Bob Jones: A Magnet School for Controversy
University's Policies Haunt GOP Hopefuls
By Juliet Eilperin and Hanna Rosin
But since George W. Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign there earlier this month, the evangelical university in Greenville has become toxic--and not just for Bush. Democrats have pounced on the episode as their latest political club against GOP candidates, pressing their rivals to denounce the school's ban on interracial dating and its anti-Catholic teachings.
This week, Senate Democrats went after John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who is facing a tough reelection bid this year, for accepting an honorary degree from Bob Jones in May. Lawmakers in both houses are introducing resolutions condemning the university's policies, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee yesterday distributed a memo on Bob Jones to help its candidates attack Republicans.
The issue is resonating on the GOP side as well: Arizona Sen. John McCain has attacked Bob Jones's policies, and some GOP lawmakers have urged the party to distance itself from the university. By Wednesday even some Bush advisers were admitting that choosing Bob Jones was a mistake.
Part of the furor is just routine campaign warfare. But the powerful reaction to the Bush visit this month also highlights how the Christian right, still powerful in many southern states, is also a potential liability for Republicans as they seek to portray a more moderate, results-oriented image for the fall elections.
While much of the rest of the Christian right movement has softened, reaching out to minorities and playing down differences with Catholics, the visits to Bob Jones have revived moderates' worst fears about the GOP as the captive of the far right, according to some political analysts.
"It became a nice handy target for belaboring the Christian right broadly, for showing the Christian right at its worst," said James Guth, a professor at Furman University.
The association has already scared off some GOP moderates. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) switched his allegiance to McCain to protest Bush's ties to the university, saying the incident could damage him and other House Republicans in the fall election.
"I didn't want it hanging around our neck up here in New York that the presidential candidate of my party consorts with and condones the bigoted policy of Bob Jones University," King said in an interview Wednesday. "It's going to be a problem and we're not going to be able shake ourselves loose of it unless we shake ourselves loose of George Bush."
The school, which dubs itself "The World's Most Unusual University," has always attracted some attention. Its 5,000 students follow rules on everything from rock music to holding hands to skirt lengths. All dating is chaperoned and none is permitted between any of three defined racial groups.
Its fundamentalist teachings promote ministering to the poor, but also classify Catholicism as "a satanic counterfeit." The current president, Bob Jones III, called then-Vice President George Bush "the devil" and former secretary of state Alexander Haig "a monster in human flesh and a demon-possessed instrument to destroy America." In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld an IRS decision to deny Bob Jones tax-exempt status because of its discriminatory policies.
Despite these controversies, GOP candidates paid homage. By the '80s, Bob Jones students and graduates became thoroughly enmeshed in the South Carolina Republican Party, and the university was unavoidable for politicians networking in the state.
Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan and Robert J. Dole stumped at Bob Jones University, and President Bush met with its president to discuss gay rights. The university conferred honorary degrees on GOP Sens. Jesse Helms (N.C.), Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and Republican Reps. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Asa Hutchinson (Ark.). Both Hutchinson and his brother, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), graduated from there in the early '70s.
But Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.) signaled the new environment this week by questioning why Ashcroft accepted a degree without expressing his opposition to the school's religious and racial practices.
"I cannot imagine what explanation John Ashcroft is going to offer Catholics in Missouri for his association with Bob Jones University," said Torricelli, who is introducing a Senate resolution specifically condemning the school's policies. "People are going to be asked to explain themselves. People find this enormously offensive, and I intend to have the last word on this matter."
Ashcroft could not be reached for an interview this week, but his office issued a statement saying he "totally repudiates attacks on religious denominations or beliefs and completely embraces the American heritage of the equality of all people and religious and racial diversity and tolerance." The statement said the senator "did not then, and does not now, have knowledge of their specific teachings."
Democratic pollster Mark Gersh estimates that just over a dozen competitive House races involve districts with a disproportionate percentage of Catholics, a voting bloc that could be influenced by both Bush's Bob Jones visit and GOP leaders' decision to bypass a Catholic priest in their selection of the next House chaplain.
"Catholic voters, who comprise one of the largest swing votes in the country, are probably going to be aware of these things," Gersh said. "I have no idea how this thing is going to play out. If there's an impact, this is where it will happen."
There is some evidence the Bush visit helped McCain in Michigan. Bush won 66 percent of voters who identified themselves as part of the religious right. But among those who said they were antiabortion--a population that includes Catholics--Bush won only 54 percent, according to John Green of the University of Akron.
Rep. Hutchinson, who also delivered a speech on impeachment at the university in April, said "I disagree very strongly" with the school's rules and called the president within the last week to urge change in the rules. While he's been attacked in the past for his ties to the school, now he says he's barraged with questions about his alma mater.
"People on the floor of the Congress come up and talk about Bob Jones to me," said Hutchinson, who said he enrolled there on the basis of its accounting program and a recommendation from his pastor. "That didn't use to be the case."
Graham, an ally of McCain who acknowledges he did not denounce the school's rules when he showed up at its spring commencement, said any public official who goes on campus should criticize its preachings. And he still blames Bush for going there.
"It's about leadership," Graham said. "I think if you go to kick off your campaign at a school that has those policies and you don't say those policies are outside the American spirit, that's going to follow you for years."
The school's abrupt transformation has surprised many longtime observers of South Carolina politics. "In South Carolina there certainly are places that you hit when you're seeking office, and that's one of them," said John DeCrosta, a spokesman for Thurmond. "You go to Bob Jones like you go to the Darlington Motor Speedway."
Sen. Hutchinson, who said he voiced objections to his university's practices over dinner with Bob Jones III several years ago, said he does not expect any of his colleagues will venture onto campus during future campaigns.
"I think it's been made a lightning rod," he said. "I think politicians will be very reluctant to go."
Staff researchers Lynn Davis and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
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