The Bob Jones University Factor


In the 2000, George W. Bush, who said in a nationally-televised debate that his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ “because he changed my heart,” easily won the Iowa caucuses, appealing to the strong evangelical base in the Hawkeye State.

But as is often the case, the voters of New Hampshire sent a stern rebuke to Iowa when it supported Arizona senator John McCain.  McCain won comfortably over Bush in New Hampshire (48%-30%).

And then the campaigns headed to South Carolina.

The South Carolina GOP primary was very ugly.  Bush supporters painted Cindy McCain as a drug addict, said John’s daughter was the product of an “illicit union,” and wondered if the Arizona senator was mentally fit to be president.

Bush also took his campaign to Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina.  GOP candidates had been to Bob Jones before. Ronald Reagan spoke there in 1980.  Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Bob Dole, and Alan Keyes had all made appearances in the 1990s.  But Bush’s visit in 2000 was different, largely because his opponent was John McCain.

Like today, upstate South Carolina in 2000 was a fierce political battleground.  Evangelical votes were the prize.  McCain and other Democrats criticized Bush heavily for speaking at Bob Jones.  The fundamentalist university did not allow black students until the 1970s and, at the time of Bush’s appearance, still banned interracial dating.

McCain also criticized the school for its long history of anti-Catholicism. When Pope John Paul II visited Bob Jones University in 1987, Bob Jones Jr. said he would rather “speak to the devil himself” than meet with the Pope.  McCain told the leadership of the school to “get out of the sixteenth century.”

Bush won South Carolina by more than eleven percentage points.

A lot has changed since 2000.  Bob Jones appears to have become slightly more open.  In the wake of South Carolina primary, president Bob Jones III went on Larry King Live and announced that he was lifting the ban on interracial dating.

After the 2000 Bush visit, Bob Jones University, under the leadership of Stephen Jones, made a decision to stay out of presidential politics.  (Despite the fact that his father, Bob Jones III, endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008).

But today the Greenville university is once again inviting GOP presidential candidates to speak.  President Steve Pettit has had personal meetings with Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Scot Walker.  Ted Cruz and Ben Carson have spoken on the campus.

And this week, Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and Jeb Bush will be back for the Faith and Family Presidential Forum.  Bob Jones has about 3000 students.  I am guessing most of them vote Republican.


3 thoughts on “The Bob Jones University Factor

  1. Camille. This is great context. Thanks for stopping by the blog! By the way, let me know if you want to write something up for the blog about the GOP candidates passing through your neck of the woods. Will you be going to BJU to listen to Cruz?


  2. Trump and Kasich do *not* have a visit planned to BJU this Friday, and their poll numbers are on the rise. As a Greenville, SC county resident, I find this fascinating. It seems those candidates whose numbers are declining are visiting the campus as a last ditch effort, but I have a sense that it will not help them. I see little to no support for Bush, Cruz, and Rubio. I see a few supporting Carson. My parents are voting for Kasich. And I saw a shredded Christie sign on the side of the road just this evening.

    The Trump support baffles me. My 9yo was incensed at the foul bumper stickers supporting Trump in the elementary school car line last week.

    I, however, am voting for Sanders, even though Albright and Steinem have told me I’m going to hell for doing so. And I see no support for Clinton in these parts either.

    The Upstate is a strange animal compared to the rest of the state, however. We’re more Appalachian than Deep South, and the Know-Nothing populist strain might just speak more loudly than the religious right.

    Campaign 2000 was the inspiration for my dissertation topic (Indiana University), published through Baylor ( I cover the ups and downs of the entire rhetorical enterprise, but I was still employed at BJU when it was published in 2006. That’s another story. The administration forced me to remove an added chapter under threat of termination. They forced us out anyway.

    South Carolina is buzzing at least.

    Best to you,

    Camille K. Lewis


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