When GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Ben Carson visited Bob Jones University last week in separate events, it signaled to many in the political community that the evangelical institution in Greenville once again was ready for the national political limelight.
The fundamentalist Christian school had once been an obligatory stop for GOP conservatives running for president, attracting the likes of Ronald Reagan in 1980 to George W. Bush in 2000.
But BJU’s policies banning interracial dating, which ended after Bush’s visit, and its branding of Catholicism by a former BJU president as a “satanic counterfeit,” along with a political disinterest by a later BJU president, made the campus less a routine campaign destination – until this year.
BJU President Steve Pettit, who took office in 2014, said while the school is not endorsing a presidential candidate, he wants to open its doors so that students can learn about the process.
“We’re happy Carson’s coming. We’re happy Cruz is coming,” he said last week. “We realize this is an important event in the history of our country and we want to do our part in giving our students the opportunity to be educated and make right choices.”
Former Gov. David Beasley, who introduced Bush to the campus in 2000 and received an honorary degree from BJU, said the school is a “very integral and important part of the South Carolina community.”
“It would be a tragedy, in my opinion, for anyone seeking to be a leader of all the people of South Carolina and the United States not to give them an audience,” he said of the school.
The candidates have come to BJU this year unsolicited, Pettit said.
Among those who have met with Pettit have been Marco Rubio, Cruz, Rick Perry (who has since left the race) and Mike Huckabee. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also left the race, telephoned him as a candidate.
Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich have contacted his office to come and meet.
“We are considered leaders in the Christian community, the strong evangelical conservative community, so they are obviously wanting to have us interested in them,” he said.
Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political science professor, said the school offers value to candidates.
“If you are trying to reach voters in the South Carolina primary, and also if you are trying to communicate with a certain group of voters nationally, that’s not a bad visit to make,” she said. “Bob Jones University, in terms of its role in campaigns, is probably not as strong as it once was. But they still have a lot of students who stay in the Greenville area and stay in South Carolina and they are politically active.”
The ranks of Republicans who have visited the campus over the years reads like a Who’s Who of American politics: Reagan, Dan Quayle, Pat Buchanan, Bob Dole, Alan Keyes, John Connolly, Phil Graham and Ron Paul, to name a few.
The school has awarded honorary degrees to another list of famous political figures, including Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Olin Johnston, Bob Inglis, Lindsey Graham, John D. Ashcroft, Jesse Helms and Beasley.
But it was Bush’s visit 15 years ago that triggered a wave of political attacks against the school over its policies banning interracial dating and its branding of Catholicism as a “satanic counterfeit.”
Egged on by Democrats, lawmakers in Congress that year introduced resolutions condemning the school’s policies, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, Bush’s rival that year for the nomination, joined the protests.
Bush eventually apologized for not condemning those policies, and the school that year eliminated the interracial ban.
“There was a certain amount of backlash” to Bush’s visit, Beasley said, “but it backfired against those who tried to make that an issue.
“I think that is one of the great reasons you end up going to a campus where you don’t agree with all of their positions,” he said. “You would hope that you would have an influence on the thinking. It’s hard to deny that the presidential campaign did not force a re-evaluation of some of the policies on the campus.”
Eight years later, BJU President Stephen Jones, the son and grandson of BJU presidents, issued a statement saying the school was “profoundly sorry” for policies that were “racially hurtful.”
Jones, who held office from 2005-14, was not particularly interested in drawing political candidates to the campus.
Some visited in classrooms or other facilities but not in any major events.
Until this year.
Pettit said the school’s former racial policies are ancient history.
“We are so behind that,” he said. “I don’t hold that position. I never held that position.”
He said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the state’s first African-American, contacted him about hosting a town hall with Carson.
“His statement was to show the improving race relationships in the state of South Carolina,” Pettit said. “Because we are in line with appropriate race relationships with anybody.”
He met Carson once in the airport in Greenville. “We were standing in line. I said, ‘Ben Carson.’ He was very kind, and I told him who I was and we sat on the same plane together.”
Cruz, he said, came to BJU to ask whether he could hold a religious liberty rally on campus.
“I’m sure he did it with the belief that we would be closely aligned in our thinking on those issues,” he said. “I’ve had no discussions with him on anything of where he stands.”
In fact, Pettit said, he would be out of town during the rally. He’s said he has heard Cruz’s testimony of faith.
“Very inspiring, moving,” he said. “So we would be very closely aligned with him on those issues. Some of these others. We’re not that involved in those political issues at this point because we’re an educational institution. I haven’t really had those conversations with him.”
Rep. Wendy Nanney, a Greenville Republican and BJU graduate, said Jones, the former BJU president, didn’t really want to get involved in the political arena.
“It’s a new era,” she said. “It’s a different time now and I don’t think it’s going to be a negative for anybody. The school obviously is not coming out and endorsing a candidate. They are just giving their students the opportunity to meet candidates and that’s a great thing.”
Chip Felkel, a Greenville GOP political consultant, said he is not surprised BJU is once again hosting political events with presidential candidates.
“I guess this is a bit of re-emergence for them in a politically active role that they took for a while,” he said. “It’s a base of voters that can be counted on to vote for a conservative candidate.”
He said there are some candidates that are “perhaps more of a fit” for BJU than others.
“We see a very broad range of candidates for president and some of those more closely identify with the folks at Bob Jones,” he said. “So it makes sense for them to want to be there.”
And he said the school has “come a ways” in dealing with issues such as race.
“I think it does open up the opportunity for them to bring candidates on campus now that maybe a couple years ago would not have been as receptive to visiting,” he said.
Vinson said enough time has passed from the controversies of 15 years ago that BJU now is a “perfectly reasonable campaign stop.”
And with so many candidates, some are looking for boosts “anywhere you can find them.”
“So a Ted Cruz showing up at an event to not just cede that group to Carson, that makes sense,” she said.
Pettit said he participates in candidate visits but is not endorsing anyone.
“I think as an American citizen we have individual responsibility within our own country,” he said. “It’s the United States of America, and it’s a democratic republic. We have responsibilities in what we should do as citizens. I want our student body to recognize that. I just think it’s an important thing for us to do, to have influence, and the influence that’s been given to us. So that’s pretty much my thinking on it.”