Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fundy school blames their racism on you.

Some of you may have heard of Bob Jones University. It is primarily known as one of the most fundamentalist Christian schools in the nation. Just recently Bob Jones University has apologized for also being one of the most racist institutions of “higher learning” around. Back in my Christian days my high school, which was run by fundamentalists, took a bunch of us to visit BJU. I spent a couple of days there so I have some idea precisely what they thought and how they acted.

In their apology they blame their racism on the “segregationist ethos of American culture.” What is wrong with this? The fact is that fundamentalist Christians, who have always been bigoted and hateful throughout history, didn’t adopt their bigotry from the culture. Their bigotry came from how they interpreted the Bible not from some sort of secular ethos.

Consider how the US split over the issue of slavery as an example of this. The Northern states tended to be abolitionist while the Southern states endorsed bondage. Is it a coincidence that fundamentalism was rampant in the South but relatively weak in the North? If you look at the denominational splits that followed the slavery issue you see a split between between churches that tended toward theological liberalism and abolitionism and those that were fundamentalist and pro slavery. The Northern Baptist Church tended toward liberalism while the Southern Baptist Church was fundamentalist. Ditto for the Southern Methodists and the Southern Presbyterians.

Fundamentalist Christians in America were staunch advocates of enslaving blacks. While Quakers were fighting slavery it was the fundamentalist revivalist George Whitefield who got the Georgia legislature to legalize enslaving human beings. Within a few years Rev. Whitefield’s actions had led to a slave population of 100,000 people in that one state.

Not long before the Civil War a report was written: American Slavery: Report of a Public Meeting held at Finsbury Chapel, Moorefields to receive Frederick Douglas, the American Slave, on Friday, May 22, 1846. This report quotes Douglas saying:
I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and Bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign lands, the slave not only lies forgotten--uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America? Why we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called.
Douglas said that opposing slavery was difficult because it was so closely tied to Christianity in the South. He said “because [slavery] is identified with religion” this “exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity.” Douglas spared no words for the religious garbs of the slavers:
The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneers’s block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the bloodstained gold goes to support the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches.
In 1861 a minister at the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, H. Shelton Smith, denounced the “atheistic Declaration [of Independence] which had inspired the “higher law” doctrine of the radical antislavery men. If the mischievous abolitionists had only followed the Bible instead of the godless Declaration, they would have been bound to acknowledged that human bondage was divinely ordained. The mission of southerners was therefore clear; they must defend the word of God against abolitionist infidels.”

My point is not to give a history lesson but to show that the racist attitudes that BJU tries to blame on general American culture is far more strongly linked to Christian fundamentalism. These fundamentalists are being dishonest when they try to lay the blame for their racism on the greater culture.

I went to a fundamentalist school which had close ties to BJU. Many of our teachers were BJU graduates. And the top fundamentalist preachers came to our school. Almost without exception they were theological racists. They believed that the Bible taught that whites and blacks were to be separate. They did not adopt this view from the culture at all. They claimed it was Biblical and God’s will. They had pamphlets printed explaining how blacks were cursed by God. A favorite fundamentalist doctrine was that blacks were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who along with his descendants were cursed by God. As part of this supposed curse God turned the skin of the sons of Ham black and decreed they will be servants to the other descendants of Noah. In this view, not only did God make skin black as a curse but he ordained these people to be enslaved by those without black skin. [The Mormon sect taught a similar doctrine for over a century as well.]

Racist views were directly tied to a fundamentalist mindset. Contrary to the claims in the University’s statement, they were not racist because the culture encouraged it. The culture was racist partly because fundamentalists encouraged it. This racism held on longest in those regions of the country that, to this day, are the most fundamentalist inclined.

A second distortion that BJU presented in their “apology” is that the university was racists “in its early stages.” Technically that is true, they were racist in their early stages. But if you get the impression they weren’t racist in their middle or later stages then you have it all wrong. But that is the impression they were hoping to encourage. Bob Jones University remained racist long after the early stages and long after other universities had abandoned this view.

Bob Jones University was founded in 1927. That makes it 81 years old. For 45 of those years, up until 1971, the university was “whites only” in practice. That is over half their lifespan, not just the early stage. Then, when they first admitted black students, only married blacks were allowed to enroll. This was to preserve the virtue of the white women on campus. Married students wouldn’t date other students thus preserving the separation of the races. In 1975, facing various legal issues over the matter the university changed their policy again and admitted single black students. However, they strictly forbade interracial dating. And then they allowed it only with signed parental permission slips.

Because of these racial policies BJU lost its tax exemption. They took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court where they argued that their policies were religious beliefs because God intended segregation of the races and because the Scriptures forbid interracial marriage. I quote from the Court’s ruling “Bob Jones University also contends that denial of tax exemption violates the Establishment Clause by preferring religions whose tenets do not require racial discrimination over those who believe racial intermixing is forbidden.”

When BJU went before the Supreme Court. they were saying they were racist because of their religion not because of any cultural ethos in the United States.

The reality is that Bob Jones University remained racist long after official racism at other universities had died. Certainly the Christian college I attended was kept intentionally white by the church that ran it, as was its high school from which I graduated. And the truth is that the rise of fundamentalist schools in America was the direct result of the desegregation of public education. There are so many fundamentalist schools today because they were founded as a refuge for “white’s only” policies.

Apparently Bob Jones University can’t quit admit the truth even today. They are trying to blame their racism on the surrounding culture in spite of previously arguing that their racism was rooted in Biblical teaching. Instead of scapegoating the culture at large they ought to admit that their own stilted view of the Bible was the foundation of their bigotry. But since they claim the Bible is infallible they aren’t about to do that.

Their story has changed substantially since their case defending racism went to Supreme Court. At that time secular culture was forcing them to abandon Godly bigotry. Now they claim they were following the lead of secular culture. These changes are substantial and unexplained by them. I suggest they are merely lying and scapegoating in order to paint their fundamentalism in the best light possible. Of course, bigotry on race is just one of many prejudices indulged in by the fundamentalist movement. HL Mencken once noted that the believer in some absurd doctrine on one topic will tend to be a believer in absurd doctrines on many other topics as well. I find prejudice is much the same way. Scratch a racist and you tend to find a homophobe. Question a homophobe and you have a good chance of finding they despise immigrants. The great weakness of the Religious Right is that they tend to hate and that means they hate each other.

The Mormons hate all religions but their own. Fundamentalists think Mormons and Catholics are going to hell. Catholics think Mormons and fundamentalists are heretics. The only reason they worked together on Prop 8 was that they all hate gays even more than they hate each other. Hate is endemic in their belief systems. Opponents of these groups would be wise to consider strategies that magnify the disdain these sects have for one another. That would splinter their movement and weaken their campaigns allowing more rational values to win out.

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