Last week, Bob Jones University issued a public apology for its racist past. When I attended the Protestant fundamentalist college in the mid-1970s, the institution was still struggling to overcome the blatant racism for which it had become famous. While I was a student, the first black man was admitted. He was an older married man who lived off-campus, and the unspoken suspicion was that as such, he was therefore not a danger to the white girls on campus.
Although the ban on black students had just been lifted, there was still a rule against interracial dating. Not only were African-American students not allowed to date whites, but Asian and dark-skinned students from Micronesia were also only allowed to date girls of their own race.
It was explained to us that this was not a racist policy, because the same rule applied to all the students regardless of race: Nobody was allowed to date someone from another race.
How, you might ask, could a college that claimed to be Christian support blatant racism?
It should be remembered that slavery in the South, and the continued racism that followed, was supported by many otherwise godly Christian people — just as apartheid in South Africa was supported by good, upstanding Dutch Reformed Christian folks.
The justification I heard while I was at Bob Jones University was based on a fundamentalist reading of Genesis 9:18-27, in which Noah curses Ham and his descendents. The fundamentalist argument claimed that the descendents of Ham became the African nations, and so it was God’s will that black people should be the slaves of the other racial groups.
The theory is far-fetched, but people sincerely believed it and used the Bible in this way to support slavery, segregation, and finally, implicit racism. Through the 1980s, Bob Jones University continued their ban on interracial dating. As a result, they lost their tax-exempt status. They tried to fight the Internal Revenue Service and lost. Now it seems that the school, under the leadership of Stephen Jones, university president (the fourth generation of the Jones dynasty), is turning away from racism altogether, admitting it was wrong and asking for forgiveness.
Now that Americans have elected a man who is the product of interracial dating, the pundits speak of a “post-racist America.”
I hope they are right. I hope America can one day be free of every kind of prejudice and bigotry, and that no one will ever be judged based on their race or ethnic background. However, prejudice and discrimination extends to more than just race and ethnic background.
Bob Jones is also famous for being anti-Catholic. I was a student there when Pope Paul VI died, and I remember Bob Jones Jr. saying publicly, “Pope Paul VI, archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an Antichrist, has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”
So the religion of Bob Jones University was even more stridently anti-Catholic than it was racist.
The very reason the prejudiced fundamentalist finds it difficult to overcome his prejudice is that he believes that God’s inspired word instructs him to be both racist and anti-Catholic.
It is a long, hard journey for him to change his mind. To overcome racial or religious prejudice with careful reasoning is one thing, but for the believing bigot it is even harder, because he has to come to the difficult realization that he has misunderstood God’s word.
Not only does he have to accept that his interpretation of the Bible was wrong, but also that his authority to interpret the Bible correctly was also faulty. To have the humility, grace and intelligence to do this, and to do it publicly, is a praiseworthy accomplishment.
That Christians at Bob Jones University have come to the conclusion that their interpretation of the Scriptures was wrong, and that they made a mistake is not just a political nicety. It is an about-face of stupendous proportions, for they must now accept that if they were wrong on this interpretation of Scripture, they might well be wrong on others.
This is why careful, understanding and open-minded Catholic apologetics is vital at this time.
My own progress from Bob Jones graduate to Catholic priest was a journey that took nearly 30 years. As I gradually grew into Catholicism, I understood that I was not rejecting anything good from my devout Bible-based background. Instead, I was accepting more and more of God’s fullness, until at last, I was received into the Catholic Church. In my book More Christianity, I explain how Catholicism is not something essentially different from evangelical Christianity, but something more.
This is the sort of dialogue we need with our separated brethren who follow Bob Jones type fundamentalist Christianity. Step by step we need to overcome the prejudice of anti-Catholicism with a genuinely listening ear, with nonthreatening information, discussion, and most of all, with the radiant and joyful example of holy, Spirit-filled Catholic lives.
Then, in time, we may read that Bob Jones University has also issued a statement acknowledging and apologizing for their anti-Catholic prejudice. If so, we will have succeeded in winning not just arguments, but everlasting souls.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a graduate of Bob Jones and