Bob Jones University: A History

Bob Jones University, in Greenville SC, is probably the best-known fundamentalist Christian “Bible college” in the US. For almost 100 years, it has been a bastion of bigotry and intolerance, and its fortunes have mirrored those of the Religious Right as a whole.


Bob Jones University campus, Greenville SC

The United States has always had a conservative religious bent, a consequence of the historical circumstances which led to many of the early American colonies being founded by religious sects who rejected what they saw as the “liberalism” of the Church of England and who moved to British North America in order to form their own little theocracies (the Puritans did not come here to avoid religious intolerance, they came here to practice it). When the United States Constitution, with its guarantees of religious freedom and its abolition of religious tests for political office, went into effect in 1789, most of the conservative Christian sects withdrew from active involvement in politics, preferring to focus on religious proselytizing.

That began to change in the first years of the 20th century. In the 1890’s and 1900’s, several church denominations began to preach what they called the “Social Gospel”, which called Christians to become involved with social programs to improve living conditions for the poor and make life better for people–including support for the labor union movement and the women’s suffrage movement. These policies were horrifying to the conservatives, who viewed them as the communistic work of the Devil. At the same time, large advances were being made in science, especially the biology of evolution, which conservatives viewed as undermining the authority of the Bible. In response to these trends, the conservative churches decided that they had to become involved with the political process and gain power to fight against the social liberals.

The movement got its name from a series of pamphlets published in 1910, titled simply “The Fundamentals”. The “fundamentalists” embraced the literal inerrancy of the Bible (as they interpreted it), rejected the “Social Gospel”, and quite literally viewed the United States as God’s favored nation. They opposed the teaching of evolution in schools, opposed labor organizations and supported laissez-faire capitalism, opposed voting rights for women, and supported racial segregation. The fundamentalists waged a systametic campaign to infiltrate and take over as many theological seminaries and churches as possible and purge them of “liberals”. In the political sphere, their most famous success was the passing of “monkey laws” which outlawed the teaching of evolution. But despite their political successes, the fundamentalists never had real popular support, and the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, over one of their anti-evolution laws, turned them into laughingstocks. By the end of the 20’s, the fundamentalist movement was all but dead, and had retreated from the political arena into the safety of its own little bubble of friendly seminaries and private Bible colleges.

One of these was in Florida. In September 1927, a fundamentalist preacher named Bob Jones Sr opened a “Bible college” in Panama City FL. A friend of anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan, Jones wanted to form a fundamentalist alternative to the secular education system, which he viewed as liberal and anti-Christian. To emphasize its separation from the secular world, Jones refused to seek any accreditation for his “college”, leaving him free to set his own course materials and teach whatever fundamentalist propaganda he liked. All of the 88 students were required to attend daily religious services in the chapel, to hear fundamentalist sermons by Jones. Jones was particularly keen on preaching against Catholics, who he called “Satanic counterfeits”.

By 1933 the College was in financial difficulties, and moved to Cleveland TN. It continued to struggle until the post-WW2 GI Bill, which paid for the college education of ex-soldiers. Many of these chose to take the “private religious school” route, and this doubled the size of Bob Jones College’s student body. Jones now needed a bigger campus, and moved to Greenville SC, where he built a number of dormitories for students (some of them named after local Ku Klux Klan supporters who also sat on the Board of Directors). Now dubbed “Bob Jones University”, the school tried to attact new students with intramural sports teams and with post-grad “degrees”.

The fundamentalist movement, meanwhile, continued to hibernate. While some members of the movement flirted with support for Senator Joe McCarthy’s witchhunt, the far-right John Birch Society, and segregationist campaigns by Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, the fundamentalists for the most part kept out of politics.

That changed in the 1960’s. Not only were the fundamentalists vehemently opposed to the entire 1960’s “peace and love” generation and all of its social goals, but there were a number of Supreme Court decisions during this time that specifically motivated the fundamentalists to form political movements to counter them. The first of these was the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision, which outlawed segregated schools. While a large number of churches supported and encouraged the civil rights movement, the fundamentalist wing actively opposed it–and indeed many of the private “Christian schools” that appeared in the South at this time were a direct response to the Brown ruling (since the Supreme Court’s ruling did not apply to private schools, the fundamentalists were free to continue to have segregated schools). Another decision that galvanized the fundamentalists was the 1962 Engel v Vitale ruling that outlawed sponsored prayer in schools. And finally in 1973 came the Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortions. It was at that point that the fundamentalists realized that if they wanted to fight back, they had to gain a significant level of political influence.

During the 1960’s, the most active opposition to socially progressive movements like the civil rights campaign were the Democratic politicians in the South, the so-called “Dixiecrats”. In the 1968 elections, Richard Nixon deftly took advantage of this split by appealing to the unrepentent segregationists to leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans, where they would receive more support. It was known as the “Southern Strategy”. And it included the fundamentalists.

The fundamentalists made a brief overture to the Democratic Party, though, when Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy in the 1976 election.  Carter was not only a Southern Baptist, but was one of the first Presidential candidates to talk openly about his religious feelings and about being “born again”. These were things that had always been a part of evangelical religion, and the fundamentalists made the assumption that Carter was “one of them”, and that he might be their ticket to national political influence. Unfortunately for the fundamentalists, however, Carter was also a deeply-committed practitioner of the “Social Gospel”, and he and the radical evangelicals were entirely incompatible. So after the 1976 elections, the fundamentalists turned to the Republican Party instead. As it happened, the far-right wing of the Republican Party, represented by Ronald Reagan, was at that very time looking for political allies. And the fundamentalist Christian movement fit the bill perfectly.

For a time, the melding of the Republican party and the Religious Right was a winning combination. The Reagan revolution placed conservative politics in power for the next 35 years. Fundamentalist religious figures like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones became virtual kingmakers. The Religious Right essentially became a vote-delivery machine for the Republican Party; there was no other political constituency in the United States that was as well-organized, as well-funded, as loyally devoted, or as highly motivated as the fundamentalist Christians. The fundamentalist movement was capable of raising massive amounts of money for Republican coffers, had a very well-run media and communications system that could reach every one of its members with a specific political message, and it could insure that every one of its members voted for all the approved “godly” Republican candidates. There were estimates that the fundamentalist Christian network delivered about one-third of the total votes cast for Republican candidates throughout the 80’s.

During this time, Bob Jones Sr died and was replaced in the family business by his son Bob Jones Jr. Like his father, Jones Jr was an unrepentant segregationist and anti-modernist. The “University” had always excluded African-American students and supported Jim Crow segregation in the South, arguing that “God’s Law” required “boundaries” between the races. As a privately-owned school, BJU was not subject to the Brown v Board of Ed decision, and could not be integrated by court order. In 1970, however, the IRS decided to step in, and ruled that any private school in the US which practiced “racially discriminatory admissions policies” would have its tax-exempt status revoked. That put BJU squarely in its sights, and the Feds quickly announced that the “University” was no longer tax-exempt, and owed almost $1 million in back taxes. In response, Bob Jones Jr reluctantly began admitting African-American students, but also filed suit against the IRS, arguing that segregation of the races was part of his “sincerely held religious beliefs” and that the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom protected his legal right to racially discriminate in his private school. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. At first the Reagan Administration supported BJU and even instructed the IRS to drop the case. That unleashed a wave of criticism and backlash, and Reagan quickly reversed himself, allowing the case to go forward. But even before they lost the Supreme Court ruling, the “university” had already concocted another method of racial discrimination that the IRS could not do anything about, by expelling students for “interracial dating”. In 1998, a spokesman for BJU defended the practice, saying, “God has made people different from one another and intends those differences to remain. Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established.”

When presidential candidate George W Bush visited the BJU campus to give a speech in 2000, he was simply following the now-established tradition of GOP hopefuls making the pilgrimmage to Greenville to kowtow for fundamentalist votes. But this time, Bush was bitten when press reports appeared highlighting BJU’s discrimminatory racial dating policies: Dubya claimed ignorance and apologized, and the issue became hot enough that Bob Jones Jr himself was forced to renounce the policy. But the damage had already been done. Donations and contributions to BJU dropped over ten percent, and the number of student admissions began its long decline that still continues today.

As Bob Jones University began to fade, so did fundamentalist political fortunes. The fundamentalists had, despite their power, never been universally accepted within the Republican Party. The neoconservative faction, which rose to prominence in the Dubya Bush Administration, thought quite frankly that the fundamentalists were nutty. Corporate and big business interests, who have always been the Republican’s primary constituent, were also wary of the fundamentalist agenda, because theocracy is very bad for business.  Because of this internal opposition, the fundamentalists were never able to actually get most of their social and political agenda–anti-evolution, school prayer–passed in legislation, even during years of virtual single-party rule when the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, the White House, and most of the Federal judiciary.

The fundamentalists, frustrated over the inability or unwillingness of the GOP to advance their agenda, split into two factions. One group wanted to continue their political efforts, and make greater efforts to force the Republican Party to give them what they wanted. Another faction followed the path taken by their earlier fundamentalist forefathers, who after their own failures had withdrawn from politics entirely and retreated to the safety of their own institutions. This was the option that BJU chose. The “university” had already been rocked again by scandal, with accusations that Bob Jones III, who had succeeded his father in 1997, had covered up a series of sexual abuses by staff members, including rapes and underage sex. In 2005, Stephen Jones replaced Jones as Chancellor, and took the “University” in a new non-political direction. “The gospel is for individuals,” he declared. “The main message we have is to individuals. We’re not here to save the culture.”



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