Into the Wilderness: Ronald Reagan, Bob Jones University, and the Political Education of the Christian Right

By Haberman, Aaron | The Historian, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Into the Wilderness: Ronald Reagan, Bob Jones University, and the Political Education of the Christian Right


Haberman, Aaron, The Historian


ON FRIDAY, 8 January 1982, officials from the United States Treasury Department announced that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would no longer deny tax exemptions to private schools practicing racially discriminatory policies, arguing that Congress had not given the IRS this specific authority. That same day the Justice Department informed the Supreme Court--which was preparing to hear a case involving two fundamentalist Christian schools, Bob Jones University (BJU) of Greenville, South Carolina and Goldsboro Christian Schools of Goldsboro, North Carolina, suing the IRS to reinstate their tax-exempt status--that the case no longer needed to be tried because the new government policy rendered the issue moot. The announcements appeared to mark the end of a decade long odyssey for BJU, which had been battling the IRS over the right to ban interracial dating on its campus while still enjoying a tax exemption. Rather than settle the issue, however, the new government policies provoked a firestorm of criticism from the American public, forcing the Reagan administration first to initiate Congressional action to revoke the newly restored tax exemptions and then to ask the Supreme Court to settle the matter once and for all. In May 1983 the Supreme Court ruled eight to one in favor of the IRS's authority to deny the tax exemptions. (1)

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. …

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