Confidently crusading BJU is latest S.C. symbol in crossfire

Confidently crusading BJU is latest S.C. symbol in crossfire
The State
Staff Writer

When Bob Dole wanted to court religious conservatives during the 1996 presidential primaries, he stopped by Bob Jones University on a swing through the Upstate.

President Bob Jones III — grandson of the school’s founder — delivered the benediction for a Dole fund-raiser, asking God to allow the election of a moral man who would shun the “freaks and the foolish.” Texan Phil Gramm stopped by, too, during his abortive campaign.  In both cases, nobody raised a peep — certainly nothing like the national roar after the Feb. 2 visit of GOP candidate George W. Bush tothe fundamentalist Christian campus.

Supporters of Bush opponent John McCain used the visit to prod Catholics to the polls in Michigan, helping McCain win there. A U.S. senator has urged the Senate to condemn bigotry and discrimination “such as (that) prevalent at Bob Jones University.” And a S.C. state senator plans to
make another attempt to strip state scholarship money from Bob Jones students.

The furor has raised a host of political and religious questions. Has the religious and political atmosphere changed so much since Dole’s visit that a trek to Bob Jones is now a national issue?

Or has Bob Jones University changed in its beliefs, making it more of an issue?

Other questions center around the relationship between the controversial school and South Carolina.

Does the frenzied repudiation of Bush’s visit give the state yet another black eye in the national media?

And is Bob Jones’ rock-ribbed conservatism — denounced as racist by critics — seen as representing South Carolina’s beliefs?

‘Special interest this year.’ Politically, observers say, a lot has changed between Dole’s 1996 visit to Greenville’s BJU and Bush’s journey earlier this month. However, both politicians went to Bob Jones for the same reason.

In both 1996 and 2000, Republican presidential candidates were devout in wooing South Carolina’s religious right.

When Bush visited, he held hands in a prayer chain that included Jones III and former S.C. Gov. David Beasley.

“Holding hands makes the ‘crime’ a little bit worse” for some who watched the news of Bush’s visit, deadpanned Kevin Lewis, a USC professor who studies the effect of religion on the South’s history and politics.

Lewis speculates the intense interest in Bush’s visit — as opposed to the silence in ’96 — is because the 2000 S.C. GOP primary simply drew more national interest.

Observers considered South Carolina a pivotal state in the early GOP primaries.

“There was special interest this year — more so than ever — so anything anyone did” drew more attention, Lewis says.

The focus on South Carolina was only intensified by the ongoing debate over the Confederate flag flying over the S.C. State House.

That, too, has become a national campaign issue, says Lewis.

And like the flag, Bush’s visit took on larger-than-life implications. Says Lewis, “It’s symbolism. You can play with symbolism different ways.”

The national media glare

“God has separated people for his own purpose. (He) has made people different from one another and intends those differences to remain. …Of course, we realize that this is a controversial position and that there are many fine Christians who disagree with us on it. We recognize the right of other Christians to hold differing views; we only hope that they will recognize the sincerity and love with which we hold ours.” –letter to applicant James Landrith from Bob Jones representative Jonathan Pait, August 1998, in which the university told Landrith he could attend if he left his black wife behind.

If interest in the S.C GOP primary changed this year, Bob Jones University and the opinions of its leaders have not.

The Bobs Jones — the evangelist original; his namesake son, grandson and great-grandsons; and his university — have been unfailingly consistent in their fundamentalist religious and political beliefs.

For example, the school lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 because of its ban on interracial dating.

But if many across America find the school’s beliefs un-Christian or even odious — Catholics are cultists and the pope dangerous; the races should remain separate because God wants them that way — the one party that seems least eager to clear the air is Bob Jones University itself.

Since the Bush brouhaha, the university has refused reporters’ requests for interviews and limited the already restrictive public access to its 200-acre campus.

“I’m sorry,” says Mary Shamblin, secretary to public information officer Pait. “We’re just referring to our statement … that’s on our Web site.”

That statement says the national media are using “Bob Jones University as a whipping boy” and lauds Bush because he has not “caved in” to media pressure to apologize for his visit.

Some at Bob Jones must wonder whether it really matters what they say. For example, Jones III called last October for moving the racially divisive Confederate flag from atop the S.C. State House. But that call for harmony — Jones cited Christian tenets against offending one’s brethren — received little, if any, national attention.

In the words of Terry Haskins, S.C.’ s House speaker pro tem and a Bob Jones graduate, “People draw whatever conclusions they want” when it comes to Bob Jones.

As for the content of recent national media reports: “Of course, it isn’t fair,” Haskins says. “It’s absurd.”

David Shi, president of cross-town Furman University, has little to say about Bob Jones’ positions. It would be inappropriate to comment on a fellow institution, he says. He downplays the controversy surrounding Bush and Bob Jones, saying only that the frenzy of the current campaign “has put Bob Jones in the glare of the national media spotlight more than usual.”

However, the school never has been bashful about stating its beliefs. In 1998, for instance, the school’s leaders came out against “devilish” concerts at Greenville’s Bi-Lo Center (Pearl Jam and Janet Jackson among them). And in 1999, it lobbied against a referendum to allow Sunday liquor sales in Greenville County.

‘An island unto itself’

“This school is the work of the Lord God, and it exists against all human odds. … When you walk onto the campus you have entered a miracle. … The supernatural power of God brought the university into existence in 1927 — and sustains it until this hour.” –letter to prospective students from President Bob Jones III on the school’s Web site

At first blush, says USC’s Lewis, it makes sense that Bob Jones is in the Upstate.

The Upstate prides itself on its predominantly conservative, family values. It’s tough to drive anywhere without spotting at least one billboard warning of the possibility of hell or extolling God’s great love.

But Bob Jones University does not define South Carolina, Lewis says. In fact, the school really has little to do with the state as a whole. “If … it’s not serving many of our kids (as students), then it’s likeHilton Head — it’s not part of our state … it’s an island untoitself,” Lewis says.

Bob Jones serves few S.C. students. Eighty-one percent of the university’s 3,500 full-time students come from outside South Carolina. The university itself was in Florida and Tennessee before coming to the Upstate in 1947, when the city of Greenville offered it free land.

Even critics of the school say elements of the current attention are unfair.

“Other people are judging South Carolina (based on Bob Jones), and that’s unfortunate,” says James Landrith, who stirred up his own publicity in 1998 by submitting an application to Bob Jones that he
never intended to follow up.

Landrith, a white man whose wife is black, used correspondence from BobJones to publicize the school’s longstanding bans on interracial dating and marriage, achieving some national notoriety.

“I don’t judge the state based on BJU — not a bit,” says Landrith, who now lives in Virginia.

The sometimes politically incorrect Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, agreed — more colorfully, of course. “Bob Jones reflects off South Carolinians to the extent that David
Koresh represented Texas for Texans,” says Harpootlian, calling it unfortunate that “we’ve been defined as Bob Jones and the Confederate flag.”

Others, however, say South Carolina should take a stand on Bob Jones. State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, hopes to revive a bill to strip state scholarships from Bob Jones students.

“They have to take a stand one way or the other,” Jackson says of his fellow legislators. “In light of what has happened recently, I am more optimistic (that the bill will pass).”

Passage of his bill would “be more than just a South Carolina story,” Jackson says. “That’s exactly what I plan to say: If we take no action, what we are saying is that Bob Jones represents us.

“We’ve reached a point now, with this being played in a larger arena, that South Carolina has to send a message,” he says.

‘Way out of step’ and proud

Not all, however, are hostile to the school.

In 1998, for instance, the Greenville County Council voted to set aside $28,000 in hotel tax money to improve the entrance to the university’s art museum. The county justified the expense by saying the museum is a strong tourism draw.

And, despite Jackson’s previous, failed efforts, the state also pays for $679,000 in scholarships for Bob Jones students.

The school also has graduated a cadre of S.C. leaders, including four members of the S.C. House of Representatives, the state’s most prominent political writer, a U.S. congressman and a U.S. senator.

Another graduate is Jim Hudgins, head of the S.C. technical education system. Hudgins received three degrees from Bob Jones and one from Furman. Hudgins does not wear his academic credentials on his sleeve — those around him sometimes profess surprise at his ties to Bob Jones —
but he does not repudiate them, either.

Hudgins does, though, make it clear he “no longer endorse(s) the narrow view of Christianity that is expressed in the quotes from Dr. Bob Jones Jr.,” the father of Jones III, about the need to separate the races.

Haskins, the S.C. House’s second-ranking leader, is more vocal.

“I’ve never had to distance myself from BJU,” Haskins says. But he has “at times, made it clear when I disagree with a policy,” as he does with the ban on interracial dating.

“Bob Jones University is an institution devoted to teaching fundamentalist Christian faith,” Haskins says. “The media is concentrating its efforts on one dating rule that is not even an issue on campus.”

Bob Jones is “way out of step with current societal mores. (But) this is a private institution, a tax-paying institution … and nobody goes there under a court order,” Haskins says, so the university has a right to its ideas.

Christine Schweickert reports about the state’s colleges and universities. Call her at (803) 771-8488 or (800) 288-2727; send e-mail to \n

Copyright 2000 The State

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