Taking the Bob Out of Bob Jones U.
Christian Institution Readies For the Next Generation

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 5, 2005


Is Bob Jones University going to the Devil?

Could America's most famous bastion of hard-core Christian fundamentalism and pugnacious political conservatism be getting a little . . . soft? There are signs, portents.

In 2000, Bob Jones III, president of the university and grandson of the Founder, announced on "Larry King Live" that the school was ending its ban on interracial dating, long defended because "God has separated people for His own purpose."

In 2003, the school ended the practice of ringing the dorm bells at 6:55 a.m. to rouse students for daily room inspections.

Last year, the university applied for (and received) accreditation, a process it had always avoided because, as Bob Jones III once said, "accrediting associations will not approve our educational process if it does not include the worship of their gods."

And on Saturday, for the first time in its 78-year history, Bob Jones University will inaugurate a president not named Bob Jones.

For eight decades, BJU has been led by three generations of Bob Joneses -- preachers who pioneered a combative and highly political form of fundamentalism that gave rise to the "Christian Right." The Joneses became famous touting politicians they liked -- George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, George W. Bush -- while hurling thunderbolts of quotable vitriol at apostates, back-sliders and liberals.

Bob Jones, the hellfire-and-brimstone evangelist who founded the nondenominational Protestant school in 1927, railed against the Catholic Church, which stands, he said, "for ignorance and superstition and the slavery of the human soul."

Bob Jones Jr. pilloried Secretary of State Alexander Haig as "a monster in human flesh" and publicly prayed that God would "smite him hip and thigh, bone and marrow, heart and lungs."

Bob Jones III denounced Ronald Reagan as "a traitor to God's people" for the sin of choosing as his vice president George H.W. Bush, whom Jones called "a devil."

But at Saturday's graduation ceremony, the presidency will pass to Stephen B. Jones, 35, the Founder's great-grandson, a mild-mannered fellow who describes himself as "laid-back" and says he doubts that he'll be calling on God to smite anyone.

"I don't think so," he says, laughing. "I will be praying for the opposition."

This raises the question: What next? Will Bob Jones University start permitting students to play rock-and-roll? Or hold hands? Or even, God forbid, kiss?

Rules Are Rules

"It's not that there's anything wrong with kissing," says Jonathan Pait, BJU's community relations coordinator. "It's not a sin. It's just that we have a different focus."

Pait is explaining the famous dating rules. The outside world is fascinated by BJU's rules but Pait gets tired of talking about them.

The rules are codified in the student handbook, but the rules forbid giving the handbook to outsiders. "Outsiders don't understand the context of the rules," Pait explains.

The context is BJU's mission, which is to give students a "Christlike character." Anything that interferes with that goal is forbidden. That includes smoking, drinking, dancing, gambling, TVs in dorm rooms, uncensored Internet access and most modern music, including rock, rap, country, jazz -- even Christian music if it has a "sensual" beat. The rules also forbid coming to class in jeans, shorts or skirts that don't cover the knee. No late-night dorm-room bull sessions either; at midnight it's lights out and keep quiet.

These rules are not controversial on campus, Pait says. More than 80 percent of the 4,800 students come from either Christian schools or were home-schooled, and they're used to strict rules. Also, many of the students are the offspring of BJU graduates. "There are a lot of third -generation students," Pait says.

It's a sunny spring afternoon, and he is driving slowly around the impeccably groomed 200-acre campus in his red BMW, pointing out the sights. There's the computer science building . . . the fitness center . . . the greenhouse . . . the 7,000-seat "amphitorium," where students stage elaborate productions of operas and Shakespeare plays . . . and the university museum, which contains one of the world's greatest collections of baroque religious art.

Pait points out the university's academic spinoffs: a Bob Jones preschool, Bob Jones Elementary School, Bob Jones Junior High School, and a 600-student high school called Bob Jones Academy.

It's possible to go from preschool to a PhD and never attend a school that isn't named after Bob Jones. In fact, BJU's next president, Stephen Jones, did exactly that.

BJU also runs a textbook publishing company and a business that produces video classes for Christian schools and home schools. BJU won't reveal how many textbooks it sells, but it will reveal how many pounds of books it sold last year: 3.5 million.

The textbooks help attract students to BJU, which offers 120 majors -- such secular subjects as accounting, English and interior design, plus religious courses like Bible evangelism and missionary aviation.

"If the secular academy wants to look down their noses at us, okay," Pait says, "but our students can stand toe-to-toe with anybody."

The difference between Bob Jones and secular schools, Pait says, is that at BJU every teacher is a fundamentalist Christian and every subject is taught from a "Christian worldview."

"In secular schools, they say, 'Let's use science to discover the unknown truth,' " Pait says. "We say, 'We know the truth -- how does this glorify the truth, who is God?' "

Family Business

Bob Jones preached his first sermons to the rear ends of mules as he plowed his daddy's Alabama peanut farm.

Jones was born in 1883, and born again 11 years later, saved at a revival meeting. Soon he was preaching. At 14, he preached so powerfully a Methodist group voted to ordain him on the spot.

By the 1920s, Bob Jones was one of America's biggest evangelists, second only to Billy Sunday. Jones denounced the evils of the age: liquor, jazz, "picture shows," flappers, makeup, big cities packed with "degenerate, unassimilated foreigners," and Al Smith, the New York Catholic who ran for president in 1928. Jones believed the Catholic church was particularly evil because it set up a hierarchy, including the "Antichrist" pope, between God and man.

"The things that made America great," Bob Jones said, "are the very things Al Smith's religion opposes."

In the '20s, America's Protestant denominations split in what David Beale, a BJU professor and religious historian, calls "a vicious battle between fundamentalists and modernists" over evolution, which modernists accepted but fundamentalists rejected because it conflicted with the biblical story of creation. The modernists won, Beale says, retaining control of most mainline religious institutions, and fundamentalists left to create their own.

Bob Jones created Bob Jones College, outside Panama City, Fla. It was devoted to strict separation from religious liberals -- and from fundamentalists who associated with liberals. On opening day in 1927, 85 students watched as the faculty marched up to publicly sign a creed that renounced "all atheistic, agnostic, pagan . . . adulterations of the gospel."

On the verge of bankruptcy in 1933, the college moved to Cleveland, Tenn. By 1947, it had outgrown its campus and moved to Greenville, S.C.

Meanwhile, in 1911, Bob Jones begat Bob Jones Jr., "perhaps the most colorful member of the Jones family," wrote Mark Taylor Dalhouse in his 1996 book on BJU, "An Island in the Lake of Fire."

As a child traveling on his father's evangelistic crusades, Bob Jones Jr. would hang bedsheets up like theater curtains in hotel rooms and perform plays of his own creation. As a student at his father's college, he founded a campus Shakespeare company and played Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," a role he reprised throughout his life.

In the '30s he traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to study acting. For more than a decade, he barnstormed America with "Curtain Calls," a one-man show of Shakespearean monologues. In 1937, Warner Bros. offered him a screen test.

He declined: The Lord was calling him to run Bob Jones University. He became vice president in 1932 and president in 1947.

He built up the drama department and the film department, which produced feature-length movies, including one based on his novel about the Inquisition, "Wine of Morning." After World War II, Bob Jr. traveled Europe, buying paintings by Botticelli, Tintoretto, Rubens, Rembrandt, and building up BJU's art museum.

Bob Jr. was also as fiery a fundamentalist as his father. He denounced the National Council of Churches as "satanic" and the National Association of Evangelicals as "traitors to the cause of Christ."

When Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent a black student from registering, Bob Jr. awarded him an honorary doctorate and praised him as "David, warring against the giant, Tyranny."

In 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Bob Jr. refused to sign a document promising not to discriminate, denouncing it as a "highhanded scheme to force all educational institutions under the control of a federal agency."

That year, Bob Jr. barnstormed for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater under the slogan "Only a divine miracle can save America now."

In 1982, when the State Department refused to issue a visa to the Rev. Ian Paisley, the rabidly anti-Catholic politician from Northern Ireland, Bob Jr. called on God to "smite" Secretary of State Haig.

Meanwhile, Bob Jones Jr. begat Bob Jones III. Born in 1939, Bob III inherited some of the old man's theatricality. He played Gen. J.E.B. Stuart when the university film department made a Civil War movie.

Bob III also inherited a gift for pugnacious rhetoric. In the '60s, he told an interviewer: "A Negro is best when he serves at the table," then quickly added, "I'm not a racist."

In the '80s, he denounced "disobedient preachers such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell" for appearing with Catholics, Mormons and Jews, which he called the "sin of spiritual fornication."

Bob III -- known on campus as "Dr. Bob" -- became president in 1971, the year BJU admitted its first black student. But he maintained a ban on interracial dating, writing, "This institution's Bible-based convictions are against interracial dating and marriage." That position cost BJU its tax-exempt status in 1983 and kicked up a political firestorm in 2000 when presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke at the school.

A month later, Dr. Bob shocked the BJU community by ending the ban, declaring it merely a symbolic protest against "one-world government."

Today BJU is multiracial, although Pait declines to provide numbers, saying, "We don't focus on someone's color." And the school has not petitioned to regain its tax exemption.

Last year, on the day after the presidential election, Dr. Bob took to the pulpit at the school's compulsory daily chapel service to read a letter he'd written to President Bush:

"In your reelection, God has granted America -- though she doesn't deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. . . . Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

The students cheered. And when Dr. Bob broke the news that Tom Daschle, the Senate's Democratic leader, had lost his bid for reelection, they cheered again.

Water and the Spirit

In the middle of the BJU campus is a pond fed by cascading waterfalls. In the middle of the pond is an island that contains the graves of Bob Jones and Bob Jones Jr. and their wives.

In the administration building is a gallery of oil paintings of Bob Jones, Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones III and their wives. In classrooms, the walls bear printed slogans -- the thoughts of Bob Jones:

"It is better to die for something than to live for nothing."

"You may acquire knowledge but you have to get wisdom direct from God."

The Founder's sayings are collected in a book called "Chapel Sayings of Dr. Bob Jones Sr." It's available in the campus bookstore, along with dozens of books attacking an endless series of apostates -- Billy Graham, Catholics, charismatics, Mormons, Masons, Jehovah's Witnesses, plus Halloween and Harry Potter.

Next to the bookstore is the BJU snack bar, famous for its delicious milkshakes. Brandy Ravan, 20, is sitting there, doing her homework.

She's a sophomore from Spartanburg, S.C., working her way through school with a job in the campus dining halls.

"I'm one of the lucky girls who get to do banquets," she says. "I get to serve Stephen Jones and Dr. Bob."

She was born again in the ninth grade -- "I'm the only one in my family who's saved," she says -- and she paid her way through a Christian high school by working at McDonald's. At that school, she learned about BJU.

"I felt the Lord was saying, 'Go to Bob Jones,' " she says.

She's studying child care, hoping to teach in a Christian school. She loves BJU.

"Everyone is very loving," she says. "They want us to serve the Lord and that's great. I know there are people who aren't serving the Lord, like Catholics. I want to serve the Lord by witnessing to them."

BJU's many rules make sense to her, like the ones against hand-holding.

"One thing leads to another," she says. "Girls like to touch. First it's your pinkies and then your hand and then kissing. It's dangerous."

'You Have to Be Bold'

"We are what we are -- and what we've always been," says Bob Jones III. "So much of academia has turned another way and we're an island in an alien world, a secular world."

He's sitting in the dusky gloom of his office. The walls are dark wood, decorated with mementos of beasts he shot -- a deer head, an elk head, moose antlers.

At 65, Dr. Bob is a thin man with a warm smile and a friendly manner -- except when he's denouncing the sins of his godless nation.

"Homosexuality is a sin -- cut and dried, no question about it," he says. "It's as plain as the nose on your face in the Bible."

He's explaining his statement, in his post-election letter to Bush, that America doesn't deserve God's favor. It's because courts and legislatures defy God's law on homosexuality and abortion, he says.

"God's not going to let America have His favor while the establishment is treating Him with such disregard and insult," he says, his voice rising, his hands chopping the air. "So I don't think America has any reason to expect the blessing of God. This is not a Christian nation."

Dr. Bob won't back down when he thinks he's right, but he says he was wrong when he called George H.W. Bush "a devil" back in 1982.

"I was not convinced that the first George Bush was a real conservative," he explains. "I was afraid that he had ties to certain organizations that revealed what he really was, that his public rhetoric was hiding what he really was. And devils deal in treachery like that, in deceit. 'Devil' may have been a strong word, but you know what? He turned out to be a whole lot better president than I expected, and I shook his hand in the Oval Office and thanked him for being a good president."

But Dr. Bob defends the Jones tradition of vitriolic political rhetoric. "I don't believe the defense of the truth should be milquetoast," he says. "Sometimes you have to be bold and say straightforward things."

Will Stephen Jones, his son and successor, be as bold and straightforward?

"He's not weak," Dr. Bob says. "When the Bible is under attack or Christians are being misrepresented, he's going to stand up. He may do it more graciously than I did -- and I hope he would -- but he's not without conviction."

For reasons he doesn't understand, Dr. Bob says, God called the three Bob Joneses to lead this university. And now God has called Stephen Jones.

"If there's another generation, if there's a future, if the Lord doesn't come soon," Dr. Bob says, "then I want Stephen to be the man that God raised up for the next generation."

Waiting in the Wings

Stephen Jones never wanted to be president of Bob Jones University.

"I knew the pressures Dad was under -- the travel and preaching and being away from the family and the national spotlight that so often comes in our direction," he says. "And I looked at that and said, 'You'd have to be insane to want that!' "

He bursts out laughing, which makes him seem even younger than he already does. He's so fresh-faced at 35 that he looks more like a college sophomore than a college president.

Growing up, he didn't expect to become president of BJU. His older brother, Bob Jones IV, was being groomed for that job.

Bob IV got a master's degree in nonprofit corporation management from George Washington University in 1992, but in the late '90s, he told his father that the Lord was calling him to be a writer, not a college president. Today, Bob IV -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- is the national editor of a Christian magazine called World.

So the burden fell to Stephen. "I surrendered and said, 'Okay, if this is what the Lord wants, I'm willing to do it,' " he says.

No rule mandates that the president of BJU must be named Jones, but, Stephen says, "In each generation, the Lord has called us."

He was born in the clinic at BJU and he never really left. He went to Bob Jones preschool, Bob Jones Elementary, Bob Jones Junior High, Bob Jones Academy. He has a bachelor's degree in public speaking from BJU, a master of divinity from BJU, and on Saturday -- the day he becomes president of BJU -- he'll receive his PhD in liberal arts studies from BJU. He met his wife at BJU and has worked as a teaching assistant, residence hall supervisor and vice president for administration at BJU.

He's ready for the administrative work of the presidency, he says, but he's not sure he has the personality for the other part of the job -- feisty public scourge of wayward preachers and pols.

"Given my disposition, I don't believe so," he says, with a laugh. "I mean, at times I'll have to say that we stand with the word of God and here's what the word of God says. But I'll try to say it as lovingly as possible."

No prayers for God to smite any politicians?

"Probably not," he says, smiling.

He even admits that he's embarrassed by some of the more vitriolic comments of the various Bob Joneses, although he won't identify them. "I don't want to get specific," he says. "But there were things said back then that I wouldn't say today."

Unlike his father, who eagerly rips into liberals during his interview, Stephen Jones dodges political questions. Asked about the school's defense of segregation or the honorary degree for George Wallace or the interracial dating ban, he begs off.

"My dad would have a perspective on that because he lived through it," he says. "I'm afraid if I speak, it's not going to be accurate."

He has no plans to initiate any sweeping changes, he says. He won't alter the rules against rock music or hand-holding or kissing. He'll continue to make sure no liberal speakers appear on the BJU campus, and he'll keep a tight rein on what his drama students perform on the campus stage.

"There are objectionable elements in literature," he says. "There are things that are blatantly anti-Christian. Even among the Shakespeare plays, we pick and choose. There are some we won't do, like 'Measure for Measure.' "

What's wrong with "Measure for Measure"?

"A girl gets pregnant out of wedlock," he says, "and a large part of the play is about this relationship and how it's looked down on socially. And it spends more time focused on that and too little time on the moral repercussions of that. And to put that in front of students who are forming their biblical framework wouldn't be advantageous. So we don't do 'Measure for Measure.' "

What about "Romeo and Juliet"?

"We do 'Romeo and Juliet,' " he says, "but we take out the bawdy elements."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company