From the Archives III: Playing the Rice Card

Editor’s Note: I am happy to say that my book about the history of evangelical higher education has entered its final production stages. We are on track to release Fundamentalist U by January 1, 2018. The sad fact, though, is that so much great archival material got cut from the final draft. In this series, I’ll be sharing some of these too-good-too-lose gems from my work in the archives.

Were white evangelicals racist? Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but.

In Fundamentalist U, I’m working hard to tease out the ways evangelical and fundamentalist colleges, institutes, universities, and seminaries wrestled with questions of race and racism in the twentieth century. It wasn’t easy, but I had to cut one of the most intriguing sections of my chapter.

Here’s what happened: In 1970, fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice came out in favor of Bob Jones University’s racial-segregation policy. The leaders of Moody Bible Institute had just invited Rice to give one of the most prominent speeches in their annual Founder’s Week celebration.

What was MBI to do? Like most white evangelicals in the era, they had moved away from the unabashed racism that they had shown since the 1930s. But they hated to alienate Dr. Rice and the potent strain of unreconstructedly racist fundamentalism that he represented.anti john rice demonstration warning letter

As MBI’s leaders hemmed and hawed, they received a clumsy letter opposed to Rice’s appearance at MBI. The authors go to awkward lengths to insist they are not students at MBI—and honestly I have no evidence that they were—but the language and content of the letter seem to suggest that it was written by MBI students.

What does this tell us about white racism at evangelical institutions? Here are some of my thoughts and I’ll welcome yours:

1.) White evangelicals in 1970 often opposed their historic racism.

2.) They often did so as part and parcel of their evangelical belief.

3.) Institutions—even ones that wanted to move away from their segregated pasts—hesitated to alienate powerful fundamentalist factions.

4.) Students at evangelical schools closely watched the goings-on at secular colleges and often mimicked the activism of their secular peers.

5.) Student activists often misunderstood the attitudes of their school administrators.

In this case, at least, MBI President William Culbertson was as ardently anti-racist as any student, but he didn’t want to hurt his school by insulting John R. Rice too publicly. When the cards were down, however, Culbertson went ahead and cut off Rice, consequences be damned.

As Culbertson wrote to John R. Rice, they both agreed on theology, but they had split on questions of race and racism. If Rice were to come speak at MBI, Culbertson concluded, it would give

the impression that the Institute agrees with your views in this regard. This cannot be.

The Coming Split at Conservative Colleges

Is your school for bigots?…Or for apostates? That’s the choice that conservative school leaders have faced throughout the twentieth century. And it is coming round again. As the US Supreme Court hears arguments about same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, conservative religious schools and colleges should gear up for another divisive debate over equality and theology. If SCOTUS rules in favor of same-sex marriage, will evangelical and fundamentalist schools face a return to the hot tempers of 1971?

More bad news for conservatives...

More bad news for conservatives…

The case itself is a combination of cases from four states. In short, SCOTUS is trying to decide two issues: whether or not the Constitution requires states to allow same-sex marriage; and whether or not same-sex marriages in one state must be recognized by all states.

Conservative Christians have made their feelings clear. Among the hundreds of friend-of-the-court letters are one from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and one from Governor Mike Huckabee’s advocacy group.

At the Christian Post this morning, we see nervous worries about the possible fall-out for conservative Christian schools. Justice Samuel Alito made an explicit reference to the precedent on every conservative’s mind: the Bob Jones University case. Back in 1970, the leaders of BJU refused to allow racial integration on their South Carolina campus. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service took away BJU’s tax-exempt status. By 1983, BJU had taken its case all the way to the Supreme Court. It lost.

Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli if the precedent would apply:

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.  So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­ sex marriage?

GENERAL VERRILLI:  You know, I ­­ I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. ­ I don’t deny that.  I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is ­­ it is going to be an issue.

Conservatives worry that this might mean the end of religious schools and colleges. Should religious schools refuse to provide housing for same-sex married couples, the federal government could revoke their tax-exempt status. For most schools, that would mean a sudden and impossibly steep tax bill. When schools are already teetering on the brink of financial insolvency, it could certainly mean the end.

But that’s not all. If history is any guide, Christian school leaders should also prepare for another kind of crisis. Back in the 1970s, fundamentalist schools endured a vicious and destructive split over Bob Jones University’s position on racial segregation.

As I’ve been finding in the archives this past year, even schools that agreed with BJU’s fundamentalist theology sometimes disagreed with BJU’s position against interracial marriage. At the Moody Bible Institute, for example, leaders decided to cancel an invitation to pro-BJU fundamentalist leader John R. Rice. The decision subjected MBI’s leaders to withering criticism from fundamentalists nationwide.

Reporters and observers have noted that SCOTUS’s decision in this case might raise questions for leaders of conservative religious schools. Those leaders should also consider another likely outcome. If SCOTUS’s decision puts pressure on school leaders to recognize same-sex marriages, it might lead to another in a long line of bitter fights among schools.

Will conservative evangelicals and Catholics submit to the law of the land? Or will they resist, citing a higher authority? Will conservative schools lose their conservative credibility if they give in to the new cultural ethos?

It’s not going to be an easy choice. If I were the president of a conservative Christian school or college, I’d get myself ready for a lose-lose decision. Do I want my school to be labeled a bunch of fanatical bigots? Or would I prefer to join the ranks of schools that don’t take their religions very seriously?

Racist Fundamentalists…It’s Complicated

Sometimes the archives can make things too complicated. White fundamentalists have always been accused of racism—a charge they’ve vehemently denied. But what do we do when an African American fundamentalist agrees with the racism of his white fellow fundamentalists?

First, a quick historical sketch: Since the 1920s, as I argued in my first book, fundamentalism got tangled up with ideas about Southern Pride. Conservative religion has often become part and parcel of a broader cultural conservatism, one that included support for racial segregation and white supremacy.

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

Racist? Or just fundamentalist?

By the 1970s, leading white fundamentalists became some of the most public supporters of racial segregation. Most famously, Bob Jones University steadfastly clung to its whites-only policy long after many white Southerners and white fundamentalists had grudgingly moved on. Some historians, such as Randall Balmer, have insisted that white racism among fundamentalists was the real root of the so-called New Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s.

I disagree. There is no doubt that white fundamentalism—especially in the South—has long had close ties to white racism. There is more to the story, however, than quick condemnations of conservative religion as a front for white supremacy.

In my recent work at the archive of the Moody Bible Institute, I came across a document that reminds us how messy history is. In 1970, the leaders of Moody dis-invited prominent fundamentalist John R. Rice from Moody’s big annual Founder’s Week event. Why? Because Rice had come out in support of the segregationist policies of Bob Jones University.

As President William Culbertson informed members of the Moody community,

Moody Bible Institute has for 85 years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible. Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ. We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture. We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships. We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation. We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Moody Bible Institute, Culbertson told anyone who would listen, still agreed wholeheartedly with John R. Rice’s fundamentalist theology. Moody refused to compromise with those who would modernize the Bible or water down fundamentalist religion. But Moody could not be seen as part of a racist, segregationist movement.

Naturally, John R. Rice and his supporters blasted this decision. More evidence, one Rice supporter charged, that Moody had

moved one more step away from the great revival that is blazing across this land into the camp of lukewarm churches that make God sick. I do not suppose that anything that I have said will make any difference to you or Moody Bible Institute’s position. Years will come and go and Moody will ‘go the way of all flesh,’ while the Moody Memorial Church continues to dry-up on the vine.

Among the fat stack of angry letters supporting John R. Rice, one stands out. It came from William H. Dinkins of Selma, Alabama. Dinkins was an African American fundamentalist and, in his words, someone who “stand[s] with Dr. Rice for fundamentalism and the old-time religion and all that goes with it.” Too often, Dinkins charged, “We Negroes [sic] . . . try to inject Civil Rights into every circumstance, without sensing the effect of what we are doing.” When it comes to religion and the Word of God, Dinkins continued, “Civil Rights is an extraneous issue, and ought not to be in question, and I feel that responsible people ought not to be effected by such pleas.”

The view from Selma, 1971

The view from Selma, 1971

Dinkins’s letter raises difficult questions about race and religion. First of all, we wonder if this letter was legitimate. Could someone have faked it in order to create an impression of biracial support for racial segregation? If not, we wonder how common such sentiments have been. As historian Jeffrey Moran has argued, white fundamentalists have long tended to ignore their African American co-religionists, at best. And, as John Dittmer and others have showed, in the early days of the Civil Rights movement many African American leaders in the Deep South supported segregation, at least temporarily and pragmatically.

In the early 1970s, was there really any support for racial segregation among African American conservatives? Did fundamentalism trump race?

Kicking Out the Christians: Duck Dynasty and “Facial Profiling”

Christians are a persecuted minority!

That’s the claim we hear over and over again from conservative religious folks.

Today we get some surprising evidence that bearded holy men of the Christian faith really are punished unfairly.  Duck Dynasty star Jase Robertson was apparently kicked out of the Trump Hotel in New York City when an employee assumed he was homeless.

jase-robertson4

Robertson. Image Source: A&E

As the Christian Post reports, Robertson didn’t take the incident too seriously.  He called the episode a case of “facial profiling.”

It was not Robertson’s Christian faith, but rather his appearance, that apparently led to this embarrassing incident.  The big reality-show star didn’t make a fuss.  But other conservative Christians like the Robertson family have consistently complained that they are treated like despised minorities in American culture.

In 1980, for example, evangelical superstar Jerry Falwell called conservative Fundamentalists “the largest minority bloc in the United States.”[*]

These feelings among conservative Protestants have been especially strong in debates over public education.  Since the 1920s, conservative evangelical Protestants have complained that their rights have not been respected.  To cite just one example, in 1965 evangelical editor John R. Rice lamented the fact that conservative Christians were not only a minority, but a minority that had been consistently singled out for unique persecution.  “Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?” Rice asked.  “Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?”[†]

We have seen despised-minority rhetoric again and again in conservative calls to include creationism in public-school science classes.  In the early 1980s, creationists pushed laws that would include both evolution and creationism, in order to protect the constitutional rights of minority creationist students.  Laws such as Arkansas’ Arkansas’ Act 590 of 1981, for example, emphasized that such rules would “protect academic freedom . . . [and] freedom of religious exercise.”[‡]

Creationists have also often complained that their views are ignored out of an anti-scientific zeal to punish minority dissent.  In 1984, for example, creationist Jerry Bergman published his expose of anti-creationist persecution in American higher education.  Bergman himself claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University solely for his religious beliefs.  “Several universities,” Bergman lamented,

state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices.  This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue.  But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’[§]

Kicking out a bearded Christian holy man from a fancy New York hotel won’t offer much clarity to this old dispute.  Jase Robertson himself did not seem at all offended that a hotel employee took him outside to a park when Robertson asked for directions to a bathroom.

Other conservative evangelical Protestants, however, have not laughed off this kind of thing so lightly.  In controversies about the nature of America’s public square, including its public schools, conservative Christians have consistently insisted that they had been treated like persecuted minorities.

It makes me wonder if Jerry Falwell was ever kicked out of a fancy hotel.

 

 


[*] George Vecsey, “Militant Television Preachers Try to Weld Fundamentalist Christians’ Political Power,” New York Times, January 21, 1980, A21.

 

[†] John R. Rice, “White Minorities Have Rights, Too,” Sword of the Lord 31 (3 September 1965): 1.

 

[‡] “Act 590 of 1981: General Acts, 73rd General Assembly, State of Arkansas,” in in Marcel C. LaFollette, ed., Creationism, Science and the Law: The Arkansas Case (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), 15.

 

[§] Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984), 43.

Required Reading: Growing Up Un-Absurd with The Sword of the Lord

How can we get along with fundamentalists if we don’t embrace fundamentalism?  More specifically, how can we tolerate religious people who will not tolerate others?

Many voluble ex-fundamentalists out there (see a few examples here and here) wrestle with this question.  Some are angry, some bemused, some both.

Andrew Himes’ Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family (Seattle: Chiara Press, 2011),  offers a unique vision into the world of both fundamentalism and ex-fundamentalism.

Himes is the grandson of John R. Rice.  He was born in 1950 into one of the leading families of post-World War II fundamentalism.  The Reverend Rice led the branch of separatist, revival-based conservative Protestant evangelicalism, the branch that clung resolutely to the label ‘fundamentalist.’  In this sense, Himes’ meaning of ‘fundamentalism’ differs from the broader, cultural traditionalist definition we use at ILYBYGTH.

Himes broke bitterly with his family tradition in high school, but over the years, he came to embrace a more complicated relationship with his family’s vision of fundamentalism.  As Himes puts it, his grandfather remained “one of the kindest, funniest, and most honorable people I knew.”  But Rice also embraced “downright silly” notions of cultural separatism—no card playing, no movies, no short hair for women.  Even worse, Himes argues, his grandfather supported racial injustice in America and imperialist injustices in Southeast Asia. (5) The central dilemma for Himes is the same as it is for ILYBYGTH: How can we love someone whose ideas and policies seem so radically different from our own?

In his attempt to understand fundamentalism and his family, Himes tells the long story of evangelicalism in American history.  Indeed, those familiar with American religious history can safely skip the second and third parts of Himes’ tale.  Himes writes with an engaging style, weaving his own experiences into this long history.  However, his reliance on secondary sources leads him to make a few minor errors.  For instance, he repeats the story that John Scopes of the 1925 “monkey” trial had been teaching evolution for years, (179) when in fact Scopes had a very tenuous record of classroom teaching at all.  Also, Himes overstates the novelty of the Scopes trial in 1925. (180)  By that time, the notion of a media-grabbing “Trial of the Century” had been pioneered by the experiences of dramatic stories like Leopold and Loeb.  These are minor missteps in a tale that sweeps centuries of American history.  However, Himes’ book is also marred somewhat by a number of distracting typos and unclear footnotes.

These quibbles aside, Sword of the Lord is a great introduction to the world of separatist “Big-F” fundamentalism in the later twentieth century.  ILYBYGTH readers will likely appreciate several contributions of Himes’ work.

First of all, the intimate world of John R. Rice offers an eye-opening perspective into life in fundamentalist America.  To cite just one example, Himes tells the story of his childhood spent with colorful evangelists such as C.B. “Red” Smith and Apostle the Premillennial Horse.  This passage is so revealing I’ll quote it at length:

The summer after I turned 12 [c. 1962], C. B. “Red” Smith came to the Bill Rice Ranch and brought along Apostle the Premillennialist Horse.  On the first night of the camp meeting in the open-air tabernacle at the Ranch, Brother Smith himself stepped up to the pulpit and led the singing for the first gospel song.  He was a tall man with curly brown hair, a pink, whiskerless face, and laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He tilted back his head on the high notes and pointed his chin down at the floor on the low notes, and held back nothing.

            “When we ALLLL get to heaven,” sang Brother Smith, “what a DAY of rejoicing that will BE!  When we ALLLLL see Jesus, we’ll SING and SHOUT the victorEEEEE!”. . .

            “We’ve got a guest speaker in the house tonight,” said Brother Smith with a big grin that showed off a gold-capped tooth.  “He’s a good friend of mine, and he’s come all the way from Jonesboro, Arkansas.” . . .

“Please allow me to introduce Apostle the Premillennialist Horse,” said Brother Smith with a twinkle in his eye.  “Apostle, say hello to all the folks out here.” . . .

            “All right now, Apostle,” said Brother Smith, “what’s our chapter and verse for tonight?”

            Apostle tossed his head, then picked up his right forefoot and stomped deliberately, four times in a row. . . . Apostle shook his head, cocked his ears as if considering, then began stomping his foot again, with Brother Smith counting right along with him: “One, two, three . . . fourteen, fifteen sixteen! Amen!  So that’s Thessalonians chapter four, verse sixteen, is it Apostle?” . . .

            My great-uncle Bill Rice stepped up to the pulpit, waved to the woman seated at the piano, and launched into a spirited rendition of an old revival favorite: “Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me!”

In addition to this kind of illuminating vignette of life growing up in a fundamentalist family, Himes also illustrates the difficulties of changing cultural identities.  For Himes, rejecting fundamentalism meant more than an intellectual decision.  It was more than a theological awakening.  He remembers spending teenaged hours “staring at the animals in the Racine [Wisconsin] Zoo behind rusting iron bars in their drab concrete cages.  I woke in the early morning hours crying piteously, half-remembering the fragments of a dream in which lost souls were dying and God was among the missing.”  (141)

In his youth, Himes swung to the opposite cultural pole, embracing Maoism and leftist radicalism.  In the end, he concluded that he had only “traded in one form of fundamentalism for another, equally rigid, dogmatic, and wrongheaded.” (294)  As a teenager, though, Himes’ transformation pushed him into a “deep pit of self-righteousness and suicidal despair.” (266)

Finally, Himes’ book offers a sympathetic yet critical biography of Himes’ grandfather John R. Rice.  Himes implies that Rice’s doctrinal rigidity may have been a result of his hardscrabble origins.  After all, a childhood spent motherless, left alone to tend for stock animals every year at Christmas, might have led to what Himes calls Rice’s childhood “fear of death and hell—an unsaved boy confronting the terrors of solitude and unknown dangers in a little house under the arc of the great Texas skies.” (105)  That kind of analysis may make sense in Rice’s case, but it doesn’t help us understand the strength and durability of separatist fundamentalism in America.  After all, many ardent fundamentalists had no such childhood, yet they embrace a strict doctrinal orthodoxy.

Childhood trauma aside, Himes offers a fascinating glimpse into his grandfather’s intellectual world.  For instance, Rice was a relative moderate on issues such as race.  In Rice’s time and place, that meant an eventual disavowal of the vigilantism of the Ku Klux Klan.  It meant an insistence that God created all people equally.  But it did not include an embrace of social equality or of the Civil Rights Movement.  As Himes describes, Rice condemned the grisly murder of Emmett Till as a result of interfering activist African Americans. (258)

Rice was also a firm cultural traditionalist, insisting consistently on traditional family life, aggressive anti-communist foreign policies, and anti-abortion activism.  Finally, Himes chronicles the many splits and dissensions among conservative evangelical Protestants.  Rice eventually broke with Billy Graham over Graham’s ecumenism.  Later, Bob Jones Jr. broke with Rice for Rice’s willingness to be yoked with non-fundamentalists.

Those hoping to get the flavor of life in this fundamentalist subculture would do well to read Himes’ book.  By the time of his writing, Himes had overcome much of his bitterness against his grandfather’s faith.  Himes succeeds in his effort to paint a loving portrait without endorsing his grandfather’s ideas.

In the News: “Gay” Is not Slander in NY

In a story from my new hometown, a New York appellate court ruled recently that it no longer counted as slander to falsely accuse someone of being homosexual.  In this case, a woman spread a rumor that Mark Yonaty was gay in order to get his girlfriend to break up with him.  Yonaty sued and lost.  As the New York Times reported, the appeals court threw out earlier rulings in Yonaty’s favor, saying they were “based on a false premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”

What does this mean for Fundamentalist America?  On one hand, it could mean that FA will find itself more marginalized if it maintains its opposition to homosexual sex and relationships.  Some conservative groups, for instance James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, emphasize love and care for those engaging in homosexual behavior or identifying as homosexuals, even while condemning all sex outside of marriage, especially including gay sex. 

Other FA voices keep up harder-edged language against homosexuality.  A recent article by Bryan Fischer, for instance, on Rightly Concerned, affiliated with the American Family Association, notes that America must discriminate against homosexuals not out of hate but out of love.  However, Fischer also compares healthy anti-homosexual discrimination to other healthy forms of discrimination:

We discriminate against adults, even priests, who have sex with children. We discriminate against teachers who have affairs with students. We discriminate against teachers who moonlight in the porn industry. We discriminate against students who engage in sexting. We discriminate against rapists. We discriminate against those who expose sexual partners unknowingly to the AIDS virus. We discriminate against those adults who commit statutory rape against minors.

If the recent ruling from Albany is a bellwether for the direction of mainstream American culture–and that’s a big if–then Fischer’s type of argument is swimming upstream.  If it is no longer an insult to call someone ‘gay,’ then it will make no sense legally, politically, or culturally to discriminate against homosexuality. 

There’s another lesson we can draw from this article.  At least one gay-rights activist has warned that this decision must not be taken as the end of discrimination against homosexuality.  As the UK’s Daily Mail reported, New York activist Jay Blotcher insisted that being identified as gay could still summon up “something akin to a lynching mob” in parts of the country.  “It’s still a thorny issue,” Blotcher said. “Bottom line, just because you have gay characters on television that make everybody laugh doesn’t mean that the entire country embraces gay people as equal citizens yet.”

Blotcher’s comments illuminate one of the most puzzling aspects of these kinds of “culture-war” debates.  Instead of celebrating the achievement of mainstream acceptability for homosexuality, Blotcher emphasizes the continuing persecution of homosexuals.  Like Blotcher, many voices from FA insist on their own status as beleaguered cultural minorities.  This tradition among American Protestantism has long roots, back to the seventeenth-century persecution of “Pilgrims” and “Puritans” that led in part to the founding of New England.  In the twentieth century, fundamentalist activists have often used Blotcher’s language of continuing discrimination to defend the borders of Fundamentalist America.     

To cite just one example, in 1965 in the wake of the US Supreme Court rulings against school-sponsored religious devotions in public schools, fundamentalist editor and publisher John R. Rice insisted that “White Minorities Have Rights, Too.”  In the pages of his Sword of the Lord magazine (volume 31, September 3, 1965, page 1), Rice asked,

“If Christian people do not have a right to have the Bible taught in the schools, then infidels have no right to teach infidelity in the schools . . . . Why not have freedom in America as much for one minority as another?  Why not observe the rights of white people as well as the rights of Negroes?  Why not observe the rights of nonunion workers as much as the rights of union workers?  Why not observe the rights of Bible believers as well as the rights of the infidels in the churches and infidels in courts or schools?” 

Just as Jay Blotcher warned not to remove homosexuality from the category of defended minorities, so fundamentalists such as Rice insisted that they be allowed to claim minority status.  One of the quirks of America’s culture wars is that both sides often claim the rights and privileges of both majority AND minority status.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, we need to understand the continuing propensity of fundamentalists to do both at the same time.