Religious Racism: Texas Church Argues There's a Biblical Precedent for Strict Racial Segregation

This article was originally published by The Southern Poverty Law Center.


The curse of Ham,” an old-time Biblical (mis)interpretation used to vilify black people and justify slavery and laws against racial intermarriage, is still alive and spreading bigotry in the United States.

The Appleby Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas, is among this country’s scattered, independent fundamentalist churches still openly promoting the idea that the Biblical Noah pronounced a curse on descendants of his son, Ham. Ham had sexually molested Noah as he slept in a drunken stupor, and Noah realized it, the story goes. The curse ultimately fell on Canaan, Noah’s grandson, whose descendants were black and fated to be an underclass of slaves, according to this version of the Bible, which has been widely discredited by mainstream religious scholars.

But the canard is trumpeted loud and clear in an online statement of conviction by Appleby leaders. The East Texas church, 90 miles from Shreveport, La., is “a bit of a throwback, but these people are still out there,” Rachel Tabachnick, a fellow at the think tank Political Research Associates, told Hatewatch. She researches the impact of the religious right on politics and society.

For hundreds of years, the so-called curse of Ham was frequently taught by religious leaders as the source for racial differences, and in more recent times was seized on as a Biblical excuse for segregation and slavery, said Tabachnick. “There’s been a shift, and you don’t often see churches that are this forthright now, but the underlying theme is still there in fundamentalist holdout churches.”

The Appleby church, whose pastor could not immediately be reached for comment, proclaims a litany of racist beliefs on its website: The black descendants of Ham like fair-skinned women, of course. And “the proof of the presence of God among the Israelites was the absence of the black skinned folk of Canaan …  It is obvious God is a separator, not a mixer. It is God who set the boundaries.”

And who’s in favor of the races mixing? The church knows: “Satan wants to eliminate color by interracial marriages. Someone will ask why do we have to see color when we look at one another? Why can’t we just see each other as people? The same reason you see a Poodle, German Shepherd, Beagle, etc. God made us different and set the bounds. You don’t get thoroughbreds by taking the fences down. You get thoroughbreds by putting the fences up.”

In case you don’t get the meta-message about thoroughbreds versus mongrels, the church’s statement mangles a Biblical passage in Matthew in which a Canaanite woman pleads with Christ on behalf of her daughter, who is assumed by the Appleby church to be black. “Christ terms her people as dogs,” the church says. “‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs.’ … Unlike modern day blacks yelling about equal rights, this woman humbles herself and says ‘Truth Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from the master’s table.’”

The bottom line: Why don’t blacks know their place? Read the Bible!

Hewing to an extreme fundamentalist principle, Appleby condemns ancient Hebrews for “immorality, idolatry, and interracial marriages.” We’re seeing the punishment to this day, it insists. “Interracial relationships bring much heartache. … Before the coming of Christ, there will be many more half-breed producing marriages that will, in turn, produce more hate and envy against what the Lord has commanded.”

In case you wondered where the love of Christ fits in with all this, the church has an answer: “In Salvation, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ In salvation, there is no difference, but when it comes to marriage, there is.”

Finally, for proponents of our 13th Amendment, the church helpfully reminds us that slavery is fine with God. “The New Testament does not condemn slavery,” it says. “What it does condemn is the misuse of a slave.”

Although such overt racism is certainly waning in fundamentalist Christianity, especially in the Southern Baptist Convention (which now has a black president for the first time), Tabachnick worries about remaining outposts.

And there’s great concern about the increased teaching of Biblical literalism to thousands of U.S. children. Homeschooling is on the upswing, and public dollars are flowing into private schools through vouchers and corporate tax credit programs, she points out. In textbooks used by students in these programs “some of the foundations for the Biblical justification of racism and slavery are still being widely taught,” Tabachnick said.

So the same seeds of hatred proudly displayed by Appleby and an unknown number of other independent fundamentalist churches are scattering, planted to grow in coming generations.

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