My paper presents BJU’s apologia on race before and after November 2008 as well as the Please-Reconcile’s plea for BJU’s racial reconciliation. BJU’s statements are strange. To be quite blunt, they make no sense to a Yankee. But I’ve discovered that within the Old South ethic of the Lost Cause, the so-called apology makes perfect sense.
The best resource for understanding the Lost Cause rhetoric is an old friend to rhetoricians and a particularly familiar annoyance to Burkeans—Richard Weaver. In his 1943 LSU dissertation renamed Southern Tradition at Bay, Weaver surveys and appreciates Lost Cause literature post-Appomattox and includes a long discussion of Southern apologia.
Bob Jones University’s statements on race parallel Weaver’s Lost Cause apologia. The drama that Weaver both records and continues is a romance caught at a potentially tragic crisis point. The old rules of chivalry drive the action or rather reaction. Weaver’s hero, the southern Cavalier, moves more than acts. He is a man of leisure and good birth who simply is, until a moment of deadly crisis. When he is challenged, as if in a duel, his duty is to “serve the eternal verities” of the established order. Destruction, ruin, bankruptcy, injury are all irrelevant to preserving truth and maintaining “good form.” Guiding him is an unspoken code duello.
Even nearly one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the rhetorical drama of the Old South still persists in tiny provincial cultural pockets like Bob Jones University. Within the enduring rhetorical romance of sectarian religion, the code duello informs and contains conflict. Intersecting Richard Weaver’s Old South drama with my previous description of rhetorical romance is a productive critical project. Each analysis rounds out the other and might provide a more organic explanation for the persisting romance in a micro-culture like southern fundamentalism.
Such an intersection also broadens BJU’s connection with the “segregationist ethos” of its founding family. Agrarianism, provincialism, populism, commerce, societal hierarchy, religion, nativism, and racism all goaded the Confederacy in their Romance-turned-tragedy. In our critical sweep, we, too, must avoid containing our cultural sin of racism in the South, in fundamentalism, or in Bob Jones University. The arcane mask these romantics don to distract their Other’s gaze from their own ugliness tempts us to our own form of tragedy. The Please-Reconcile effort was a comic attempt at removing their mask and correcting that sin without killing off the humanity underneath.
Further study intersecting southern fundamentalism with the Lost Cause drama would expose the salience and endurance possible (or not) in newer Lost Cause movements like Doug Wilson’s Federal Vision, southern secessionism, and identity Christianity. At the root of the problem within Southern romantic apologia is a juggling of the usual mystical purpose with the pragmatic agency. That is, by relegating the divine to the means of propping up a societal hierarchy, participants in the rhetorical drama are distracted from the essentially preservationist motive in their micro-culture. Further contrasting southern with northern fundamentalism, tracing how Weaver’s agrarianism found resonance in mid-century northern conservatism, and mapping the dramatistic similarities between the Civil War and current culture wars would productively assist scholars in deconstructing tragedy and creating a comic corrective.
A revealing moment in this interaction was the P-R’s admittance that they were shocked at their alma mater’s pervasively racist reputation. They offer one explanation that BJU is really not as racist as it seems, giving their alma mater a face-saving “out.” Another possible explanation is that the legal confrontation of BJU’s interracial dating prohibition sent the “segregationist ethos” far underground. The presumed inequality of the races remained in behind-closed-doors meetings. The students from both the North and the South who attended and graduated after 1983 Supreme Court case—which includes every member of the Please-Reconcile team—were witless about the racist foundation. They had been raised in the prevailing notion of “color-blindness” which made them deaf to the coded racism. They were literal-minded, morally earnest, personally outspoken, and driven to “do right.” Perhaps, by shedding the Old South rhetoric that was so prominent in BJU’s pre-1964 days and by generalizing for a larger audience, BJU was forging the tools for its own first homegrown public confrontation.
This intersection of the North with the Old South, of integrationist with separatist, of post-1983 students with pre-1964 administrators, of a second-generation Pollack with an Old South morality play — by putting together these two disparate “terms” we have our last place of freedom, Burke would say. In the end, such perspective by incongruity is our best source of comic correction keeping us from being too hopelessly ourselves.