Fundamentalist Christianity burst onto the public scene in 1979 when Jerry Falwell organized his Moral Majority. It broke into the news all over again last year in California and Arkansas when creationists went to court to fight the theory of evolution in public schools.

Now, fundamentalism has boiled up in another arena, pitting racial discrimination against religious freedom. Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, citing a biblical injunction against mixing of races, refused to admit black students until 1975. It still prohibits dating and marriage between races, although it has fewer than 12 blacks among its 6,000 students.

Its biblical beliefs on racial separation are not shared by most biblically conservative Christian schools—even most other fundamentalist schools. The Bob Jones doctrine holds that joining of races contributes to “one-worldism,” which it says is man’s attempt to unite against God, and that God intended the races to remain separate when he dispersed the people at the Tower of Babel.

Bob Jones III, the school’s president (his father and grandfather preceded him as president), testified in detail on the school’s beliefs during a federal trial in 1978.

According to the Bible, Jones testified, three races descended from the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and God scattered them so they would seek him, not unite against him. Jones also used Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the Sons of Adam …” He also quoted part of Acts 17:26, in which God is said to have set the bounds of people’s habitation.

Jones referred to several passages in Revelation in which God unites the people under his kingdom, and testified that “God has divided people religiously, he has divided them geographically, he has divided them racially. But there is coming a day when all of that will cease, and until that day comes, we intend to do our best to keep the lines that God has established.”

Evangelical scholars disagree with nearly every point Jones makes. Bruce Waltke, the Old Testament authority at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, said there is no way to correlate the descendents of Shem, Ham, and Japheth with races in the modern anthropological sense. For one thing, said Waltke, Caucasians can be found in each line: Israelites among the sons of Shem, Greeks among the sons of Japheth, and Egyptians among the sons of Ham. The emphasis of the passage is not on the establishment of racial lines but upon the curse of Canaan, the son of Ham. “To our knowledge, he said, Canaan is not part of the Negroid race.”

Article continues below

Waltke said it is theologically inappropriate to use the Old Testament to establish modern-day racial segregation since God no longer works through physical blood lines as he did with the nation of Israel. That is because the work of Christ opened salvation to all. He referred to 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (NASB).

Finally, Waltke noted that Deuteronomy 21 provides rules whereby Israelites might marry outside their own racial group, and thus the practice is expressly not prohibited in the Bible.

Walter Elwell, professor of Bible and theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School (and CT book editor), said that, biblically, “there is only one race, period. It is the fundamental presupposition of the entire Bible.… Because we are all mankind, we all take part in Adam’s sin, and because we are all mankind, we can all be redeemed because Christ died.” Regarding the passage from Acts 17:26 used by Jones in the trial, Elwell said the verse teaches precisely the opposite of what Jones contends. Elwell also noted that the portion Jones did not use in court says “he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth …,” thereby emphasizing the unity of man, not his separation.

The Bob Jones beliefs do not square with those of some other fundamentalist schools, most notably Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. It has some 200 blacks in a 3,000-student enrollment, a larger percentage than in some evangelical schools. Ed Hinson, associate dean of its School of Religion, sees segregation as a Southern issue: “I do not see it as an issue that divides fundamentalists from evangelicals,” he said. “In defending Bob Jones we would need to be very clear that we are not defending their position.

The Goldsboro (South Carolina) Christian Schools comprise another fundamentalist institution that does not admit blacks, which, like Bob Jones, is defending itself before the U.S. Supreme Court. Its board chairman is a Bob Jones graduate. Most evangelical organizations disagree with Bob Jones theologically, but some mainline bodies, including the American Baptists and United Presbyterians (as well as the National Association of Evangelicals), have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court defending the school’s religious freedom to hold its view.

Article continues below

For the last 12 years, Bob Jones University has battled the Internal Revenue Service to retain its tax exemption, with the IRS contending the school cannot qualify as a charitable institution eligible for tax exemption because its practice violates public policy. President Reagan called off the IRS and restored tax-exempt status to the 111 private schools, including Bob Jones, which were ruled ineligible for tax-exempt certificates. Congress, not the IRS, should establish the policy, Reagan said. The White House hastened to send a proposed bill to Capitol Hill that would remove tax exemptions from those who are practicing racial segregation.

Because of Reagan’s action, the religious issues in question—which the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to rule on—seemed lost in the swirl of antisegregationist rhetoric.

In response, William Ball, the Bob Jones attorney, issued a stinging memo criticizing what he called “a triumph of media distortion.” Ball wrote: “The avalanche of telecasts, editorials, and cartoons have almost totally omitted any reference to (a) whether Congress gave the IRS the power it asserted, and (b) whether religious institutions must lock-step their practices to ‘federal public policy’ as the price of their tax exemption (and thus their existence).”

The only island of calm in the turmoil seemed to be the Supreme Court. The White House asked the Court to remove the Bob Jones case from its calendar since the IRS antisegregation policy, which brought about the dispute, was no longer in force. But so far, the Court has not removed the case, leading to speculation that the justices may decide the question anyway.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.