Getting Stoned at Bob Jones University

Is it now okay to be gay at fundamentalist Bob Jones University? Last week, former president and current chancellor Bob Jones III apologized for vicious anti-gay rhetoric from 1980. But this does not mean that homosexuality is now an accepted thing at BJU.

Time to celebrate?

Time to celebrate?

For those like me outside the orbit of fundamentalist colleges, the cultural politics of BJU can come as a shock. BJU has a long history of holding out against progressive social trends. Until the twenty-first century, for example, the South Carolina university proudly opposed interracial marriage.

As I’m finding as I research Bob Jones and other fundamentalist colleges, BJU has always been an outlier. The family leadership has a long tradition, when challenged, of doubling down on its own opinions as God’s Truth. Any criticism from within or without merely strengthened the leaders’ resolve. Again and again, this has led to purges of dissenting faculty, students, and administrators.

For those in the know, then, the recent apology for anti-homosexual rhetoric seems like another welcome change. In a press release, BJIII responded to a petition from a gay-rights group at BJU. In 1980, at a White House press conference, then-president BJIII suggested that the appropriate punishment for homosexuality was stoning. Here’s what he said back then:

I’m sure this will be greatly misquoted. But it would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.

In his recent apology, BJIII distanced himself from such shocking language. As he put it,

I take personal ownership of this inflammatory rhetoric. This reckless statement was made in the heat of a political controversy 35 years ago. It is antithetical to my theology and my 50 years of preaching a redeeming Christ Who came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger—were my name not attached.

So can gay people at BJU now come out of their fundamentalist closets? Apparently not. As anti-fundamentalist Jonny Scaramanga noted, BJIII’s apology still condemned homosexuality. The statement apologized for the threat of stoning, not for labeling homosexuality a sin. BJIII carefully noted that he did not believe stoning was the appropriate punishment for “sinners.” He never apologized for considering homosexuality itself a sin.

Nevertheless, as the response from the gay-rights group BJU Unity makes clear, homosexuals are part of the BJU community. As I’m finding in my current research, they always have been. BJIII’s apology is not nothing, but it does not welcome homosexuals openly into BJU’s fundamentalist family.