Religious Racism: A Milestone Overlooked

During the November 2008 celebrations over Senator Obama’s election, another important event regarding the country’s racist past was generally overlooked. In that month the president and great-grandson of the founder of arch-conservative
Bob Jones University Bob Jones University
Creative Commons License photo credit: japedi
apologized for its long hyper-racist tradition:

For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. . . . For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

An odd apology, given that institutional racism never exists without personal discriminatory acts stemming from the old white racial frame. He apparently limits personal “racism” to just certain outrageous actions like cross-burnings, I suppose. Racist actions somehow do not include all the racial segregation barriers long implemented on campus by campus officials.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education continues with an interesting of this very segregated university. Its founder, Bob Jones, was a very fundamentalist and segregationist Christian evangelist. After several college moves and recurring financial troubles, it finally located in Greenville, S.C. (Interestingly, Billy Graham attended the college—at its earlier Tennessee location–in the 1930s but found it too conservative even for his tastes in reactionary religion.) Jones was extraordinarily hostile to Catholics and viewed the pope as the anti-Christ, as well as Blacks as naturally segregated and unfit for his college:

Jones Sr. was of the view that twentieth-century blacks should be grateful to whites for bringing their ancestors to this country as slaves. If this had not happened, Jones wrote in 1960, “they might still be over there in the jungles of Africa, unconverted.” Integrationists, according to Jones, were wrongfully trying to eradicate natural boundaries that God himself had established.

The son, Bob Jones Jr., was at least as extreme a segregationist and gave honorary degrees to leading segregationists like George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Lester Maddox. The next Bob Jones, the third, became president in 1971. The college, with lots of federal pressure, finally admitted unmarried black students, but strictly barred interracial dating. This led in 1976 to the IRS (belatedly) revoking its tax-exempt status and demanding back taxes. The resulting court case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also (belatedly) voted 8 to 1 for the IRS decision. (Only former segregation supporter Chief Justice Rehnquist voted against.) Still the college continued it racist religious rant:

In 1998 Jonathan Pait, a public relations spokesman for the university, explained the school’s prohibition against interracial dating: “God has separated people for his own purposes. He has erected barriers between the nations, not only land and sea barriers, but also ethnic, cultural, and language barriers. God has made people different from one another and intends those differences to remain. Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established.”

Just two years later, the college backed off on this position on interracial dating, but it took eight more years for the president of the university to make the rather tepid apology noted above. I wonder if President Obama’s election played a role in that apology