That’s what leaders of Bob Jones University confessed in apologizing for the independent, fundamentalist Christian school’s past racist policies.
A statement on the school’s website reads in part: “For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it. In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry.”
African-American students were not permitted to attend the school until 1971 — some 17 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board that public school segregation was unconstitutional. Only within the last decade has BJU dropped its policy forbidding interracial dating.
In other words: the secular Court interpreting a secular Constitution reached the right conclusion about God-given human equality well before these devout Christians interpreting the Bible they hold as divine truth.
The most significant aspect of this confession is found in the words: “We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.”
The continuing tragedy of fundamentalist American Christianity is the unwillingness to learn from mistakes. Past failures do not seem to bring any humility that would recognize the possibility of misinterpretations of the biblical revelation in the present or future.
It brings to mind a question I have raised before: When will the evangelical Christian church become the engine rather than the caboose concerning societal change regarding the basic biblical issues of justice, equality and compassion?
When land was taken from Native Americans and thousands died during forced, inhumane relocation, where was the Christian outcry?
When Baptists of the North questioned Baptists of the South on the issue of owning for economic benefit precious human beings of African decent created in the image of God, Southern Baptists just formed their own group.
When the secular government enforced public school desegregation, white conservative Christians just started their own schools.
Yet the unfailing fundamentalist mantra is that they alone stay true to Scripture while all others head down the path of cultural accommodation. (The opposite of what Bob Jones leaders admitted concerning their racist past.)
Just this month, when the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) pompously brushed aside the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., for calling a female pastor, the charge was that the congregation had violated biblical truth and embraced secular social patterns.
In a letter to the GBC newspaper, The Christian Index, pastor Bobby Braswell Jr. of Guyton, Ga., wrote that the convention’s action is “not a popular position in today’s cultural climate, but we are following the dictates of Scripture, not culture.”
Brother Bobby, so said the Baptist slaveholders; so said the good Christians who forced “savages” off the land they wanted; so said the earlier leaders of Bob Jones University in forbidding African-American students from studying at their “Christian” school — and on and on.
It is amazing how fundamentalist Christians — many decades after societal change occurs through the motivation of secular forces and more-attuned Christians and those of other faith traditions — can confess that they “conformed to the culture” at the expense of biblical truth. Yet they cannot — in the present tense — humbly allow for even the remotest possibility that any current blind spots might exist.
If so, at the very least the self-righteous leadership of the GBC would have left the Decatur congregation alone to suffer in their “error.” But, no, they had to straighten them out.
Why? Because fundamentalists don’t think Paul’s admission that we all see through dark glass applies to them. Because they do not learn from their own tragic history.
Or, more specifically, it is because that is the nature of fundamentalism. It is marked by a resistance to change, a proclivity toward propping up one’s predetermined belief system with isolated biblical texts, and an attitude of condemnation toward those (even other Christians) who would dare hold a different viewpoint.
Fundamentalist Christians are always denouncing “secular” society. But thank God for a secular court and a secular Constitution — and open-minded, compassionate religious peoples of varied traditions — that lead us to truth pertaining to basic (biblical) concerns of human justice.
But never fear … somewhere way, way, way back there, the caboose will be coming.