Documents obtained by The Associated Press showed that Roberts, then working as an assistant to White House counsel Fred Fielding in 1984, had corresponded with Bob Jones III, the former president of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., about the case of Peter Ng, a fundamentalist minister.
Jones, then president of a university that has rebuffed criticism for its Christian fundamentalist beliefs, had complained to the White House that the IRS was harassing Ng.
The White House responded by saying that it couldn’t get involved in the case. In a Jan. 4, 1984 memo, Roberts said it had received another plea from Jones.
“Mr. Jones suggests in his letter that you would have reacted differently to an alleged civil rights violation, and in a thinly veiled threat, asserts that the alleged insensitivity of the administration to fundamentalist Christians will not go unnoticed by that sizable voting block,” Roberts said in a memo to Fielding.
The university lost its tax-exempt status in the 1970s because the Internal Revenue Service said the school discriminated on the basis of race. At the time, the school didn’t admit black students and forbade interracial dating among students.
President Reagan supported the school’s tax exempt status, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the IRS in 1983.
“The audacity of Jones’ reply is truly remarkable, given that the political costs this administration has incurred in promoting the interests of fundamental Christians in general and Bob Jones University in particular,” Roberts wrote to Fielding. “A restrained reply to his petulant paranoia is attached for your review, telling Jones, in essence, to go soak his head.”
Someone emailed me the following comment, which I thought made a good point:
You know, despite the worthlessness of writing letters like this to young, faceless bureaucrats, [Bob Jones] can hardly be beat over the head very long for trying to help an Asian stay in the country so that he can work with southern blacks.
Updated September 2, 2005: The Sedalia Democrat has an interesting analysis of the significance of this exchange:
This is only a small incident from many years ago. It is interesting mainly because it punctures a common notion on the left, namely that alliances between Republicans and evangelical Christians are both ardent and mutually beneficial.
Indeed, political costs are inevitable when either of the mainstream political parties becomes too entangled with a strident ideological group. One wonders if the Republicans of today see that fact as clearly as did the young White House lawyer.
Updated October 31, 2005: Somehow I missed the response of BJU’s PR department to this quotation’s recent appearance in the news:
It’s no big deal –it was 21 years ago, said BJU’s Pait.
“There’s not much to say. It has no bearing on today,” Pait said.
. . .
Pait said, “You can understand both sides. The university had just lost a case, and there was some hurt there, so you can understand Dr. Bob’s displeasure. At the same time, you can understand the Reagan administration’s point of view that they felt they went to the wall (for BJU), so it’s understandable on both sides from our point of view.”