Bob Jones Does Not See Itself As Others Do The Self-described "Unusual" University Where Gov. Bush Campaigned In S.c. Denies It Is Racist And Anti-catholic.

Posted: February 26, 2000

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jim Wiginton had heard all the recent criticism of Bob Jones University and wondered: Could they be talking about the same place where he was taught that all men are equal under God?

Could the campus where Texas Gov. George W. Bush opened his winning bid for last week's Republican primary - a university denounced by Bush's critics as racist and anti-Catholic - be the same place where Wiginton, now 40, attended daily worship service? Where even chemistry professors might pause mid-lecture to discuss spirituality?

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 29, 2000, FOLLOWS: Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 not because it refused to admit minorities, as a story in Saturday's Inquirer stated, but because of its policy banning interracial dating or marriage. The university has accepted minority students since the early 1970s.

Could it be the same school that produced Wiginton himself - business executive, father of five, and a man who in the 1996 presidential election voted for Alan Keyes, a black Catholic?

"Most people who haven't been there, who don't know anyone who goes there, they're going to say that they are wild-eyed, right-wing, unlearned bigots," Wiginton said yesterday of the storm over his alma mater. "But that is not at all a position of Bob Jones University. Not at all."

Like it or not, though, the school has become a symbol in the Republican presidential campaign.

Bush has been chided, even by some fellow Republicans, for speaking there without distancing himself from the school's policies. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D., S.C.) on Thursday said he might support a Senate resolution condemning the school for its views on Catholicism and interracial dating.

"It's a national embarrassment to the state, I can tell you," Hollings said. "Racism and prejudice down there has been under the radar for years, and I've had to face it in these elections."

And even as the Republican campaign has moved on to other states, the school is waging a war of its own here against charges that it is racist and intolerant. Since the Bush visit and the resulting firestorm over the school's ban on interracial dating and the anti-Catholic rhetoric published on its Web site, the 73-year-old evangelical university in Greenville has closed its ranks.

School officials have closed the campus to the news media. President Bob Jones 3d, grandson of the founder, is declining interview requests.

Yesterday, the university issued a one-page statement. "Bob Jones University firmly believes in freedom of speech and freedom of religion - a tenet of America which we must all work together to uphold and defend," it read. "Everyone has the right under the Constitution to believe and practice their faith even when their faith may be out of sync with another's belief."

That the unaccredited school, which bills itself as "The World's Most Unusual University," is out of sync with much of America's mainstream is without doubt.

The 5,000 students follow a strict dress code - ties for men; long skirts, never pants, for women - and rules on everything from personal grooming (short hair and clean-shaven faces) to worship (chapel service every morning) to commerce (no shopping in stores deemed insufficiently Christian).

But the school's supporters, administrators and alumni say they neither preach nor practice hate. They say their faith - a form of fundamentalist Christian separatism - instructs that they live the way they do, and they do so without apology here in the Bible Belt.

"Polls consistently show that the religious right makes up about a third of this state," said Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor. "And Bob Jones represents the citadel for that kind of orientation."

The school first came to public prominence not because of who went in, but who was kept out. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Internal Revenue Service's removal of the school's tax-exempt status because it refused to admit minorities.

That policy had been in place since 1927, when Bob Jones Sr., an Alabama farmer turned evangelist, cashed in his life savings and founded the school in College Point, Fla.

Jones, who spoke back then of beating back "the atheistic drift in educational institutions," wanted to offer students a Bible-based, conservative education. Many were receptive to his message. The school grew, and six years later it was moved from Florida to Cleveland, Tenn., before settling on a 200-acre campus in Greenville in 1947.

And even as the rest of the nation moved toward racial tolerance in the 1950s and '60s, Bob Jones never strayed from its principles.

"Even while other people were moving away from that," Ransom said, "they embraced and they said very loudly and very clearly, 'We don't care what outsiders say' and as part of their states' rights orientation, they feel they should be left alone."

Although the 1983 Supreme Court ruling compelled the school to admit minorities, the school still bans gays and lesbians and promotes teachings that echo its founder's description of Catholicism as "a satanic counterfeit."

When a gay alumnus tried to visit the school in 1998, officials advised him "with grief" that he would be stopped by security and escorted off campus. "We take no delight in that action," their letter read. "Our greatest delight would be in your return to the Lord."

Despite its policies, the school has long been a magnet for Republican politicians trying to woo the state's sizable conservative vote.

"You go where their ducks are," said Jim Guth, a Furman University political science professor. "That's what George W. Bush did. That's what just any Republican seeking statewide or national office would do."

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