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Perspective by Incongruity, #2

When the Old South brushes up against this 2nd-generation Pollack like that, I can’t ignore it. It’s what Burke would call Perspective by Incongruity — two dissimilar “terms” shoved together that each change the other simply by proximity. And that’s what happened a year ago when Bob Jones University produced a “Statement on Race” to say it was “profoundly sorry” for past racist policies.

I’m no stranger to Bob Jones University and so-called fundamentalism. Not only have I studied the rhetoric of American religious separatism formally, I’ve lived it. Having spent 20 years at BJU as a student, grad student, and faculty member, I am especially sensitive to their public discourse. Now that they fired me for being more scholarly than separatist, I’m looking anew at their public texts. While I was still inside the movement, I described their frame of acceptance as less tragic or comic and more romantic. My purpose then was descriptive as well as prescriptive—to explain to them, as an insider, how best to craft their message.

We all see how that turned out. So I am honing a new critical voice—one that’s still within a Burkean comic corrective, but without the apologist bent. I no longer need to prescribe to fundamentalists. And I’ve never sensed more strongly how incongruous it is to be a 2nd-generation Pollack stuck in an Old South morality play.

The most recent example of a public text from Bob Jones University is this “Statement on Race.” BJU is infamous for its 1983 Supreme Court battle to maintain its policy forbidding “interracial dating.” The problems with their policy are so numerous and complex that we’d be here for weeks discussing them. Not only is their definition of “race” problematic—they limited their scope to only three races—but the definition of a “date” comes into play too. They lost that fight with the IRS, lost their tax-exemption status, but maintained this unseemly remnant of the Old South.

And not until Campaign 2000 did BJU’s racism rise again into public view. George W. Bush’s rather routine visit to an old Republican haunt in South Carolina didn’t seem too interesting until John McCain made it interesting. The media firestorm was so intense that BJU’s president went on Larry King Live to lift the interracial dating ban.

Alumni who had attended the school since 1983, however, didn’t think that was sufficient. One particular 1998 alum, Jon Henry, was so irritated by the continuing defense of racism among BJU constituency that he started, of all things, a Facebook group to force BJU to apologize for past racism. That on-a-whim action snowballed into a full-fledged alumni effort garnering 506 signatures attempting to move Bob Jones University one step closer to reconciliation and culminating in BJU’s 2008 “Statement on Race.”

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