There is an interesting article in Politico that demonstrates how Oral Roberts University’s history is different than other conservative Christian universities on racial justice. In the article, Professor Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College notes that one of the galvanizing issues that helped to eventually form the religious right of the 1980s was the debate over religious freedom issues related to racial integration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The story goes that when when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and set the course for school de-segregation, the decision was primarily enforced in the public sector. That was until the 1971 Green vs. Connally decision, when the government began to enforce a new rule: religious organizations who did not integrate their private Christian schools would lose their tax exempt status. As Balmer notes, “The Green v. Connally ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leaders , especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related ‘segregation academies’.”
This decision led to pushback by two conservative Christian schools who openly rejected this mandate: notably Bob Jones University and Liberty University. When Bob Jones University received the questionnaire, they defiantly replied that they would not admit black students. Liberty University led by Jerry Falwell was also furious that the government would intervene in religious liberty matters. They were more concerned about government overreach into religious life and the threat of liberalism than the moral issue of racial equality. Ultimately they chose religious rights over civil rights. They used their conservative beliefs and their Christianity to establish themselves on the wrong side of the tide of racial equality in America. But eventually, both schools reluctantly complied and accepted black students, to various degrees of success, as the article shows.
The response of Oral Roberts University to this government mandate on Christian schools was quite different. While admittedly a conservative Pentecostal Christian, Oral Roberts did not see equality as a political or cultural issue; it was a moral issue that flowed from his faith. As I point out in my article “Healing for all Races,” despite the objection from people in the church, Roberts spent his whole ministry career advocating for blacks in America by integrating his healing meetings. He also intentionally modeled this value on television in 1968, praying hand in hand with Mahalia Jackson in prime time during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
But for Oral Roberts, it was through ORU that his vision was given full expression. Although ORU was tabbed as a “School for Squares” by the local press for its conservative moral standards, the issue of racial equality was never in question at ORU. When the Washington D.C. officials called to ask Roberts his position on accepting blacks at ORU, Roberts responded,
“Well, let me give you the bigger policy. ORU is established in three ways. First, to be international. Second to be interdenominational. And third to be interracial.”
Considering how other Christian universities responded, the official at first didn’t believe him and asked him again. Roberts replied, “Didn’t you hear what I said? Whether we get any federal funds or not we will be international, interdenominational, and interracial.” Oral’s vision was bigger than Liberty and Bob Jones. He saw racial equality as a fundamental pillar of ORU, rather than a threat to its role as a Christian University. Oral Roberts was a conservative, but he was not a Fundamentalist like these other universities. He was not afraid to acknowledge that racial inequality existed on the institutional level. For Roberts, this was not a conservative vs. liberal issue. Racial justice was a Christian and moral issue.
Roberts believed that ORU would be a place where students, regardless of color or background, could be truly equal and have equal opportunities to succeed. Of course, many times the university fell short of that goal. But, the university worked to actively recruit black students and implement programs to help black students because they knew American education did not provide equal opportunities.
Roberts’ empathy toward the experience of blacks in America also led him to do yearly “Black Awareness Weeks” on the campus where black students could share their experiences to build empathy in white students about justice issues. These values and ORU’s reputation led Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson to declare at the ORU Graduation in 1978,
“ORU has the opportunity to be the first University in America to establish an educational community where people from around the world can come here and say that you will be judged totally by the content of your character rather than the color of your skin.”
Jackson encouraged ORU to accept the challenge of leadership and moral authority to become an example of racial equality. I believe ORU has done that. Not perfectly, but as a Christian University, ORU has maintained its conservative Christian commitment while valuing racial equality. Today, the ORU campus is majority non-white, a result of the legacy of equality and justice that Roberts helped establish.
There are some conservative Christians today who are concerned about the implications of the racial moment that America faces. Oral Roberts demonstrated that being a conservative Christian should include taking up the cause of justice and equality for black Americans. While Bob Jones and Liberty used their Christianity to fight against justice for black Americans in the name of religious liberty, Roberts saw his Christianity as the source for standing up for racial justice. I pray that conservative Christians (including myself) will learn from history and Oral Roberts’ courage to work for even greater racial equality in our world today.