South Carolina’s School of Conservatism

My family’s long history with Bob Jones University helped me earn my liberalism—had my grandparents been Berkley professors, it might have been less genuine and organic.

01.16.12 9:45 AM ET

The non-Romneys are making what look to be their last stands in Saturday’s South Carolina primary—the “firewall” where, since the primary’s inception in 1980, the winning Republican has always gone on to win the party’s nomination.

I have a personal connection to South Carolina that is almost entirely centered around Bob Jones University: a sleepy, ultra-right-wing, evangelical Christian school that Ronald Reagan spoke at in 1980, and—though the Jones’ later backed his opponent John Connally—Republicans began making pilgrimages to every four years. The school made headlines in 2000, when then-presidential candidate George W. Bush visited immediately following his loss in the New Hampshire primary. His trip spurred controversy because the university still had a policy prohibiting interracial dating on campus. (After the trip sparked an outcry about the policy, it was ended later that year). Bush, though, won the South Carolina primary and would go on to claim the nomination and then the White House.

My connection to Bob Jones University started well before I was born. My father’s side of the family is legend at the infamous school in Greenville, which rests in the northwest portion of the state. Among his many titles between 1949 and 1987, my grandfather was the director of religious studies, the dean of the school of religion and a staff evangelist. My grandmother was one of the founders and most famous directors at the university’s cinema department, whose main mission was to spread the word of the gospel through the medium of film. Late last Summer I returned to Greenville for the first time in over a decade to visit my grandmother, who at ninety-four years old remains the sweetest person I have ever had the pleasure to know.  My grandparents’ legacy as spiritual leaders is alive and well today on the campus. As I walked the grounds, I stopped to look at my grandfather’s bust in a memorial hall, and to listen to the kind words of my grandmother’s former students and colleagues regarding her many years of service at the university, and even to watch a documentary detailing their evangelical journey together.

For all my affection for my family and for the Bob Jones campus where I spent my youth, I returned to the campus last year as a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, liberal Democrat who has voted for leftist candidates and causes every chance I’ve had since I was of legal age to do so. I am an agnostic who works and lives in Hollywood, who believes that climate change is man-made crisis, and believes in strict gun control laws, universal healthcare, and gay marriage. My liberalism has developed out of experience, study and geography, having grown up just outside of Chicago and attended college in Los Angeles. I like to think my family’s background helped me earn my liberalism, and give it credibility—had my grandparents been Berkley professors, it might have been less genuine and organic.

The public outcry following Bush’s visit in 2000—a calculated move to shore up his support among the party’s far-right base, where he gave his standard stump speech with no mention of the dating policy, though he later apologized for not speaking out about the anti-Catholic sentiments often voiced on the campus—seemed to end the university’s status as a “station of the cross,” as one recent headline put it, for Republican candidates. No Republican visited during the 2008 primary, and none has visited this year.

In 2000, it was a Bob Jones professor who spread the false e-mail rumor that John McCain, running against Bush for the nomination, had fathered an illegitimate, mixed-race child. Back then McCain was considered the moderate in the field, not the Sarah Palin-selecting sprinter to the far right that he became in 2008.

From my own youthful experiences with South Carolina’s conservative culture, I can say with confidence that its national political relevance should not be understated. South Carolinians are, on the whole, a God-fearing, loyal, polite, traditionalist and often, cagey people. As a teen visiting Bob Jones, I quickly found that the graciousness and sweetness that was presented to me was dependent on me not revealing my political or religious beliefs. That still held true on my trip there last summer.

The entire GOP field started courting South Carolina with vigor months ago. Governor Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite, endorsed Mitt Romney after all the candidates actively sought her support. Tea party conservatives, though, seem to be punishing her for that decision, rather than coming around to Romney, whose support has been strongest in the state’s more affluent counties.

Surprisingly, Bob Jones III, the chancellor of Bob Jones University, endorsed Mitt Romney in 2008. This year, though, he has yet to endorse a candidate, and expressed skepticism that evangelical Christians would back a Mormon candidate.

His endorsement “might actually hurt,” he told National Journal this week. “Nobody’s asked for that, and I’m not inclined to do that at all… I’m still waiting to see who peaks to the surface and stands the best chance of beating Obama. Whoever that is I’ll back him to the hilt.”

Right now, polls show Romney, who’s sold himself as the one Republican who can pull that off, well ahead in South Carolina. But if Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum—who a group of Christian leaders endorsed Saturday in a last-minute attempt to unite the evangelical vote—manage to “steal” the state, it would be the latest proof of the power of the party’s new ultra right-wing fringe. While many of the 60 new Republican House members have been heckled at town halls in their districts and seen shrinking approval numbers over the infighting during the debt ceiling debate, all four of South Carolina’s freshman congressmen were lauded at home for their unwillingness to compromise with President Obama and their resulting “nay” votes on the effort to avoid a U.S. credit default.  If a conservative candidate somehow pulls out a win here, he would have a legitimate chance of winning the rest of the south, including North Carolina, Virginia, and perhaps even Florida—states that backed Obama in 2008.

But it’s hard to see how that candidate would win the country, because while the ideologies found at Bob Jones University may carry weight in the Republican nomination, they will only embolden liberals and moderates to defeat that candidate, and rightly so.