Bob Jones University. Isn’t that the segregationist place down in South Carolina someplace?
Well, yes and no; or, rather, no and yes. BJU is in Greenville, South Carolina. And it did lose its tax exemption not long ago because its administration—which means the Reverend Dr. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder—forbids interracial dating on what it/he believes to be biblical grounds. But if Bob Jones is racist, in the strict sense of that much-misused word, it is hardly segregationist: it has a number of black students, and yellow ones and probably red ones, too. In an odd way. Bob Jones is a very cosmopolitan place.
Perhaps you never heard anything good about it, but there are circles, worldwide, in which it’s regarded as not just a reputable school, but an outstanding one. Among those who share its brand of orthodoxy, it has an international reputation and international connections. Ian Paisley was an honored guest last summer at a World Congress of Fundamentalists, and its students come from all over for what it, almost uniquely, offers.
Bob Jones is, first and last, an institution dedicated to its founder’s version of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. It offers pretty much the usual range of postsecondary instruction, but within that framework. In one recruiting ad, for instance, a young graduate reports that her business degree and the Lord’s blessing secured her a post with the largest bank in northeastern Alabama. Its education school seems to train teachers primarily for fundamentalist private academies (and its university press publishes an extensive line of textbooks for such schools). BJU also trains preachers of the Gospel, as understood by Dr. Bob, and it trains them well, by its own lights, offering courses even in “missionary aviation.” BJU-trained missionaries—flying and earthbound—have extended the school’s reputation to some of the least hospitable corners of the globe.
Bob Jones calls itself the “World’s Most Unusual University” (its radio station is WMUU), and it may be right. Although it has a very Southern flavor to it, the school has little to do with the middle-sized Southern city in which it is located (and one gathers that both BJU and Greenville prefer it that way). Visitors are welcome, although they must pass a guardhouse at the entrance to campus. Smoking is forbidden, obviously. A discreet sign on the museum states that modest dress is required. (Fair enough: I’ve seen similar signs in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.)
When I visited Bob Jones one afternoon last winter, it was like stepping through a time warp, back to a 1957 that never really was. Although I was, as a matter of fact, in the company of an interracial couple (Caucasian-Oriental), I don’t think we drew any disapproving glances on that score. But I was self-conscious for the first time in years about my modest crop of facial hair.
The dominant first impression of BJU students is one of healthy vigor: for boys, the muscular Christian mode; for girls, the perky style I always associate with cheerleaders. Closer examination reveals a pretty full complement of tubby late-adolescents and pimply ectomorphs, but these actual physical facts are effectively disguised by a stern dress code. Young men must wear coats and ties, often suits. Young women wear over-the-knee skirts that look weirdly sexy to anyone who was a teenaged boy 30 years ago. I am told—I hope it’s true—that Bob Jones women were forbidden to wear makeup until that became a mark of the counterculture, whereupon they were required to wear it. I do know that BJU now offers instruction in “cosmetology.”
All students of both sexes are earnest in appearance and restrained in demeanor. Many look like the kind who would tell you that they have nothing against good, clean fun. They look ready—even eager—to help the visitor with directions, physical or spiritual, or to explain why Billy Graham is a renegade. Surely some students are there grumpily, because their parents thought it would be good for them, but they cannot be detected on sight—and probably a good thing for them, too.
The school’s campus is modern, not to say moderne—much of it in yellow brick, late art deco. It is intensively landscaped and largely maintained by students. Boys are allowed to wear blue jeans while gardening, although it looked to me as if few choose to do so.
The university is justly proud of its museum of religious art, twenty-odd rooms of it. Some of it is very fine indeed: we’re not talking about Last Supper bedspreads here. All of the art is old and European, which is to say Papist. Some of the martyrs depicted look even less comfortable than usual, which I attribute to their incongruous setting. Ian Paisley must have been almost as pained himself at all the reliquaries and portraits of bishops.
The bookstore, nearby, offers the usual assortment of T-shirts, mugs (coffee, not beer), pennants, and souvenirs, as well as some Most Unusual books. One examines Satanism in rock music. Another, called A Church Built on Sand, condemns the liberalism of the Southern Baptist Convention. The cover shows a church (with a more than incidental similarity to the Southern Baptist church across the road from the BJU guardhouse) sinking into quicksand.
Across from the bookstore is another large building, with an enormous room on the second floor filled with dozens of sofas. It is used for “dating,” which means sitting and conversing, under supervision. When I was there, a handwritten sign announced “No Dating Friday Afternoon.” The room was empty.
In the same building is a state-of-the-art multimedia center (excuse the expression), which offers daily presentations for prospective students and donors. My friends and I were neither, but went anyway. The production (by the BJU media department) is very impressive, very flashy, very well thought-out. Like the aviation courses, it forcibly reminded me that BJU’s attitude toward the 1980’s is not simply adversarial. Bob Jones people are not rigid traditionalists like the Amish. Indeed, it may be a mistake to think of them as traditionalists at all. It takes a lot of money to run a show like this, for instance, and BJU obviously has it, even after taxes. A loyal constituency helps, of course, but so does modern management and the whole apparatus of modern marketing, direct mail, and all the rest. Old wine, perhaps, but very new bottles.
No, the school admits modernity, but wants it selectively, and on its own terms. It does seem to regard the outside world with considerable suspicion, and vice versa. Not surprisingly, there is something of a fortress atmosphere about BJU, and, for whatever reason, many outsiders profess to find the place somewhat frightening. The multimedia presentation has an odd emphasis on how efficient campus security is; across town, at (Southern Baptist) Furman University, the folklore among liberal faculty members has it that BJU is stockpiling arms.
I gather that the school did apply, unsuccessfully, for permission to arm its campus police with automatic weapons, and a conspiracy theorist might speculate about the connection between this alleged passion for weaponry and the school’s links to the Protestants of Ulster. It seems to me, though, that those who find BJU scary tend to be liberal Protestants, perhaps especially Baptists, who fear that they see in it the dark side of their own tradition. An outsider like me can look at it with a good deal more equanimity and, from a distance, I find it an interesting and colorful tile in the American mosaic. Up close, it is, at worst, unpleasant—and no more so than any other exclusivist sectarian community. Bob Jones poses no clear and present danger to constitutional government or civil disorder. Among its supporters, the rank and file, at least, are utterly sincere in their beliefs and give up a great deal in consequence. These are a stiff-necked people, and a peculiar one, but admirable in some ways.
I don’t think they have the answer. But they’re not the problem.