How the Bob Jones University Frenzy Threatens Religious Freedom

by William L. Anderson

During a recent campaign swing in New York, Vice President Al Gore spoke at a Hasidic synagogue. As would be the case with any service conducted by this ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, the males filed into the seats, while their wives, daughters, and sisters took their places outside the assembly. Women did not take part in the service and were not even in the same room as the men.

No journalist afterward questioned Gore's commitment to women's rights, and Gore's political opponents attacked neither the vice president nor the synagogue where the service was held. This hands-off stance by the press was as it should have been, as individuals should be free to practice voluntary religious beliefs without government interference.

Unfortunately, George Bush, Jr., has not been a recipient of this same beneficence by the media. The recent attacks on Bush for having spoken to an assembly at Bob Jones University in South Carolina have not only damaged the Bush campaign, they also point to a more ominous trend in church/state relations. The politicians, in their frenzied zeal to win, and the media, ever in search of a controversy, have let an evil genie out of the bottle. It is not overstating the case to say that the current political climate is laying the groundwork for the end of religious freedom as we have known it since the founding of this republic. Even Bush's most recent primary victories in Virginia and Washington do not change that situation.

For most of the media and political candidates, the story is simple. When Bush spoke at BJU, a fundamentalist Christian university in Greenville that does not permit its students to engage in interracial dating, he failed to condemn that policy. Nor did Bush denounce statements made by the late Bob Jones II – the university's former president and father of current president Bob Jones III – that that the Pope is the Antichrist and that the Roman Catholic Church, along with the Mormon Church, are cults.

The first policy, according to the media critics, is racist, while the second amounts to religious bigotry. Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal condemned Bob Jones III as a "bigot", reiterating his denunciation on a recent edition of the "Capital Gang." His colleague Mark Shields declared the people at BJU to be "the cast of u2018Deliverance'." Not to be undone, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-SC, called BJU "a national embarrassment" and said he would sign a U.S. Senate resolution condemning the university. Sen. Robert Toricelli, D-NJ, is now in the process of preparing such an article of condemnation. According to these folks, fundamentalist Christian beliefs constitute bigotry, and all bigotry must be met by the full force of the law.

John McCain's campaign turned the controversy into a frenzy by calling Roman Catholics in Michigan to remind them of Bush's appearance at BJU. The tactics worked, as enraged Catholic voters, many of them Democrats, crowded the Michigan polls en masse to vote against Bush. The McCain campaign is doing the same thing with Mormons in Utah in preparation for the primary there. But while religious controversy worked to McCain's favor in Michigan, in the long term he, the media, and many Democrats have placed religious liberty in peril, as they have made political issues out of sectarian differences.

Even though it seems that McCain's recent attacks on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell actually might have worked against him, there is something more sinister about his religious scorched earth policy. For one, even though McCain has criticized Bush for not denouncing BJU's rules during his speech at the college, McCain also had an opportunity to do the same, but passed on it.

What few voters know, since the media did not report it, was that McCain met with many top people from Bob Jones University during a church service the week before the South Carolina primary. Originally scheduled to speak at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, McCain decided instead to accept an invitation to appear at Hampton Park Baptist Church, which is known in Greenville as "The Bob Jones Church."

Bob Jones III, most of his family, most top administrators, and many students from BJU either attend Hampton Park on a regular basis or are members there. Thus, when McCain spoke to his audience, he in effect was speaking to the majority of people who make the rules governing BJU. He was not ignorant of this fact, as his former South Carolina co-chairman, Terry Haskins, himself a BJU graduate, had informed him.

Instead of delivering a blistering condemnation of BJU for "religious bigotry," McCain instead gave his standard conservative stump speech. After he lost in South Carolina, however, McCain then decided that BJU was actually a den of racists and bigots. Before the vote, however, he competed with both Bush and Alan Keyes for the BJU faithful on their terms.

While some politicians and the media may decry what may seem to be bigotry on the part of Bob Jones University, there are issues of religious orthodoxy that cannot be resolved in a state-sponsored sensitivity training session. There are major differences in the doctrinal statements of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, some of which are mutually exclusive. The Roman doctrines hammered out at the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563 declared that those who held Protestant beliefs were “anathema,” which means they were accursed. Vatican Council II from 1962 to 1965 relaxed some of those doctrines, calling Protestants “separated brethren,” but great differences remain between the two Christian groups.

These doctrinal stands on behalf of the Roman Church do not constitute bigotry against Protestants. Rather, they reflect honest differences in how these two divisions of the Christian Church interpret the Bible and the work of Christ. In is in this light that people should examine the policies of Bob Jones University and of other religious organizations.

There are many religious beliefs and practices that violate the political zeitgeist. Many Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Presbyterian Church in America, refuse to ordain women to the ministry, citing the letters of St. Paul, which they hold to be sacred writings.

The clash of the prohibition of female ministers with modern political beliefs was highlighted by the unsuccessful attempt by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools to deny accreditation to Westminster Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Westminster has only ordained Presbyterian ministers from conservative denominations on its board of trustees, which means its board is all-male.

Middle States tried to refuse reaccreditation to Westminster because of its all-male board and would have been successful, had not then-U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander intervened. There is almost no doubt that the Clinton Administration or a future administration of Al Gore or Bill Bradley would side against this seminary and its policies. In the future, one can expect a major push by the Democrats to assail those denominations which do not ordain women or homosexuals.

The first line of attack against churches and other religious organizations is harassment by the Internal Revenue Service. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the IRS in stripping Bob Jones University of tax-exempt status for its policy against interracial dating. Never mind that BJU says it has the practice because the administrators there believe that is what the Bible teaches. Never mind that African American students at BJU are treated far better than black students at many of this country's elite universities, and that the policies are applied equally to all students, not just to those of one race.

In ruling against Bob Jones, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared, "Certain governmental interests are so compelling that conflicting religious practices must yield in their favor." With those words, the court made government the final arbiter of true religious orthodoxy. Religious groups are not free to practice their own beliefs, even if those beliefs harm no individuals. Had BJU's policies resulted in violence against a person, including murder, assault, or theft, the state would indeed have a legitimate reason to intervene. However, it must be emphasized that BJU is a voluntary society; people choose to attend of their own free will. The university's administration does not coerce anyone into being at BJU. Questions of whether or not the Bible permits interracial marriage among Christians or allows women to become priests are issues to be decided by theologians, not the state, and certainly not the IRS.

Because Bible fundamentalists like those at BJU are a tiny minority in our society, they are easy targets for politicians and journalists who disagree with them. The courts, however, have not singled out only Bob Jones in compelling Christian organizations to act against their own orthodox beliefs. A federal court recently forced Georgetown University, a Roman Catholic institution, to recognize a gay rights organization as an official campus club. University officials argued that Roman Catholic beliefs teach homosexuality is sin, but, again, the courts cited the "compelling interests" of the state in its decision.

With these anti-religion building blocks laid by the courts, it is no wonder that governments at all levels have become emboldened to act against churches. A Portland, Oregon, environmental official recently ordered a church in that city to stop feeding hungry people and restricted Sunday worship to 70 worshipers, despite the fact that the sanctuary can seat 500 people.

Perhaps the most ominous sign of encroachment by the state came last summer when Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to each member of the U.S. House of Representatives in which he denounced the Southern Baptist Convention for its efforts to convert Hindus to Christianity. McDermott later wrote the Convention itself, stating, "We cannot understand how men and women, raised and educated in the world's bastion of religious freedom and tolerance, can characterize another religion as spiritually dark and false."

These words clearly cross the line set by the framers of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. According to McDermott, because the United States practices political pluralism, no one should be permitted to try to convince an adherent of one religion to voluntarily convert to another. (Does this also mean McDermott believes that Democrats should not try to convince Republicans to cross to the other side and vice versa?)

When members of Congress take the oath of office, they promise to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." It seems that at least Rep. McDermott has decided to ignore his pledge.

Some of the presidential candidates have proven that attacks upon religious beliefs of some churches can successfully reap votes from people of opposing groups. Their actions, while politically popular in the short run, will have devastating long run consequences, for it sends the message that those in this country who hold religious beliefs that conflict with current political thought must be marginalized and ultimately punished. Politicians and their statist allies will become more and more emboldened in attacking Christians and others who hold minority beliefs. They have breached the true wall of separation of church and state, and only a concerted action by those who truly care about religious liberty can stop the impending tide.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of economics at North Greenville College in Tigerville, South Carolina. He is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.