"God has separated people for his own purpose," Jonathan Pait, the university's community relations coordinator, wrote in a 1998 letter explaining the policy. "He has erected barriers between the nations, not only land and sea barriers, but also ethnic, cultural and and language barriers."
"Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established. It mixes that which God separated and intends to keep separate," Pait wrote.
Some students and graduates expressed discomfort with the dating ban but said it had provoked little campus discussion.
"I can't say I was ever interested in dating someone of the other races," said Stephen Dersch, a 27-year-old alumnus who is a medical student at Indiana University. "Most blacks aren't interested in marrying whites. Most Orientals aren't interested in marrying whites. It's just a nonissue."
The university's leadership holds other positions that many Americans elsewhere find equally jarring. In 1981, in a typical sermon, the late Bob Jones Jr., the son of the school's founder and the father of the university president, said of Catholicism:
"The Roman Church is not another Christian denomination. It is a satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men, not to bring them to salvation but to hold them bound in sin and to hurl them into eternal damnation."
Wiginton suggested that Jones' criticism was directed at the teachings of Catholicism, rather than at its members.
"Some of the language may be inflammatory, but we're talking about people's eternal lives," Wiginton said. "Do I love you more if I allow you to continue being wrongly taught? Or, do I love you more if I point out that you may be in error?"
Gays not welcome
In recent years, the university has told gay alumni they were not welcome to return to campus. Officials agreed to allow gays to visit the university's art gallery, a technically separate institution with an extensive collection of religious works, to qualify for a subsidy from the county. Local officials threatened to withhold the subsidy if gays were barred from the museum.
In the wake of the furor surrounding Bush's visit to the campus, officials and alumni argued that it is the school's detractors who are intolerant. They say they are in the Republican mainstream. Bush's visit, which led to an endorsement by the university's president, Bob Jones III, was one of many by prominent Republicans in recent years.
McCain's most visible South Carolina supporter, Rep. Lindsey Graham, was granted an honorary degree in May, as were Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a graduate, and Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri. Other past visitors include President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Bob Dole and Vice President Dan Quayle, who was sent by President George Bush to try to shore up relations with religious conservatives.
The elder Bush, whom Bob Jones Jr. vilified as insufficiently conservative, did not visit the university.
"Any Republicans running for statewide office have always paid their respects to the Republicans at Bob Jones University," said Henry McMaster, the state party chairman. "It's not a problem for people who know Bob Jones University."
In response to the criticism of his appearance here, Bush has said he is neither a racist nor anti-Catholic, pointing to his brother Jeb, a convert to Catholicism, and to his sister-in-law, a native of Mexico.
McCain said he would have spoken at Bob Jones, too, had he been asked, but unlike Bush, would have confronted what the senator called Bob Jones' discriminatory policies.
"I'd have told them, `Get out of the 16th century,' " McCain said this week.
"The policies they have are indefensible," Hutchinson said. "At the same time, I regret, for the university, that they've become a political football."
At a recent morning sermon, the guest pastor, the Rev. Marion Fast, selected a text involving the trials of Hezekiah, an Old Testament king who knocked down shrines to false gods erected by his people.
"He was not interested in what was politically expedient," Fast said. "It was not designed to win him any popularity contests. His trust was in the Lord. He claved to the Lord and departed not from following him."