Brief Thoughts on Bob Jones III

“As I wandered through the salon, I played a little game with myself. This man had written his first concerto at the age of four. His first symphony at seven, a full-scale opera at twelve! Did it show? Is talent like that written on the face?”

–Salieri, in Amadeus

“Take a good look, my dear. It’s a historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watch the Old South fall one night.”

–Rhett Butler, in Gone with the Wind

“Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”

–Matthew 18:7 (KJV)

Without giving away a whole bunch of details, I was in the presence of Bob Jones III recently. Many people are during the course of a day, I’m sure, but he arrived by surprise at the event in question, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to see him. He was much more familiar to the people I was with than he was to me; if not for a whisper in my ear, I couldn’t possibly have known that I was in the presence of a man who had taken part in a lawsuit against the federal government. I don’t know that I could have been more starstruck if George W. Bush had shown up.

Bob Jones III was born in 1939, the same year that Gone with the Wind entered theaters. By the time he was a student at Bob Jones University, it had been in Greenville, South Carolina for a few years; he was the first of the Bob Joneses (of whom there are/were four, at this writing) to attend the school in Greenville, where it has landed permanently after a couple of misfires in Florida and Tennessee.

In the eyes of the nation, South Carolina suffers from its indistinction as one of those several racist fundamentalist states in the same way that Maryland is supposedly part of New England in the minds of anyone not from the Northeast, or how California is viewed as one big Los Angeles by people who have only watched television. Only the fortieth-largest in the Union, shaped like a diamond which has just been hit on the head with a sledgehammer, one can drive from the hammer strike at Rock Hill to the bottom tip at Hilton Head Island in a little more than three hours. From Easley in the northwest to Myrtle Beach on the Atlantic takes a little more than four. The state itself is dominated by its three major cities, none of which has a metro area surpassing a million people. Respectively: in the Upstate, Greenville is the epicenter; in the Midlands, the state capital of Columbia; on the Atlantic coast, Charleston. Charleston is antebellum and fashionable; Columbia is notable for its proof that air conditioning can actually support human life and for being just about the only city where Sherman tried to extinguish a fire; Greenville is, despite its shortcomings, is probably the most cosmopolitan and fastest-growing area in the state. By contrast, Bob Jones, which is located on a bustling local highway not far from the best-reviewed high school in Greenville County and only ten minutes from downtown Greenville, is starting to feel like a relic to the local population. Even at other local universities – even conservative ones like Furman, which is fifteen minutes or so from Bob Jones and was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention until the early 1990s – Bob Jones and its students tend to get the look usually reserved for one’s weird uncle at holiday get-togethers.

The tone at Bob Jones has always been set by its presidents; its presidents, from its inception in 1927 until 2014, were the lineage of Bob Jones, Sr. I have always thought that people would take the school more seriously if they had not all named their sons Bob, and if their sons were not all president. They must have felt differently. The reign of Bob Jones, Sr. fell to his son, Bob Jones, Jr., who was succeeded by his son, Bob Jones III, who was succeeded by his son, Stephen Jones. (There is a Bob Jones IV, for those of you keeping track at home. In 2005, he was working for a Christian magazine. That was ten years ago. For all I know, he’s looking for Dr. Livingstone now.) Stephen Jones, like Hamlet’s father, was a victim of a troubled ear; unlike King Hamlet, Stephen Jones is still alive. Due to some lingering health issues, Steve Petit (who did not attend BJU for undergrad and bears no relation to the Jones family), was named president. It seems likely that when Bob Jones III goes, he will be buried on campus; his father and grandfather are both buried there.

Since the beginning, Bob Jones University and its presidents have had a distinctive tone; for the casual listener, it’s been kind of like this. The presidents and the school have been on the wrong side of history almost since their inception. It’s been suggested that Bob Jones, Sr. started the school in response to the perceived threat of the Scopes trial. Bob Jones, Jr., who was a man of some culture – Bob Jones University has arguably the finest collection of religious art in North America because of him – also spent most of his life in a pissing match with Billy Graham because Graham teamed up with Catholics; Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were not much beloved of Jones, Jr. either for similar reasons. But none of the school’s presidents have made as much of a stir as Bob Jones III.

Fundamentalism is like a pot of tea. If it is not steeped for long enough, or with the correct amount of water, or at the right temperature, it won’t achieve its most delicious flavor. Bob Jones, Sr., for all of his Billy Sunday qualifications, was not steeped enough; Bob Jones, Jr. always had too many extracurricular interests, so there were never quite enough tea leaves in the sachet to reach the full-bodied flavor necessary to really play on the palate properly. But Bob Jones III, who made Bob Jones University his life for fifty years, was perfectly steeped. By that time, the fundamental tradition with the Bob Jones additives had been perfected; the family recipe had been made just right.

Bob Jones, Jr. had been controversial, certainly. (Saying shortly after the death of Pope Paul VI that he was an “archpriest of Satan” and “has, like Judas, gone to his own place” was par for the course.) But when Bob Jones III took over, Bob Jones University became a signal phrase for lingering racism and prejudice. This is, on its face, perhaps ironic. In 1971, the university began enrolling black students for the first time; this sounds late, and of course it is, but by local standards they were surprisingly close to Furman and Clemson, who had only begun enrolling black students within the previous decade. 1971 was the first year of Bob Jones III’s presidency.

This was not, however, the age of a new and kind and non-racist community. Bob Jones University, while allowing black students, sure as heckfire wasn’t going to allow black and white students to date. In 1970, the IRS told Bob Jones University that because of their discriminatory policies, the university would lose its tax-exempt status. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that a more racially permissive admissions policy was instituted in 1971; so, too, was a lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed that the BJU had a First Amendment right to their policies, including the ones concerning interracial dating, due to religious beliefs. In 1983, Bob Jones University was the subject of a landmark case in which the Supreme Court found that the federal government, when it has a reasonable interest in preserving its national policies, can infringe on those First Amendment rights. The lone dissenter in the case was future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. This striking chapter of the BJU story is not included on the university’s page about its history.

Bob Jones III was still on the wrong side of history as regards race, and stayed there until, with a vaguely chiliastic turn, he and the Board changed the interracial dating policy in 2000, after it came to national attention during the primaries. George W. Bush gave a speech at BJU – which any Republican worth his salt needed to do if he was to get the Jones’ crucial vote of support in South Carolina – and found himself savaged by Democrats and Republicans alike for his appearance at a school that still didn’t allow blacks and whites to date and which still contended for the unequivocal damnation of Catholics and Mormons. Bush claimed not to know anything about BJU’s policies; this seems incredible to me, because I sure as heck would remember if someone referred to my father as a “devil.” (Amusingly enough, a BJU professor sent out an e-mail rumor that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate child of color, using the McCains’ adopted Bangladeshi daughter, Bridget, as proof of his indiscretion. The Internet, even in its younger years, was for porn.)

If you leave a pot of tea too long, the flavor of the tea itself is lost as surely as it would be if it weren’t steeped long enough. To me, this (and maybe nominative determinism) is why Stephen Jones actively backed away from the political scene. When he tasted the tea, it was much too acrid, much too severe, maybe even antiseptic. A third generation of steeping had not settled well with the present generation of Joneses; Stephen’s administration, while still shockingly fundamental, is shockingly liberal in context, and the fact that it was not Bob Jones IV’s administration is, in my eyes, further proof of burned tongues and offended tastebuds within the Family.

But the sins of the fathers, etc. Last year, an independent Christian organization came to Bob Jones University and its alumni, asking questions about their view of how BJU handled sexual abuse. The results were, frankly, disturbing. More than half of individuals surveyed said that they thought the university blamed them, asking them what they did to invite sexual abuse from family members or peers. The organization even recommended that Bob Jones III be somehow censured by the university (“personnel action”) for his role in further damaging the psyches of victims. That would be a sensational identity crisis for the university. However, if there’s something that Bob Jones University has in common with the Catholic Church (aside from, y’know, the whole “Christianity” thing), it’s that they are reluctant to actively criticize the popes who came before. Stephen Jones, when he acceded to the presidency in 2005, merely stated that he had no interest in being the vocal political dynamo that his forbears had been. Performing Measure for Measure was still going to be out, of course, as it does not adequately discuss the “moral repercussions” of fornication. And the student handbook still reads like it was written by this guy. And GRACE, the aforementioned independent organization, still came to his school and made national headlines. And it is no secret that Bob Jones University has been witnessing a serious downturn in applications even as every eighteen-year-old in America wants to go to college. Truly, it’s no wonder that their pope is no longer Italian; the shift to a new man in the presidency in a time of crisis recalls Ecclesiastes.

What I find utterly fascinating about Bob Jones III is how often he changes his mind. After calling George H.W. Bush a devil when Reagan made him his running mate, he ultimately decided that Bush had been a “good president,” shaking his hand in the Oval Office. In the 1960s, he said that the only proper place for a black person at a white man’s table was serving. In the 1970s, his university started letting black people in; in 2000, he dramatically announced on Larry King Live that the interracial dating policy was going belly-up. In 1980, he said that we would have fewer problems in this nation if we just stoned the homosexuals like the Bible says to do. Earlier this year, he backtracked on that as well, stating that those words seemed like those of a “total stranger.” Bob Jones III is seventy-five now, and although he looks to be in fair health, I seriously doubt he has another thirty-five years in him; perhaps God will allow him to reach the age of Joseph and Joshua, but perhaps not. I wonder, if God does give him another thirty-five years to think, might he not change his mind about who bears the responsibility for the offenses of sexual abuse?

His changing views put me in mind of a delicious Stephen Fry quote which I’m going to link to here, but I’ll also excerpt below:

But on the other hand, we must remember, as the point was made, that the Church is very loose on moral evils, because although they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and the Enlightenment of somehow what they call “moral relativism” as if it’s some appalling sin where what it actually means is thought. They, for example, thought that slavery was perfectly fine. Absolutely okay, and then they didn’t. And what is the point of the Catholic Church if it says, ‘Well, we couldn’t know any better because nobody else did.’ Then what are you for?

What are you for? To me, this is the absolutely crucial question that Christians must account for, one that has haunted me (as a Christian) ever since I first heard it. If Christianity is the offshoot of a perfect god, and (here’s the clincher), people on Earth claim the authority to translate the will of God and the continued authority to enforce the will of God, it seems to me that Christians have a responsibility to be right all the time about what the will of God is. There seem to me four answers that Christians can provide to the question of interpreting the will of God, which, if correct, would also answer the question of what Christianity is for.

  1. Think Biblical inerrancy.
  2. Think everything is the will of God.
  3. Think ahead.
  4. Think nothing.

(1) is not quite what Bob Jones III is preaching, but it’s close to the untrained eye. If the Bible is inerrant, then everything within it must be true. Never mind that Matthew and Luke have totally different perspectives on the genealogy of Jesus, or that Paul actually contradicts Jesus on several occasions (my personal favorite being Paul’s contention in Romans 10 that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by our adherence to the Law; Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5 as saying that he came not to abolish the Law but fulfill it, and that the Law will last as long as Heaven and Earth), or any number of other contradictions. But if the Bible says it, then it’s true. It’s not intelligent, but it is intellectually honest.

(2) is not far off from what I currently believe. Abraham Lincoln’s explanation of Divine Will is still about as elegant in its brevity as any I’ve ever read. There’s something comforting in the idea that everything is the Will of God. Isaiah certainly seems to have thought so. But believing this is difficult; it is hard to tell someone whose child has died that a merciful God wanted that child to die; it is hard to tell the victims of Hurricane Katrina that a loving God wished to wreak destruction upon them; it is hard to tell a woman who has been raped that an all-powerful God refused to intervene. I’ve often read that God did not plan for these things; he merely allowed people to bring Sin into the world, and it’s our fault. But what kind of God does that?

(3) The problem with this option is that it requires creativity from a religious group that abhors creativity, that people were somehow less sinful and wayward in a time when you weren’t there to witness their indiscretions. It requires an adherence to the Second Commandment that understands that Tradition is as dangerous a graven image as any Golden Calf. It requires a total lack of condescension and a total grasp of humility, which, as I get older, I begin to doubt is possible. But some folks try. Rob Bell, whose stab at creativity in Love Wins has returned scads of damning articles from people like, well, Bob Jones III, belongs in this group. So does John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister from Tennessee, and John Shelby Spong, the Episcopalian bishop who is even older than Bob Jones III and has ideas that would make his remaining hair fall out in clumps.

(4) Bob Jones III and his Christianity, which is a supermajority even for those many who might not agree with him, are seed along the path. What are they for?

When Bob Jones III left the event I was at, he lost his footing for a moment, and I was afraid that he was going to fall and break his hip. He didn’t, obviously, or we would have heard about it. He is tall, and watching tall men trip is always frightening because their limbs are longer and it’s hard to know exactly where or how they’ll land. He regained his balance and walked off.

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