Bob Jones University & "Jesus-baiting"

Charlie Madigan, senior correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, coins the phrase "Jesus-baiting" to introduce his report from the dreaded Bob Jones University, which he calls "the shiny, big brass buckle on the Bible belt." Here is Madigan's explanation of Jesus-baiting:

Listen to what a candidate says to a particular audience, a religious audience, and my Jesus-baiting antennae go straight up. Gay marriage is an issue that draws out a lot of Jesus-baiters, as does abortion and, this time around, stem-cell research. It's a certified way of getting a religious audience on your side--just turn to Jesus.

Madigan took a few assumptions with him to BJU's home in Greenville, S.C., but he's open about them: the school is at the discomfiting heart of religious certainty; it is an unwitting political lightning rod; and its people might be "tools and props in the political process," especially for conservative Republicans. (Madigan refers to moderate Repubicans -- "assuming there are any of those left" -- feeling uneasy with BJU's atmosphere of certainty.)

He traces Jesus-baiting, interestingly enough, back to John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (Madigan thinks the speech occurred in West Virginia): "He was playing a sophisticated, reverse-Jesus card aimed at convincing Protestant Democrats, which was much of the South in that era, that he would not be taking collect calls from Rome on policy matters."

Once Madigan begins describing his visit to BJU, his witty descriptive reporting outshines his commentary:

Chapel opened with "Soldiers of Christ Arise," then some prayers, musical selections from some students and a pitch from one of the graduate school folks to get as many seniors as possible to step up and go to graduate school now instead of waiting. It was not a bad pitch, particularly the part where the speaker noted that babies have fat heads and have to grow into them. Somehow, he made the transition from there to growing into Christ's head.

I didn't get it, but it was kind of funny and the students did, which was just the point.

A few students agree with Madigan that they're in danger of being used:

[Megan] Smith said false promises are very disappointing.

"I do think that a lot of the time politicians try to appeal to the religious portion of the electorate. It's a strong vote. I would say, no, they don't generally stand by what they say. It has made me cynical and dubious about politics. Can I really believe what they are saying? Are they going to follow through on what they say?"

. . . Mark Neidig, a senior majoring in international studies, said he makes a distinction between being used and being catered to. All politicians try to cater to people to build supporting campaigns, he said. "Time will tell," he said.

Paul Matzko, a sophomore, said what bothers him most is that people use the religious right as a handy straw man for all kinds of purposes. He sees Bush's problem in 2000, and the problem it created at Bob Jones, as a classic. There were some accurate criticisms, he said, but some falsehoods involved, too. "They knocked us down to get at Bush," he said.

. . . English major Natalie Brenneman, a junior, said she agrees that sometimes the Christian right is being used, but that's mainly because politicians want to look good for everyone. "They use every group to get into power." Her solution to that realpolitik thought is discernment. "Are they genuine, or are they using us?" she said. "You need to discern."

By the end of his report, Madigan remains worried about Jesus-baiting:

Well, it's good to meet people who feel certain about something.

I still have this nagging feeling that American politics, in Jesus-baiting, has found something it can feast on without fear of much consequence, at least in this life.

I guess we just have to wait an eternity to find out for sure.

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