the Dallas Bible Course in their classrooms. From 2006 on, this was an ongoing quest to discover what seemed to me at the time as the mysterious origins of the Dallas Bible Course.

It took a long time to figure out where to dig up sources, who to call, who was still around that I could talk with, things like that. My academic training is in biblical studies. My early work had been on early Judaism and the archaeology of Roman Palestine, so for me, I was used to writing about dead people and everybody who lived after 1900 was a living person as far as I was concerned. It was an entirely different mindset and set of methods and primary sources. I had to work on that for a long time just to get into that groove.

What inspired you to write this article?
There is this extraordinary variety of local and state materials about the treatment of religion in public school curricula that are pretty understudied and undocumented in the scholarly literature. These courses really give us a window into power dynamics and religious dynamics of local communities as well as national trends regarding religion, the law, conceptions of national identity and how that is related to religious identity and interfaith relations. There is a lot out there that is still waiting to be uncovered.

Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
As far as sources go, it is a scattered collection. I went to church archives as I could find them and as they would let me go to see them. A local synagogue archive was especially helpful. I used the files of one of its most prominent rabbis from back in the 1920s – 1940s, including correspondence about the Dallas course. Master’s theses and unpublished dissertations too were invaluable for understanding what things were like – snapshots of particular moments in time. One of the things I enjoyed stumbling upon was the connection of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clarke to the Dallas area in general and more specifically to one of the churches that offered the Dallas Bible Course. Nobody had every made that connection. It’s interesting, how, living in Dallas, we don’t really talk about Tom C. Clark. He’s not somebody who kids in Dallas learn about as someone who was a prominent national figure. So it was fascinating to figure out that the author of the famous 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision had gone to a church associated with this course and that he probably knew something about it. In his retirement, he gave public lectures about how to teach about religion in a constitutional way for civic formation. He was concerned with the importance of knowing about religion for citizenship and religious literacy. He’s a fascinating guy so that was a nice connection to make. And I didn’t make that until fairly late in the research process.

Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
The local Reform temple, Temple Emanu-el, had really intriguing documents from a nationally prominent rabbi in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that helped me better understand the power dynamics of being a minority religious group in an overwhelmingly Protestant city in the early 20th century. The rabbi had to do a delicate dance in navigating the power structures here. He’s a civic leader. He’s very visible. He’s trying to be outspoken. He was a staunch church-state separationist. And yet, when he arrived, the Klan was on the rise. It was very publicly a part of Dallas. Prominent city leaders were part of the Klan. In 1923, the Texas State Fair had “Klan Day.” Klansman were marching around the state fair. So this rabbi’s courage and savvy in taking a public stance to try to ensure that whatever program the school districts developed would respect church-state separation was remarkable.

The ACLU archives for Texas chapters over at UT – Arlington and at Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library were fascinating as well. I found some good material there, mostly from meeting minutes. Dallas’s local ACLU chapter in the late 60s/early 70s was indifferent to this course. It was so much a part of the local fabric that it wasn’t even on their radar. They had their hands full with other issues and were very, very active on those. But an indication of how unconcerned they were with the constitutionality of this Bible course is that one of their leaders had recently taught it. The Austin ACLU chapter could not have been more different. When public schools in Austin started teaching the Dallas course, the local ACLU chapter was not happy about it. You could see a real difference between ACLU chapters.

The University of Texas – Austin’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History also had phenomenal files from a Lutheran minister named William August Flachmeier who wrote his dissertation on the history of Texas Bible courses. He wrote it under the directorship of the chief architect of the original Texas Bible course plan back in the 1920s, Frederick Eby. Letters that Flachmeier had sent out to school districts across the state were there. So too were reports and statistics from those school districts. It was a treasure trove. Tarlton Law Library at UT-Austin had the papers for Justice Tom C. Clark. It was helpful going through some of his speeches there.

Otherwise, it was a matter of cold-calling churches and asking if they had old documents and seeing if they would let me look through them. Sometimes they did, sometime they didn’t. I called one local synagogue and asked the rabbi if I could go through its weekly bulletins or newsletters from the 1930s – 1950s. He said, “I can’t find the bulletin we did for last week’s Shabbat service!” There were also some materials in the downtown Dallas public library. Their Texas / Dallas History & Archive room had vertical files that took a lot of time to comb through but contained great material.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think this is a really timely area for exploration. Not just Bible courses, per se, but how religion is portrayed and studied and taught about in public schools. Right now, in a time of changing religious demographics, religious literacy is a civic necessity. So too is being able to recognize and understand religious difference and to relate and debate with people of diverse perspectives and identities. I think the importance of this is more obvious by the day. Bible courses are still taught across the country, probably a few hundred each year scattered across the states. No one has exact numbers on that. What is clear, though, is that these public school Bible courses have varying degrees of constitutionality. Some of them are done in ways that are compliant with court guidelines. Others, very blatantly, promote certain theological views over others with styles of teaching that would be appropriate in a congregational setting but are not in a public school. Just this year, in 2017, someone has filed a case against a local Bible course in Mercer County, West Virginia. That course has been taught continuously since 1939. The organizers insist that they are teaching about the Bible in constitutional, neutral, academically appropriate ways. But the reality is that they seem to be bringing Bible teachers into elementary-grade classrooms once a week to tell Bible stories. I have not seen the materials they are using but the complaint in the case talks about teachers guiding elementary-school students to “picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!” It’s just extraordinary. This is something that is allegedly happening right now in 2017.

Already this year, too, at least two states, West Virginia and Kentucky, have seen the introduction of bills to promote public school Bible courses. This happens every year and every once and a while state bills like these pass. And, very interestingly, the Republican national platform of 2016 included a plank encouraging public school Bible courses. There is a lot of discussion on this issue right now. I’m not someone who thinks that historical work needs to be so directly applicable to the current situation to be significant. My training is in ancient studies where these connections are not always immediately self-evident. But this is one of those cases where historical perspective sheds some light on a very, very contemporary political issue and that is exciting.

Abstract of “Religious Instruction, Public Education, and The Dallas High Schools Bible Study Course (1923–1985)”
Despite the voluminous literature on the Supreme Court’s famous mid-century decisions on religion and public education, detailed investigations of how McCollum (1948), Schempp (1963), and related rulings affected particular Bible courses and the communities that offered them are largely absent. This article offers an in-depth retrospective analysis of one such class, the Dallas High Schools Bible Study Course. One of the longest-running Bible programs in the country, it lasted over six decades, likely attracted over 40,000 students, and provided a model for other communities near and far. Indeed, its textbooks remain in occasional use today. This study contextualizes it within local religious and civic life, the evolving legal landscape, competing notions of church-state relations, differing sensibilities about religious and ethnic diversity, and larger national trends. Despite the program’s Protestant nature, until its final days advocates characterized it as a nonsectarian class that separated church and state. That they did so for so long illustrates the deep-rootedness of their commitments to religious education, how contested the implications of the Supreme Court cases were, and how crucial recognition of geographical variation is for exploring the places of religion in American public education.

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