Can Christian conservatives learn from their sins? 

Institutional Bigotry

Confession, they say, is good for the soul, and we have had two important ones recently. Perhaps it is the election of a black man as president of the United States, but more likely it was years of soul-searching and introspection — the kind I like to think many Americans have been doing since Nov. 4 — which caused two hidebound institutions to come forward and apologize for their racist pasts.

You probably heard that Bob Jones University, the private, fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, issued a statement two weeks ago acknowledging "institutional policies regarding race" which had influenced its attitudes and behavior for half a century. Specifically, BJU did not accept black students until 1971, and its policy against interracial dating was not lifted until nine years ago.

"We failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves," the university declared on its website on Nov. 20. "For these failures we are profoundly sorry."

The BJU statement comes months after the American Medical Association offered a similar mea culpa. From its founding in 1847, until recent decades, the AMA had denied membership to black physicians. More recently, when it did begin to accept minority individuals, it refused to take action against local medical associations which continued to discriminate.

In the July 16 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Ronald M. Davis wrote that many of the organization's questionable actions reflected the "social mores and racial discrimination" that existed for much of the country's history. But, he wrote, that should not excuse such behavior.

These recent apologies come after more than a decade of contrition from other public and private institutions. These have included the states of Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, and Florida and businesses such as Wachovia, which have expressed regret for their roles in slavery. Last year, the governing board of the University of Virginia passed a resolution of "regret for its use of enslaved persons from 1819 to 1865."

In 1997, President Bill Clinton expressed regret for the "Tuskegee experiment," in which U.S. government researchers used black men to study syphilis. Starting in 1932, researchers treating almost 400 men infected with syphilis, gave them placebos and then observed the progression of the disease. The study continued until 1972, when its existence was leaked to the media. Clinton called the study "deeply, profoundly, morally wrong."

In 2005, the Republican Party apologized for its racially tinged "Southern Strategy," which it adopted during Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign.

And there was the 1995 apology of the Southern Baptist Convention for its long history of racism. As part of its 150th anniversary observance, the SBC issued a resolution acknowledging that it was created in 1845 in a schism among American Baptists over the issue of southern slavery. The resolution marked the denomination's first formal acknowledgment that racism played a role in its founding.

The resolution acknowledged that because of the SBC's links to slavery, "our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning," and that more recently Southern Baptists "failed in many cases to support and in some cases opposed legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans."

Yes, a confession is good for the soul, but is an apology sincere if one has not had a change of heart, if one has not learned from past mistakes? I direct this question specifically at Bob Jones University and the Southern Baptist Convention, two deeply conservative religious institutions which influence local politics and culture, yet seem particularly incapable of learning from the past.

The SBC continues to stand by past resolutions rejecting homosexuality as a "lifestyle" and referring to it as a "manifestation of a depraved nature," "a perversion of divine standards and as a violation of nature and natural affections," and "an abomination in the eyes of God." More specifically, it denies full citizenship to homosexuals by opposing same-sex marriages and equivalent unions.

Likewise, BJU's stance on homosexuality is uncompromising. It not only kicked Starbucks off campus because it was seen as "gay-friendly," it threatens its own gay alumni with arrest if they come onto campus. Last year three gay rights activists were arrested for entering the campus.

In justifying their intolerance, both BJU and the SBC cite the same Bible they quoted for generations to excuse slavery and segregation. They were just as righteous and intransigent then as they are today. But I would bet — and I will not be around to collect on this one — that in about 40 years when all the gay rights battles have been won and society has moved on to other issues, BJU and the SBC will offer a meek and irrelevant apology for the hateful things they are saying and doing today.

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