Into the wilderness: Ronald Reagan, Bob Jones University, and the political education of the Christian Right.
The Bob Jones case represents the first of many painful political lessons learned by the Christian Right during the Reagan administration. (2) The Christian Right believed that Reagan's ascent to the presidency in 1980 signaled the beginning of an age of social conservatism where abortion and pornography would be prohibited, organized prayer returned to the schools, and Christian schools could operate free of IRS harassment. By the end of his administration, however, its agenda remained largely unfulfilled, in no small part because Reagan himself put forth only token effort to advance its cause. As will be shown, in the Bob Jones case and elsewhere, the Christian Right did not have the political clout to compel Reagan to move its agenda forward. Recognition of this political reality by the Christian Right forced conservative Christians to withhold criticism from Reagan for his actions and never seriously threaten to remove their electoral support.
Scholarship on the Bob Jones case has largely been confined to a broader historiographical debate over the racial sensitivity of the Reagan administration. (3) To this point no one has treated the case as a microcosm of Reagan's relationship with the Christian Right. This article complements an emerging literature on the Christian Right and its interaction with the modern American political system. (4) During the 1980s and 1990s the Christian Right transformed from an interest group seeking to influence change at the top of the political spectrum to a more politically savvy establishment focused on grassroots mobilization. This tactical switch resulted from the many political disappointments it suffered under Reagan. (5)
A close analysis of the Bob Jones case illuminates the Christian Right's difficult political experiences that brought about its transformation. These difficulties, first seen in the Bob Jones case, extended to lobbying efforts for other key elements of its socially conservative agenda including abortion and school prayer. In this regard the Christian Right represents what political scientist Paul Frymer terms a "captured group." According to Frymer, an interest group is "captured" by one of the two major political parties "when the group has no choice but to remain in the party. The opposing party does not want the group's vote, so the group cannot threaten its own party's leaders with defection. The party leadership, then, can take the group for granted because it recognizes that, short of abstention or an independent (and usually electorally suicidal) third party, the group has nowhere else to go." (6) As a result party leaders tend to neglect the agenda of their captured groups. In terms of the Christian Right, its agenda found no sympathy from the Democratic Party and it did not have the broad based support to start a viable third party. The BJU case was the first of a broad pattern of disappointments experienced by the Christian Right in the 1980s, which led it to conclude that it had no choice but to change its political strategies toward a more grassroots-style politics.
The origins of the Bob Jones case date to the late 1960s. A number of all-white Christian schools emerged throughout that decade in response to federal enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. (7) These so-called "white-flight" schools received tax exemptions because of their status as educational institutions. In May 1969 the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of William Green, a black parent, against a private school in Mississippi, challenging the right of private Christian schools to practice segregation and still qualify for a tax exemption. Green won the case as a tri-panel court ordered the IRS to deny tax exemptions to all private Mississippi schools practicing segregation. (8)
The IRS, with President Richard Nixon's reluctant approval, expanded enforcement of the court decision beyond Mississippi by revoking tax exemptions to racially discriminatory private Christian schools throughout the country, including BJU. In November 1970 the IRS informed BJU that they would be revoking their tax-exempt status because the school refused to accept nonwhite students. BJU claimed that it denied admission to nonwhite students based on biblical scripture, which called for a separation of the races. They challenged the IRS's planned move in court and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court in 1974. In Bob Jones University v. Simon the Court appeared to avoid the issue of the constitutionality of the IRS's tax revocations by ruling that while it could not prevent the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status, it was also open to BJU to pay some taxes to the IRS and then sue for a refund of any taxes collected. (9)
BJU followed this advice in 1976 by filing a tax return and paying twenty-one dollars in the form of unemployment tax for one of its employees. Upon filing they asked for a refund of the twenty-one dollars, which the IRS promptly refused. BJU filed suit to recoup the money, bringing an IRS countersuit for four hundred ninety thousand dollars, the amount of back taxes the IRS computed that BJU owed for 1970-1975. BJU at this point had actually changed its admissions policy to allow minorities to attend, but they prohibited their students from engaging in interracial dating (again citing their interpretation of the biblical ban on the mixing of the races). As with the first case, this one worked its way up the legal ladder. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case--and a similar one involving Goldsboro Christian Schools--in late 1981. (10)
The development of BJU's case took place in a rapidly changing political environment. Prior to the 1970s most conservative Christians, particularly in the South, voted Democrat. But starting in 1972, with the nomination of George McGovern, the Democratic Party began taking more culturally liberal stands on issues like abortion, homosexual rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), prompting a gradual exodus of conservative Christians from the party. (11) The tax exemption issue constituted another reason for this mass departure. During Jimmy Carter's administration, IRS commissioner Jerome Kurtz instituted new regulations for private schools' tax-exempt status. In effect, Kurtz demanded that these schools prove their compliance with federal policy against racial discrimination. To do so these schools had to demonstrate that they did not have an "insignificant number of minority students," which the IRS defined as "less than twenty percent of the minority school age population in the community served by the school." (12) Kurtz, like many civil rights advocates before him, believed that too many private schools had been created to avoid desegregation while still being able to enjoy a tax exemption. Conservative Christians, alarmed at these many rapid social and cultural changes, formed new political organizations in the late 1970s, including the Moral Majority and the National Christian Action Coalition (NCAC) to advance their interests and reverse these disturbing trends. The tax exemption issue played a central role in this new political engagement. (13) According to Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the NCAC and prominent leader of the Christian Right, "what galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer or the ERA. I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their minds was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation." (14)
In the late 1970s the Republican Party moved to pull conservative Christians into its fold. (15) As historian Don Critchlow points out, Republicans reached out to conservative Christians "by tying social issues such as school choice, abortion, and prayer in schools to long-standing Republican causes-free market economics and hard-line defense and foreign policy." (16) Republicans also used the tax exemption issue to appeal to conservative Christians. Prospective presidential candidate Ronald Reagan addressed this issue in November 1978 during one of his nationally syndicated radio addresses. (17) Lashing out at IRS Commissioner Kurtz, Reagan argued that the IRS "threatens the destruction of religious freedom itself with this action," even though "virtually all such schools [whose tax-exempt status was being revoked] are presently desegregated." (18) Following Reagan's lead, in 1979 Republican Congressmen Bob Dornan of California and John Ashbrook of Ohio attached a rider to an appropriations bill that explicitly forbade the IRS from revoking the tax exemptions of any more schools. Those schools like BJU, which had already been denied their tax-exempt status prior to 22 August 1978, did not fall under the purview of the rider. Nevertheless, the Republican Party had clearly put themselves on the correct side of the tax exemption issue as far as conservative Christians were concerned. (19)
Republicans shored up conservative Christian support in their 1980 national party platform by endorsing the Christian Right's position on abortion, school prayer, and the ERA. (20) The platform also included a specific promise to "halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta launched by Mr. Carter's IRS commissioner against independent schools." (21) Official campaign literature for Republican presidential nominee Reagan also addressed this issue by stating that he "opposes the IRS's attempt to remove the tax-exempt status of private schools by administrative fiat." (22) Conservative Christians responded strongly to the Republican overtures, casting an estimated 62 percent of their votes for Reagan in the 1980 election, helping him to capture a number of states, particularly in the South, that had gone for Jimmy Carter in 1976. (23) As Reagan entered the White House conservative Christians believed they finally had a president who would advance their agenda of eliminating abortion, reinstating school prayer, and getting government off the backs of private Christian schools.
Almost as soon as Reagan entered office prominent Republicans inundated the newly confirmed Treasury secretary, Donald Regan, and IRS commissioner, Roscoe Egger, with requests to halt the revoking of tax exemptions for Christian schools. The senators and Representatives of Mississippi, where a number of cases involving tax exemptions for "white-flight" schools were still pending, jointly petitioned Regan. They argued that the "historic tax-exemption for churches and for their members has been consistently, unwaveringly maintained under the first amendment principles of separation of church and state," and thus the current revocations of the Mississippi school's tax exemptions were "absolutely unprecedented." (24) This letter and subsequent pleas to the IRS all ignored the racial discrimination issue. Instead, they merely stated that the IRS had gone beyond its congressionally mandated authority. (25) Despite these requests, however, the Treasury Department showed no interest in reversing its policy. Neither did the Justice Department, which in September 1981 filed a brief with the Supreme Court in favor of the IRS's position in the soon pending Bob Jones case. (26)
The administration maintained this position until early December 1981 when Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general in the Justice Department wrote a memorandum arguing that the IRS's revoking of BJU's tax exemptions not only exceeded its authority but also went against Reagan's campaign promises. Fein's memorandum eventually reached more important Justice Department officials, including Deputy Attorney General Edward Schmults and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Bradford Reynolds. Neither agreed with BJU's policy of banning interracial dating, but both believed it was up to Congress and not the IRS to state explicitly the grounds for revoking tax exemptions. (27)
While Schmults and Reynolds pondered the case, Mississippi Representative Trent Lott (who had served on the 1980 Republican Party Platform Committee that had drafted the promise to end the IRS's regulation of Christian Schools) involved himself in the process by sending a memorandum directly to Reagan asking him to intervene in the Bob Jones case before it got to the Supreme Court. Upon reading a summary of Lott's memo Reagan scrawled in the margins "I think we should." (28) Given Reagan's earlier radio address on the subject, as well as the official stance of the Republican Party during the 1980 campaign, his immediate receptiveness to Lott's suggestion is not surprising. Furthermore, Reagan's planned action against the IRS was consistent with the new administration's agenda of cutting taxes and limiting the government's regulatory power. Lott received a copy of the memorandum with Reagan's affirmative comments and immediately began petitioning Don Regan to reverse the IRS's position. (29)
Reagan never bothered to consult his main advisors White House Chief of Staff James Baker III, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, or White House Counselor Edwin Meese III about the issue and perhaps forgot about it soon after signing off on the memo. Meese became the only one of the three who heard about the Bob Jones case prior to January 1982. Curiously, Meese did not inform either Baker or Deaver of the details of the case until 6 January 1982, just two days before the Treasury Department was set to announce the new policies. According to Deaver's later recollections, the meetings that ensued between Reagan and his close advisors over Bob Jones only involved the legal questions of the case and not the potential public relations backlash for supporting a racially discriminatory policy. Deaver later lamented that Reagan was never presented with the case's racial implications. (30) It is surprising that Deaver, known for his public relations acumen, would have been unaware of the potential controversy surrounding the administration's intended actions and that he would not have raised the issue with Reagan or the other advisors. Adding to this curiosity is the fact that Treasury Department officials did consider the potential negative publicity of supporting BJU. In a memorandum for Don Regan, Treasury General Counsel Peter Wallison argued that the new position would be seen "as a statement by the Administration that overtly discriminatory practices are not objectionable ... [and] the explanation of the Administration's position--that the tax laws are not the proper vehicle for pursuing racial discrimination--would be lost in the ensuing outcry." (31) There is no evidence that Wallison's reservations about the new policy made it to Reagan, or if they did, they did not influence the outcome of the final decision. Ultimately Reagan decided to support BJU and Goldsboro Christian Schools against the IRS and thereby set the administration up for an ambush of criticism.
Did Reagan's intervention on behalf of BJU reflect an explicit attempt by the administration to use the divisive issue of race to shore up support from the Christian Right and other conservatives as historians Dan Carter and Kenneth O'Reilly maintain? (32) Or was it a gross oversight by Reagan's closest advisors whose primary concern was to make good on a campaign promise to the Christian Right and who believed in the legal merits of the case? While Carter and O'Reilly are correct that the Republican Party since the 1960s had repeatedly exploited racial tensions to further its electoral ambitions by appealing to white conservative voters in the South and Midwest through issues like busing, welfare, and crime, it is not clear that these racial politics were at work in the Bob Jones case. As has been shown, members of the Justice Department genuinely believed that the IRS had overstepped its authority in revoking BJU's tax exemption. It is also likely that the administration wanted to do something finally for the Christian Right. Throughout 1981 Reagan did not pursue any of the important social issues like abortion or school prayer because his first priority was getting his tax cuts passed. (33) Nevertheless, the administration's failure to anticipate the outcry over the proposed decision demonstrates its overall insensitivity to racial issues.
On 8 January 1982, the Treasury and Justice Departments reversed the IRS's revocations of BJU's and Goldsboro's tax-exemptions. News of the policies unleashed vehement protests from many groups against the administration. Samuel Rabinove, the legal director of the American Jewish Congress, said that it was "appalling that the Administration would allow this important benefit to institutions that are racially discriminatory." (34) Editorial writers for the New York Times and Washington Post derided Reagan for "endorsing racial discrimination in education, with the cost to be borne by every American taxpayer." (35) Prominent Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts joined in the chorus of criticism by labeling the new regulations "racist tax subsidies." Some members of Reagan's Justice Department even turned against him. Over one hundred lawyers in the Civil Rights Division signed a letter of protest to William Bradford Reynolds declaring that the new policy "violates existing federal Civil rights laws." When a Justice Department spokesman announced that anyone against the policy was "welcome to leave," over twenty lawyers resigned their positions. (36) The severest criticisms came from African Americans. NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks declared the decision "nothing short of criminal. It opens the door to every racist element in the nation to discriminate against blacks, against women, against Hispanics, and to do it with a subsidy from the Government's pocket." (37)
This uproar caught Reagan and his staff completely off guard and they began scrambling for solutions. For Reagan the issue was deeply personal for he spent much of his political career denying claims that he was a racist. (38) While there is no substantial evidence of overt bigotry on Reagan's part, he consistently took positions or made statements conveying opposition to African Americans and their interests. In the 1960s, for example, he came out against both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming both were unconstitutional. As governor of California he tried to repeal the state's fair housing laws. Contemplating a run for the presidency in 1968 Reagan refused to denounce George Wallace's presidential campaign despite its obvious racial overtones because he wanted to cultivate southern support. Perhaps most egregiously in a campaign speech in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi--where three Civil Rights workers had been kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964--Reagan proclaimed that he "believed in state's rights." (39) His biographer, Lou Cannon, dismisses the racist charge but points out that Reagan never made any effort to be in tune with African American thought as his closest political advisors were always white. Cannon explains, the "president was so cut off from the counsel of black Americans that he sometimes did not even realize when he was offending them." (40) This certainly rang true in his initial decision regarding tax exemptions. But with so many groups making it clear that the reversal of IRS policy was in fact racist, Reagan got the message and decided to change course, even though it would mean offending the conservative Christians who had helped him to victory in 1980.
The first step in rectifying the situation came on 12 January 1982 when Reagan announced that he was submitting legislation to Congress prohibiting "tax exemptions for organizations that discriminate on the basis of race." (41) He maintained that he was not reversing his 8 January announcements, but rather that it had been improper for the IRS, an executive agency, "to govern by administrative fiat," and thus he was submitting the legislation to Congress, because constitutionally they determined the conditions for tax exemptions. Reagan also made it clear that he personally was "unalterably opposed to racial discrimination in any form. I would not knowingly contribute to any organization that supports racial discrimination." (42) He submitted the legislation to Congress six days later. Reagan's action may not have been inconsistent, but his decision to seek a Congressional ban on tax exemptions for racially discriminatory schools represented a clear slap in the face to the Christian Right. While the 1980 Republican Party platform had only promised to "halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta" of the Carter administration, for conservative Christians this meant that the government would not intrude on any biblically based policies of private institutions.
Reagan probably did not relish having to break this campaign promise, but his reversal made clear political sense. Had he done nothing and stuck with the original plan of reinstating BJU's tax exemption, he would have risked offending many moderate whites responsible for his election. Given that the public outcry came from beyond just the African American community, it must have been clear to the administration that many of its constituents regarded Reagan's initial support of BJU as racist. From the standpoint of his advisors, having a racist label placed on the president was tantamount to political suicide. As David Whitman has argued, the need for immediate legislation "seems to have been sparked by a deep personal sensitivity, shared among senior White House aides, than an indictment of racism, however unmerited, was intolerable both for them and the President." (43) Moreover, in only his second year in office Reagan still faced many future legislative battles over the economy, the military, and other important social issues to the Christian Right like abortion and school prayer. Remaining embroiled in this public relations nightmare stood only to hurt Reagan.
Reagan also had little to fear that the Christian Right would pull its support, even over an issue as important as tax exemptions. The Christian Right lacked the strength to go it alone in elections with their own candidate, and they could not turn to the Democratic Party who showed little sympathy for a socially conservative agenda. Thus, if conservative Christians wanted to remain politically active with the hope of fulfilling some of their agenda, they had to continue supporting Reagan. Undoubtedly, Reagan's advisors knew this and acted accordingly.
Reagan's reversal did anger many conservative Christians, but few leveled their resentment at him publicly. In many cases Christian Right and fundamentalist publications like The Evangelical Methodist, the Plains Baptist Challenger, or Christian News held "government bureaucrats," the liberal media, or the moderate elements of the administration (like Vice President George Bush) responsible for the legislation. These publications rarely blamed Reagan specifically, but instead defended BJU's ban on interracial dating in the context of first amendment protections of religious practice. (44) When Reagan received blame, it was for being misguided and influenced by what Bob Sumner, the managing editor of The Sword of the Lord, identified as the "humanists, secularists and real racists [who] created an explosive protest that must have measured a '10' on the Richter scale." (45)
One man, however, who did not shy away from criticizing Reagan, was Bob Jones III, the president of BJU. At one point Jones called Reagan a "traitor to God's people," who under panic had "sent a bill to Congress to destroy Bob Jones University." He also extended this criticism to George Bush, whom he called "that devil." (46) Curiously though, Jones in April 1982 actually praised the proposed legislation, arguing that the government should deny tax exemptions for racially discriminatory schools. He contended that the legislation would not involve BJU because its ban on interracial dating was not discriminatory in that it affected whites and blacks equally. He also cited the Bible in defense of the school's policy. This statement suggests that Jones attempted to put the best spin on the new legislation, for surely he must have known that a ban on interracial dating would be considered discriminatory under the language of the proposed legislation. (47)
Why did the Christian Right not come out stronger against Reagan regarding the proposed legislation? There are several reasons. First, it must be remembered, of course, that the Christian Right, including the fundamentalist community, was quite diverse and filled with great rivalry and competition among its more prominent members. For example, in 1980 Bob Jones Jr. (son of the founder of the university and father of the current university president) called Moral Majority founder Reverend Jerry Falwell "the most dangerous man in America today as far as biblical Christianity is concerned." Jones argued that the Moral Majority, by reaching out to other religions, including Catholicism, Judaism and Mormonism, was building "the world church of Antichrist." (48) Other fundamentalists, in fact, disagreed with Jones's interpretation that the Bible banned the mixing of races. Ed Hinson, an associate dean of the School of Religion at Liberty Baptist College (founded by Jerry Falwell) argued that "in defending Bob Jones we would need to be very clear that we are not defending their position." (49) Despite these differences conservative Christians still backed BJU against the IRS because they believed in the right to practice religion based on the tenets of the Bible free from federal interference. (50)
The Christian Right's refrain from criticizing Reagan can also be explained in the context of the movement's long-term political considerations. If they had come out strongly against Reagan personally, he might have placed their socially conservative agenda on the permanent back burner. As important as the tax exemption issue was for many conservative Christians, particularly hard-core fundamentalists in the Bob Jones mold, for Christian Right leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson--the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the religious news show The 700 Club--abortion and school prayer represented higher priorities. These leaders, despite being relative political neophytes, must have recognized that they had limited political options because only the Republican Party showed an interest in their agenda. Second, despite Reagan's reversal on the Bob Jones case, he showed no other signs of abandoning the Christian Right's cause. Thus, conservative Christians had no reason to give up hope that Reagan might come through for them on other issues. Indeed, their attacks on the more liberal elements of the administration and the media seem to reflect a genuine belief on the part of conservative Christians of where true blame stood for the Bob Jones fiasco.
In the weeks following the 12 January announcement, events did not improve for the administration or BJU. When Reagan submitted his legislation to Congress, he authorized the reinstatement of BJU's and Goldsboro Schools' tax exemptions pending the passage of the legislation, after which the two schools would owe all back taxes. Congress made no move toward considering Reagan's new legislation because many representatives agreed with the IRS's stance and believed new legislation to that effect was irrelevant. Meanwhile, on 19 February 1982, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took the case out of the administration's hands completely by prohibiting the Treasury Department from granting the two schools tax exemptions. (51) The decision created a new dilemma for the administration because the court took the pressure off Congress to decide on the legislation and intimated that the tax exemption issue was still relevant with respect to the Supreme Court. (52)
The court ruling forced the administration's hand. Realizing that the case would probably go before the Supreme Court, the Justice Department began writing legal briefs arguing against the right of the IRS to withhold tax exemptions from schools practicing racial discrimination, while at the same time contending that Congressional legislation to this effect would be constitutional. This presented still another problem for the administration because they supported part of BJU's stance, and thus had to argue against their own (IRS) policy.
On 25 February the Justice Department petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the cases, and in an uncommon move on their part, asked the Court to select a third party to argue the IRS's position that it had a legal right to withhold tax exemptions. (53) Two months later the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and appointed William T. Coleman, a former secretary of Transportation and the chairman of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to submit a brief in defense of the IRS's position. (54)
On 12 October 1982 the Bob Jones case made it to the Supreme Court. At issue was an interpretation of the Internal Revenue code stating that tax exemptions would be granted to "organizations operated exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes." (55) The nondiscriminatory policy adopted by the IRS in 1970 modified this interpretation of the tax code by making it mandatory that organizations receiving tax exemptions demonstrate that they are "charitable" in the common-law sense. This meant that the practices of such organizations had to conform to public policy, which by the early 1970s included prohibiting racial discrimination.
William Bradford Reynolds handled the administration's case and asserted, along with the lawyers for BJU and Goldsboro, that there existed no basis in law for the IRS to define "charitable" in that sense. William Ball, BJU's attorney, contended that the racial policies of the two schools were based on their religious convictions and that it was an "egregious offense to religious liberty" for the IRS to make a university choose between its religious tenets and tax exemptions. (56) William Coleman countered these arguments by pointing out that Congress had done nothing to overrule the IRS's nondiscrimination policy when given the opportunity, thus implying its consent. He noted how in 1976 Congress specifically amended tax policy to reverse a lower court decision allowing tax exemptions for private clubs practicing racial discrimination. (57) The Supreme Court took over seven months to issue its ruling. On 24 May 1983, in a vote of eight to one, with only Justice William Rehnquist dissenting, the Court ruled against the two schools (ordering that they pay the back taxes plus interest) and upheld the right of the IRS to deny tax exemptions to schools with racially discriminatory policies. (58)
The decision represented a slight defeat for Reagan, but a much greater one for the Christian Right. Not surprisingly, in their coverage of the decision, conservative Christians lashed out at the Supreme Court. The Biblical Evangelist ran the headline, "IRS Wins 'Hunting License'! Supreme Court Grants 'Open Season' on Fundamentalist Schools and Churches!" (59) Other fundamentalist publications spoke of the killing of "religious freedom in the United States" and how the IRS and Supreme Court "teamed up to force the establishment of religion." (60) Jerry Falwell called the decision a "broad-brushed attack on religious liberty." (61) BJU, which flew its flags at half-mast following the decision, published a pamphlet later that year entitled The Bomb and Its Fallout. According to the pamphlet, "shock waves from the bomb dropped on Bob Jones University by the Supreme Court will eventually reach all Christian Schools, parochial schools, churches, and other American religious institutions." (62) Reagan's decision to have the Justice Department argue nominally in favor of BJU's position during the case shielded the administration from this criticism. Conservative Christians had either forgotten or forgiven Reagan for his proposed legislation on tax exemptions that would have had the same effect as the Supreme Court decision. (63) In the end, Reagan did not Jose support from tile Christian Right because of the Bob Jones case, but it would be incorrect to say, as Dan Carter has maintained, that the incident "in the long run provided a political boost," by pushing conservative Christians more into the Republican camp. (64) The Christian Right continued supporting Reagan in spite of, not because of, his handling of the Bob Jones case.
The Christian Right's frustration with the Reagan administration extended beyond the tax exemption issue. Throughout 1982 and 1983 Reagan repeatedly demonstrated that he was not going to push for the Christian Right's agenda with the same strength as he gave to tax cuts and increased military spending. For example: when the Senate debated two proposed antiabortion constitutional amendments in August 1982, Oregon Republican Senator Robert Packwood led a strong filibuster against it. Reagan did intervene to urge other Republican Senators to maneuver to bring cloture on the filibuster, but he did so only after pressure from conservative activist Morton Blackwell. Despite these efforts the cloture votes failed and the proposed amendments never came to a vote before the entire Senate chamber. According to Don Critchlow, this "became the last serious attempt within the Reagan administration to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe." (65)
The Christian Right fared little better on school prayer. In May 1982 Reagan submitted a proposed constitutional amendment to reinstate organized prayer in public schools, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the proposal in both 1982 and 1983. As with abortion, Reagan for the most part stayed out of the political fight. (66) According to Ralph Reed, one of the later founders of the Christian Coalition, White House promises of "direct involvement of President Reagan in strong-arming wavering voters ... was all a mirage. The votes were never there, the battle was purely political theater." (67) When the Senate did vote on the proposed amendment in late 1983, it fell eleven votes short of passage. As Reed explained years later, "religious conservatives had been rolled by the White House and didn't even know it." (68) As with abortion, Reagan never pursued a school prayer amendment again for the rest of his administration.
Despite his failures to advance their agenda, conservative Christians did not withdraw support for Reagan. In the 1984 presidential election they cast 80 percent of their votes for Reagan, helping him to rout Democrat Walter Mondale. (69) Why did conservative Christians so overwhelmingly support Reagan in 1984 and to this day continue to remember him fondly? (70) Given their political options, Reagan still represented the best hope for future advancement of their agenda. As sociologist William Martin concluded, "Reagan might not be perfect, but they needed him more than he needed them, and both he and the Religious Right knew it." (71) Political scientist Duane Oldfield is correct, however, in pointing out that although Reagan produced few legislative victories for the Christian Right, the rhetorical support he offered was more than any previous president. According to Oldfield, "after 'years of isolation,' recognition for evangelical leaders and the subculture they represented was an important goal in and of itself. To affirm that evangelicals were no longer a fringe group but had instead been accepted into the halls of power was no small feat." (72) Additionally, Reagan's anticommunist foreign policy initiatives, particularly in Latin America where American Protestant missionaries were heavily concentrated, earned him considerable praise from the Christian Right. (73) Nevertheless, when Reagan's administration ended, the key social agenda of the Christian Right remained unfulfilled.
The Christian Right took away important political lessons from the disappointments of the 1980s. As their experience with the Bob Jones case illustrated, having a sympathetic president like Ronald Reagan did not guarantee that their political expectations would be satisfied. When push came to shove, Reagan abandoned conservative Christians on the tax exemption issue, and there was nothing they could do to stop him. Recognizing the relative limits of their political power, conservative Christians at the end of the 1980s refocused their energies on forming a strong grassroots political movement. Through the formation of new organizations like the Christian Coalition, Christian Right leaders like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed concentrated on getting conservative Christians involved at the local level in the Republican Party, where they might be able to have greater influence on future Republican nominees at the local, state, and national level. (74) The effect of this has been to further entrench the Christian Right within the Republican Party. Since the 1980s conservative Christians have wielded tremendous influence over party nominations and national platforms, and their movement is largely credited with the GOP's capture of both Houses of Congress in 1994. And although the Christian Right continues to struggle on abortion and school prayer, their switch to a more grassroots style politics has moved them closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party. (75) As a result, the Christian Right may eventually break out of its status as a "captured group" forcing Republican Party leaders to pursue actively the socially conservative agenda and not take the conservative Christian vote for granted as they did during the 1980s.
(1.) New York Times, 9 January 1982, 10 January 1982, 19 January 1982, 26 February 1982; Washington Post, 11 January 1982, 25 May 1983.
(2.) Scholars tend to use terms like Religious Right, conservative Christians, born-again Christians, Christian Right, and Evangelicals almost interchangeably. To avoid confusion I will just use Christian Right and conservative Christians by which I refer to conservatives whose religious faith informs and shapes their political ideology. At other points in the article I use the term fundamentalist as a distinction from the Christian Right. I define fundamentalists as conservative Christians whose faith is based on an intractable belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. To be sure fundamentalists are a part of the Christian Right, but not all members of the Christian Right are fundamentalists.
(3.) Dan Carter, Kenneth O'Reilly, Wilbur Edel, and Ronnie Dugger all argue that Reagan's initial decision to support BJU reflected an explicit attempt to exploit racial divisions in the country in order to solidify conservative or white fundamentalist support for his administration. Lou Cannon, Lawrence Barrett, David Whitman, and Raymond Wolters challenge this assertion, arguing that Reagan was largely unaware of the racial dimensions of the case. Instead they contend that the decision reflects the administration's belief that the IRS had overstepped its bounds in revoking the tax exemptions, because Congress had not specifically modified the tax code to provide for such a revocation. Additionally, they have interpreted the decision within the context of Reagan's desire to limit government regulation. See Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996); Kenneth O'Reilly, Nixon's Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: The Free Press, 1995); Wilbur Edel, The Reagan Presidency: An Actor's Finest Performance (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1992); Ronnie Dugger, On Reagan: The Man and His Presidency (New York: McGraw Hill Company, 1983); Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, revised ed. (New York: Public Affairs, 2000); Lawrence I. Barrett, Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1983); David Whitman, Ronald Reagan and Tax Exemptions for Racist Schools (Cambridge: Kennedy School of Government Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, 1984); Raymond Wolters, Right Turn: William Bradford Reynolds, the Reagan Administration, and Black Civil Rights (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996). Walter Capps, The New Religious Right: Piety, Patriotism, and Politics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990) describes the theological rationale for BJU's ban on interracial dating.
(4.) The best overview of the history of the Christian Right is William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1996). For a discussion of the Christian Right's theology and broader political beliefs see Michael Lienesch, Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right: Conservative Protestant Politics in America, 1978-1988 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); Jerome Himinelstein, To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Garry Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990); Mathew C. Moen, The Transformation of the Christian Right (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992); Allen Hertzke, Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988). On the Christian Right's relationship with the Republican Party see Duane Murray Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous: The Christian Right Confronts the Republican Party (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996); Geoffrey Layman, The Great Divide: Religious and Cultural Conflict in American Party Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). Most major early works on the Reagan presidency tend to downplay or largely ignore the relationship between the Christian Right and the Republicans in the 1980s. These include: Lou Cannon, Reagan (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1982); Lou Cannon, President Reagan; Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1987); Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and its President in the 1980s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); William E. Pemberton, Exit with Honor: The Life and Legacy of Ronald Reagan (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (N.Y.: Random House, 1999). This trend started to change with Don Critchlow's "Mobilizing Women: The 'Social Issues'" in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies, eds. W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 293-326. Critchlow discusses the role of social issues in galvanizing female conservative Christians to become more interested in politics and strong supporters of Ronald Reagan. Critchlow, though, does not include the BJU case or the broader tax exemption issue in his discussion.
(5.) For a good discussion of the Christian Right's transformation in the late 1980s and early 1990s see Oldfield, The Right and the Righteous, chapter 6; Martin, With God on Our Side, chapter 12. Other works with a focus on the Christian Right's political experience in the 1990s include Kenneth J. Heineman, God Is a Conservative: Religion, Politics, and Morality in Contemporary America (New York: New York University Press, 1998); Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, Second Coming: The New Christian Right in Virginia Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein, Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996); Justin Watson, The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).
(6.) Paul Frymer, Uneasy Alliance: Race and Party Competition in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 8. Frymer's book focuses on African Americans and draws some comparisons with the Christian Right. Frymer concludes that the Christian Right does not represent a "captured group" because the Democratic Party has not shown that they have no interest in their votes. He cites how Bill Clinton endorsed parts of the Christian Right's agenda by supporting more parental control of telecommunication broadcasts into the home (which became part of the Telecommunications Act signed into law by Clinton in 1996). Only on abortion, according to Frymer, has the Democratic Party distanced itself from the Christian Right. I disagree with Frymer on this point and believe that the Christian Right embodies his definition of a captured group. Clinton's support of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Defense of Marriage Act (which gave individual states the right not to recognize gay marriages performed and recognized in other states) did not represent an effort by the president or the Democratic Party to try to win over Christian Right votes. Rather, Clinton, who was seeking reelection in 1996, was appealing to more moderate voters who were conservative on some social issues but not part of the Christian Right. For Frymer's comparison of African-Americans and the Christian Right see Frymer, Uneasy Alliances, chapter 7.
(7.) Thomas and Mary Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 131-32. British journalist Godfrey Hodgson has suggested that parents bad a number of reasons for sending their children to these schools in the years following the Brown decision that were not necessarily racist. Hodgson argues that "desegregation symbolized the social turmoil and alien values parents saw in the public schools." A study of some of these schools by sociologist Peter Skerry revealed that there was no evidence that they taught or advocated racism. Regardless, Civil Rights groups and later IRS officials believed that that these schools were created to resist desegregation laws and they took appropriate steps to remedy what they believed to be a clear violation of American public policy. See Godfrey Hodgson, The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 171-72.
(8.) Mark Taylor Dalhouse, An Island in the Lake of Fire: Bob Jones University, Fundamentalism, and the Separatist Movement (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996), 156.
(9.) Ibid., 156-57; Whitman, Reagan and Tax-Exemptions, 7.
(10.) Dalhouse, Island in the Lake of Fire, 157-58.
(11.) Layman, The Great Divide, 40-43.
(12.) Hodgson, The World Turned Right Side Up, 176.
(13.) Ibid., 172-77. Hodgson argues that the tax-exemption issue was key to the Christian Right's formation.
(14.) Martin, With God on Our Side, 173. This contention was also supported by Robert Billings who helped Weyrich found the NCAC. In 1979 Billings remarked that "Jerome Kurtz has done more to bring Christians together than any man since the Apostle Paul." See Edsall and Edsall, Chain Reaction, 133.
(15.) For an excellent discussion of the various conservative groups that came together in 1980 to help elect Ronald Reagan see Ted V. McAllister, "Reagan and the Transformation of American Conservatism," in The Reagan Presidency, eds. Brownlee and Graham, 40-60.
(16.) Critchlow, "Social Issues," 301.
(17.) Between January 1975 and October 1979 Reagan gave nearly one thousand radio addresses on important political topics of the day. These addresses along with many newspaper columns that he authored during the same period have been compiled in Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, Reagan in His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). The editors of this volume maintain that Reagan wrote virtually all of the radio addresses and most of the newspaper columns himself and therefore demonstrate his own views on many political issues.
(18.) Ibid., 355.
(19.) Wolters, Right Turn, 475.
(20.) Layman, The Great Divide, 116-17.
(21.) Wolters, Right Turn, 475.
(22.) "Reagan & Bush on the Issues," Bob Jones and Goldsboro Folder, Papers of William Barr (hereafter cited WBP), Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (hereafter cited as RRPL), Simi Valley, California, 59.
(23.) Albert J. Menendez, Evangelicals at the Ballot Box (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), 13942.
(24.) Thad Cochran, John Stennis, Jamie Whitten, David Bowen, G. V. Montgomery, Jon Hinson, Trent Lott to Donald Regan, 26 January 1981, Bob Jones and Goldsboro Folder, WBP, RRPL.
(25.) See also John Ashbrook to Roscoe Egger, 25 February 1981, Bob Jones and Goldsboro Folder, WBP, RRPL.
(26.) Wolters, Right Turn, 469.
(27.) Whitman, Reagan and Tax-Exemptions, 30-33.
(28.) Trent Lott to Donald Regan, 21 December 1981, Bob Jones and Goldsborn Folder, WBP, RRPL. Copy of summary of Lott memorandum to Ronald Reagan with Reagan's comments, attached to Lott's letter to Regan.
(29.) Barrett, Gambling with History, 419. Barrett describes how Lott received his copy of the memorandum almost immediately after Reagan signed off on it, violating standard White House protocol. Normally top-level Reagan advisors would have looked over this memorandum before any official White House action was taken. If this had happened much of the later embarrassment for the administration might have been avoided.
(31.) Peter J. Wallison to Donald Regan, 2.2 December 1981, Bob Jones and Goldsboro Folder, WBP, RRPL.
(32.) Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 56-57; O'Reilly, Nixon's Piano, 370-71.
(33.) Critchlow, "Social Issues," 302.
(34.) New York Times, 9 January 1982.
(35.) Dugger, On Reagan, 213. Another prominent organization that came out against the administration was the Council for American Private Education who stated that "no school should be able to flout the law of the land and most particularly where human rights and dignity are at stake." See Press Release for Council for American Private Education, 11 January 1982, Bob Jones and Goldsboro Folder, WBP, RRPL.
(36.) Dugger, On Reagan, 213; Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 57.
(37.) New York Times, 10 January 1982.
(38.) In his memoirs Reagan remarked that the "myth about myself that has always bothered me most is that I am a bigot who somehow surreptitiously condones racial prejudice." See Ronald Reagan, An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 401-02.
(39.) Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 55; Cannon, Reagan, 162, quote on 270.
(40.) Cannon, President Reagan, 458, quote on 459.
(41.) Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan 1982 (hereafter cited as PPP: RR, 1982), vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1983), 17.
(43.) Whitman, Reagan and Tax Exemptions, 84-85.
(44.) "The Worst Has Happened: Torpedoed when Victory Was in Sight," The Evangelical Methodist 60.3 (March 1982): 1; E. L. Bynum, "'Church Regulation Bill Before Congress,'" Plains Baptist Challenger, April 1982; Christian News, 22 February 1982; Raamie Baker, "A Personal View: The Bob Jones Case," Logan Banner, 21 January 1982.
(45.) Bob Sumner, "Dangerous Proposed Legislation Affecting Christian Schools," The Sword of the Lord, 12 February 1982, 3.
(46.) Chicago Sun-Times, 1 March 1982.
(47.) "Bob Jones Welcomes Proposed Legislation," Moody Monthly, April 1982, 100.
(48.) Dalhouse, An Island in the Lake of Fire, 108.
(49.) "Bob Jones versus Everybody: Its Views on Biblical Separation Are Not Shared by Most Conservative Christian Schools," Christianity Today, 19 February 1982, 26-27.
(50.) Nina J. Easton, Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Crusade (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 128.
(51.) Washington Post, 20 February 1982. The decision actually came via another case, Wright v. Regan, in which African American parents in Mississippi hoped to extend the decision in Green v. Connolly--where the court had prohibited private schools, which practiced racial discrimination, in Mississippi from receiving tax exemptions--to the entire country.
(53.) Washington Post, 26 February 1982. In another unusual action, Lawrence G. Wallace, the acting Solicitor General for the Bob Jones case, filed the brief on the part of the Justice Department on 26 February but indicated in a footnote that he did not agree with the administration's current position. Wallace had written the original brief that was submitted to the court in September 1981 before the Reagan administration had intervened. He believed that the IRS did have a right to deny tax exemptions on the basis of racial discrimination. See Washington Post, 27 February 1982.
(54.) Washington Post, 22 April 1982.
(55.) New York Times, 13 October 1982.
(58.) Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983).
(59.) "IRS Wins 'Hunting License'! Supreme Court Grants 'Open Season' on Fundamentalist Schools and Churches!" The Biblical Evangelist, 24 June 1983.
(60.) M. L. Moser, "Supreme Court Kills Religions Freedom in the United States," The Baptist Challenge 35.7 (July 1983): 1; E. L. Bynum, "Court Strikes Blow Against Freedom," Plains Baptist Challenger, June 1983, 3; "Freedom of Religion in the United States!!!! How About Bob Jones University????" Maranatha!!!! 20.9 (August 1983): 1.
(61.) The Birmingham News, 3 June 1983.
(62.) The Bomb and Its Fallout: Bob Jones University L: United States, U.S. Supreme Court Decision, May 24 1983 (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University, 1983), 3.
(63.) The only publication to recognize that Reagan's legislation would have had the same effect as the Supreme Court decision was Human Events, a conservative weekly magazine that does not have any religious affiliation. See "Reagan Administration Betrays Christian Schools," Human Events (10 September 1983): 1.
(64.) Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich, 57.
(65.) Critchlow, "Social Issues," 302-04, quote on 304.
(66.) For a good discussion of the debate over the proposed prayer amendment see Joan DelFattore, The Fourth R: Conflict over Religion in America's Public Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 189-98.
(67.) Ralph Reed, Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 117.
(69.) Menedez, Evangelicals at the Ballot Box, 143.
(70.) Ralph Reed, speaking for many conservative Christians has said, "We deeply admired and loved Ronald Reagan, who would always remain our hero for his devotion to our values." See Reed, Active Faith, 124.
(71.) Martin, With God on our Side, 235.
(72.) Oldfield, The Right and Righteous, 120-21.
(73.) Lienesch, Redeeming America, 211.
(74.) For a description of tile formation of the Christian Coalition and the Christian Right's move reward a more grassroots approach see Martin, With God on Our Side, chapter 12; Watson, Christian Coalition, chapter 4.
(75.) Layman, The Great Divide, 339-41.
Aaron Haberman is a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina. The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge the following people for their comments and suggestions at various points during this project: Patrick Maney, Dan Carter, Kendrick Clements, Duane Oldfield, Eric Cheezum, Jacob Blosser, Adam Mack, Cheryl Wells, Keri Dunphy, Kathleen Paul, and the editorial staff of The Historian, as well as the journal's anonymous reviewers.
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