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Revisionist Racial History at Bob Jones

December 12, 2008

One of those stories that slipped under my radar while at the SBL was Bob Jones University apologizing for its previous racist policies.

For those not in the know, BJU did not admit African American students till 1971 (almost twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education). Further, BJU prohibited interracial dating until March of 2000, when the issue gained national prominence during the Republican primaries (over thirty years after Loving vs. Virginia).

Now, some eight years after having caught up with rest of the country, BJU has apologized for these policies. However, the apology contains a revisionist reading of the school’s history.

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. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it (from BJU’s statement about race).

There are several problems in this statement. First and foremost to my mind, there is no homogeneous entity called “American Christianity” that was characterized by such racism for so long.  Taking only the Quakers in Philadelphia as one example, we can see Christian attempts to combat slavery and racism extending back before the United States even existed (that is to say, a constant attempt to combat said segregationist ethos). In the majority, mainline Christian denominations have proactively addressed racial issues at least since the Civil Rights movement (though these attempts have been imperfect). A peer-pressure argument doesn’t work here.

However, perhaps more so than painting American Christianity with one large segregated brush, BJU’s statement blames American culture at large for their racist policies. This is, of course, difficult to do when you didn’t allow African American Students till almost twenty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education and didn’t allow interracial dating till over thirty years after the Supreme Court shot down bans on interracial marriage in Loving vs. Virginia.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical. Perhaps I should just be happy that BJU has finally caught up with federal law. Indeed, I was happy when they changed their policy back in 2000 (though the irony of the political atmosphere made me chuckle). But, what I would prefer in a statement that proposes to apologize for the past would be less equivocating and more simple recognition that the policy was wrong and the instituion was wrong for having it. Period. End of story.

  1. December 12, 2008 2:47 pm

    Presbyterians and Baptists were also in the forefront of seeing that the Christian religion wasn’t segregated. Presbyterians, in particular, offered enslaved people the full right hand of fellowship and even put them in positions of leadership.

  2. December 12, 2008 3:27 pm

    Oh yeah, the Quakers were just a convenient example to use. BJU’s assertions can be discredited by looking at many denominational efforts within the States.

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