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Reporting the Truth.
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In New Bob Jones University Podcast, Former Students & Faculty Blast ‘Insular’ Culture

By Kathryn Post
bob jones university BJU
Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. (Courtesy Photo)

Even when Steve Pettit resigned as president of Bob Jones University in April after citing a dysfunctional board, he had only glowing things to say about the historically fundamentalist South Carolina school.

“There’s no question to me that God brought Bob Jones into existence and it’s his school and God’s going to accomplish his will through it,” Pettit told a Greenville, South Carolina, news outlet in June. “I think the future of the school is bright.”

But some former faculty and students have a less flattering perspective to share.

There’s the student who said she was interrogated and disciplined after her boyfriend gave her a side hug.

There’s the faculty member who claims she was given an ultimatum and eventually resigned after refusing to let teachers at the school-sponsored day care spank her 2-year-old.

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bob jones
Bob Jones University campus in Greenville, S.C. (Image courtesy of Google Earth)

There’s the student who reported hiding in his closet on Sunday mornings to avoid being punished for skipping church.

And there’s the student who, after coming forward with allegations of being repeatedly assaulted by a graduate student at the school, said she was questioned by administration about what she had been wearing at the time.

A new podcast based on 19 interviews, “Surviving Bob Jones University: A Christian Cult,” aims to bring these and other stories to light, showing how alleged patterns of conformity, isolation, information control and surveillance impacted members of the Bob Jones ecosystem.

surviving BJU
“Surviving Bob Jones University: A Christian Cult” podcast art. (Courtesy image)

Found on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, the series has already gained over 20,000 listens. Though the use of the word “cult” is provocative — and many religious scholars argue against using the word at all — Andrew Pledger, a former Bob Jones student and the host of the podcast, contends that the university, known for banning interracial dating into the 21st century, has long been steeped in controversy. The university did not respond to requests for comment. 

As a closeted gay student, Pledger was wary when he arrived at Bob Jones’ pointed iron gates in 2018. But as a child of the Independent Fundamental Baptist church — where women wore skirts, the end times were a looming threat and students learned that evolution was a myth — his parents would only help pay for a college that aligned with their values.

While Pledger was no stranger to rules, he quickly realized the Bob Jones handbook goes beyond the bans on alcohol and nonmarital sex typical of other Christian universities. According to the 2023-2024 student handbook:

  • Students are barred from any physical contact between unmarried men and women, though “Side hugs are permitted for photographs.”
  • Students are instructed to avoid rock, pop, jazz, country and rap music, which have “the markers of our current corrupt culture.”
  • Dance with “expressions of worldliness or sexually provocative nature” is prohibited.
  • Students are not permitted to view movies with higher than a PG rating.
  • Students must wear “conservative business casual” attire to class.
  • Student rooms are checked three times a week.
  • BJU reserves the right to monitor all network activity on student computers.
  • Students are expected to attend a church approved by the school and record their weekly church attendance online.
  • “Same-sex dating” or advocating for such dating is banned.
pledger BJU
Andrew Pledger poses at an entrance to Bob Jones University. (Courtesy photo)

Pledger found the rules stifling, especially as someone wrestling with faith and sexuality. He recalls hiding in his closet each Sunday to avoid attending a BJU-approved church, crouching behind his hamper until his room had been checked. He’d also disconnect his devices from the internet because, he explained, “if I’m on the internet during the time I’m supposed to be in church, I’m gonna get in trouble.”

Bob Jones’ rules are an extension of the school’s theology, which emphasizes the importance of expelling sin from daily life.

“Holiness entails separation from the godless ‘world’ system (1 John 2:15–17; Ezra 6:21) by discerning where one’s culture reflects evil values,” the 2022-2023 BJU handbook says. “By living holy, separated lives, we publicly proclaim that only He (God) is worth loving and following.”

A few months before he would have graduated, Pledger definitively rejected the BJU brand of holiness. In a video interview with “exvangelical” Josh Harris, a former purity culture celebrity, Pledger rejected fundamentalism and came out as gay. Less than two weeks later, he was expelled.

“They shunned me,” Pledger said. “I lost all my jobs at Bob Jones. I lost so many friends, I literally had to start my life over from scratch. I lost everything. I didn’t matter to them anymore.”

If you ask Pledger, it’s not just the rules that make Bob Jones unique; it’s how they’re enforced. Several guests on the podcast describe a “snitching culture” where students are expected to police their peers for violations. If they fail to report a rule breaker, they are equally guilty.

Though the handbook encourages students to “lovingly hold one another accountable,” Camille Lewis, a former BJU faculty member who is interviewed on the podcast, did not experience the vigilant culture as loving.

BJU camille
Camille Lewis. (Courtesy photo)

Lewis told media that as an employee in the ’90s and early 2000s, she would hide with her husband, who was also on faculty, in the back bedroom of their on-campus house during chapel services so no one would see they were home. Even when they moved eight miles off campus, “we would still not sit in the living room with the light on, just in case someone drove by and saw we were home and not at a Bible conference meeting,” she said.

The oversight escalated in 2006 when Lewis received a memo from the campus day care requesting to spank her 2-year-old. She declined to give permission and the situation intensified, with questions about her theology of sin. Eventually, Lewis said the university president told her the disagreement would lead to a “parting of ways.” Lewis and her husband ultimately resigned.

Erin Burchwell, another podcast guest, grew up — literally — on the Bob Jones campus. Born to two BJU faculty members in 1979, she spent most of her life there until she graduated from the university in 2001.

“They had their own dry cleaners, their own post office. Everything you needed. Most faculty and staff could only afford to eat at the dining hall three meals a day,” Burchwell told media. “You had to use their doctors for your health insurance and their hospitals. So most faculty kids were born on campus.”

Burchwell described Bob Jones as a “subculture” that “infiltrates” families and churches, creating generations of parents who see the school as the only legitimate choice. Those inside the Bob Jones community had few connections with what she called “the outside.”

erin burchwell
Erin Burchwell. (Courtesy photo)

When Burchwell started as a freshman at Bob Jones in 1997, she said, she was sexually assaulted regularly by a graduate student training to become a pastor. During her junior year, she and her parents shared her allegations.

“At 20 years old I had to sit in the dean of men’s office with the dean of men, dean of students and both my parents, and had to read out loud this thing that happened to me. And then at the end of that, one of them said, wow, you have excellent grammar. And then the other one said, and what were you wearing when these things happened? And he started questioning my attire, and then said, did I understand how guys’ brains work?”

When Burchwell’s alleged perpetrator and his family threatened to sue her, she agreed to stay silent. But in 2014, after Bob Jones fired GRACE, an independent watchdog group the school had hired to investigate sexual abuse allegations at the university, Burchwell came forward in The New York Times as a participant in the investigation. Though the school eventually rehired GRACE and issued a report, Burchwell said that to her knowledge, Bob Jones has avoided most of GRACE’s recommended changes. She added that after she spoke to the media in January 2014, her father was fired from Bob Jones one month later, after 42 years, without explanation.

While Burchwell told media she agrees that Bob Jones fits the “academic definition” of a cult, she’s hesitant to use the word because it can alienate those still connected to the university.

Many religious scholars have long contested the use of the word “cult,” saying it has been misused to dehumanize believers as passive and brainwashed, to create unhelpful boundaries between “good religion” and “bad religion” and to signify groups as targets for government surveillance and even violence.

Podcast guest Rachel Bernstein, a therapist who is on the advisory board for the International Cultic Studies Association, told media she thinks Bob Jones does qualify as a cult because of what she described as unquestioning loyalty to presidents and administrators, the school’s insular nature, its adversarial approach to the outside world, black and white thinking, restrictions on beliefs and lack of privacy.

“I find that it is good to use the word cult when it qualifies as such so you know what you’re dealing with,” she said.

As the podcast continues to gain traction, Lewis told media she hopes the firsthand accounts will give listeners a clearer picture of life at Bob Jones and prompt them to think twice before attending. “The tattling, the isolation, and the control is the same,” said Lewis. “I think it would be better for people to go to a different place and learn that God isn’t just at Bob Jones.”

Kathryn Post is a reporter for Religion News Service based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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12 Responses

  1. Thank-you for exposing what we already have long known as yet another damnable religious cult – using Christ to cover their immoral egos – ultimately simply idolators.

  2. How does anyone not see BJU and LU as cults. Mind control, thought control, men are right, you women are just jezebels, follow these rules or we will get you and threatening to sue over sexual harassment? yeah, he’s a good example of an American evangelical. I can relate to some of it. In the eighties I attended two different churches, and they were all in that the “men of god” can do no wrong and my questions always had some sugary coating “you’re going to far” type of answers. Yikes. have any of you leaders actually read about some dude name Jesus? it’s he we are to follow. I close with JMAC is a perfect example of a cult leader vs a Christian pastor. I am hardly a person with all the scripture memorized. But listening to American evangelicals it’s just so “walk on eggshells” type of existence. Because somehow if I burp a certain way someone will find scripture to show I am going right to hell because of that.

  3. It’s utterly horrible and outrageous what happened to this beautiful woman!

    This university is a curse and a blight to the Name of Christ !

    A bunch a hoolaguns period! Hypocrisy at its worse!

    The scandals and crimes committed by this university should be burned together ground!

    The vile threats of lawsuits with their high powered attorneys is nothing short of criminal !

    The negatives are innumerable!

    May God deal with them and expose their satanic practices and bring them to justice and bring healing to this criminally abused and victimized woman physically spiritually emotionally and psychologically all of which are ever lasting affects from a disgusting si called man and a church better categorized as a Satanic Synagogue..

  4. In this day of unstable and misguided Christian communities, whether they be cloaked in academia or terribly understudied megachuch heirarchy, it is no wonder we are finding so many camps and campuses to be saturated with reams of commandments of men which the naive and misguided latch onto to their own destruction.

  5. BJU really did feel like a prison back in the day when I was a student there. It wasn’t all bad, but every single move one made was monitored and controlled. It was oppressive and demeaning. I thought it had gotten better in recent years, but the podcast convinced me otherwise. Decades later I still occasionally have nightmares that I’m being forced to go back there.

    The podcast also addresses racism at BJU. In retrospect, the racism I witnessed was appalling. One friend was of mixed race and had to declare to the dean of men which race he should be considered. Since he would be limited to dating only women of that race he declared himself white since there were many more white women. Another couple of friends were romantically inclined but had to go to great lengths to hide it since one was Asian and the other white.

    The school used to distribute a printed version of Bob Sr’s sermon “Is Segregation Scriptural?” The answer given was, of course, yes. Then, after all that and going all the way to the Supreme Court over the issue, Bob III went on Larry King to say the interracial data prohibition was never a big deal. I’ll never forget the shock I felt that he could lie so easily.

  6. Seems like not much has changed since Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment released their 300 page report into abuses and institutional betrayal and institutional cowardice at BJU nearly 9 years ago. I’d be curious to know how many of GRACE’s 10 detailed recommendations have been implemented, if any. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b0a335c45776ee022efd309/t/5bb72a12a4222faf0f8bd4da/1538730518938/Bob%2BJones%2BU%2BFinal%2BReport.pdf

  7. Bob Jones University is a PRIVATE Christian University. Those who go there know or ought to know what they signed up for regarding the rules. Those who don’t like it either need to comply or go somewhere else such as a State University or another Private University that does not have rules that are as strict. I am not an alumni of BJU but I respect BJU’s rules to set its rules and I do not consider BJU to be a cult. That said I don’t think I would last too long at BJU due to my musical preferences and belief that wine and not grape juice should be used for Communion.

    1. Unfortunately many students have to go there because that’s what mom and dad said had to happen. The great mistake there is that by the time one reaches the age of 18 there must be a move towards independence and allow the individual to choose for themselves.

  8. The thing that bothers me about this one is that the author/producer of the documentary is claiming that he went there without knowing what the place was about. I remember being a high school senior, not yet a Christian, and received a mailing from BJU inviting me to apply. It took me all of five seconds or so to figure out what the place was about.

    Hence, the producer’s claim that he grew up in independent Baptist fundamentalism, and didn’t have an idea after going through the admissions process…..sorry, I’m not buying it. BJU is many things, but tremendously subtle is not among them.

    I’m no fan of many things BJU has done, and in some cases continues to do, but this article/podcast doesn’t really enhance my knowledge or increase my concerns.

    1. I think it’s fair to say that many Independent Fundamentalist Baptists churches (as well as other denominations’ churches) are insulated community bubbles for their congregations, especially for the children / teenagers. And, remember, it was the only place he was allowed to attend with his parents’ approval, financially or otherwise. For me, it’s reasonable to believe the podcast host’s claim(s).

      1. My take, David, is that the producer wasn’t exactly being honest when he claimed that BJU’s rules snuck up on him, and that really casts doubt on pretty much his whole podcast. If those rules were a surprise, he was at least spectacularly unobservant.

  9. As an adult the rules at BJU sound horrific and would be excruciating for a teenager, however I don’t believe that the podcast producer was unaware of them before attending there. He probably knew the rules but knowing them and then actually living under them are two different things.

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