For years, Bob Jones University (BJU) was a vital destination for any conservative candidate seeking support from either South Carolina voters or the religious right more broadly. But controversy at the start of the new millennium over its longstanding ban on interracial dating cost the evangelical school its relevance in American politics.
Now, with back-to-back appearances this week by Republican presidential hopefuls Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, BJU is staging a political comeback of sorts, testing whether its relationship with the GOP can again be as mutually beneficial as it once was.
“It isn’t quite the upside it once was for Republican candidates appearing there,” Jim Guth, a professor at Furman University, told MSNBC. “But some of the downside is still around.”
In many ways, BJU’s decision to step back into the political limelight – especially by hosting Carson, a leading African-American GOP presidential candidate, demonstrates how far the school has come in reforming its once racially discriminatory policies. On the other hand, the Cruz rally – the Texas senator’s second major event dedicated to protecting religious freedom in the face of nationwide same-sex marriage – could serve as a painful reminder of the fact that BJU once used similar arguments to justify racial segregation.
The author of segregation
Until the 1970s, BJU outright denied admission to black students on religious grounds. “God is the author of segregation,” preached the school’s founder, Bob Jones, in a 1960 sermon entitled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” According to Jones and many other segregationists of the time, the answer was a resounding “yes.”
BJU began accepting married black students in 1971, and unmarried black students four years later. But it kept in place an interracial dating ban for another three decades.
That ban became the subject of a high-profile 1983 Supreme Court case, Bob Jones University v. United States, which resulted in the school losing its tax-exempt status. Although BJU tried to convince the justices that the IRS could not punish “schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs” – an argument that strongly resembles today’s push for religious freedom protections from same-sex marriage – the high court sided with the U.S. government.
“[T]he Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education – discrimination that prevailed, with official approval, for the first 165 years of this Nation’s constitutional history,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger in an 8-1 decision for the court. “That governmental interest substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners’ exercise of their religious beliefs.”
A bullseye for Republican rivals
Despite its controversial policies, BJU for years remained one of the GOP mainstays in the conservative South. Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, and Bob Dole all showed up to stump there, and the university conferred honorary degrees on a number of influential Republican lawmakers.
That all changed in 2000, however, when then-Republican presidential candidate Gov. George W. Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign at BJU, only to find the once routine political stop had transformed into a bullseye for his Republican rivals – especially John McCain.
“If I’d have been invited to go to Bob Jones University, sure I’d have gone. And I’d have told them, ‘Get out of the 16th century and into the 21st century. What you’re doing is racist and cruel,’” said McCain. “Instead, Gov. Bush went there and never said a word.”
Alan Keyes, the only black candidate in the 2000 race, also spoke at BJU that year, but used the opportunity to criticize the school’s policies and Bush’s silence on the matter.
The attacks put Bush on the defensive, prompting his spokeswoman Mindy Tucker to clarify that the “governor doesn’t agree with that policy” of banning interracial dating. Bush later wrote a letter to New York Cardinal John O’Connor, calling the appearance a “missed opportunity” to denounce BJU’s anti-Catholic views. (In addition to its interracial dating ban, BJU also labeled Catholicism a “satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men,” and the “Mother of Harlots.”)
The political attacks also had a strong impact on the school itself. Shortly after Bush’s appearance, Bob Jones III – then the president of the school – announced that BJU would be dropping its ban on interracial dating. Jones acknowledged that the recent scrutiny of the school’s policy was behind his decision.
“This thing has gotten so out of hand,” Jones said in a March 3, 2000, interview on CNN. “All of a sudden the university is at the center of a Republican presidential debate.”
A clear Christian counterpoint
Eight years after formally ending its ban on interracial dating, BJU issued a sweeping apology for its legacy of shaping institutional policies along racial lines. “We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it,” said Stephen Jones, the fourth president of BJU, in a statement. “For these failures, we are profoundly sorry.”
Still, BJU never quite regained its place in American politics.
“The school has fallen on hard times,” said Guth, pointing to declining enrollment and a less engaged alumni network. “They’ve had a much lower profile than they did for a long time … They’re floundering around in a lot of ways.”
According to the school’s website, BJU has around 3,000 students – down from about 5,000 in 2008. But Jeffrey Hoffman, who grew up on campus and went to college there briefly, suspects the number is much lower.
“I’ve been on campus in the last couple years,” said Hoffman, who now runs an informal network of LGBT university alumni called BJUnity. “And what used to be a bustling campus when I was there, with upwards of 5,000 people, it feels like a ghost town when you go on campus now … I think they’re counting toddlers in the [3,000] number.”
A big part of the school’s problem is that the GOP in the South has changed, becoming more racially and religiously diverse. Thus, as Guth explained, “BJU has not been a place to speak to a broad religious constituency.”
But the particular dynamics of this election – having a black Republican candidate with strong ties to the evangelical community, and a renewed focus on religious freedom – present an important opportunity for the school to demonstrate both its progress on race, and its relevance in politics.
“I think they are trying to send a message,” said Kristofer Parker, who attended Bob Jones Academy – a preparatory school for Bob Jones University – between 2002 and 2006. “Personally, I think it’s kind of odd that Ben Carson is going to be at the school, but I do appreciate the move as an African American. I appreciate that they’re trying, whether it’s from the heart or not.”
BJU, for its part, appears reluctant to acknowledge the significance of either the Carson, or Cruz event.
“I think you’re misconstruing what’s going on. Both campaigns are renting our facilities,” said Randy Page, director of public relations at BJU. Neither appearance is “a BJU event,” he added, and students aren’t required to attend.
Furthermore, Page disputes the characterization that the school has been out of the political spotlight in recent years.
“We’ve had a number of candidates visit the campus,” Page said, citing Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker. He added that representatives from Jeb Bush and John Kasich’s campaigns have also called the school.
“You name ‘em, a lot of them have reach out and tried to come at least talk to us,” Page said.
Still, there’s no denying the fact that it’s been a while since a top-tier presidential candidate has held a major event at BJU.
A very different place?
Carson’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why the retired neurosurgeon is going to a school with a history of racial bigotry. But in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is hosting the BJU town hall with Carson, said the event will highlight the racial progress made in his home state.
“Bob Jones [University] has done a tremendous job improving upon their previous reputation,” said Scott, who is the first black senator from the Palmetto State. “I think it echoes the progress made in South Carolina.”
It’s a view shared by both the Cruz campaign, whose national press secretary said in a statement that “the university has moved on from and apologized for those past policies,” and at least one prominent political operative.
“You can always talk about our state in a bad light,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chair and adviser to Rick Perry’s now-defunct presidential campaign. “But in terms of recent history, if you look at where we are as a state … you’ll find a very different place than it was 40 years ago.”
To be sure, South Carolina has changed a lot in recent history when it comes to race, but it still has a long way to go. Earlier this year, the state was rocked by the shooting death of an unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer in North Charleston. Two months later, a white man gunned down nine African-American parishioners at an historic black church in Charleston. The tragedy sparked a heated debate about the Confederate flag, a favorite symbol of the gunman, and prompted South Carolina lawmakers to remove it from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, where it had flown for decades.
According to some former students, BJU – like South Carolina – also has a long way to go on racial issues.
“I didn’t feel bigoted policies while I was there,” said Anthony Milian, a black former student who attended BJU from 2006 to late 2009. “But a lot of the people, students in particular, were misguided in their assumptions about African-American people.”
Milian said he was able to date white girls at BJU without any problems following the collapse of the school’s interracial dating ban. But he constantly encountered racial insensitivity, such as white students who expected him to know every hip-hop or urban cultural reference. Once, a white roommate asked him if it was okay to call him a “n****r.” Other times, white students told him he should be thankful for slavery because it got him out of Africa.
“I’m sure I’m not the only black student who’s heard that,” Milian said. “The fact that somebody can feel comfortable saying something like that without fear of retribution shows how far the university has to go.”
at Bob Jones Academy, Kristofer Parker also had to contend with more subtle forms of bigotry in the absence of institutional discrimination.As the only black student in his class
“My mom and I went to the bookstore, and the looks people were giving us – we were being watched,” Parker said. “There’s almost this attitude that you’re already uneducated and you don’t have enough money to be there. I just felt pressure to do well. Like one slip-up, and I might be out.”
Both Parker and BJUnity’s Jeffrey Hoffman said that even after the interracial dating ban ended, the school required students to get permission from their parents if they wanted to date someone of a different race. The permission rule did not apply to non-interracial couples, Parker and Hoffman said. BJU’s Randy Page, meanwhile, said he had no knowledge of a such a policy.
As it is, dating at BJU is already highly regulated. On and off campus, the school prohibits “physical contact between unmarried men and women” – one of many strict rules laid out in the Student Handbook. Students are also barred from listening to rock, pop, and country music, among other genres, and cannot wear Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, or “other labels that glorify the lustful spirit of our age in their advertising.”
Given the lingering issues surrounding race, as well as BJU’s complete intolerance toward LGBT students, some scoff at the idea that the school has changed much since becoming a political target in 2000.
“I don’t think [the Carson and Cruz events] represent Bob Jones University having changed so much as it represents the Republican Party having changed,” Hoffman said. “BJU isn’t so extreme as it used to be because the evangelical majority in the GOP has become more hard-lined.”