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.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

July’s almost out the door, and apparently that means the return of book-burnin’ season. Check out that story and a few others you might have missed:

Is history destiny? Vouchers described this week as tools of segregation by foes, or the best ticket out of segregation by fans.

The latest speaker to be banned at Berkeley? Anti-creationist Richard Dawkins. The students didn’t like Dawkins’ statements about Islam.

Trump’s outreach to HBCUs can’t find any takers.

Evangelicals and politics: historian Chris Gehrz wonders about the relationship.

Yikes: Watch Elizabeth Johnston, aka “The Activist Mommy,” burn her Teen Vogue. Why? The magazine included information about anal sex.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week has come and gone. Here are some stories that flew by our editorial window:

More on Evergreen State: Michael Aaron argues that we should see it as a “mo/po-mo” battle, “a petri dish for applied postmodernism.” HT: MM

Why are American schools getting more segregated?

Does America need more “intellectual humility?” Philosopher Michael Lynch makes his case in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

READING

Words, words, words…

Southern Baptist Convention: Kicking out LGBTQ; wondering about the “alt-right.”

Nerd note: Drew Gilpin Faust stepping down as Harvard’s president.

Nerd follow-up: Who’s in the running to replace her? How about President Obama?

The libertarian case against public education.

DeVos continues to make long-held conservative educational dreams come true. The latest? Announcing a plan to scale-back civil-rights enforcement.

Michigan jumps in. The university at Ann Arbor announced a free-tuition program, joining similar plans in Boston and New York.

How can we improve lame and uninformative student evaluations of college classes? How about teaching partnerships?

Shakespeare takes center stage in culture-war showdown: A conservative activist disrupts a production of Julius Caesar.

Rule Us, Good Queen Betsy

In a recent commentary that got picked up by Newsweek, I suggested that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos was promising to give conservatives “local control” of schools just when they wouldn’t want it. DeVos’s testimony yesterday before Congress seems to offer confirmation. At least in prospect. Mark it on your calendars: Your humble editor will make a prediction today about the way the next shoe will drop.

Here’s what we know: According to the New York Times, Secretary DeVos was grilled by unfriendly legislators from blue states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new federal budget cuts many education programs and shifts bajillions of dollars to school-choice and voucher programs. Decisions about funding private schools will devolve to state leaders.

devos may 2017 congress

Erm…I don’t want schools to discriminate, but…

But would Secretary DeVos intervene if some of those private schools actively discriminated against gay and trans students? Against African-American students? Students with disabilities? She wouldn’t say. It would be the states’ job to make those rules.

As Emma Brown reported in WaPo, DeVos stuck to her noncommittal guns. Would the federal government intervene to protect students from discrimination? DeVos hemmed and hawed. She offered only this sort of response:

We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, the federal government has long assumed the role of anti-discrimination watchdog in American public education. From racial segregation (think Little Rock) to physical disability (think ramps), the federal government has always pushed states to enforce anti-discrimination rules. It hasn’t always been as aggressive as folks like me have hoped, but it has been a steady drumbeat.

DeVos’s performance yesterday suggests that things have changed. At the top, at least, the federal education bureaucracy now favors more privatization of public schools, more public funding of religious schools, and more freedom for schools to avoid expensive federal regulations.

And so, friends, please hold me to account. We historians hate to do it, but in this case I think we can safely make a few predictions. After all, as I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, some themes emerged in the twentieth century as rock-solid elements of educational conservatism. There’s no reason to think they will change now.

Here’s what we’ll see next: In some states, such as Massachusetts and my beloved New York, conservatives will flip. Instead of hoping for more local control, they will yearn for more federal control. After all, under the DeVos administration, the federal government will be the one pushing for more public funding of religion in schools, more freedom from federal regulations. Local blue-state leaders might enforce anti-discrimination, anti-devotional, and anti-privatization rules. But blue-state conservatives will know that DeVos wouldn’t.

And in redder states, educational conservatives will pick up the DeVos mumbles and run. They will decide to allow more public funding for schools that discriminate based on religious ideas. They will push more public money into private religious schools. They will free schools from federal requirements.

And when they do these things, they will celebrate the support they’re getting from the top. They might not say out loud that they want more federal influence in their local schools, but they will trump-et (sorry) the fact that their policies have support all the way up.

A School Plan to Cure Racism

It can be depressing. Just over fifty years ago, Thurgood Marshall announced the civil-rights victory of Brown v. Board of Education. In no more than five years, Marshall predicted, the nation’s schools would be racially integrated. Looking at America’s schools today, scholars see more and more racial segregation in schools, not less. One fancy school in New York City has embarked on a more aggressive plan to cure racism. Both liberal and conservative commentators are aghast. But can it work?

In New York Magazine, Lisa Miller reports on the new anti-racism plan of Fieldston School. At this private progressive school, the administration planned to separate kids out into racial groups. The goal was to allow kids to talk about race and ask potentially “impolite” questions without feeling subtle pressure.

As the head of the school told Miller,

We don’t want to replicate what has happened traditionally. The education that many of us have received about race has not been adequate. Hence, where are we as a nation? We are trying to pioneer, to be at the vanguard of this opportunity, to see if we can get it right.

How do the kids feel? One student in the “black” group told Miller that he liked it:

I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. . . . We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are — I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.

Other students weren’t so sure. A student in the “Asian” group reported, “It’s so fricking boring.”

The idea, in general, is to help students of all races talk about race and racism. Too many white liberals, the thinking goes, are trapped by their own progressive prejudices. They see themselves as enlightened and post-racial, yet they are unable to recognize the ways race and racism function. Programs like this will help make visible the ways white privilege works.

Some parents objected. How is segregating kids by race a good way to fight racial segregation? And what categories would the school use? A Jewish parent objected that his family had been persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan. Did that make him something other than “white?”

One group of progressive parents started a protest petition. The school’s plan, they insisted, would cause “irreparable harm” to their kids.

Conservatives, too, balk at such racial programs. Rod Dreher, for example, called the program a “grievance-building fun house.”

But is it the best way to teach kids about race? To help kids understand from a young age that racism is a real thing? Or does this sort of thing only promulgate racial stereotypes?

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?

Are Conservatives Secretly Racist?

No matter how much they may deny it, conservative intellectuals and activists these days are often accused of being secretly racist.  Influential African American conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson are accused of being suckers and “Uncle Toms.”  As an article in the New York Times argues, perhaps the racial strife in Ferguson, Missouri will give conservatives a chance to prove their anti-racist claims.

Is this the "conservative" side? ...

Is this the “conservative” side? …

As I argue in my upcoming book, racial thinking among white conservatives as a whole has changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.  In the 1920s, school battles did not pit conservatives as the “racist” side against “anti-racist” progressives.  Indeed, in fights about evolution in the 1920s, mainstream scientists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn often supported the white-supremacist notions of writers such as Madison Grant.  White conservatives in the 1920s were mostly guilty of what we would call racism, but then again, so were white non-conservatives back then.

By the 1950s, mainstream conservatives had changed their thinking on racial issues dramatically.  First of all, the tumult over school desegregation led some conservative intellectuals such as William F. Buckley Jr. to support “states’ rights” over racial desegregation.  And in the massively resisting South, white resistance to desegregation often became coupled with a conservative anti-communism.

But outside the South, white conservatives often tried to insist that their opposition to school desegregation was not due to racism.  In Pasadena, for example, a progressive superintendent’s plan to desegregate the district met with ferocious opposition from conservatives.  But those conservatives insisted that they were not racist.  They insisted that their opposition to desegregation did not mean that they thought non-whites were inferior.

...Or is THIS the "conservative" side?

…Or is THIS the “conservative” side?

Similarly, in the school controversy that engulfed Kanawha County, West Virginia in 1974, white conservative activists insisted that they were not racist.  They opposed new textbooks that included passages from racial firebrands such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  But, as conservative leader Elmer Fike put it,

The protesters do not object to authors because they are black, but they do believe convicted criminals and revolutionaries like Eldridge Cleaver should not be recognized.

Since then, mainstream white conservatives have worked hard to prove that their conservatism does not make them racist.  Does this new racial firestorm in Missouri give them a new chance to prove their sincerity?

In a recent article in the New York Times, journalist Jeremy W. Peters suggests it might.  Peters cites the nervousness of conservative leaders such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Erick Erickson.  All three conservatives, Peters notes, have spoken out against the massively militarized police response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.  Peters says that this sort of conservatism marks a shift.  Since the late 1960s, conservatives have traditionally been the side of law and order.  These days, Peters wonders, conservatism might find itself embracing instead a renewed emphasis on limiting the power of government.  What conservative, Senator Paul might ask, wants to see a militarized police force bearing down on protesting citizens?

But the Missouri conflagration suggests another important question as well.  If conservatives really are the anti-racists many of them claim to be, this Ferguson situation might offer white conservatives a chance to side with African American conservatives as a united anti-racist conservative voice.  Legitimate protests against overweening government power could certainly rally conservative support, white and black.

And if conservative activists want to prove that they are not secretly racist, what better way to do so than to side with the protesting citizens of Ferguson, Missouri?

 

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.