College proud of its piety is propelled into politics

Bush visit highlights Bob Jones' stances on dating, Catholics

February 26, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- For most of America, Bob Jones University is known by its nos: No alcohol. No tobacco. No modern music. No touching on dates. No sex. No gays.

And, in stances that have caused national headaches for George W. Bush, no interracial dating and no tolerance for Catholicism.

The Texas governor says he does not endorse Bob Jones' policies, but critics argue that his visit to the campus this month gave tacit approval to a university that sanctions racial bigotry and calls Catholicism "satanic."

Yet to most of the students, faculty and staff at Bob Jones, the fundamentalist Christian school stands as an oasis of piety in a world beset by temptation and sin. Many say they cannot fathom how the school's policies could have set off a political uproar.

"To some people, it seems extreme, but we're trying to do what the Bible says," said Matt Kliewer, a 21-year-old junior from Denver. "Being a Christian, I have certain standards in my life. The rules help me to keep the standards high, often higher than they might be otherwise.

"It is nice to be in a place where I don't have to be surrounded by people I disagree with."

In Michigan, supporters of Sen. John McCain of Arizona used Bush's warm embrace by the campus -- he made his first major appearance in South Carolina at the college, right after losing the New Hampshire primary -- to depict the governor as in thrall to religious conservatives.

While television evangelist Pat Robertson appealed to religious conservatives in Michigan on Bush's behalf, McCain supporters called Roman Catholic voters to point out the anti-Catholic statements of university leaders. Bush lost the primary in Michigan, where voters are more moderate than South Carolinians and where there are more Catholics.

"This is the type of thing that could have won George W. Bush the battle and may have cost George Bush the war," said William Moore, a political science professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. "That issue will dog him through the November elections."

Though unfailingly polite to outsiders, administrators and faculty members at Bob Jones appear increasingly alarmed at the university's insertion into the presidential race. This week, an armed guard tracked down a visiting reporter and gingerly escorted him off campus to enforce a new policy: no comment.

A university spokesman declined to discuss Bob Jones' policies but released a statment that said, in part: "Everyone has the right under the Constitution to believe and practice their faith even when their faith may be out of synch with another's belief."

Disciplined campus

The 200-acre campus, a few miles northeast of downtown Greenville near the North Carolina border, is surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. It is immaculate and remarkably sedate, with little of the raucous banter among students that punctuates collegiate life elsewhere.

The 5,000 students -- the men are all clean-shaven and wear ties, and the women wear skirts that reach below the knee -- stream quietly between classes. All carry well-thumbed Bibles in their book bags with other texts.

Like a military academy, the school is run with an honor code. Crime and drug abuse are almost nonexistent, students say, and dormitory rooms have no locks.

"I would imagine that the people at West Point chafe," said Jim Wiginton, a 40-year-old corporate finance director who is a graduate and taught at the school for three years. "But if you're preparing for battle, and if you're really preparing to serve the Lord, you need to be disciplined."

Every day at 7: 30 a.m., dorm rooms are inspected for cleanliness. At 11 a.m., there is a mandatory sermon, where all repeat their religious creed affirming that Christ's crucifixion served as "vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."

Dates are attended by chaperones, and underclassmen must be back in their rooms by 7 p.m. unless they are signed out with older students. Students can drop notes off in wooden boxes, to be whisked to their campus sweethearts. At 10: 30 p.m., students gather in small groups in their same-sex dorms for a prayer and discussion of the day's events. By 11, it's lights out for everyone except seniors in study hall.

On a campus where a scattering of people of Asian descent and a few blacks were evident on a recent day, students and alumni interviewed -- all of them white -- say there is no racial bias.

Headlines in Nixon era

The campus first made waves nationally during the Nixon administration, when the Internal Revenue Service ruled that Bob Jones should be stripped of its tax-exempt status because it did not admit blacks.

The Supreme Court upheld that decision, despite the university's claim of religious liberty. Bob Jones receives no federal aid.

The university says it has eliminated racial bias from campus policies, but it bans interracial dating. It says that policy, though not explicitly dictated by the Bible, is required by a close reading of Scripture.

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