COVID19, BJU v. US, and Christian Rights

The COVID19 pandemic has opened the floodgates on the discussion of governmental control over its people. If you’ve had any contact with people on Facebook, you will quickly realize that conservative proportionate claim that the governments’ lock-down of the US economy is unconstitutional. The local, state, and federal governments do not have the right, according to them, to control people this way. I am not a constitutional scholar, nor will I make constitutional arguments. I will, however, write on something in which I do have experience: the history of racism and right-wing Christian thought.

Ironically, history repeats itself too often. The reaction to the COVID19 pandemic is no different. We have seen the exact same arguments presented against civil rights legislation in the 80’s. In particular, the Bob Jones University v. United States exemplifies right-wing religious arguments against civil rights.[1] Bob Jones Jr’s speech which he presented to the Judiciary Committee on June 26, 1984 (five months after the supreme court case ruled against him) also is a lay example of this argumentation. Here, he publicly stood against the Civil Rights Act of 1984.[2]

For clarification: I am not calling right-winger’s racist according to the classical definition of racism. I am drawing the parallels in the arguments that right-wingers used back in the day and what they are using now. Also, while I dredge up the history of BJU, it is by no means intended to say that the university racist today. Nor am I calling for its downfall. Nor am I attempting to slander it in any way. I bring it up as an unfortunate reality that has shaped Christianity that we know today.

Back to the Supreme Court case. The arguments of this case were pretty basic: “the government does not have right to tell us what to do.” Bob Jones claimed that it was their religious liberty to discriminate based on interracial marriage or dating. In one press release (contained in the Fundamentalism File at BJU), it stated that it did not matter whether BJU was theologically right in the issue of interracial dating, it was their right to believe and act on whatever they saw fit. All in all, BJU did not want to be controlled by the government.

The case of Bob Jones University v. United States was a landmark decision for the US. As a legal analysist rightly prophesied, “the Supreme Court’s decision last term in Bob Jones University v. United States will probably establish the contours of future executive, legislative, and judicial decision-making on this matter.”[3] This unfortunately true. BJU v. US has become the classic case against the religious convictions of 501.(c).3 institutions. It has been cited in over 3500 articles, legislative documents, and case since 1983. Many cases are arguing against 501.(c).3 organizations and the banning of gay marriage.[4]

Moral of the Story: BJU fought for a right that it wasn’t even sure it believed in. Instead of becoming a case that won religious freedom, it is now the case used to attack it. Because BJU insisted on their rights, they made the image of Christianity look like a bunch of southern racists. Further, instead of becoming know for loving Christ and loving people, BJU (if it is known at all) is known for its racist past and for its authoritarian attempt at control. The sadder reality is that BJU is not that way today, but it still has this public image.

Here is my point about the whole COVID19 right-wing reaction. You can argue that it is your right to go out and ignore governmental restrictions. You can argue that you know better than the government because “COVID19 is just like the flu” (or whatever your favorite argument is). You can argue about your rights, your liberties, and your freedoms. But what is the cost? What are you making the cause of Christianity look like? When people see your posts on Facebook, do they see someone who cares about other people or do they see someone who demands “their rights.”

The more Christians act entitled, the more we defame the cause of Christ. Instead of being so concerned with how your liberties are trampled, perhaps consider using this time to reach out and love people. Christ did not say, “By this shall all men know your are my disciples, because you fight for your American rights.” Rather, “because you love one another.”

As Christians, everything in our Bible points to submitting to the government, not insisting on our rights.

  • Romans 13:1-2 “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. / Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
  • 1 Peter 2:13-16 “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, / 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. / 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. / 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”
  • Philippians 2:5-8 “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, / 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, / 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. / 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It is my fear that the evangelical, right-wing reaction to this whole thing could backfire. Instead of gaining the rights so bitterly complained about, we will lose the ones we have remaining. We will not silence the ignorance of foolish men, but rather give them fuel. Worst of all, we will cause shame to the cause of Christ.


[1]. Here is the case summary, if you are unfamiliar with the event: “Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (IRC) provides that “[c]orporations . . . organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable . . . or educational purposes” are entitled to tax exemption. Until 1970, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) granted tax-exempt status under § 501(c)(3) to private schools, independent of racial admissions policies, and granted charitable deductions for contributions to such schools under § 170 of the IRC. But in 1970, the IRS concluded that it could no longer justify allowing tax-exempt status under § 501(c)(3) to private schools that practiced racial discrimination, and in 1971 issued Revenue Ruling 71-447 providing that a private school not having a racially nondiscriminatory policy as to students is not “charitable” within the common law concepts reflected in §§ 170 and 501(c)(3). In No. 81-3, petitioner Bob Jones University, while permitting unmarried Negroes to enroll as students, denies admission to applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating. Because of this admissions policy, the IRS revoked the University’s tax-exempt status. After paying a portion of the federal unemployment taxes for a certain taxable year, the University filed a refund action in Federal District Court, and the Government counterclaimed for unpaid taxes for that and other taxable years. Holding that the IRS exceeded its powers in revoking the University’s tax-exempt status and violated the University’s rights under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the District Court ordered the IRS to refund the taxes paid and rejected the counterclaim. The Court of Appeals reversed. In No. 81-1, petitioner Goldsboro Christian Schools maintains a racially discriminatory admissions policy based upon its interpretation of the Bible, accepting for the most part only Caucasian students. The IRS determined that Goldsboro was not an organization described in § 501(c)(3), and hence was required to pay federal social security and unemployment taxes. After paying a portion of such taxes for certain years, Goldsboro filed a refund suit in Federal District Court, and the IRS counterclaimed for unpaid taxes. The District Court entered summary judgment for[p575] the IRS, rejecting Goldsboro’s claim to tax-exempt status under § 501(c) (3) and also its claim that the denial of such status violated the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed.” https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/461/574

[2]. https://ia802601.us.archive.org/29/items/ERIC_ED257762/ERIC_ED257762.pdf. Page 766.

[3] Neal Devins, “Bob Jones University v. United States: A Political Analysis Comment,” J.L. & Pol.2 (1983): 403.

[4]. https://archive.org/details/R44244RecognitionofSame-SexMarriageImplicationsforReligiousObjections-crs/mode/2up/search/%22BOB+JONES+UNIVERSITY+v.+UNITED+STATES%22?q=%22BOB+JONES+UNIVERSITY+v.+UNITED+STATES%22

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