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