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In New Bob Jones University Podcast, Former Students and Faculty Blast ‘Insular’ Culture

Bob Jones podcast
An entrance sign at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. Photo by John Foxe/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — 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.

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. 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 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.”