Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2007 – 9:14 pm By Ron BarnettSTAFF
Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of the fundamentalist Christian university that bears his name, is looking past his religious differences with Gov. Mitt Romney and endorsing the Mormon for the Republican nomination for president, he told The Greenville News today.
“This is all about beating Hillary,” Jones said. “And I just believe that this man has the credentials both personally and ideologically in terms of his view about what American government should be to best represent the rank and file of conservative Americans.
“If it turns out to be Guiliani and Hillary, we’ve got two pro- choice candidates, and that would be a disaster.”
Asked whether Romney’s religion was a stumbling block for him, Jones replied, “What is the alternative, Hillary’s lack of religion or an erroneous religion?
“As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism,” he said. “But I’m not voting for a preacher. I’m voting for a president. It boils down to who can best represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs.”
State Sen. Robert Ford, a key Clinton supporter in the South Carolina campaign, took issue with Jones’ remark about Clinton’s purported “lack of religion.”
“As far as religion is concerned, based on the teaching and principles of Jesus Christ, Hillary runs circles around Bob Jones anytime,” Ford said, calling the former First Lady “a proud member of the United Methodist Church” and active member of the denomination’s women’s missionary organization.
“United Methodists don’t wear their religion on their shoulders. We wear our religion in our hearts, in service,” he added. “We believe that faith without works is dead, and Hillary Clinton has been practicing that all her life.”
Jones, and the institution founded by his grandfather, have been political lightning rods in several recent presidential campaigns. During the 2000 primary, then-Gov. George W. Bush drew heat after visiting the university, which at that time banned interracial dating. Jones soon dropped the ban, saying it wasn’t important enough to be worth the controversy.
Terry Sullivan, Romney’s South Carolina campaign manager, said he doesn’t think Jones’ endorsement will turn off voters who may be wary of Jones’ religious views. “We’re proud to have the support of Dr. Jones and look forward to his help in delivering Gov. Romney’s conservative message to the voters,” he said.
Clemson University political scientist and GOP consultant Dave Woodard said Jones’ endorsement should be only positive as far as its impact on Romney’s chances in the South Carolina primary, one of the earliest in the nation. “There may be a downside with the general voters or with Democrats. Independents may see it as a downside,” he said. “But I think, among Republican primary voters it can only be good, because it shows that a conservative Christian can endorse a guy like this for his policy positions.”
Some religious conservatives were quick to denounce Jones’ endorsement.
“As Christians we should not endorse a cult member as our president,” Wayne Owens Sr., a self-described rank-and-file conservative Christian said in an e-mail to The News. “Bob Jones’ basic premise is in error. It is not about beating Hillary. It’s about doing what is right.”
Tamara Valdes-Russell, a 1997 BJU graduate, said she is “disgusted” with Jones’ supporting Romney. “Fear of Hillary Clinton should not be the driving force for whom we choose to support in an election,” she said in an e-mail to The News. “…In the end, whether Hillary wins or someone else, God is ultimately in control of the situation. I refuse to lower my standards to the lowest common denominator.”
Jones, who said he has met with Romney several times over the past few months, said he is sticking to his belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints isn’t a Christian denomination, but he believes Romney’s character is above reproach.
“He’s a very presidential guy. He has a loving family. He has, as far as I can tell, no scandal connected with his life. I can’t say that about all of the candidates unfortunately,” Jones said.
“I’d be very concerned if he tried to make it appear in any of his statements that Mormonism is a Christian denomination of some sort. It isn’t. There’s a theological gulf that can’t be bridged,” Jones said. “But as long as he says I am what I am and you are what you are and doesn’t try to make it appear that we believe the same things, I can respect the difference.”