God and Man at Bob Jones University
This past weekend I participated on a panel at the South Carolina Historical Association’s annual conference. Initially, I had been approached by a graduate student at the University of South Carolina to be part of a panel at the Southern, but when that did not work out, apparently the SCHA approached him about including our panel on the program. I agreed. Then I found out an interesting tidbit after we were accepted: The meeting was to be held at Bob Jones University. Which “stands without apology for the old-time religion and the absolute authority of the bible.” Does it ever.
Now before anyone jumps on me for being anti-religious, I am not. While I am not especially devout, I admire those who are, and I realize how important religion is for millions of Americans and indeed billions around the world. Furthermore, I have coached at a Catholic high school in the past and at various times have embraced religion more than others. I will also, however, be the first to admit that my tolerance has some limits. This weekend, Bob Jones University opened my eyes. It also reminded me of those limits.
Many of you best recall Bob Jones from the 2000 Election campaign when George Bush made a campaign appearance there to shore up his fundamentalist base but that also served to anger many more secular Americans. (There are literally thousands of articles available on the web. A good piece in Salon appears here) My first impression was not good, and I was probably courting disaster, or at least my share of fire and brimstone, when I blurted out in front of the coffee and donuts and with others in the room, “One would think that God would demand better architecture.” Fortunately that got (mostly) laughs. But the buildings at Bob Jones are ugly. I mean Joe Torre ugly. They have a sort of smoker’s tooth yellow brick theme going on that may have been all the rage among the Catholic- Jew- and Black-baiting crowd at mid-century, but it has not held up well. Campus itself is nice enough, and the people were super-friendly. Just joined a cult friendly. I expected them to start showing me lima beans shaped like “The Leader” (Simpson’s reference, folks).
My best friend, Matt, with whom I stayed in Asheville last week and who wanted to see a real live academic conference (shockingly, his wife passed), and I decided that with time to kill before my panel, we’d go check out the campus bookstore. It was like stepping in to another world. I am a pretty well read guy, especially in history. I kid you not – between the history and biography sections, I did not recognize more than ten books (Though I did pause to check out “Legalized gambling: America’s Bad Bet” – take that Bill Bennett!) Then I found the truly entertaining locations – the one set of shelves categorized “Cults” and another, “Creation Science.” Giddyup. Perhaps my favorite inclusion in the “Cults” section was a book simply titled “Roman Catholicism.” Under Creation Science (this one is like shooting fish in a barrel) perhaps the most representative title was “Evolution: The Fossils Still say No,” which might spark a good fundamentalist shoutin’ match when paired next to the book “56 reasons Why the Dinosaurs Did Not Exist.”
In any case, soon enough I had my panel, which was on the rise of the Republican Party in South Carolina. Although I was invited, my paper did not fit especially well, as it was titled “Into the Maw of Dixie: The Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Race in South Carolina” and where it dealt with the panel theme at all it did so only inasmuch as it addressed, in some depth, racial conservatism in South Carolina up to 1960, and in any case, racial conservatism in South Carolina at that point was Democratic party issue. I did have one overt reference to Bob Jones, which I had written in long before I ever knew about the conference, in which I wrote, “The political climate went hand in hand with the cultural climate in much of South Carolina. Bob Jones University proved to be a bulwark against integration and just about any form of social advancement among South Carolina’s fundamentalist white denizens.” I was not stricken by lightning, though perhaps because preceding me was a quite solid paper by a Brown University ABD titled “The Cross and the Elephant: Southern White Evangelicals’ Commitment to the Republican Party, 1960-1994” that may well have warranted God’s wrath via Bob Jones III even more than mine.
In the end, the chair of the panel, the estimable Jack Bass, really liked all three papers, including another on General Westmoreland’s ill-fated 1974 run for the GOP nomination for South Carolina’s governorship. After the session ended, Matt and I took one last walk around Bob Jones, with its friendly faces, pretty women in long skirts (no wanton Achilles-heel-showing), and askew perspectives on history, politics, and God, and went in search of barbecue. We had survived.
Daniel L Turner - 6/29/2006
I found the comments about BJU's architecture in the Catsam post interesting given the experience of a Greenville friend who is a nationally reknowned architect. When visitors arrive in Greenville, his first stop is the BJU campus, where he revels in what he terms the "classic modern" design of the original buildings. Unfortunately, the themes of the orginal buildings have been somewhat diminished by functional sidewalk covers (needed because of the heavy rains)and building additions that vary in design consistency. He has no time for the faux classicism of red-bricked Furman U, which he critiques as "without true character."
The BJU Gallery is indeed without peer in the Western Hemisphere. Those who diss it out of religious or "scholarly" bias--such as that exhibited in the Catsam joust with bookstore straw men--are missing one of the great experiences in North America.
Scott Buchanan - 9/17/2004
I am currently a student at BJU, and I wanted to clear up any confusion about this. The high, barbed-wire fence is a common myth about Bob Jones.
I suspect this myth came from the barbed wire around the Bob Jones Press complex. As an industrial center, it is not unusual to see a chained link fence.
The actual campus has only a relatively short, ornamental, cast-iron fence around it. To imply anything about BJU because of the fence is a red herring. Harvard in Cambridge has a more imposing fence and gate than BJ!
Derek Charles Catsam - 3/9/2004
Beyond the buildings themselves, Bob Jones was not a uniquely ugly campus. And yes, they are rightfully proud of the museum.
Michael C Tinkler - 3/9/2004
If you want beauty at Bob Jones you have to go INSIDE the http://www.bjumg.org/" target=" blank">gallery. If you like Baroque the web page isn't exaggerating much at all. Bob Jones, jr., collected it to illustrate "Bible Stories," but since that's a lot of what the Counter Reformation Church was asking artists to paint there was a lot of it around to buy.
Richard Henry Morgan - 3/9/2004
I think I drove by that place a quarter century ago, and was stricken (if I remember correctly) that the place did not have the feeling of an open campus, nor a cloister, but was surrounded by 10 ft high chainlink fence -- is it just my imagination, or was there barbed wire at the top? I thought it a bit spooky.
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