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Catholic bashing?

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Bush's visit to Bob Jones University and a fight over the House chaplain put the G.O.P. in an awkward situation

February 28, 2000
Web posted at: 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT)

Spring has come to Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. The crape myrtles are in bloom, and the peach-toned brick buildings glow creamily in the afternoon sun. The cheery campus hardly recalls the school's old self-description as the "World's Most Unusual University." Not, at least, until one wanders by the bookstore and sees material on Catholicism under the heading "Cults." Or converses with an earnest young music major near an administrative building. "The Pope isn't necessarily the Antichrist," he explains, parsing a famous (and never retracted) statement by his school's founder. "He is an Antichrist."

That's not a distinction that will be of much help to George W. Bush. The candidate may eventually survive his Bob Jones dilemma, but the passions aroused by B.J.U.'s acrid exclusivism, which are echoed too in a grim little feud over the next chaplain of the House of Representatives, raise troubling questions about how close beneath the surface some old intolerances run.

When Bob Jones Sr. founded his university in 1927, explicit anti-Catholicism was a staple of conservative American Protestantism. Americans alarmed at the influx of Irish and Italian immigrants took solace in Reformation descriptions of the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Eventually most American Protestants left anti-Catholicism behind, and from the 1950s on, Billy Graham led many Evangelicals toward a greater tolerance. Jones, however, reviled Graham. (He later reviled even Jerry Falwell.) His fundamentalist separatism suspended B.J.U. in amber on topics from anti-Catholicism to its ban on interracial dating (which led to the revocation of its tax-exempt status). Today B.J.U.'s positions are truly marginal. Although some conservative Protestants still prefer to refer to "Christians" and "Catholics" separately, B.J.U.'s hard-core attitude, says University of Akron political science professor John Green, is shared by only "a tiny, tiny portion of Evangelicals."

B.J.U. looms large in the early-primary state of South Carolina, however, and almost every Republican presidential hopeful since Ronald Reagan has made a pilgrimage. Reagan was a special friend: his drive to reinstate the exemptions of 111 schools including B.J.U. was thwarted only by a Supreme Court ruling. Thus far, Bush is not so heavily invested. Says William Donohue, the head of the Catholic League and normally the first to detect any anti-Catholic slight: "The problem with Bush ... is that he just doesn't get it. But I don't think he's a bigot." However, Donohue says he thinks the Republicans will suffer as Catholics "connect the dots" between the B.J.U. issue and the fact that "Timothy O'Brien is being screwed."

O'Brien is the one causing the feud on Capitol Hill. In November, House Speaker Dennis Hastert received a list of three finalists for the position of chaplain, winnowed from a group of some 50 candidates by a bipartisan committee. Hastert and majority leader Dick Armey outvoted minority leader Richard Gephardt to select the Rev. Charles Wright, a Presbyterian affiliated with the House's influential National Prayer Breakfast. In so doing they passed over the nominating committee's favorite, Father O'Brien, a Catholic priest.

There has never been a Catholic chaplain. And the whole process offended O'Brien. He told the New York Times, "I ... pray that the 1960 presidential election did do away with the idea of Catholics as not being fully American," but he thought that "if I were not a Catholic priest, I would be the House Chaplain." He was perturbed by Republican members' questions to him regarding, among other things, St. Paul's first letter to the disciple Timothy (which can be read to suggest that clerics should have children, a tricky point for celibate Catholics) and by a query from Steve Largent, a leader of the House's religious right, as to whether O'Brien thought his clerical collar would intimidate Representatives seeking his counsel. This was especially odd given that James Ford, the current, much beloved chaplain and a Lutheran, wears a collar.

Largent, like the other Republicans, says he meant no anti-Catholic slight. "If this wasn't an election year," he says, "we wouldn't be discussing this." That may be; and Bush's sin was probably one of political necessity, not religious intolerance. However, both Largent, as a proponent of prayer in the schools, and Bush, who believes churches should be prominent distributors of government money, have a lot riding on the idea that believers of various creeds will lay aside their differences in the name of God and country. The past week or so may have given them an idea of how fragile such goodwill can be.

--Reported by Jackson Baker/Greenville, Sally B. Donnelly/ Washington and Emily Mitchell/New York

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Cover Date: March 6, 2000

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