Battle at Baylor: Will the atmosphere change?

During the past few years, I have hesitated to write about the national coverage of Baylor University's academic civil war -- either in my Scripps Howard columns or on this blog. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I have two degrees from Baylor and my whole family bleeds green and gold and, to varying degrees, some members are involved in Baylor life. The man who has been the lightning rod at the heart of the Baylor changes -- President Robert Sloan -- is a friend. Now he is standing down.

Nevertheless, let me make a few comments -- stressing that everything I say here is my own analysis and should not be pinned on others.

First of all, the mainstream media coverage so far in the state of Texas has had little to do with the issues at the heart of the Baylor conflict, other than the personality clashes linked to Sloan and those who oppose him. There are significant ideas at the heart of the war and you will rarely see them in the newspapers. Without a doubt, the best article about the Sloan era was printed in a liberal, mainline Protestant magazine -- The Christian Century. To read it, click here. More on this article in a moment.

In the Texas press, the Baylor war is often linked -- directly or indirectly -- with the multi-decade conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention, pitting "moderates" against "fundamentalists." This is half right.

In the SBC civil war, the "moderate" Baptists -- think Bill Moyers, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- have lost virtually everything when it comes to corporate power, seminaries, etc. In Texas, Baylor has always been at the center of "moderate" life. A small number of these Baptists are, literally, crypto-Unitarians who simply like good preaching. However, most would feel right at home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Above all, they do not think of themselves as evangelicals and they cannot tolerate "fundamentalists."

The "moderates" are at the heart of revolt against Sloan and the vision known as Baylor 2012. As they often say in private: "We are not going to lose our Baylor," with an emphasis on "our."

Following a common media-coverage template, that means Sloan represents the "fundamentalists." The only problem is that he does not. A wide variety of people have backed his cause, from mainstream evangelicals to traditional Catholics, from Anglicans to the Orthodox. At the national level, many Christian educational leaders -- from Notre Dame to Yale, from Duke to Harvard -- have endorsed the Baylor vision. Check out this list.

The Baylor conflict has pitted "moderate" Baptists against this diverse national coalition -- call it the ecumenical traditionalists. Are they conservatives? Yes, mostly. Are they in favor of "Christian education"? Yes, in the historic sense of the term. Are they "fundamentalists"? No, they are not. Many of the central thinkers in Baylor's move toward the integration of faith, research and learning are Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

The Christian Century piece captured this. The big question: Does the historic Christian faith have intellectual content? Does this matter on a university campus that calls itself "Baptist," "Christian" or both?

Here is a key section of Robert Benne's piece in the Century. I have done some editing to shorten this. Note the role of the former Baylor president, Dr. Herbert Reynolds, a key figure in the campaign to oust Sloan:

The Christian identity Baylor leaders are seeking is not defined by a confessional tradition, as at Calvin College, or by evangelical definitions of faith, as at Wheaton College. It seeks a "big tent" kind of Christian orthodoxy that includes Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and others, as well as the hoped-for number of Baptists. It is a "mere Christianity" kind of orthodoxy.

What's so controversial about this? The answer lies in the particular form of Baptist piety -- with its accompanying view of Baptist higher education-that has prevailed at Baylor and is now being formally challenged. For former President Reynolds and his faculty supporters, one's relationship with Christ is what is essential in faith. ... Christianity, in this form of Baptist piety, includes an inevitable moral imperative. But in one's relationship with Christ -- which is highly individual and inward -- one has "soul competency." A true Christian shares the freedom of the priesthood of each believer. This competency and freedom compel one to read the Bible and its meanings according to conscience. Nothing about the faith should be articulated in creeds or systems of Christian thought. . . .

This traditionally Baptist construal of the faith results in a particular vision of the Christian university. Some have called it the "atmospheric" or "two-spheres" approach. The Christian character of the university resides in the hospitable, friendly, caring, just and edifying atmosphere created by sincere Christians. It also resides in the religion courses and the extracurricular religious activities that permeate the university. But what happens in the classrooms of this kind of Christian university is pretty much the same as what occurs in public universities. . . .

Above all, traditional Baptists disagree with Sloan's contention that Christianity has intellectual content. In the view of Baylor's new leaders, faith is more than atmospheric. There is a deposit of Christian belief that all Christians should hold to. On the basis of that belief they should engage the secular claims of the various academic disciplines. In Sloan's view, the Christian faith gives a comprehensive account of all of life and reality; it addresses the key questions of life, death, human nature, salvation, history, meaning and conduct.

Now, with this in mind, you are ready to read some of the coverage of the announcement that Sloan has decided to leave the Baylor presidency, stating his conviction that the board of regents will carry on with Baylor 2012. It will be interesting to see how openly the "moderate Baptists" attempt to campaign for a president who wants a "Baptist" university but not a "Christian" university.

Here is the Sloan package at Christianity Today and here is the main story at the dominant newspaper in the state, the Dallas Morning News. The old, establishment, mostly moderate Baptist newspaper in Texas -- the Baptist Standard -- has posted a story offering its perspective.

Above all, anyone interested in these latest developments at Baylor should take the time to watch the video coverage of the actual press conference in which Sloan and Board of Regents Chairman Will Davis discuss what led to this moment and what might happen next.

Let me end with a quote from the Dallas Morning News coverage that offers a hint of the real issues in this bitter conflict -- even if the reporter did not fully grasp what this Sloan opponent was saying.

"Traditionally, Baylor has been an outstanding academic education with a Christian atmosphere that produced lots of good teachers and lawyers and physicians and dentists," said former regent Gracie Hatfield Hilton of Arlington. "It has not been a research institution. Research is great and fine and good -- I am not opposed to it, but that is not what Baylor has traditionally been about."

The key word? "Atmosphere." There is "education," then there is "atmosphere." Two spheres. That's the story.

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