I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Believe it or not, Labor Day is already here. Time to put away those white shoes, fellows. It has been a hectic last week of summer here at ILYBYGTH. Here are a few stories of interest that you may have missed:

Are some cultures better than others?

Love means never having to say you’re sorry: Trump pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

At The Gospel Coalition, an open letter from Christian scholars denouncing racism.

Are white evangelicals more racist than Christian?

The problem with “privilege.” Jeffrey K. Mann wants us to look beyond race and gender.

What happened to all the Christian bookstores?

Yes, you read it correctly: Reese Witherspoon will be playing the role of a defector from the “God-Hates-Fags” Westboro Baptist Church.

Where are all the sinister atheists who are trying to undermine Christian America? The Trollingers couldn’t find them at the American Atheists Convention, from Righting America at the Creation Museum.

Family sues NYC schools over their son’s “gender expansive” preference for dresses. The school accused the parents of sexual abuse.

Vouchers and stealth vouchers: The Progressive offers a guide to the wild and woolly world of public-school funding options.

What should conservative evangelicals think about gender and sexuality?

Only in New York: A Brooklyn school principal accused of recruiting her students into the communist movement.

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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?

Fundamentalist Parents Can’t Relax

Rich parents can relax.  At least according to an article in this week’s Economist.  But fundamentalist parents never can.  They have to worry about more than their kids’ careers.  They have to fret about eternal damnation.  And they have to worry that Satan lurks in every textbook, every TV show, and every mainstream school.

The Economist article is worth reading in its entirety.  As it explains,

Well-to-do parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard.

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven...

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven…

Both fears lead to exaggerated and ultimately counterproductive lifestyles.  In terms of safety, the article notes, an American child under five years of age in 1950 was five times as likely to die of disease or accident as that same kid would be today.  And though it is difficult to get into Harvard, most kids of affluent families will have fine careers without an Ivy-League transcript.

But fundamentalist parents have more to worry about.  Since the birth of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative evangelicals have fretted about the influence of mainstream culture on their offspring.  Even if their kids don’t get polio, and even if their kids do get into Harvard, fundamentalist parents have to worry that success in life will lead to terrible punishment after death.  For fundamentalists, even Harvard itself can be more of a threat than an achievement.

As historian Randall Balmer put it in his blockbuster book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,

the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents is that their children will not follow in their footsteps, that they will not sustain the same level of piety as their parents—stated baldly, that they are headed for hell rather than heaven.

As I argued in my 1920s book, historically this fear for the children has fueled fundamentalism’s public campaigns.  Fundamentalist leaders and parents worried that no level of affluence and economic privilege could protect their children from a culture sliding nonchalantly straight to hell.

As conservative leader William Jennings Bryan explained in 1922, even the rich and powerful had lost the ability to protect the faith of their children.  As a former Secretary of State, Bryan knew many of these families personally.  He wrote about one acquaintance, a US Congressman, whose daughter came home from college only to tell the family that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”

It was not only conservative Congressmen who worried.  Fundamentalist evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell the story of a less powerful family who had a similar experience.  This family, Jones explained in one of his most popular 1920s sermons, scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her mother and father.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her. It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Even when fundamentalist families did not experience that sort of cataclysm, we must keep their anxiety in mind when we try to understand fundamentalism from the outside.  Why do conservative evangelicals fight against evolution?  Why do they insist on school prayer?  Why do they worry about rights for homosexuals?

In all these cases, conservative evangelicals’ public activism is made more desperate by their intense worry about their children.  In this, there is no difference between conservative evangelicals and mainstream Americans of any background.  As the Economist article points out, almost all parents love their children and make sacrifices for them.  In the case of mainstream affluent parents, it might even help if they relaxed a little bit.  As Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues,

Middle-class parents should relax a bit, cancel a violin class or two and let their kids play outside.

Easy enough.  But fundamentalists face a very different situation.  If we want to understand the mind of fundamentalists, we can try a mental experiment.  Non-fundamentalist parents have a hard enough time relaxing about their kids, even though they feel at home in mainstream culture.  Non-fundamentalist parents fret too much about their kids’ futures, even if they don’t feel alienated by their local public schools and elite universities.

Let’s try to translate the anxiety experienced by fundamentalist parents into mainstream terms.  Imagine, for example, the sorts of public outcry there would be if public schools began promoting ideas or practices that affluent secular parents found dangerous.  For instance, what do you think would happen if a public school somewhere began promoting smoking as a fun and healthy activity?

 

Conservative Christians: More Racist than Pro-Life

HT: JS

Historian Randall Balmer made the case recently in the pages of Politico that the Christian Right did not emerge as a response to loosened abortion laws.  Rather, the “real” roots of the New Right, Balmer argues, were in the defense of racial segregation.  Unfortunately, the argument looks more like punditry than history.

I’m a big fan of Professor Balmer.  In fact, I’m re-reading his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory right now as I begin research for my next book.  And his Politico essay is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  But he makes more of a political argument here than a solid historical one.  If I were to offer a more precise headline, I’d suggest something far less catchy, but closer to the historical truth, something terrible like, “The Real Roots of the Christian Right: Not Biological Reproduction, but Cultural Reproduction.”

The Roots of Racist Academies?

The Roots of Racist Academies?

In other words, in the late 1970s, evangelical Protestants got involved in politics in big numbers because they were worried about preserving their status as a certain sort of favored class in American life.  This included things such as racial segregation, but to say that racial segregationism drove the movement is woefully misleading.  It was a broad sweep of issues, most urgently educational issues, that drove evangelicals back into politics in the 1970s.

Balmer makes the solid case that abortion did not spark the emergence of the New Christian Right.  The timing just doesn’t work.  In the immediate aftermath of the Roe v. Wade decision, evangelicals seemed largely indifferent to the issue of abortion.  For readers who find this hard to believe, a look at Daniel Williams’ book God’s Own Party will help.

What DID motivate conservative evangelicals, Balmer notes, was the increasing pressure on private religious schools from the IRS.  In the wake of decades of desegregation laws, the federal government had begun revoking tax exemptions from private schools that discriminated on the basis of race.  As Balmer correctly points out, this anti-federal animus motivated far more conservative evangelicals in the 1970s than did pro-life campaigns.

Nevertheless, Balmer’s conclusion doesn’t hold water.  “Although abortion had emerged as a rallying cry by 1980,” Balmer insists,

the real roots of the religious right lie not the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation.

It is true that school segregation played a role in the rise of the evangelical private school movement.  And it is certainly true that Bob Jones University maintained a rigorous white supremacist position long after most other white conservatives had abandoned it.  But to argue that racial segregation somehow formed the “real roots” of the New Christian Right oversimplifies the historical realities.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for racism or for conservative evangelicalism.  I agree that many white conservative evangelicals, like other white Americans, had and have a shameful attitude toward racial equality and racial integration.  My argument is an academic one: If we want to understand the history of conservative evangelicalism, we won’t get far by insisting that racism was the “real root” of their political activism in the 1970s.

That sort of argument is sadly similar to attempts by conservatives to smear all Democrats by citing the radical words of leftists such as Saul Alinsky or Bill Ayers.  It’s not that some Democrats don’t sympathize or even follow Alinsky or Ayers.  But to say that such folks are the “real root” of liberal thinking is just not accurate.

To make a better historical case, Balmer should have argued that issues about schooling motivated evangelicals in the 1970s to get involved in politics.  Those issues included racial segregation, but they also included questions of school discipline, perceived drug use at schools, perceived immorality at public schools, and a host of other issues.  For all these reasons, a burst of new private schools popped up to serve conservative evangelical families.  And the defense of such schools drove many evangelicals into politics in the 1970s.

Were these schools “segregation academies?”  The history is clear, but not simple.  Certainly, some white evangelical parents—along with white non-religious parents—chose private religious schools as safe racist harbors in the days of school desegregation.  The timing proves it.  Though many evangelical parents may have cited 1960s Supreme Court rulings such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) or Abington v. Schempp (1963) as the time when public schools went to hell, the burst of private Christian schools did not happen until the late 1970s.

Not coincidentally, those were the years when large school districts came under pressure for the first time to desegregate by race.  But we commit an intellectual error if we conclude glibly that such schools ONLY represented racist havens.  I’ve wrestled with the question of “Christian day” schools and racial segregation in a book chapter a few years back.  Consider a couple of complicating factors.

The situation in Louisville, for instance, seems at first to confirm the hypothesis of racial integration as a primary factor in the growth of private evangelical schools.  After that city’s court order to bus children in 1974 as part of an ambitious desegregation plan, there was a spike in enrollment at the city’s existing Catholic and secular private schools.  In addition, a crop of new evangelical schools immediately opened to serve white families who did not want to bus their children.  One study found that most of the parents at these new evangelical schools identified desegregation as their primary reason for leaving the public schools.  Another academic study of Louisville’s desegregation history, however, suggests some important qualifications.  At two private evangelical schools that had existed for years before the 1974 court order, only one of sixty-eight fundamentalist families used the schools as a “haven” from busing.  Although whites fled from public schools to a range of private schools, this indicates that at least some of the existing evangelical schools did not take advantage of the surge of white interest in private education.

Another statistic that confounds glib conclusions about the primarily racial motivation for new Christian schools is that the largest recipient of white students fleeing from desegregation was not private evangelical schools but rather the booming suburban public high schools of the 1970s and 1980s.  Contrary to popular impressions, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the numbers of students attending private schools nationwide dropped from 13.6 percent in 1960 to 9.8 percent in 1990.  Meanwhile, the proportion of white students attending public elementary and high schools nationwide increased markedly.  Those students, however, had moved mainly into suburban public schools.  For instance, the suburban schools surrounding Atlanta served ninety-eight percent of the area’s white students in 1986.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelicals cared deeply about education.  In the 1970s, savvy political organizers recognized that many evangelicals thought schooling had become threatened.  As Professor Balmer correctly points out, part of that perception came from the perceived “threat” of racial mixing in schools.  But that was only one element of the perceived danger to education.

The real roots of the Christian Right can’t be limited only to racism.  Rather, we will do well to understand how profoundly important educational issues were to the new political mobilization that swept evangelical America in the 1970s.