The caboose of Christianity


We all have our blind spots. Clarity often comes only from the perspective of hindsight.

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.

10 Comments

  1. The Chronicle for Higher Education story has some fascinating comments, 140 or more so far, attached to their story on BJU.
    Lot of BJU alums are weighing.
    And the statements from the signatories on the petition that moved this apology–Robert Parham has a link in his ED.com report–from BJU alums are fascinating as well.

  2. Fundamentalism, at its root, is simply the militant justification and preservation of culture by means of fear. It benefits from lack of education among the audience, who trust the speaker and the speaker’s interpretation, because “he” is “one of us.”

    Yes, they interpret scripture through the lens of certain prooftexts, argue for the superiority of the KJV – for the purpose of justifying their culture. Its interesting what the culture was like when the Fundamentalist – Moderate Contraversy and divorce took place in SBC life – 1979. No longer could these social norms such as segregation, forbidding interracial dating, the appearance of multiple modern translations that were different than the KJV. I think one of the causes of the contraversy in Baptist life could have been that the seminaries no longer did what the churches did to these students (who were supposedly disillusioned by liberalism) – and that was justify their culture, that they were the good guys and they were on the side of right.

    However, it is important to remember what fundamentalism is – the militant preservation and justification of culture by means of fear. This is not limited to southern, independent Baptists, but can be identified in many movements, religious or otherwise.

  3. John,

    So are you saying that perhaps you are wrong and that when you see more clearly you will come to understand that, after all, Paul was right and Jesus really doesn’t want women in the pulpit and that He wasn’t so down on slavery as society currently says?

    Or are you saying that all of those who take the Bible literally are in the dark and that you (and your kind) have seen the light and therefore know that the Bible got it wrong on some issues?

    All your rhetoric proves is what anyone with an small amount of light knew a long time ago – that fundamentalists are as apt to be hypocrites and aberrant in their practice as liberals. You have proven nothing about fundamentalism per se, which is, in its purest form, nothing more than the simple belief in the authority of the Scriptures.

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  4. Mark-
    You are correct. I see through a dark glass and live with the recognition that I my understanding of truth is subject to change with new light. It is important to contiually re-examine my conclusions in light of the fuller revelation of Jesus Christ.
    You are wrong, however, about your definition of fundamentalism. It is about more than a belief in the authority of scripture. It contains an attitude of arrogance and condemnation.

  5. The basic truth about fundamentalism, as I see it, is that the movement props up its interpretation of scripture as infallible. When there is a scientific or cultural advance that stands contrary to their interpretation, the scientific or cultural information must be incorrect. Liberalism (which I’m tired of apologizing for) is willing to admit that it is not the Bible that’s wrong, but the way in which we interpret it. Fundamentalism therefore finds itself defending status quos that are indefensible and unwilling to be impacted by anything new.

  6. An awesome, well-written blog, John. I am continually amazed how many contemporary Christian stances on things – when the rubber hits the road – really boil down to traditional culture norms, preferences, and prejudcies hidden behind the veil of the Bible.

  7. Godslingers. BJU is controlled by Godslingers. The Religious Right is a reminder as to why we have the 1st Amendment — people can’t resist forcing their religious interpretations onto others if others won’t willingly acquiesce.

  8. Johnny:
    Hope you will get David Gushee and Randall Balmer to review the recent discussion at Wade Burleson’s blog about Cocksure Christians that meshes well with your point about Bob Jones.
    The FOCA mess suggests the fundamentalists are as dogged as ever.
    It could be a waste of time to continue to do battle with them; but we have to hope there is some hope in the margins of the memphis Declaration signers against the likes of Smyrl and CB Scott in the SBC.
    But who can tell.

    The Hairy Dawgs are having a rough afternoon.

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