By Tim Morgan
Christopher Peterman, a now-expelled 23-year-old Bob Jones University student, initially entered the conservative Christian institution embracing its strict rules. They were “exactly what he signed up for,” according to this news report. Ostensibly, he flouted a few of them, received a series of demerits for his infractions, and was eventually expelled a few weeks before his scheduled graduation. His offenses included updating his Facebook during class and linking contemporary Christian music lyrics (i.e. Christian rock) on his status updates. One of the most severe punishments came after he was caught watching the TV show “Glee” off campus, because the university deemed it “morally reprehensible” due to its sexual content, particularly its non-condemning portrayal of homosexuality in the form of gay characters. His final demerit was for “disrespecting authority.”
The administration at Bob Jones may have been more self-critically correct than they were aiming to be, considering the backstory Peterman was aiming to expose. While still a student, Peterman started a group called “Do Right BJU,” which aimed to raise awareness of sexual abuse. “That’s when all of my problems started,” he said, because Chuck Phelps, formerly a member of the Board of Trustees at Bob Jones University, was a target of one of the group’s protests for his role in the attempted cover up of the rape of Samantha Anderson, a former member of Trinity Baptist Church, an Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church in Concord, NH, where Phelps was once pastor. When Phelps discovered that Anderson was pregnant as a result of one of the assaults she endured from Ernest Willis, another member of Trinity Baptist Church, he had her confess her “sin” in front of the congregation, then arranged for her to relocate with another IFB family thousands of miles away and to give up the baby for adoption, all before a trial could be conducted. Willis too was forced to confess his “sin” of adultery in front of the congregation since he was married, but without having to admit the rape or that his victim was a member of the same church. Concord police reopened the case after being alerted to a Facebook campaign to bring Willis to justice, which was started by another former member of Trinity Baptist Church. Willis has since been tried and found guilty of the rape, and Phelps is now a pastor at a different IFB church.
The response from Bob Jones following the protest was at first non-combative and in accord with its purpose. A public promise was made that there would be no negative consequences for any students involved in the protest, Phelps was forced to step down from the Board of Trustees, and a Committee on Sexual Abuse was established. But then a darker side of the response emerged outside of the public eye, at first anyway, swiftly, persistently, and decidedly not in accord with Peterman’s intentions or Bob Jones’s promise. According to CNN, Peterman was required to attend counseling with dorm monitors and several deans, including the Dean of Men, and had his movements to and from campus monitored by a resident assistant at the order of BJU administration. In an online interview available on YouTube, embedded below, Peterman claims that he was that he was told that he needed “spiritual help because [he] was not a good Christian” for stepping against authority and “bringing shame on Bob Jones.” He also describes his dorm monitors recording his behavior in order to accrue enough demerits against him for expulsion, as the CNN article also reports. Since he did not technically have enough demerits for the expulsion to hold, administrators decided that his final tactical move of consulting media outlets and Bob Jones’s accrediting agency for guidance prior to his final hearing with administrators provided the justification because he was trying to “intimidate” them.
BJU’s Public Relations department issued the following statement after officially expelling Christopher Peterman: “We expect students to obey the student covenant in the spirit and the letter. Our goal is to help him succeed, and we did everything we could to help him succeed.”
The first question that comes to mind is how watching “Glee” could be detrimental to student success. BJU students are also prohibited from seeing most movies, listening to most forms of music, and reading many periodicals. Shouldn’t students be exposed to culture outside of the BJU environment, even if only to learn to combat it? Isn’t restricting this exposure in contradistinction to their goal of “extend[ing] these objectives beyond the university campus”? And isn’t the sort of intimidation they decried leading up to Peterman’s expulsion akin to the threat of punishing someone for witnessing the same culture that Bob Jones is ultimately a part of?
“God is in control. So God has a plan for this,” Christopher Peterman said in one of his interviews, remaining upbeat and with his faith intact, which is decidedly not out-of-step with the mission of Bob Jones University. Samantha Anderson also continues to echo a strong profession of faith, in spite of the devastating experiences she has endured. In both of their cases, attempts at guilt through authoritative control were made to scuttle an institutional threat, and the consequences are on display in the very manner the institution was trying to avoid. The fundamentalist atmosphere at Bob Jones is one that seeks “not [to] be conformed to this world,” as Romans 12:2 instructs, but in examples like the Christopher Peterman case, where the interests of individual powerbrokers and the reputation of the establishment seem to predominate, discerning “what is good and acceptable and perfect,” as another part of that passage also instructs, seems to be have been subsumed under notions of obedience to authority.
In Peterman’s case, it is noteworthy that he is embracing life outside of Bob Jones University’s code of conduct. In the recent YouTube interview alluded to above, he is visibly wearing a Hollister t-shirt, something that is expressly forbidden on page 32 of the school’s handbook. Perhaps this indicates that he and others like him can still find ways to reconcile the conflict between one authoritative conception of what is required of a “good Christian” and their own formations of that identity.