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Jonesing For An Apology

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports today that Bob Jones University’s current president has “apologized” for his institution’s racist policies, which persisted until the Civil Rights Movement finally made it to their little corner of Greenville, South Carolina in 2000. Per the university’s website:

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. …

On national television in March 2000, Bob Jones III, who was the university’s president until 2005, stated that BJU was wrong in not admitting African-American students before 1971, which sadly was a common practice of both public and private universities in the years prior to that time. On the same program, he announced the lifting of the University’s policy against interracial dating.

As my fellow political scientist Jacob Levy points out this statement is rather pathetic and, shall we say, rather lacking in any sense of just how out-of-step BJU was with the rest of the nation for 32 of the past 40 years:

In short, Bob Jones University did not passively float along on the tide of American racism, and it was not racist only in its “early stages.” It was worse on racial questions, longer, than any other university in the country. And it was actively, determinedly, passionately worse. The University did not conform itself to a surrounding ethos. It fought to resist changes to that ethos; it fought hard, at serious institutional cost.

Now, resisting the surrounding culture is something one expects from religiously dissident institutions. Of course a fundamentalist Christian university views itself as being at odds with the surrounding world–for better and for worse. Passive conformity is no great virtue, and fighting hard for one’s beliefs is admirable. But if it turns out that your beliefs were grotesquely, abominably wrong, then it’s cowardice to suddenly plead passive conformity. That’s a vice of which Bob Jones University has never been guilty–and the lie that it has been strips its supposed apology of any moral force.

As Levy is perhaps too polite to point out, not only is the plea of “passive conformity” cowardly, it’s also factually inaccurate, unless the trustees, faculty, and administration of Bob Jones University were conforming to the norms supported by the Ku Klux Klan and few others.

While the university’s statement does recognize a failure of leadership by white Christian organizations during the segregationist era that was hardly unique to Bob Jones and his progeny, it fails to recognize the degree to which the university both served to legitimate values that today it acknowledges were fundamentally at odds with Christian teachings and acted as an exemplar of racial intolerance that bigots everywhere could point to as a legitimate institution that shared their warped sense that segregation and white supremacy were acceptable values in late 20th century society. While today’s mealy-mouthed statement may assuage those who seek political cover for their association with Bob Jones, it should not satisfy those who expect intellectual honesty from a purported institution of higher learning.

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About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State College in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi.

Comments

  1. davod says:

    Maybe they should have empaneled a group of political scientists to counsel them on the best way to say they were wrong. Then they might have been able to avoid the grovelling required until they finally get it right.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    For almost two centuries American Christianity

    This is to confuse “American Christianity” with their tiny segment of it. The entirety of American Christianity hasn’t behaved the way Bob Jones University has and to claim it has is, frankly, insulting and stupid.

    However, I’ve found that’s a common problem among American fundamentalist Christians. They don’t realize that their version of Christianity represents only a minority opinion even in American Christianity let alone world Christianity.

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  3. [...] Bob Jones University offers non-apology for its ugly history of racism.  “Sorry we were like everyone else” just ain’t gonna’ cut it. Especially when you weren’t. [...]

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  4. Bithead says:

    Ummm… point of order:

    As Levy is perhaps too polite to point out, not only is the plea of “passive conformity” cowardly, it’s also factually inaccurate, unless the trustees, faculty, and administration of Bob Jones University were conforming to the norms supported by the Ku Klux Klan and few others.

    … and ….

    The entirety of American Christianity hasn’t behaved the way Bob Jones University has and to claim it has is, frankly, insulting and stupid.

    There seems some disagreement, here; James suggesting that they’re not guilty of what they’re being charged with, and Dave suggesting they ARE.

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  5. Bithead says:

    Sorry… /James/Chris/

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  6. Dave Schuler says:

    There seems some disagreement, here; James Chris suggesting that they’re not guilty of what they’re being charged with, and Dave suggesting they ARE.

    Not exactly since I don’t think that Bob Jones University and the Klan are synonymous.

    However, whatever Bob Jones University is apologizing for excusing themselves by suggesting that all of Christianity in the United States behaved exactly the same way during the same time frame is absurd.

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  7. That is absurd, I agree. I had wished for a less corporate statement. This is better than nothing (which is what the signers of the petition assumed we’d get), but I wished it looked more repentant.

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  8. tom p says:

    This is better than nothing (which is what the signers of the petition assumed we’d get), but I wished it looked more repentant.

    Ahhh, but what did we expect? A Christain university admitting they had been “unchristain”? That would be tantamount to admitting that, if they didn’t know what the Bible said then, than maybe they don’t know what the Bible says now?

    It is the same book now, as it has been for the last 10 centuries plus… What changed?

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  9. they don’t know what the Bible says now?

    Well. . . . that’s another story. Another long, long story. ;)

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  10. Bithead says:

    Not exactly since I don’t think that Bob Jones University and the Klan are synonymous.

    However, whatever Bob Jones University is apologizing for excusing themselves by suggesting that all of Christianity in the United States behaved exactly the same way during the same time frame is absurd.

    I wonder about that. I mean, what exactly is it they’re apologizing for, anyway? At the off, the comparisons to the klan and so on start flying.
    You seem to agree that kind of comarison absurd. Certainly the impression is left that someone thinks them the epitome of evil. So what is it they’re being accused of, then?

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  11. Houston says:

    The entirety of American Christianity hasn’t behaved the way Bob Jones University has and to claim it has is, frankly, insulting and stupid.

    However, I’ve found that’s a common problem among American fundamentalist Christians. They don’t realize that their version of Christianity represents only a minority opinion even in American Christianity let alone world Christianity.

    Dave, it’s equally unfair to link all of “American fundamentalist Christians” with BJU. Quite frankly, it was “American fundamentalist Christians” who led to the abolishment of slavery, and led the civil rights movement.

    BJU has never been representative of Evangelical Christianity, and you are right to point out that their recent statement is “insulting and stupid,” but wrong to link them with the rest of us.

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  12. Camille says:

    Wait a second, gentlemen.

    I do agree that BJU is not the norm for American fundamentalism today. I do agree that American Evangelicalism led the abolitionist movement (no such term as “fundamentalist” existed before the 1910 Fundamentals.

    BJU was, however, pretty representative of American Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism prior to the 1950s. Bob Jones Sr. was a member of the NEA and such. Old-timers — BJU alumni from the 1950s — joke with me that they went to BJU when it was more “liberal” than Wheaton.

    So I know it’s fun to use these fundamentalists as a punching bag. But it’s not necessary, nor does it bolster your case. They do have a very, very peculiar and separatist reality that does not comport with the rest of the world’s. Believe you me — I know that way better than you all do. Is their statement insulting and stupid? I can see stupid. The way to fix stupidity is education. . . .

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  13. Chaz says:

    As a BJU alum and minority that is married to a caucasian (oh yes, one of those mixed marriages) that I met and dated at BJU, it is definitely my place to say that the discussion thread here, and the piece it centers on, once again shows the depth of ignorance in our society today.

    Have any of you all stepped foot on the BJU campus? No? So you are guilty of exactly what you are accusing BJU for being – ignorant and intolerant of a remnant of society not comporting with your personal views.

    As a fellow political scientist, I think Mr. Lawrence should write on topics of which he possesses a much keener intellectual insight and understanding of.

    Texas A&M International University? Talk about a purported institution of higher learning.

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  14. Uh, Chaz. ::raises hand:: . . . I have set foot on campus. I got two degrees there (I got a Ph.D. in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American Religion form Indiana University later), taught there for 20 years, and lived on campus. It was in my whistle-blowing that I was forced to resign. So avoiding ignorance is good for all involved in the conversation.

    As threads go, this one’s pretty informed and tame.

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  15. Chaz says:

    Yes, Teach? Thanks for another ambiguous entry.

    I was one that personally lobbied for the dating policy to be banned since it wasn’t being enforced anyway.

    And as threads go, this one is not informed – like usual. But it looks as though Prof. Lewis sure knows alot about alot. But really? Stupid is what stupid does – and you were the one that worked there 20 years, thus supporting BJU by contracting w/them year-in and year-out for two decades. Come on, Camille, ignorance is bliss, isn’t it?

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  16. Huh?

    Insults make a thread ignorant. You asked if anyone had ever BEEN to BJU. I had. And I spoke out against injustice while there.

    Why the animosity toward me?

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  17. Chaz says:

    This is my last post. Please answer your own question by re-reading the last sentence in your former response post. Tit-for-tat I don’t believe I contributed to the ignorance in this thread. My beef is primarily w/the moron who wrote the article – as he probably wrote it w/ the AP release and several blog entries in hand as his research – and, secondily, the eloquent ignorance that followed it.

    The fact is that I sat for hours challenging the administration in person and in letter (BJIII) on the printed statement that was the driving force behind dating policy. What you may not know is that a few of us, very few, for the decade leading up to the 2000 Larry King announcement had challenged this policy on the false theological premises upon which it was built.

    However, what threads like this do is actually lob grenades toward the university from beyond its gates. As you know, culture is changed from the inside out. BJU the institution is made up of many good-hearted individuals, which in turn, make up, at its heart, a good, sound institution of higher learning. It is important to look at BJU in parts, not the whole.

    From what I gather, they could actually use a few Camille Lewis’ on campus to stand their ground until change occurs. They played the game of brinksmanship with you which they are well-practiced at. I know, I have been in those admin. offices far too often as a student. I went to BJU, in part, to try to make a difference, and I think 14 years later, the work that I participated in is beginning to show.

    As a father of five, I also recognize your newfound felicity of being able to stay home with your children, and that, I would never discourage.

    As for your dissertation, BJU is very open about their having first right of refusal to publish their own profs works. Perhaps, you had already given them this right to refuse prior to contracting out w/Baylor.

    I believe I had you as a prof myself in the mid-90′s (I was a rhet/pub address minor). It all seems like a haze now, but I appreciated every one of my profs as the parts that made up my whole. I am sorry if you are insulted – I am not one to pull any punches – when people call for fire, I send them fire. I perceived the sharp tone that you first aimed at me – my first post was not aimed at you, it just happened to follow yours in the thread. Perhaps it is unfair to do this in writing. I am always happy to meet in person and air out thoughts.

    dé⋅tente

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  18. See? We’re on the same team! ;) Seriously. . . . :-D I do think I remember you back in the day. Best to you! Nice to hear that God has blessed you with a wonderful family. Parenthood is an incredible sanctifier.

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