Excuse me, it's a Baptist college

lrcNaomi Schaefer Riley. Father James Tunstead Burtchaell.

Robert Benne.

George M. Marsden.

Christian Smith.

David Solomon.

I could go on and on. These are some of the names that you will not encounter in the recent New York Times feature story by Alan Finder about the struggles that some Southern Baptist state conventions are having with their colleges.

I mention these names for a simple reason. They are all experts on the complex issues that are involved in doing higher education in a Christian context. They also are insiders who can discuss some of the recent growth trends in Christian higher education in North America, a topic that has received some interesting press coverage in recent years.

Finder's article is quite narrow in focus and focuses on a battle raging at Georgetown College in Kentucky. Led by its president, William H. Crouch Jr., the college is trying to cut its ties to Kentucky Baptist Convention. This is, of course, presented as a battle between fair-minded intellectuals and the forces of Bible-thumping fundamentalism.

The bad guy in the story is the Rev. Hershael W. York, the president of the state convention, who wants to see a single -- repeat, a single -- theological conservative named to the faculty of the college's religion department. There are no quotes from national educational experts who would argue against Georgetown cutting its ties to the churches that created it and, for decades, funded it. Thus, we read:

Dr. Crouch and his trustees decided it was time to end the college's 63-year affiliation with the religious denomination. "From my point of view, it was about academic freedom,'' Dr. Crouch said. "I sat for 25 years and watched my denomination become much more narrow and, in terms of education, much more interested in indoctrination.''

Georgetown is among a half-dozen colleges and universities whose ties with state Baptist conventions have been severed in the last four years, part of a broad realignment in which more than a dozen Southern Baptist universities, including Wake Forest and Furman, have ended affiliations over the last two decades. Georgetown's parting was ultimately amicable. But many have been tense, even bitter.

In Georgia and Missouri, disputes over who controls the boards of Baptist colleges led to prolonged litigation. In Tennessee, a clash over whether Belmont University in Nashville could appoint non-Baptists to its board led the Tennessee Baptist Convention to vote in May to remove the entire board. Belmont's trustees are still running the university, and while negotiations are continuing, the battle for control could end up in court.

"The future of Baptist higher education has rarely been more fragile,'' R. Kirby Godsey, the former president of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., said in a speech in Atlanta in June. The Georgia Baptist Convention voted last November to sever ties with Mercer.

Note that this is a discussion of "Baptist" higher education, as opposed to "Christian" higher education. In this context, it helps to remember that Jerry Falwell is a Southern Baptist, but so is Bill Clinton. Pat Robertson is a Southern Baptist, but so is Bill Moyers. Baptists, across the South, can be anything from Unitarians with preaching skills to hard-shell fundamentalists (and I am using that word accurately).

To be blunt, it appears that the Times thinks there is no middle ground between, well, Wake Forest University and Liberty University. In reality, there are lots of schools in between these two poles (and even a place like Bob Jones University is not as rock-ribbed as it used to be).

Now, I need to make a confession or two at this point.

I probably know more than I need to know about academic warfare in a Southern Baptist context, especially in Bible Belt schools. I grew up Southern Baptist, have two degrees from Baylor University and speak Baptist-education lingo fluently.

While offering confessions, I should also note that I am on the national faculty of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a global network of Christian campuses that ranges from the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention to the Mennonites and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and all points in between. I have covered or taken part in more than a few debates about the "integration of faith and learning" and related topics. My bias? I believe that the doctrine, art and history of Christianity -- East and West -- has intellectual content and that this affects teaching and research in a wide variety of academic disciplines. This has been a respected stance in academia for centuries, but it is under fire today.

mainSo please read the Times piece with all of that in mind. The article is accurate when it links the Georgetown debates -- along with those at Belmont, Mercer and elsewhere -- with the bitter Southern Baptist civil war of the past few decades. But the article is wrong when it states that the clear path to academic diversity, financial health and student growth leads straight to the intellectual, cultural and doctrinal left.

The reality is much more complex than that. Finder looks at the question from the left, period.

... (Efforts) to rein in what many Southern Baptists see as inappropriate departures from religious orthodoxy have looked to many professors and college administrators like efforts to limit academic freedom.

"The convention itself in its national and state organizations has moved so far to the right that previous diversity on the faculty and among the trustees is no longer possible,'' said Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest. "More theological control of the curriculum and the faculty has been the result.''

David W. Key, director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, put it more starkly. "The real underlying issue is that fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist form is incompatible with higher education,'' Professor Key said. "In fundamentalism, you have all the truths. In education, you're searching for truths.''

It seems to me that someone at the Times needed to turn on their irony detector, at this point.

The liberal defenders of academic freedom at Georgetown are trying to prevent students from being exposed to a single teacher who would represent the theological beliefs -- described only in terms of biblical literalism, with little if any explanation (yes, note the Adam and Eve quote) -- of millions of modern Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Does the appointment of one faculty member represent the sacking of a college? In this case, who is trying to promote diversity? Who seems to be afraid of open, public debate between left and right?

It seems that there are fundamentalists on the left as well as the right.

I hope that the Times returns to this subject and digs deeper, seeking a wide range of voices in Christian higher education. Believe me, there is diversity out there and lots of experts to quote. Those who have ears, let them hear.

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