The last fundamentalist empire died yesterday in Lynchburg, Virginia

Falwell and Falwell

Male authoritarian figures presiding over regional empires were an important part of 20th-century Protestant fundamentalism. I began to think historically about these empires during divinity school when I first read William Trollinger’s book God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism.

For a long time I thought I would write a similar book about Carl McIntire, a South Jersey fundamentalist who was able to expand his empire across the nation through radio. (See Paul Matzko’s book The Radio Right). In 2001, while I was doing a post-doctoral fellowship at Valparaiso University, I drove to Trollinger’s house in Bluffton, Ohio to talk with him about fundamentalist empires and learn more about how he used questionnaires in his research. (Do you remember this, Bill?). I also used questionnaires (and oral history interviews) as I started work on a potential McIntire biography, but Philip Vickers Fithian kept calling me back to the eighteenth-century. I have a few boxes of research on my McIntire project sitting under a table in my home office. Some day I may open the boxes and get back to work.

Who were these fundamentalist emperors? The Bob Jones (and Bob Jones Jr.) empire was based at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina and it was sustained through a host of fundamentalist Christian schools. John R. Rice started out in Wheaton, Illinois and eventually moved to Murfressboro, Tennessee. His empire revolved around evangelism and The Sword of Lord, the most widely-read fundamentalist periodical of the age. McIntire’s empire was complex. It included radio, colleges and seminaries, hotel conference centers, and a popular newspaper called The Christian Beacon. Earlier fundamentalist emperors included Riley,  J. Frank Norris, and Mark Matthews.

Most of these fundamentalists taught the doctrine of biblical separation. Drawing upon 2 Corinthians 6:17 (“come our from them and be ye separate, says the Lord”), they preached personal holiness and the rejection of “worldly” activities such as movie-going, dancing, card-playing, alcohol use, and smoking cigarettes. They guarded their understanding of biblical orthodoxy like 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans. They were especially concerned with defending the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, and a dispensational view of the “last days.” Historian George Marsden has described them as “militant” in their defense of these doctrines.

When mainline Protestant denominations strayed from fundamentalist orthodoxy, these leaders led their followers out of the denominations. Some of them created their own sectarian denominations–many of them personality driven. Others started independent congregations. In both cases, these emperors presided over their empires with little accountability. They were their own religious authorities or, as they might have put it, their authority came directly from God.

Separation was one of the ways these leaders kept their empires under control.  Sometimes they even separated from other fundamentalist or evangelical Christians who did not separate from liberal theologians. This was often referred to as “second-degree separation.” (Many of these fundamentalist emperors broke with Billy Graham when they learned the evangelist was working with Protestant mainline churches and pastors during his mass crusades).

Jerry Falwell Sr., the founder of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, came of age in this era of independent empire builders. He started his ministry as a young pastor connected to John R. Rice’s empire. Falwell once described Rice as a father figure and mentor. Rice provided Falwell with networking opportunities and the young pastor used these connections to build his fiefdom in Lynchburg, Virginia. When Falwell was trying to get Liberty Baptist College (later Liberty University) on the map, he asked Rice for the names and addresses of those on his massive Sword of the Lord mailing list.

By the mid-1980s, Falwell ruled over one of the nation’s most recognizable fundamentalist empires. He continued to serve as the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Liberty University was growing. And he was leading the Moral Majority in a fight to restore America to it supposedly Christian roots. Falwell Sr. was the king of Lynchburg, Virginia and America’s most well-known culture warrior. And, unlike many other fundamentalist emperors, he became a fixture on the national scene. When older fundamentalist leaders like the Bob Jones Jr. and McIntire criticized Falwell for working with non-fundamentalists–Catholics, Mormons, and others–who shared his moral concerns, Falwell ignored them.

The older fundamentalists eventually died off. Rice’s empire had no clear successor. A member of the Jones family no longer serves as president of Bob Jones University. At the end of his life Carl McIntire was preaching to a few people in his living room in Collingswood, New Jersey.  Even Falwell, the author of a 1981 book titled The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, abandoned the label “fundamentalism.”

But Jerry Falwell had two sons. After his death in 2007, Jonathan Falwell took over his father’s post at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell Jr. became the president of Liberty University.

Jerry Falwell Jr. did not posses his father’s gift for communication. That gift seems to have gone to Jonathan. But Jonathan was not a culture warrior. Nor did Jerry Jr. seem drawn to his father’s moral crusades. He was a lawyer and a businessman. He would use these skills to lift Liberty out of financial debt and turn it into the largest and wealthiest Christian university in the world.

In the end, a successful fundamentalist empire requires a leader who can do four things:

  1. Defend doctrinal orthodoxy.
  2. Cultivate a culture of personal holiness bordering on legalism.
  3. Rule with a strong authoritarian personality.
  4. Go on the attack against outside threats from theological and political liberals, communists, socialists, and other forces of secularization.

In the case of Jerry Falwell Jr., it seems as if the limits of his skill set clashed with profound changes in American culture that made the world a very different place from the one in which his father ruled. Let’s take these one-by-one:

By all accounts, Falwell was not interested in theology, the defense of evangelical doctrine, or even the meaning of Christian higher education. Unlike his father, he did not have to stand behind a pulpit every Sunday morning and deliver a sermon. He did not have to shepherd a flock. He left the spiritual life of Liberty University to others. Falwell Jr. ran Liberty University like a business. He seemed unconcerned with integrating faith and leadership and never engaged with what has become over the last couple of decades a robust and vibrant conversation about the purpose of church-related higher education. He never considered bringing Liberty into the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a clear sign that separatism and the independent spirit of fundamentalism are hard to shake once they have been embedded in an institution.

Almost every person I know who left Liberty University after a semester or two has complained about the strict rules. The rules are also a remnant of Liberty’s fundamentalist past. We can criticize the legalism of American fundamentalism, but this call to personal holiness generally served as a moral check on fundamentalist emperors. As conservative evangelical leaders became more “culturally engaged,” and began to loosen their moral grip on their students and congregations, they were faced with new temptations. In the last several years, it became clear that Liberty’s rules did not apply to Jerry Falwell Jr. But as we learned this week, his libertine spirit could not escape the ghosts of fundamentalism, particularly the movement’s longstanding commitment to personal holiness and codes of behavior.

If Falwell Jr. inherited anything from his father, it was the old fundamentalist propensity for authoritarian leadership. From most reports he tolerated no dissent. But we live in different times. 20th-century fundamentalist authoritarianism is no longer acceptable in an age of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, corrupt CEOs, and shared governance in higher education.

Finally, Falwell Jr. tried to be a good culture warrior. His efforts at living up to his father’s legacy on this front partly explains his support for Trump. But Jerry Jr. couldn’t pull it off like his father did. Again, he just didn’t have the skill set. Moreover, he could no longer get away with saying the kinds of things about race, social justice movements, sexual ethics, and the LGBTQ community thae Falwell Sr. always ranted about while seated on his Lynchburg throne.

Perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr. was the last fundamentalist emperor.

How the history of white evangelical racism has led to Donald Trump’s election and continues to shape support for his presidency

Believe Me 3dI begin with a caveat. This post is not implying that all white evangelicals are or have been racist. Many white evangelicals have been anti-racist and have fought hard to curb systemic racism in American life. But, as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, these are not historical forces that led many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. They are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to continue to support Donald Trump. They are not the historical forces that will lead many white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump in 2020.  And they are not the historical forces that have led many white evangelicals to reject systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

But here is some history:

1 .After Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which resulted in sixty white deaths in Southampton County, Virginia, fearful white evangelical Christians in the South began to fight harder for the expansion of slavery to the west in the belief that its spread to more open country might reduce the proximity of slaves to one another and thus make insurrections more difficult. White churches responded to Turner’s rebellion with missionary efforts in the hope that the chances of passion-filled revolts might be reduced if slaves could be monitored more closely by white clergy and lay church leaders. Yes, the idea of African Americans rebelling and causing disorder has been around for a long time.

2. The anxieties stemming from slave insurrections led Southern ministers to develop a biblical and theological defense of slavery. These ministers argued that anyone who read the Bible in a literal, word-for-word fashion (as God intended it to be read) would conclude that God had ordained this system of labor. Commonsense interpretations of Bible passages that referred to slavery were often difficult to refute. Old Testament patriarchs such as Abraham owned slaves. Slavery was a legal institution in the New Testament world, and the apostle Paul urged the Roman Christians to obey government laws. In the book of Philemon, Paul required the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his owner. Writing in the immediate wake of the Nat Turner rebellion, Thomas Dew, a professor of political science at the College of William and Mary, used the Bible to defend the view that all societies had a fixed and natural social structure. Citing 1 Corinthians 7:20-21, Dew reasoned that Africans should remain slaves because God had created them to fulfill such a role in society. Slaves had been given a divine “calling” and, in Paul’s words, “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” One South Carolina Presbyterians went so far as to say, “If the Scriptures do not justify slavery…I know not what they do justify.” I am reminded here of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler’s remarks about slavery.

3. Evangelicals thought that the South’s social order, and its identity as a Christian culture worthy of God’s blessing, was grounded in a proper reading of the Bible. In other words, the people of the South–and eventually the Confederate States of America–believed that they were living in a Christian society precisely because they upheld the institution of slavery.  The abolitionist argument against slavery was not only heretical because it violated the explicit teaching of Scripture; it also threatened the Christian character of the United States. Robert L. Dabney, a Virginia Presbyterian clergyman and one of the strongest defenders of slavery and white supremacy in the South, contended that the notion that slaves–or any Africans for that matter–had “rights” and thus deserved freedom was a modern idea introduced in the eighteenth-century by the progressive thinkers of the Enlightenment, not by the expositors of God-inspired Scripture.  James Henley Thornwell, another powerful theological voice in support of slavery, understood the Civil War as a clash between atheist abolitionists and virtuous slaveholders: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communist, red republicans, Jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. Sound familiar? Watch this or most other episodes of the Eric Metaxas Show. One of Thornwell’s students, New Orleans Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer, said that the South had been called “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of slavery as not existing.” It was a duty to “ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to almighty God.”

4. Southern evangelicals also feared the mixing of races (even though the races were mixed mainly because of the long history of master raping slaves). Slaveholders believed that their defense of a Christian civilization was directly connected to the purity of the white race. One Presbyterian minister in Kentucky claimed that “no Christian American” would allow the “God-defying depravity of intermarriage between the white and negro races.”  South Carolina governor George McDuffie, who  said that “no human institution…is more manifestly consistent with the will of God, then domestic slavery,” also claimed abolitionists were on a “fiend-like errand of mingling the blood of master and slave.” In the process, McDuffie argued, they were contributing to the “end of the white republic established in 1776.”

5. Longstanding racial fears did not fade away with the Union victory in the Civil War. Reconstruction amendments that ended slavery (Thirteenth) and provided freedmen with citizenship rights (Fourteenth) and voting rights (Fifteenth) only reinforced Southern evangelical racism. A classic example of this was Dabney’s opposition to the ordination of freedmen in the Southern Presbyterian Church. During an 1867 debate over this issue, Dabney said that the ordination of African American minister in the white Presbyterian church would “threaten the very existence of civil society.” It was God, Dabney argued, who created racial difference and, as a result, “it was plainly impossible for a black man to teach and rule white Christians to edification.” He predicted a theological version of “white flight” by suggesting that black ordination would “bring a mischievous element in our church, at the expense of driving a multitude of valuable members and ministers out.” Dabney would not sit by and watch his denomination permit “amalgamation” to “mix the race of Washington and Lee, and Jackson, with this base herd which they brought from the pens of Africa.”

6. Northern Protestant fundamentalists at the turn of the 20th century were aware of the moral problem of racism, but they did very little to bring it to an end. While they did occasionally speak out against lynching and other acts of racial violence, they failed to see how their literal views of the Bible contributed to systemic racism in American life. White terror groups seemed to understand this better than the fundamentalists did. As historian Matt Sutton has shown, the Ku Klux Klan regularly sought partnerships with fundamentalists. The Klan’s leaders believed Protestant fundamentalist crusades to save Christian America made them a natural ally in the war against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Some fundamentalist commentaries on race could have been lifted from the collected works of 19th-century pro-slavery theologians such as Lewis Dabney or James Henry Thornwell. A.C. Dixon, the fundamentalist pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, called the Fifteenth Amendment (the amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote) “the blunder of the age” because African Americans were “ignorant” and thus ill-equipped to cast a ballot. Other fundamentalists upheld typical racial stereotypes that portrayed African Americans as rapists, murderers, and threats to white women. In 1923, Moody Monthly, the flagship publication of fundamentalism, published articles defending Klan activity. Fundamentalist fears about the decline of Christian America regularly manifested themselves in racism.

7. In the wake of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, an event which historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” several evangelical and fundamentalist clergymen were quick to put their white supremacy on display. Edwin D. Mouzon, the bishop of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, said he did not know who was to blame for the massacre. But if you read the front page of the June 6, 1921 edition of the Morning Tulsa Daily World, “black agitators,” including black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois, were to blame.
Mon, Jun 6, 1921 – Page 1 · The Morning Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa, Oklahoma) · Newspapers.com

Mouzon said, “there is one thing…upon which I should like to make myself perfectly clear. That is racial equality. There never has been and there never will be such a thing. It is divine ordained. This is something that negroes should be told very plainly…At the same time, we must have a Christian attitude toward the black man; he is made by the same creator; he is subject to the same Christian laws, he is our brother in Christ.” On the same day, Reverend J.W. Abel of Tulsa’s First Methodist Church said, “What other nation in all human history has done as much [for] a people as the white race has done for the race which but a brief century ago emerged from slavery? A race which even in slavery was a thousand times better off than the black princes who ruled their race in Africa.” Abel continued, “But the sin of this [black] race is that they are all too ready to protect a member of the race in crime, for no other reason that he is a negro…some day the negro will come to know that the white race is his best friend.” Dr. Howard G. Cooke, pastor of Tulsa’s Centennial Methodist Church, noted that “there has been a great deal of loose-mouthed and loose-minded talking about the white people of Tulsa being equally to blame with the blacks. This is not true.” He added, “[The massacre] should be the beginning of a new regime of law and order in this city.” This is is an interesting observation in light of the fact that a self-proclaimed “law and order” president will be holding a rally in Tulsa tomorrow night, only a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the massacre.  (Thanks to historian Kenny Brown for bringing this material to my attention)

8. In the mid-20th century,  white evangelicals had a mixed track record regarding racial issues facing the country during the civil rights movement. Billy Graham was famous for desegregating his evangelistic crusades, and many evangelical leaders and publications supported the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools, just as they supported the Civil Rights Acts (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). But very few Northern evangelicals actually participated in the movement, and strong pockets of segregationist thought and practice continued to exist in the evangelical South. Most white evangelicals were not particularly interested in the civil rights movement; they were far more concerned about–and opposed to–the way the federal government used its power to enforce desegregation and oppose Jim Crow laws in their local communities. Historian Mark Noll has argued that race and civil rights served as an entry point for the white conservative evangelicals critique of active government.

9. This relationship between race and evangelical opposition to “big government” intervention into state and local affairs is best illustrated in the evangelical response to two Supreme Court cases. Green v. Connally (1972) removed tax-exempt status from private schools and colleges that discriminated against students based on race. At the center of the controversy was Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating and denied admission to unmarried African Americans. In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of the university, a case that was eventually decided in favor of the IRS in Bob Jones v. United States.  Green v. Connolly and Bob Jones v. United States also had implications for the hundreds of private Christian academies cropping up (at the rate of two per day) all over the United States. Many of these schools were in the South and had discriminatory admissions policies, which is not surprising given that many such schools were founded in the immediate aftermath of public-school integration. When President Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” supported the Green v. Connally decision, he alienated many conservative evangelicals who ran these academies. To be fair, many segregationist academies were already beginning to admit African American students in the early 1970s, but the leaders of these schools, true to their Southern heritage, wanted to deal with the issues of segregation, race, and civil rights on their own terms. They certainly did not want the federal government forcing them to desegregate.

10. Thus, when Jerry Falwell and like minded conservative evangelicals created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, they already had experienced the power of the central government when the Supreme Court intruded on the affairs of their segregated academies. In fact, historian Randall Balmer contends that it was this fear of big-government interference as it related to desegregation of institutions like Bob Jones University and Falwell’s own Liberty Academy that prompted the formation of the Christian Right. Paul Weyrich, one of Falwell’s closest associates and one of the leading organizers of the movement, told Balmer in a 1990 interchange that the Christian Right was originally founded, not on evangelicals’ opposition to abortion, but rather on opposition to the attempts by the IRS to desegregate Christian academies.

11. Many of Trump’s evangelical supports came to Trump’s rescue when, in August 2017, he drew a moral equivalency between white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia and those who came to the city to try to oppose them. Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church–Dallas, went on Fox Business Network and said that Trump “did just fine” in his statement(s) about the event. He performed a rhetorical move that court evangelicals and other Trump supporters have perfected: he changed the subject and went from defense to offense. Jeffress warned Fox viewers that an “axis of evil” (Democrats, the media, and the “GOP establishment) were plotting to take Trump down. He then reaffirmed America’s Judeo-Christian roots without any sense that many of the Judeo-Christian influences that have shaped United States history were intricately bound up with the kind of racism that the nation had witnessed in Charlottesville. Watch:

It is time that white evangelicals take a hard look at its past and stop trying to “Make America Great Again.” It is time, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann once said, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.” The operate word is reconciliation, not “renew,” “restore” or “reclaim.”

Remembering John McCain

McCain Falwell

McCain with Jerry Falwell

Here are some things I remember about John McCain (1936-2018).

The “Straight Talk Express” was a breath of fresh-air in 2000.  McCain was strongly critical of the Christian Right approach to politics.  He blasted George W. Bush for visiting Bob Jones University before the South Carolina primary.   During the campaign he said, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore.  Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”  At one point he called Jerry Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.

In 2008, McCain did a flip-flop on the Christian Right. (I wrote about it here). He knew he needed its support if he was going to defeat Barack Obama.  McCain gave the commencement address at Liberty University on 2006.  He said that the United States Constitution “established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”  (I wrote about this in the introduction to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).  He took the endorsement of Christian Zionist John Hagee and then rejected it after Hagee made an anti-Semitic remark.  He started using the phrase “City Upon a Hill.”  And, of course, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.

During the 2008 primary season, the sponsors of the “Compassion Forum” at Messiah College invited McCain to come to campus to talk about his faith and its relationship to politics. The event took place several days before the Pennsylvania primary.  CNN covered the event and it was hosted by Jon Meacham and Campbell Brown.  McCain declined the invitation.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton accepted the invitation.  I will always be disappointed that McCain did not make this a bipartisan event.  I spent a lot of time that night in the press “spin room” explaining to reporters that McCain was invited, but chose not to attend.  (Later he would attend a similar forum at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church).

I will remember his “thumbs down” on the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare.  I still watch this video with amazement and study all the reactions of his fellow Senators

I will remember this and I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again.  When civility and respect for the dignity of political rivals is disregarded, the moral fabric of a democratic society is weakened.  What McCain did at that town hall meeting in 2008 was virtuous.

Rest in Peace

The Author’s Corner with Adam Laats

9780190665623Adam Laats is a professor of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership at Binghamton University. This interview is based on his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Fundamentalist U?

AL: Over the years, as I researched the history of conservatism and evangelicalism in American education, I couldn’t help but notice the enormous influence of the network of conservative-evangelical colleges and universities. Back in the 1920s, the parlous state of higher education was one of the first concerns of conservative-evangelical intellectuals and activists. Back then, the linchpin of fundamentalist culture-war strategy was the notion of establishing their own, independent, interdenominational, fundamentalist colleges and universities. I wanted to know how the network of these evangelical institutions developed over the course of the twentieth century.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Fundamentalist U?

AL: Evangelicalism stubbornly resists definition. In order to understand it, we should look at the dynamics of its institutions, not only at the statements of its leaders.

JF: Why do we need to read Fundamentalist U?

AL: Anyone who hopes to understand American evangelicalism should study its institutions, and colleges, seminaries, institutes, and universities have been among the most influential evangelical institutions. Why did “fundamentalists” separate from “evangelicals?” How has creationism evolved? What does it mean to be a good, godly spouse or parent? How can white evangelicals confront the legacy of white Christian racism? These issues roiled evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century, and institutions of higher education were often the stages on which the debates played out.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American historian, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

AL: I fell into it backwards. I taught high-school history and English and became fascinated with the weird ways schools function as social institutions. I wanted to understand schools, so I began studying their history. I’m still hoping to figure it out.

JF: What is your next project?

AL: I’ve moved back in time to the early 1800s. Back then, a British reformer named Joseph Lancaster promised he had found the solution to urban poverty. By implementing his “system,” cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Boston hoped to develop schools that would teach low-income children how to read, write, cipher, and show up on time for work. It didn’t work. I’m trying to figure out why so many prominent leaders, including Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York and philanthropist Roberts [sic] Vaux of Philadelphia believed in what one early historian called Lancaster’s “delusion” of school reform.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

Why No Billy Graham University?

Returns to Alma Mater

Billy Graham at Wheaton

A great question from Adam Laats, author of the recent Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Edcuation.  Here is a taste of his recent blog post:

Moody had Moody Bible Institute. Billy Sunday had Winona Lake. William Bell Riley started Northwestern. Bob Jones had, well, Bob Jones. The list goes on and on. Falwell-Liberty; Oral Roberts-Oral Roberts; Robertson-Regent.

So why is there no Billy Graham University?

One possibility is that Wheaton has functioned as the de facto BGU. The Billy Graham Center is there, and the connection is pretty tight.

Maybe we’ll see a repeat of the Bryan University story. Back in 1925, after the sudden death of William Jennings Bryan in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, fundamentalists rallied to open a college in Bryan’s memory. Some wanted it in Chicago; some wanted it to be a junior college. In the end, Bryan’s widow won the day with her plea to open the new school in Dayton, Tennessee. The junior-college idea was rejected in favor of a traditional liberal-arts university.

Read the entire post here.

A Step Toward Racial Reconciliation in Greenville, South Carolina

Wheatley

I was really encouraged to read this article in yesterday’s Greenville Online.  It describes a growing relationship between Bob Jones University and Greenville’s Phillis Wheatley Community Center.

Here is a taste:

It was a sight that brought tears to the eyes of a 70-year-old deacon at Nicholtown Missionary Baptist Church.

The Rev. Darian Blue, Nicholtown Baptist’s senior pastor, said the deacon remarked that he never thought he’d see the day when a Bob Jones University bus would be parked in the Phillis Wheatley Center parking lot.

That bus had brought BJU students to the center to perform community service projects in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

That event alone “spoke volumes to what has happened, what’s taking place, where we’re headed as a city and the work that’s being done between the two organizations,” Blue said.

But, it’s only a bud to a blooming relationship between the two organizations.

The university is offering scholarships to students who attend the Phillis Wheatley Center. The university is also opening its campus to the center’s repertory theater for a fundraiser on May 16.

The Phillis Wheatley Repertory Theater players will present “Don’t Give Up On Your Dreams,” in the university’s Rodeheaver Auditorium.

“Because the relationship is about reciprocity we have opportunities for our students to step foot on their property and that signifies a true relationship,” said Blue, executive director of the 98-year-old Phillis Wheatley Center. “It means so much.”

Blue said everyone he has spoken to regarding the center’s relationship with BJU considers it “major.”

“People in our community would never have thought our kids would be able to perform at Bob Jones so for us this is a big moment,” he said.

A more than 90-year-old Christian school on Wade Hampton Boulevard, BJU didn’t admit black students before 1971 and didn’t allow interracial dating until 2000.

In 2008, the university posted a statement on its Web site apologizing for its “racially hurtful” policies of the past, after hundreds of alumni and students signed a petition calling for an apology.

“In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves,” the statement said. “For these failures, we are profoundly sorry.”

Read the entire article here.

The Bob Jones University Factor

BJU

In the 2000, George W. Bush, who said in a nationally-televised debate that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ “because he changed my heart,” easily won the Iowa caucuses, appealing to the strong evangelical base in the Hawkeye State.

But as is often the case, the voters of New Hampshire sent a stern rebuke to Iowa when it supported Arizona senator John McCain.  McCain won comfortably over Bush in New Hampshire (48%-30%).

And then the campaigns headed to South Carolina.

The South Carolina GOP primary was very ugly.  Bush supporters painted Cindy McCain as a drug addict, said John’s daughter was the product of an “illicit union,” and wondered if the Arizona senator was mentally fit to be president.

Bush also took his campaign to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.  GOP candidates had been to Bob Jones before. Ronald Reagan spoke there in 1980.  Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Bob Dole, and Alan Keyes had all made appearances in the 1990s.  But Bush’s visit in 2000 was different, largely because his opponent was John McCain.

Like today, upstate South Carolina in 2000 was a fierce political battleground.  Evangelical votes were the prize.  McCain and other Democrats criticized Bush heavily for speaking at Bob Jones.  The fundamentalist university did not allow black students until the 1970s and, at the time of Bush’s appearance, still banned interracial dating.

McCain also criticized the school for its long history of anti-Catholicism. When Pope John Paul II visited Bob Jones University in 1987, Bob Jones Jr. said he would rather “speak to the devil himself” than meet with the Pope.  McCain told the leadership of the school to “get out of the sixteenth century.”

Bush won South Carolina by more than eleven percentage points.

A lot has changed since 2000.  Bob Jones appears to have become slightly more open.  In the wake of South Carolina primary, president Bob Jones III went on Larry King Live and announced that he was lifting the ban on interracial dating.

After the 2000 Bush visit, Bob Jones University, under the leadership of Stephen Jones, made a decision to stay out of presidential politics.  (Despite the fact that his father, Bob Jones III, endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008).

But today the Greenville university is once again inviting GOP presidential candidates to speak.  President Steve Pettit has had personal meetings with Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Scot Walker.  Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have spoken on the campus.

And this week, Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and Jeb Bush will be back for the Faith and Family Presidential Forum.  Bob Jones has about 3000 students.  I am guessing most of them vote Republican.

 

Was I Wrong About a Fundamentalist–Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Last week the most popular post at The Way of Improvement Leads Home was my reaction to Adam Laats’s post about a visit that president Steven Pettit of Bob Jones University made to Wheaton College.  Read it here.


Apparently some folks on the fundamentalist side think I got this all wrong and seem to be offended that I (or Laats) would suggest that fundamentalists are softening their attitude towards “neo-evangelicalism.”

Over at the blog of an organization called “Religious Affections Ministries” Kevin Bauder, a theology professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota, argues in no uncertain terms that Pettit’s visit to Wheaton does not represent a detente.  Here is a taste of his post:

Years ago, I was in Virginia and stopped to see an acquaintance at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. While I was there, he showed me around the campus a bit, then introduced me to Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan. My visit was purely personal and had nothing to do with any endorsement of Pentecostalism in general or Pat Robertson in particular—and nobody thought that it had.
Apparently, if you’re Steve Pettit, you aren’t allowed to make personal visits. Steve was in Chicago and dropped by the campus of Wheaton College to greet a personal acquaintance. While he was there, this acquaintance showed him a bit of the campus (the C. S. Lewis shrine is worth visiting—I’ve been there, too). No endorsement of Wheaton or its policies was considered or implied.
But somebody snapped Steve’s picture, then wrote up an article in the Wheaton student paper. Next thing you know, bloggers like Adam Laats and John Fea were speculating about some sort of rapprochement between Wheaton and Bob Jones University. Oh, my.
It’s all bunk, of course. Laats and Fea are trading in guesswork and gossip over an event that has no significance at all. BJU is not moving toward neoevangelicalism, and Wheaton certainly isn’t moving toward fundamentalism. If anyone is moving at all, it would be Laats and Fea, since guesswork and gossip are the two most important contributions of some fundamentalist blogs. Perhaps we should welcome these men to the fold.
A couple of comments:

1.  Bauder’s explanation makes sense to me.

2.  I can’t speak for Adam Laats, but I would agree with Bauder that “speculation” is a fair word to describe my original post.  As a historian I think the presence of the BJU president on the campus of Wheaton is worth setting into historical context.  

3.  I do not consider myself a “fundamentalist,” so I don’t think I will be joining “the fold” anytime in the near future.  But I would love to open up dialogue with those “in the fold.”  If Bauder or his colleagues want to invite me to campus for a visit or a lecture I would love to come.  I think we would have a lot to talk about.

4.  I want Bauder’s mustache!

A Fundamentalist–Neo-Evangelical Detente?

Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit

In the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s conservative evangelicals in America divided into two groups. 


This has been a well-chronicled story (see works by George Marsden and Joel Carpenter, especially), but it is worth repeating for those of you who need to get up to speed.
 

Neo-evangelicals retained a good deal of fundamentalist theology, but rid themselves of the separatism and militant anti-modernism of their immediate ancestors who fought for control of the major Protestant denominations a generation earlier.  Neo-evangelicalism prided itself on “cooperation without compromise.” They wanted to engage the world–intellectually and spiritually–from the perspective of their conservative Protestant faith.  Most historians suggest that the neo-evangelical movement was born when the National Association of Evangelicals was established in 1942. 


Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois quickly became the flagship undergraduate college of this movement.

Other conservative Protestants chose to remain in their separatist enclaves and continue the militant battle against liberal theology.  They not only separated from the world, but they also separated from anyone (especially neo-evangelicals) who they believed were “compromising” with the world.  While neo-evangelicals rid themselves of the label “fundamentalist” in the 1940s and 1950s, these Protestants kept the monicker and continued to build a movement around it.

Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina was the flagship undergraduate college of post-1925 American fundamentalism.

Interesting fact:  Billy Graham spent his first year of college at Bob Jones College (when it was located in Cleveland, Tennessee).  He left the college because he could not handle the rules.  He eventually made his way to Wheaton.

As Adam Laats notes at his blog I Love You But You’re Going to Hell, Bob Jones and Wheaton College have not always been on the best of terms.  But a recent visit to Wheaton by the president of Bob Jones may be a sign that hatchets have been buried.

Here is a taste of Laat’s post:

…Given that protracted and ugly history, President Pettit’s visit to Wheaton’s campus seems revolutionary indeed.
Have things turned a corner? Does President Pettit’s visit really signal a thaw in this long evangelical cold war? Several signs point to yes.
First of all, Pettit is no Jones. For the first time in the history of BJU, the school is not led by a direct descendant of the founder. Maybe that gives Pettit a little more wiggle room to ignore family feuds.
Also, BJU is changing. It now claims accreditation as well as athletic teams. It has apologized for its history of racism.
Wheaton is changing, too. As did BJU in the 1970s and 1980s, Wheaton has tussled with the federal government. Just as BJU did in the 1980s, Wheaton insists that its religious beliefs must give it some leeway when it comes to federal rules.
If Wheaton sees itself pushed a little more out of the mainstream, and Bob Jones University pushes itself a little more toward that mainstream, they might just meet somewhere in the middle. There will always be some jealousy between these two giants of evangelical higher education, but it seems possible that the worst of the fundamentalist feud may have passed.
I encourage you to read Laat’s entire post.  He has uncovered some very interesting history on the relationship between these two schools.  I don’t think we can make too much of BJU president Steven Pettit’s visit to Wheaton, but it is worth contextualizing.
Here is my question:  Does this meeting tell us more about Wheaton or Bob Jones? 

What a Fundamentalist College Might Look Like: Part 2

I think Bob Jones University might qualify as a fundamentalist college. 

I wrote about BJU in my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (thanks Darryl Hart for being my second reader on that beast), but if you want to learn more about this school I recommend Mark Dalhouse’s Island in a Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement.  BJU no longer seems to use the term “fundamentalist” to describe the university. For example, the short “History” section on the university website never mentions the “F” word. 

But it goes without saying that BJU has long been a flagship college in the American fundamentalist movement well after the F-word fell out of favor among conservative American evangelicals.

Bob Jones and Bob Jones Jr., the first two president’s of the college, were pretty hard-core when it came to their fundamentalist beliefs.  They were orthodox Christians who thought that a true believer needed to separate from the world and from other Christians–such as Billy Graham–who did not separate from the world like they did.  This was often described as “second-degree separation” and I recently discussed this phrase in relation to Union University’s decision to leave the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Bob Jones III became president of BJU in 1971.  Under his watch the college began admitting African and African-American students, as long as they were married.  In 1975 the marriage requirement was lifted and African-American students who were single were admitted.  In 2005 Jones III dropped the university’s ban on interracial dating.  He announced this decision on Larry King Live!


Bob Jones III is currently the chancellor of his grandfather’s school.  He also speaks in chapel.  In an October 6, 2015 chapel sermon Jones called attention to a 2011 New York Times op-ed written by (then) Eastern Nazarene College professors Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson titled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason.” The argument of this op-ed appeared in larger form in Stephen’s and Giberson’s book The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

You can listen to the sermon below.  The stuff about Stephens and Giberson comes beginning at the 24 minute mark.  We have transcribed the pertinent part of the sermon below the video.


I want to leave you with something that appeared as an op-ed piece in The New York Times in 2011. It was written by two professors at a college calling itself Christian–Eastern Nazarene College.  I want you to hear the hiss of the serpent.  I want you to hear the scorn in their voices. This is what I am talking about when I say many deceivers…going around in the world who are preaching science falsely…doing the work of the devil from within the church.  They’re everywhere.  The Lord said they were going to be. The apostles said they were going to be.  The epistles they wrote to the churches warned of them in the very day of the early church.


Here is what this op-ed said: “The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism. It’s textbook evidence of unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. and one fundamentalist slogan puts it ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, and the settles it.’ But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism, and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most Republican candidates have embraced.  Like other evangelicals we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus and look to the Bible as our sacred book though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation.  Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblical-grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectual engaged, humble, and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, over-confident, and reactionary. Fundamentalist appeals to evangelicals who have become convinced that their country has been overrun by a vast secular conspiracy.  Denial is the simplest and most attractive response to change. They have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools, the remove of the nativity scenes from public places, the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality, the persistence of pornography and drug abuse, the acceptance of other religion and of atheism.  In response many evangelicals created what amounts to a parallel culture nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps, colleges, as well as publishing houses, and broadcast networks.” (And then he names some of them).  These are charismatic leaders and they project a winsome personal testimony as brothers in Christ, there audiences number in the tens of millions, they pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of scripture.  To many they seem like prophets, anointed by God. But, in fact, their rejection of knowledge amounts to what evangelical historian Mark Noll (who by the way is a professor at Wheaton College) in his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind described as an intellectual disaster. calling evangelicals to repent of their neglect of the mind.  There are signs of change within the evangelical world. Tensions have emerged between those who deny secular knowledge and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith.” (Did you get that? The faith they believe and preach and embrace is not a biblically-mandated faith but one that has been ameliorated, has been infiltrated with unregenerate intellectualism, and their faith has accommodated the embrace of anti-biblical concepts.  There faith is a Christianity that doesn’t come out of the Bible alone, but out of the infusion with the Bible of anti-biblical intellectualism.)

I continue: “Almost evangelical colleges employee faculty members with degrees from major research universities, a conduit for knowledge from the larger world.  We find students arriving on campus tired of the culture-war approach to faith in which they were raised, more interested in promoting social justice than opposing gay marriage.  They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution.  It says next to nothing about gay marriage.  They understand that Christian theology can incorporate Darwin’s insights and flourish in a pluralistic society.”  

When the faith of so many Americans become an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous, and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out even it means criticizing fellow Christians. What did Eve do in the garden?  She heard the hiss of the serpent that said “if you disobey God, if you will resort to your human reasoning, you can become a god yourself and you don’t have to follow God. You become God.”

Ladies and gentleman, there is treachery abroad in the church.  Their is treachery abroad in this land. And if you and I are not daily constant seekers of God…our fervor disappears, our minds get in mutual, and we become sponges to absorb whatever floating around out there in the name of Christ thought it may have nothing to do with Christ and may even be a denial of Christ.  Do not let that happen to you.  I beg you.

This is classic Bob Jones.  The same sermon could have been delivered by Bob Jones Sr. in the 1925 or Bob Jones Jr. in 1965.

I think it is stuff like this that qualifies Bob Jones University as yet another fundamentalist institution of higher education. 

Adam Laats: I think we found another one.

Having said that, several evangelical scholars, myself included, were also critical of Stephens and Giberson’s op-ed and book (but not for the same reason as Jones III was critical).

See Baylor’s Thomas Kidd here.

And here is what I wrote in the wake of Kidd’s post:

Like Kidd, I also consider Randall Stephens to be a friend.  And like Kidd, I corresponded with him as he wrote The Anointed.  I am also sympathetic to his (and Giberson’s) desire to let the world know that there are evangelical Christians who do not embrace the views of people like Ken Hamm and David Barton.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But I can’t help but agree with Kidd’s review.  Is The New York Times the best place for evangelicals to decry evangelical anti-intellectualism? Indeed, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the evangelical community.  But I wonder, to quote Kidd, if the New York Times op-ed page is  “the most promising way to start addressing that failure?” 

To be completely honest, I also wonder if a book published by Harvard University Press is going to have any impact on rank and file evangelicals.  It seems to me that two kinds of people will read The Anointed:  1). Non-evangelicals who want ammunition to bash evangelical intellectual backwardness and 2). Evangelical intellectuals who already agree with Giberson and Stephens.  I wonder if ordinary evangelicals–the folks who actually listen to Barton and Ham and Dobson–will read the book or even know that the book exists.

In the end, I agree with Kidd.  The anti-intellectual problem in American evangelicalism needs to be addressed in our churches. It is going to require evangelical thinkers to engage congregations in a more purposeful way and give some serious thought to how their vocations as scholars might serve the church.  As I have learned over the years, this will require building trust and listening to and empathizing with the concerns of those whom we want to challenge to think more deeply about the relationship between their faith and the larger culture.

Adam Parsons on Randall Balmer and the Origins of the Religious Right

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember the Author’s Corner interview we did in April with Randall Balmer on his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.  In this book Balmer offers a new interpretation of the origins of the Religious Right.  (Actually, fans of Balmer’s work will know that he first put forth a version of this argument in his Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America).  Here is what Balmer wrote in that interview:

I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973
Balmer elaborated on this argument in a recent piece on the origins of the Religious Right at Politico in which he argued that the movement coalesced around the desire of Southern fundamentalists to protect segregated Christian schools, and not around the anti-abortion crusade. Here is a taste of that piece:
In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.

In my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I used Balmer’s

argument in my explanation of the origins of the Religious Right because it seemed to make sense. But I also suggested that the traditional view, that the Religious Right gained prominence in response to Roe v. Wade, was also correct.  For me it was a combination of things that brought about the rise of the Religious Right.  I was less concerned than Balmer about the exact event that got the movement started.


While I was browsing Facebook last night, I came across another take on Balmer’s thesis about the origins of Christian Right.  Adam Parsons is a doctoral student in American history at Syracuse University.  You may recall that we have featured some of his work before here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here is his take on the Balmer Politico essay:

I started to write a comment on this piece, which I’ve seen floating around a lot recently, and decided just to share it on my own page:
I’ve said similar things elsewhere, but – as much as I usually take his side – I think Balmer’s only half-right here. He’s right, of course, that Roe v. Wade was not the catalyst people think. And in looking for another origin, he’s right to point to taxation, and right to point to segregation academies – but there’s a lot more to the story than just the academies. It’s telling, for example, that he uses Bob Jones as an example. In the very politically conservative (we sang Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. in Sunday morning service during the first Gulf War) but also very Northern fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I spent my childhood, BJU was looked at as a kind of weird, inbred cousin. This view was, from what I’ve seen, shared by a large percentage of northern evangelical leaders throughout the seventies and eighties – even the most conservative of them were, by and large, Moody Press people, not BJU folks.
Those regional distinctions – broadly, between Northern/Canadian, Old Southern, and Southwestern

Adam Parsons

evangelicals – started to break down, I think, a lot later than Balmer claims. He’s right to point to taxation – it’s just that the fears were driven by different things in different regions. In the Old South, yeah, it was the segregation academies. In the Southwest, it was, I think, part of the broader regional culture of John Birch conservatism, which overlapped quite a bit with conservative evangelicalism. In the North (and to a certain extent the Ozarks), though, I strongly suspect that anti-federal/anti-tax attitudes developed among evangelicals in a widespread way as they sought to opt out of late capitalism – they saw tax burdens as a way to obligate people to participate in regularized wage labor, which tore social institutions apart. This opting-out is particularly apparent in, for example, people’s explanations for their attraction to Amway and other kinds of multi-level marketing – they overwhelmingly talk about it as a way to achieve self-sufficiency and to reintegrate work and family life. (I suspect, also, that attraction to these kinds of business enterprises reinforced preexisting negative attitudes toward taxation; anyone who’s dealt with small-business or independent contractor taxes can tell you how much more onerous the administrative, and often financial, burden is compared to simple employment taxes).

There’s a lot more to the story, of course – the whole question of the southernization of the United States, for one, but also, for example, the fracture of radical evangelicalism during the seventies and eighties. A few brief thoughts, though: first, the story of the religious right is not, for the most part, a story about evangelicals changing their minds, but a story about new and different people thinking of themselves as part of the evangelical coalition. (To that extent, it’s also a story about class and intellectual respectability). Second, it would be instructive to produce work on the apartheid controversy in the American Dutch Reformed community, given their long-standing tradition of private schooling but also their ties to the Michigan GOP and their prominence within the evangelical left (especially the Wolterstorffs).

Thanks, Adam.

Bob Jones University Hires a Non-Jones as 5th President.

Big news in fundamentalist-land.  Bob Jones University has a new president and his surname is not “Jones.”

And he did not even attend Bob Jones as an undergraduate (although he does an M.A. from the institution and is a current board member).

His name is Stephen D. Pettit and you can learn more about him here.

The announcement:

Notice that the candidates had to meet BJU standards on these issues:

  • Evangelism (I assume they are for it)
  • Fundamentalism  (I assume they are for it)
  • Biblical Separation (I assume they are for it)
  • The Charismatic Movement (I assume they are against it)
  • Reformed Theology and the New Calvinism  (I think they are against it)
  • KJV-Onlyism (I assume they are for it)
  • Contemporary Christian Music (I assume they are against it)
  • Philosophy of Christian Higher Education From a Biblical Perspective  (I assume they are for it)