At the website of Bob Jones University you can follow the links to their Creed. It is a short profession of faith, not dissimilar to any that might be recited by literalist Bible readers in prayer-houses across the United States: ‘I believe in the inspiration of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments); the creation of man by the direct act of God …’. What is striking about the BJU Creed is that it is written in Hypertext Mark-up Language. Key words and phrases, like ‘Bible’ and ‘gift of eternal life’, stand out amongst the text, highlighted as links in that cyber-universal pale blue. Much has been made of this new language format by deconstructionists and techno-futurists. It is, they say, the text unravelling; the chain of signification displayed in all its uncontainable glory; the word always escaping from its present manifestation; jumping away to the next plane of meaning before you’ve managed to pin down the one in front of you … It seems that Hypertext is the example, par excellence, of language’s tendency to contain something other than its apparent meaning. So it is perhaps strange that a place like BJU should see it as useful in their mission to spread the Good News. ‘In the beginning there was the word’, and for BJU not much has changed since.
However, for this South Carolina university, there is one important historical transformation that divides up the period between creation and now (no, it’s not the birth of Bill Gates); it is the Reformation. BJU is staunchly Protestant, but that might be understating it when you consider the pronouncements of the former head of the university, Bob Jones Jr. In the 1980s he announced that ‘all the popes are demon-possessed’ and that Pope John Paul II was ‘the greatest danger we face today’. ‘The papacy,’ he said, ‘is the religion of Antichrist and is a satanic system’. More recently, a spokesperson for the university, Jonathan Pait, confirmed that BJU has never distanced itself from these beliefs, going on to point out that, ‘There is a disagreement about what the Bible teaches between Catholicism and Protestantism. And the university takes a very strong stand that Protestantism is the correct interpretation of Scripture.’ No surprise then to find that BJU is the alma mater of one Rev. Ian Paisley, founder of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Aside from these badges of infamy, BJU also implements a ban on inter-racial dating amongst its students. Of course this racial dimension has little to do with BJU’s Protestantism, as such. The racial prohibition is more a condition of BJU being an institution of the religious Right in the US.
BJU’s Christian Right credentials were, presumably, the reason for George W. Bush’s choice to speak there in the lead-up to the South Carolina primary vote. If a Presidential hopeful is planning to play the Religious/Right card, then South Carolina is the place to do it. As recently as 1998, that State removed from its Constitution an (unenforceable) ban on inter-racial marriage; a reform supported by an underwhelming two thirds of the state’s population. Claiming the Southern Right as his natural constituency, Bush appeared at BJU and announced: ‘I am a Conservative’. As it turned out, that choice was canny politics by W. (pronounced ‘Dubya’, by his supporters). The South Carolina primary was a pivotal win in Bush’s campaign. Before then he had been struggling to appropriate the ‘reformer’ mantle from his Republican rival, John McCain. People were finding it hard to imagine the son of a former President as a Washington outsider poised to transform the ossified bureaucracy of government and ready to sweep away the institutions of Party establishment and ‘soft money’ campaign finance. From ‘Reformer’ to straight ‘Conservative’, Bush established a kind of Hypertext of ideological images, making himself pregnant with contraries, signalling links to something other than his established political self. But the strangest link that Bush inserted into his language was the self descriptor ‘compassionate conservative’. Governor George W’s record on capital punishment puts the lie to that tag.
In his five years as governor, the Guardian reports, ‘Mr Bush has approved 116 executions, more than any other US governor in modern times’. Texan executions account for about one third of the national total. Sadly, where the death penalty is concerned, his lethally high tally is the only thing distinguishing George W. from not only John McCain, but also Democrats Bill Bradley and Al Gore: all four are enthusiastic supporters of capital punishment. State killings in Texas have become so commonplace that they now rarely receive media attention. But the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, during the campaign in South Carolina, managed to make international news.
Tucker’s, it seemed to many, was a special case. There was no dispute about her guilt. She admitted the crime: murdering two people with a pick-axe after a three day drug binge in 1983. The difference here, her supporters claimed, was that she was now filled with a profound religious remorse. During her ten years on death row, Tucker had found Jesus. She made an appeal for clemency so that she could stay in prison and continue the Lord’s work. In itself, conversion of the condemned is not an unusual occurrence, but the doomed disciples are not usually white women. In fact, a woman had not been executed in Texas since the Civil War. International bodies interceded on Tucker’s behalf, including the European Parliament and (that high profile agent of Satan) John Paul II. Within the US, calls for mercy came from unusual sources. Right-wing advocates of capital punishment, like Newt Gingrich, were appealing to George W. to show mercy. For Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and also usually a supporter of the death penalty, the image of Tucker as murderous, drug-using prostitute-turned-martyring-believer, must have stirred some Christian sensibility. He supported her appeal and interviewed Tucker on his television program only hours before her execution. Tucker took that opportunity to argue for moral consistency in the Christian tenet of the ‘sanctity of life’: ‘Life is precious,’ she professed, going on to ask, ‘If we believe life is precious in abortion, or in mercy killing, shouldn’t we believe life is precious in the death penalty?’ I don’t know if this shamed Pat Robertson. He was probably too distracted, at the time, playing TV Jesus to some flickering projection of a death-row Magdalene.
When George W. was asked to name his favourite political philosopher, he replied: ‘Christ, because he changed my heart – It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.’ But Christ did not change Bush’s mind. In his statement denying a thirty-day delay to Tucker’s execution, the Governor admitted ‘I have sought guidance through prayer. I have concluded judgement about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority’. After the BJU creed, a reader of these words might expect terms like ‘prayer’, ‘heart and soul’ and ‘higher authority’ to be marked out in pale blue Hypertext. What would they link to?
It would be easy to label George W. Bush’s campaign as a series of cynical exercises in pleasing the audience of the moment, but I suspect he is playing out a wider crisis in the nature of Conservatism. Some claim that the Left has been staggering about, asking ‘Who am I?’, ever since it received a blow to the head sometime around 1968. But perhaps the Right today is also a little dazed and confused. Since the Chicago School of Economics and Margaret Thatcher, the only sound ideological plank for the Right has been the primacy of a rationalised economy. So even when George W. tries to nail his Conservative colours to the mast at BJU, he feels compelled to later claim apologetically that he wasn’t aware of their racial policies. It seems that the Thatcherite philosophy of ‘what’s good for business, is good’, is not enough – even for the Right. But there is no consensus about what comes after rationalist devastation. Even the usually potent unity of God and the death penalty cannot be set down as an article of faith for the US Right – not even their language can maintain integrity, it keeps making unintended links.