Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Are (Were) Christian Schools Racist?

Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's bastion of American conservative intelligentsia
An article circulated furiously on social media this week explaining the roots of the organized Christian Right, which became an influential American voting bloc in the late 1970s. The original article, published on Politico, was entitled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” But more readers probably read the “Reader’s Digest version,” published on Slate, entitled “It Wasn’t Abortion That Formed the Religious Right. It Was Support for Segregation.

The Slate title pretty accurately captures the thesis of both articles. But the Politico original is pretty sparsely sourced. Religious conservatives will find the article easy to dismiss, while those who dislike the Religious Right’s cultural influence will celebrate. Therefore we must beg the question: should we take this vituperation seriously? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: How much time do you have? Because the facts require nuance and patience.

Both articles focus on how the IRS rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status for maintaining discriminatory admissions policy. BJU didn’t admit black students until 1971, upheld basic tokenism until 1975, and didn’t rescind policies against interracial dating until media outrage in 2000. Even name-checking BJU basically guarantees to polarize discussions, something its administration embraces with pride. But centrist Catholic author Michael Sean Winters suggests a very different source.

Winters, in his book God's Right Hand, barely mentions BJU. Not unfairly, either: outside religious-political discussions, BJU, an unaccredited sectarian school, has no national profile. Much more emphasis falls on Jerry Falwell, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Liberty University. Falwell managed to build one of America’s first vertically integrated religious empires, with not only a coast-to-coast multimedia presence, but a completely intact educational ladder from pre-K to post-graduate.

Falwell wasn’t himself racist. He even drew some congregational ire, in semi-rural Virginia, by hiring an Indonesian music minister. He openly embraced fellow Christian leaders of various racial and doctrinal backgrounds. This probably reflected his status as an adult Christian convert: not raised amid proto-Evangelical culture, he never internalized the fortress mentality. This probably explains both his lasting influence, and his success building an innovative ministry.

Jerry Falwell
However, Winters identifies a constellation of influences that motivated the previously apolitical Falwell to co-found the Moral Majority, the first monolithic conservative Christian organization. Before Falwell, Christians weren’t statistically likely to favor one political party over another. Remember, a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, moved the terms “Evangelical” and “Born Again” into America’s lexicon. But Christians quickly turned against Carter because he favored law over religion in governance.

The 1970s saw many changes in American governance that angered moral conservatives like Falwell. The first gay rights initiatives got passed. The school integration and mandatory busing demanded by the Brown v. BOE judgement came into maturity. Lopsided poverty protection problems that basically transferred money to minorities in stacks garnered attention, electrified by the trial of Linda Taylor, the original "Welfare Queen." Ideological conservatives had legitimate grievances in that decade.

For Falwell and others, however, the crowning indignity came in 1978. The government floated a regulation targeted specifically at Evangelical Christians. Quoting Winters:
The final straw that broke the back of evangelical isolation was a 1978 proposal from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to require Christian schools that had no black students to prove the segregation was not a result of their conscious efforts.
This passage includes three important nuggets. First, it required Christian organizations to prove a negative. It’s possible to demonstrate somebody is racist. But proving somebody isn’t? How does one accomplish that? Second, the IRS proposal, which was never instituted or enforced, clearly uses regulation to overreach the law. This remains a common conservative grievance; reading Winters, it’s impossible to miss that conservatives essentially keep re-fighting the battles of 1978.

Third, note the buried term: “evangelical isolation.” Evangelical conservatives like Falwell, whose Thomas Road Baptist Church was located in a primarily white area, didn’t necessarily intend to exclude Blacks. Rather, they meant to exclude modernity. Following the PR humiliation of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” Evangelical conservatives attempted to build their own proprietary society, parallel to the mainstream. Even today, Liberty University remains squishy on teaching evolution, even to future biology teachers.

The organized Christian Right originated not from an attempt to bust racism, but from an attempt to drag Evangelicals, kicking and screaming, into modernity. That included racial issues; and while most Evangelical leaders will disavow Apartheid motivations, dog whistle language still occasionally appears. But it’s a mistake to assume Evangelicals are unilaterally racist. They have a wide range of opinions. They just don’t want any part of your modern world.

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