Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about Bob Jones University and uncovering historical moments in religious fundamentalism encroachments into political spheres, where things begin decades prior.
*Interview conducted September 13, 2021.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The topic today is going to be about hidden parts of secular history in the United States. One of them being the ongoing war, more or less, between Evangelical Christians and much of the rest of the nation. A traditional idea is women’s bodies legal battles, where there is the start of a lot of these attempts to bring Evangelical protestant movements to political power. However, that’s not entirely true. Although, it’s partly true. What’s the more complete story there? What happened before Roe v. Wade?
Jonathan Engel: Well, the lies of the religious right politically in the United States — which is traced usually to about the early 70s — it came about for a number of different reasons. But, most people assume its origins was with the Roe v. Wade case on legalized abortion. It’s kind of reasonable that people would think that’s really where the origin was because it’s become such an overwhelming part of the Evangelical movement. If they’re smart, which I guess some of them are and some of them aren’t. They would know that ending legalized abortion will not end abortion. Ending legalized abortion has become such a huge rallying cry. It has been for many years of the religious right Evangelicals – that it is assumed; it was the Roe v. Wade decision that started it with the people who eventually led that movement, especially early on. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly and Ralph Reid. and others as well.
Most historians — there’s been some interesting articles published recently in historical journals about this — look back at that era and say it was a different Supreme Court case that — actually I’m not sure if it was Supreme Court, it was a different court case — that actually led Evangelicals to start up a much more politicized kind of movement. And that was a case of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Now, Bob Jones University had a policy: no black people allowed here. That was it. But they did have non-profit status under the federal internal revenue service. That’s very essential because that means people can give them money as a donation and deduct it from their income tax. If they weren’t formally recognized by the IRS, you could still give money, but you couldn’t deduct it from your income tax.
Not to mention the fact that they would be subject to things like real estate taxes, if they weren’t an official non-profit. The thing is though, the IRS also has rules that say that non-profits can not discriminate on the basis of race, so the IRS said to Bob Jones University, ‘We are cutting off your non-profit status because you do not comply with our rules against racial discrimination.’ It was upheld in the courts, and that sent white Evangelicals around the bend. They were crazy about this decision. And that’s what really started them in their quest for political power, or increased political power. Roe v. Wade was something that they really used and continue to use as a vehicle, as something that really gets the base of their Evangelicals all excited to go out and vote and everything else like that. It’s been a very important part of the Evangelical political movement in this country, but it started with Bob Jones University. It was not started to save unborn babies, as crazy as that all is; it was the Evangelical political movement in this country started in order to enforce segregation. And it was important to them beyond Bob Jones University, because what happened in the 60s and 70s. You started to get court rulings saying that discrimination in public schools was not going to be tolerated.
Of course, the schools would say, ‘Oh, we’re not discriminating, it just kind of worked out this way that all the black kids in our district go to this school and the white kids go to this school.’ It was in the late 60s and early 70s that courts started saying , ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not good enough. We’re going to integrate your schools.’ At which point, there were a lot of whites, primarily upper middle class and wealthy whites, who started their own schools, which were, once again, they never had any formal statements, ‘No black kids allowed,’ but they were all whites! It just happened to work out that way. They were afraid. They were very afraid from the Bob Jones case. I mean this was the whole point. They started these schools because they wanted their kids to go to all-white schools, just like they did when segregation was approved by southern states.
They wanted to continue that. And then all of a sudden, they were afraid that the ruling in Bob Jones University would mean they would lose their non-profit status and that parents who were shoveling money into them and deducting that money from their income taxes could no longer deduct the money, it was going to hurt them financially. And that was really the start. Again, the moral majority, Jerry Falwell, et cetera., all that political power that we see still today, from right wing Christian Evangelicals, the reason they started to get involved — again, Roe v. Wade was an accelerant and it pushed it forward — but the start of the fire was the desire to have their kids go to segregated schools.
Jacobsen: For these kinds of movements, do they evolve much over time, or do their essential drivers stay the same?
Engel: Well, they don’t believe in evolution, so [Laughing]…
Jacobsen: [Laughing] That was good.
Engel: But yeah, of course, they take up certain causes. You see this with COVID. One of their causes now is against any kind of mandate, mask mandate, vaccine mandate. Anything that they think will whip up the people that constitute their base. They are always on the lookout for a new issue to go crazy for. Now, especially if the Supreme Court really does overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s like the dog that catches the car. What’s he gonna do with it? Now what? And they will, obviously, go looking for something else. Some other way to preserve their political power, which is largely part of a racial type of thing. Something like 85% of CEOs in this country are white Christian males. They want to keep it that way. They will glom onto anything. Now, it’s mask mandates. It’s vaccine mandates that they’re really against. They do evolve in that sense. They find new issues, et cetera, but as for their actual thinking — if you could call it that, which is a stretch — their thinking is basically the same. And again, it’s all about maintaining white, Christian male power in this country.
Jacobsen: Do you think that some of the attitudes have changed in terms of the significance of race and racial politics within Evangelical movements?
Engel: It doesn’t look like it has. I don’t really think it’s changed all that much. I mean, every once in a while, there is a semi effort to bring in black or Hispanic Evangelicals who may be socially conservative too, but there’s too many things that give away the ghost. They can sort of talk about those sorts of things and make little efforts toward it, but this is a white movement. This is a white Christian movement. And that’s one thing that a lot of Liberals and Democrats have a difficult time with; as you would imagine, it pisses me off, but they have a difficult time with it. They have a difficult time saying the Christian part. When January 6th happened, you had a lot of Liberal commentators talking about the white nationalism of the people who are invading the Capitol. But it’s not just white nationalism. It’s white Christian nationalism. They just shy away from saying that. There are so many people who are afraid of criticizing religion.
That they will shy away from saying that. The truth of the matter, there it is: yes, it is white Christian nationalism. Other people on January 6th, you see these lunatics including the ‘QAnon Shaman’ or whatever this guy is who has now pleaded guilty to charges. What did they do as soon as they got inside the chambers? They said ‘w, ‘We are here to sanctify this chamber in the name of Jesus Christ.’ That’s what they said! And it’s on film. It’s on tape. There was a lot of Christian symbolism and imagery in the crowd as well. This is a white, Christian, male-dominated movement. Even though, there are Liberals who are nervous about saying anything negative about religion. The truth is still there and this is what it is.
Jacobsen: So, Bob Jones University is still in existence. What does this mean in terms of the continuing part Evangelical Christianity is playing within American politics and post secondary education, at least at the private level?
Engel: Well, it’s interesting because Bob Jones University has sort of fallen off of people’s radar. I bet if you ask the majority of Americans, “What do you think of Bob Jones University?” They’ll say, “What’s that? Never heard of it.” They’ve used it for their purposes, and then they’ve sort of tossed it away. There are other Christian colleges in this country that are hotbeds for right wing teaching, right wing think tanks. You look at Liberty College which is in Virginia. It was founded by Jerry Falwell, and then it was run by Jerry Falwell Jr. who got into — oh my god, you’re never going to believe this — a sex scandal, and he was tossed out. There’s an old saying that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I really think it’s religion. Religion is the last refuge of the scoundrel. And so, you have this guy who’s basically Jerry Falwell Jr.… I don’t care what he did, that’s between him and his wife, his shenanigans, as they’re sometimes called. I don’t care. I don’t think it makes him a good person. It’s still established law, though,. You can’t openly discriminate and have 501(c)(3) non-profit status. The Bob Jones case is still good law. It has been all the time, but even though nobody talks about Bob Jones anymore, you still see the effects of that bringing together of people to say, “We are going to…” — again they don’t say it explicitly — “…have a white power dynamic in this country to hold on to,” and it’s still there.
Jacobsen: What about the end game? What is the trajectory of this playing out in politics? Because the demographics for Evangelical Christians does not look good. In other words, they are declining. They have been declining for years and years, and the younger populations in the United States are much more secular. Whether by name or by content of belief, they are more secular humanist than any prior generation in the United States. So how does this change as things move forward?
Engel: That’s a very good question, and it’s a very frightening question, because the answer is frightening. We’re seeing how this plays out. They know the demographics are against them. They know the cultural shifts are against them. It’s so funny. You hear right wingers say, ‘Corporations… Hollywood is trying to influence the way we think about race.’ No, they’re not. They’re trying to make money. They want to stay ahead of the culture. They want to stay right where the culture is, or a little bit ahead. But that’s because they see if that’s where the culture is going, then that’s where the money is going to be. So, what’s frightening so much about your question is that all around this country right now — and this could be a topic for a long conversation but I’ll try to nutshell it — but all around this country right now you’re seeing attempts by state legislatures and states that are basically Republican, try and really defeat democracy.
Voter suppression, trying to have rules that will hurt people’s ability to vote, so there will be fewer voters. But also, and this is the scariest part, they really are looking to find ways to pass laws that say, essentially, ‘If the state legislature doesn’t like the way the people voted in, say a presidential election, that instead of the electors in that state going toward the person who won the most votes, the state legislature can decide where to send their electoral votes.’ So, there is an actual effort in this country to counter the demographic trends you were talking about. The demographics are there, this country is becoming less Christian, less white and the way they want to counter that — and again you would look to say, ‘Well shit, that must mean that they’re not going to do well in the elections going forward’ — and they say, ‘Well, yeah, we’re gonna fix that. And the way we’re going to fix that is we’re going to fix our elections.’ And that’s really a very frightening thing.
Democrats have a couple of bills that they would like to pass, certainly out of the House, or they have past out of the House, that protect voting rights and protect democracy, but the problem is that they can’t get it past in the Senate, and it’s not going to become law, and therefore there’s real dangers of losing democracy, and that’s where the end game is right now for the white Evangelical extreme right. They see that those demographics work against them. So, they’re trying to change the structure of our democracy to keep power, despite the fact that they know they are in the minority when it comes to what the overall view of the people is.
Jacobsen: Jon, as always, thank you very much for your time and the opportunity today.
Engel: My pleasure, Scott. Listen, take care.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
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