When we published Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12, we expected pushback from some of the districts we discussed. But no one has protested more vigorously than the minister who authored the Amarillo Independent School District’s Bible curriculum and currently teaches its course. This teacher has complained loudly and repeatedly to the local press that we seriously misrepresented his materials–basically, that we broke the commandment not to bear false witness.
Actually, we just did with the Amarillo course materials exactly what we did with those from other problematic classes: we quoted from them verbatim and pointed out ways in which they fell short academically or unconstitutionally promoted one religious viewpoint over others.
When it comes to Amarillo’s Bible course, we found a lot of problematic elements, but the one that has the received the most attention is a chart titled “Racial Origins Traced from Noah.”
A test question shows that students were expected to know the chart, asking: “Shem is the father of a) most Germanic races B) the Jewish people C) all African people.”
Our report cited this approach as a red flag: “The idea that racial diversity can be traced back to Noah’s sons has been a foundational component of some forms of racism. The belief that Africans were akin to Canaanites and subject to the ‘curse of Ham’ placed by Noah (Gen. 9:18, 22, 25) undergirded nineteenth-century defenses of slavery and is still cited in racist theory.”
We emphasized that Amarillo’s course materials did not explicitly refer to the “curse of Ham” tradition, but we also noted that they did not reflect “any familiarity with the tragic role played in American history by literalistic interpretations of the sort they advocate, either.” We discussed the chart as an example of the type of pseudoscience that is found in some courses.
The Amarillo teacher has insisted to reporters that he not only does not teach that people of African descent are subject to the “curse of Ham” but that in fact he teaches against that view. We’re glad to hear it and have no reason to doubt him at his word.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem that the claim that racial origins can be traced to Noah is a religious belief that should not be presented as mainstream scholarship in a public school classroom.
The pertinent biblical passage is Genesis 9-11, which does indeed claim that after the Flood, Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth became the ancestors of seventy peoples. There’s certainly nothing wrong with studying this or any other biblical passage as long as it’s done with a scholarly eye.
Where the Amarillo course goes astray is when it abandons the passage’s references to ancient tribes and locations and replaces them with modern geographical terms like “Western Europeans” and the language of race (“African races,” “Oriental races,” and “Caucasians”). The seventy groups named in Genesis don’t begin to fall into the Amarillo chart’s neat groupings. The greater problem, however, is the obvious point that the biblical passage says nothing about race. How could it, since “race” in this sense is a completely modern concept? Once the language of “race” is introduced, we’ve left the Bible far behind and have moved to the modern period. (Unfortunately, the Amarillo chart also doesn’t reflect an up-to-date understanding of race or awareness that some of the terminology used in decades past is now considered insensitive. Who still uses terms like “Oriental races”?) The teacher does not seem to be able to recognize the difference between what the text actually says and the race-focused interpretation he’s imposing on it.
The Amarillo course appears to be trying to trace modern racial differences (whatever that means) back to the sons of Noah. In doing so, it treats the passage as straightforward science and literal history. That’s a religious approach, and in a public school, that’s a problem.
In addition, any interpretation that lumps together “African races” with biblical bad guy Canaanites is disturbing. It supports the belief in three main racial groupings that allowed the “blacks suffer from the Curse of Ham” belief to develop and flourish in the first place–intentionally or not.
Discussing the idea that the races originated with Noah’s sons, the teacher told a reporter recently: “We weren’t teaching that, Genesis 10 teaches that. Our kids didn’t have to believe it, I don’t think some of my teachers believe it, they just had to know that’s what Genesis 10 says.”
What does the law say about this type of rationalization? According to a 1996 court ruling about a Mississippi public school Bible course, “the daily teaching of the content of a book of religious proclamation does not become secular instruction merely by informing students that the content is only what the Bible says; indeed, for many students, that may well heighten the religious effect of the course.” The judge also commented that the “district’s argument that the course can be saved (no pun intended) by prefacing each discussion of a biblical event with ‘The Bible says…’ or noting that not everyone believes the Bible, is without persuasion” (Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 596-597 [N.D. Miss. 1996]).
If a court wasn’t persuaded by this argument in 1996, why would one be persuaded by the exact same argument in 2013?