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Primary Memories

A graduate comes to terms with Bob Jones University in the 2000 primary

Then-candidate George W. Bush spoke to about 6,000 students at Bob Jones University in 2000.
Then-candidate George W. Bush spoke to about 6,000 students at Bob Jones University in 2000. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

I was a fish out of water in the Concord Monitor newsroom, awe-struck by my quick-witted, confident colleagues with their short skirts and fat Rolodexes. Think Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada” — but with a 60 percent higher frump factor.

This was especially true during the New Hampshire presidential primary in 2000 — my first as a reporter in my home state. While everyone else was salivating over campaign visits and poll numbers, I was hunched in my corner, dutifully reporting on some Eagle Scout project or library renovation as I tried to avoid eye contact.

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Then, just as the last campaign buses were rolling out of our state, Senator John McCain nudged me into the spotlight, or the edge of it anyway.

The day after McCain defeated him in New Hampshire, George W. Bush delivered a campaign speech at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Stumping at the school was something of a Republican tradition, but until then no one had made much of its increasingly outdated ideologies and policies.

That day, McCain seized on the chance to expose the university’s anti-Catholic sentiments and ban on interracial dating. He excoriated Bush for courting the school’s influence.

And suddenly, there it was, all over the news. Bob Jones University. My alma mater.

Having turned sharply away from my fundamentalist background in the four years since I’d graduated and returned to my hometown, I felt no duty to defend the school. But people who knew I’d attended the school wanted to hear my take on the matter. All at once, I was the insider.

Obligingly, I wrote an opinion piece describing my experiences inside the Bob Jones University bubble and urging more tolerance for different points of view.

Meanwhile, other folks had some real explaining to do.

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Bush went on the defensive, separating himself from the school’s ideology while maintaining his right to appear there. “When I go to speak to voters, I don’t necessarily have to embrace the policies of the university,” he said.

Later, after losing the Michigan primary to McCain, he further distanced himself from the school while taking a swipe at McCain’s tactics.

“I reject bigotry, I reject prejudice, I repudiate anti-Catholicism and racism,” he declared. “And I reject the politics of those who try to pit one group of Americans against another, of those who try to divide us based upon our race or based upon our faith.”

Jeb Bush, a converted Catholic and governor of Florida, then came to his brother’s defense on “The Today Show,” offering examples of other politicians who had addressed audiences with whom their values didn’t align. The governor added he would be willing to speak there as well (fast forward 15 years, there’s no word of a Bush-Bob Jones sequel).

Finally, most shockingly to those of us raised in the unapologetic culture of fundamentalism, Bob Jones III appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to announce the school was dropping its interracial dating ban.

The grandson of the school’s founder and president of the university, Jones explained to King that the ban, which had cost the school its tax exempt status in 1983, was part of the school’s resistance to “one world order.” Part of Biblical literalist doctrine, “one world order” is believed to signify the end of time, as governments, religions, and races come together and the antichrist appears on Earth.

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Bob Jones III had discussed his “one world order” theories in plenty of sermons to his captive audience of conservative Christian, overwhelmingly white college students. It wasn’t until he was pressured to explain them to the outside world that he realized or admitted they held no water as a basis for discriminatory policies. (Several years later, under new leadership, the school went so far as to apologize for its racist past.)

Following in the tradition of his Republican predecessors, George W. Bush evidently never gave a thought to those policies either.

And I, for all the effort I’d put into paddling madly away from the island of religious dogma, was still within its tidal pull. Largely missing from my first-person article on Bush’s campaign misstep was any thoughtful examination of the racist policy that was making headlines.

I’d known about the interracial dating ban, but I had been blind to its rationale or impact. There were no more than a couple of black students at the school during my years there, and it never occurred to me that perhaps the school’s rules and practices had a little something to do with its absence of diversity.

To digest Bob Jones III’s “one world order” theory, one needs to be deeply indoctrinated in evangelical Christianity and receive heavy doses of paranoia. But looking back, I can see he was right about one thing. In 2000, we were at the dawn of a globalized society. And one of the great social benefits of globalization is the way it opens our eyes to other cultures and ways of living.

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I’m an English-as-a-second-language teacher now, and I’m just as likely to find myself explaining the grammar of the preceding paragraph as the content. And here’s what I’ve learned: You have no idea what you’re talking about, whether it’s participle phrases or institutionalized racism or guns or health care or gay marriage, until you’ve explained it — really explained it — to an outsider.

American elections, in spite of — and sometimes because of — their dirt-digging, mud-slinging, and petty partisan bickering, give us the chance to scrutinize our own cultures and subcultures, from both the outside-in and the inside-out.

Sarah Earle was a reporter, editor and contributor to the Concord Monitor. She teaches English to new Americans and international college students in the Concord area.