History is vitally important. Many people think it’s not important, or that it’s not particularly relevant to day-to-day life. But in some instances, at least, it clearly is. What you believe about many political and economic issues is powerfully influenced by what you believe about certain events of history.
This is why, for example, some people strive so hard to “prove” that six million Jews were not killed by Hitler’s Nazis. They want to change what people believe about World War II in order to dispel part of the negative stigma attached to Hitler and National Socialism. There’s a method to their madness (and madness it is).
Historical revisionism can work in the other direction as well. If you can be convinced that a particular political movement has a sinister origin, you may want to distance yourself from it or even condemn it. So what you believe about the history of that movement is an important consideration in your overall assessment of it.
Prof. Randall Balmer
Enter Prof. Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College. He is widely recognized as an evangelical scholar. He has been formally associated with Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, and he has written scholarly books about evangelicalism. But he is politically left-wing, and if there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s right-wing Christians.
A few years ago Prof. Balmer began to develop a thesis that modern conservative Christian political activism was originally motivated by racism. Normally the rise of such activism has been attributed to Christian opposition to abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and other such currents of modern society. Balmer says phooey to that. Support for racial discrimination was the real motivation.
Why does he make that claim? It is no doubt deliberate. He takes two quite different historical matters and mixes them together to make it look like conservative Christian activists in the United States (at least in the 1970s) were full-throttled supporters of racial segregation. Balmer understands that history is important, and if he can get people to believe that modern Christian activism was originally motivated by racism, he can thereby discredit such activism. If you are a Christian activist, you will be tarnished by the historical wrong-doings of your movement. You’ll have the stain of racism attached to you. That is the whole point.
To understand how Balmer misinforms his readers, it is important to know a few matters of American history.
Until the mid-twentieth century, some American states had laws that segregated black people from white people. Public schools and public transportation, for example, had different places for blacks and whites. This government-imposed segregation was quashed by the U.S, Supreme Court and the federal government during the 1950s and 1960s.
Some whites who continued to favor segregation then created private schools commonly known as “white flight” schools to keep their children away from black children. The federal government responded by denying tax-exempt status to these kinds of schools. Racially discriminatory schools could not be considered charitable organizations.
However, one well-known Christian university in the South, Bob Jones University, maintained some racist policies. At first, it would not allow black students to attend. Then it relented and allowed blacks to attend in 1971 but forbade interracial dating. Due to this continuing policy of racial discrimination, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revoked Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status in January, 1976.
Bob Jones University filed a lawsuit to retain its tax exemption. This lawsuit wound its way through the court system until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the university in 1983.
While that case was ongoing, another matter arose concerning private Christian schools. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed Jerome Kurtz to be the new IRS Commissioner. Kurtz soon implemented a policy that private schools in certain parts of the country would lose their tax-exempt status if they did not enroll a certain percentage of minority students, or otherwise demonstrate that they were making efforts to recruit minority students and hire minority staff. Thus many Christian schools that did not support racial discrimination in any way could still lose their tax-exempt status simply for failing to meet arbitrary IRS standards.
Storm of Protest
Political scientist Robert Zwier, in his book Born-again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Intervarsity Press, 1982), points out that many conservative Christians saw this new IRS policy as being grossly unfair. Zwier writes, “These proposals triggered storms of protest among fundamentalists, many of whom support religious schools. To them it looked as if the IRS was simply presuming guilt for any school created after 1954. Some Christian groups generated a letter-writing campaign and deluged IRS offices with over 120,000 letters—apparently an IRS record” (p. 26).
Basically, there was a groundswell of Christian activism against the IRS attack on Christian schools. This contributed significantly to the overall mobilization of conservative Christians into the movement now called the Christian Right or Religious Right. It is notable that the Bob Jones University case was separate from this event. Zwier doesn’t even mention it.
Due to conservative Christian opposition to the IRS policy, the U.S. Congress passed a measure to stop it. The IRS could not just assume that Christian schools were racist schools. This success further encouraged the growth of conservative Christian activism.
Prof. Balmer has recently written a biography of President Jimmy Carter, whom he adores: Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (Basic Civitas Books, 2014). He uses this book as his latest platform to attack conservative Christians. He lumps together the Bob Jones University case and the IRS attack on Christian schools to make it look as though Christian school supporters were motivated by racism.
Consider his accusations. Balmer writes that in the 1970s, the conservative Christian political movement “organized effectively, if not avowedly, to defend racial segregation at Bob Jones University and similar institutions” (p. 107). Further on he states that “the issue that had been responsible for the emergence of the Religious Right” was “tax exemptions for racially discriminatory institutions” (p. 167). And later he notes that “opposition to abortion had emerged by the early 1980s as the litmus issue for the movement, eclipsing the less popular stance of defending racial discrimination at places like Bob Jones University” (p. 169). Abortion became the “litmus issue,” eclipsing the previous “litmus issue” of “defending racial discrimination.”
Is it true that the Christian activists he describes were “defending racial discrimination”? No, it is not. As mentioned, what Balmer has done is taken two separate issues, the Bob Jones University court case, and the controversy over the IRS “guilty until proven innocent” policy, and mixed them together. He says they are the same issue; so when Christian private schools defended their rights against the IRS, they were simultaneously defending racial discrimination at Bob Jones University. In other words, the Christians who rose up to defend their own private day schools were actually advocates of racial discrimination. This is Balmer’s assertion and it seems rather close to being libelous. Publicly accusing people of being motivated by racism is not something to be taken lightly.
It is true that the Christian resistance to the IRS policy was a major factor in the rise of the Religious Right, as Balmer states. But it was not a defense of racial discrimination as he falsely claims. The Bob Jones University court case was an entirely different matter.
Francis Schaeffer a Racist?
Interestingly, Balmer also briefly discusses Francis Schaeffer and notes that Schaeffer is “considered by many” to be “the intellectual godfather of the Religious Right” (p. 110). In other words, Balmer’s view is that Schaeffer was the intellectual godfather of a movement whose founding tenet was “defending racial discrimination.”
What would Francis Schaeffer say about that? Well, we don’t have to guess. In 1976 he wrote a book entitled How Should We Then Live? In chapter 5 of that book he discusses the “many areas where the Bible was not followed as it should have been” in the Reformation countries. He identifies racial discrimination as one of the two biggest failures in this category. For example, he writes: “In the area of race there were two types of abuse. The first was slavery based on race; the second, racial prejudice as such. Both practices were wrong, and often both were present when Christians had a stronger influence on the consensus than they now have—and yet the church, as the church, did not speak out sufficiently against them” (p. 113).
He goes on to say: “Today’s Christians, by identification with their forebears, must acknowledge these inconsistencies in regard to a twisted view of race. We can use no lesser word than sin to describe those instances where the practice was (or is) so far from what the Bible directs” (p. 114).
So the question Prof. Balmer needs to answer is this: how does he reconcile his view of the Religious Right as coalescing to defend racial discrimination with the fact that the “intellectual godfather” of the Religious Right explicitly condemned racial discrimination as sin in one of his best-known books?
Don’t expect an answer. The historical revisionism of Balmer’s book has a political purpose and that purpose would be thwarted by clearly identifying the different historical events and the motivations of the Christians involved. The Christian activists of the 1970s were not motivated by support for racial discrimination. But if Balmer can get people to believe that, conservative Christian political activism will be discredited to a certain degree. And that is his purpose.
History is important. As this example demonstrates, having an erroneous view about the historical origin of modern conservative Christian activism will affect how people view such activism. An historian can take actual events, rearrange the information into a predetermined pattern, and portray certain participants as being sinister. This is what Prof. Balmer has done.
Of course, it’s tempting to portray our opponents as sinister. But a Christian historian will be bound by Exodus 20:16, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (ESV). A Christian historian, like everyone else, can make mistakes and even come to an unconventional understanding of events. That’s legitimate. But hopefully he or she will not allow a political agenda to dictate an historical portrayal that misleads people.
The bigger point, though, is that what you believe about history can have implications in your day-to-day life. Your willingness to participate in or support a particular movement or organization will be influenced by what you believe about its past.