Can you worship God and mammon? Baylor crisis centers on clash between two faiths

Dang! Don't you hate it when that happens?

I was going to open this week's "Crossroads" podcast post -- click here to tune that in -- by saying that the Regents and administrators at Baylor University (yes, my alma mater) are being forced to draw a bright line between worshiping God and mammon, the latter in the form of big-time sports.

To be blunt, what we are seeing is a clash between two competing religions.

So what -- dang it! -- happened? This week, that legendary Godbeat muse -- the ever-quotable historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School -- wrote one of his "Sightings" commentaries on precisely that topic. The headline was, literally, "Two Religions Make News."

Marty was, of course, referring to the painful headlines out of Waco, with the housecleaning -- football head coach Art Briles and President Ken Starr, in particular -- linked to a scandal about fumbled attempts to deal with, or cover up, or both, claims of sexual assaults by Baylor athletes.

Whoever will check the sources (below) or others easily available to them will note that virtually all stories stressed that Baylor was a Christian, particularly a Baptist, university. The press doesn’t identify most other schools denominationally, unless the school name banners it -- as in Southern Methodist University. Newswriters don’t say that Princeton is Presbyterian, etc.

But Baylor does not hide its official and traditional faith commitment, and puts it to work in many policies, such as compulsory chapel for students for a year or two. Let it be noted, as we will note, that some features of the commitment are strong: a “Top Ten” (in some measures) religion department, notable graduate programs, and not a few eminent scholars. But they are in the shadows cast by the scandal right now.

So that's one religion. The other is pretty obvious, especially in Texas.

But isn’t football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise? No. Readers of Sightings who own encyclopedias and textbooks which deal with religion will find that they point to key characteristics of religions across the board. For starters: “ultimate concern,” “ceremonial reinforcement,” at least quasi-“metaphysical depth,” “emotional exactions,” “communalism,” etc. These are present somehow in all (we have to say, now, also in all “other”) religions.

Football, on the collegiate and professional levels and, in a world of trickle-down religions, often in high school and little-kid versions, fits most definitions of religion, some of them vividly at Super Bowls and Texas High School rites, sacrifices, and glorifications, more than they might be visible at the friendly neighborhood church or synagogue or even in “spiritual but not religious” (and yet “religious”) circles.

For Marty, the bottom line here is pretty obvious. Baylor leaders have a choice to make.

If the school can regain perspectives available in the better resources of its Baptist/Christian origins, it can serve as an alerter and guide for others.

That's another way of stating the overly complicated point that I tried to articulate to the patient Michelle Boorstein when she called while doing research for a Washington Post piece that underlined the religious and moral angles in this scandal. That's what "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about, again, in the podcast this week.

Instead of two religions, I said that Baylor was facing a "double whammy" in the public square, as in the need to fallow the doctrines of two radically different kingdoms. Here are my main points again:

* It's hard, in the current legal and cultural climate, to be a school that attempts to defend the basics of Christian doctrine on sex.
* Second, all big-time sports schools are struggling to handle the current climate of alcohol, sexual assault and the law.
Baylor is one of a very few schools that must do both. That's a double whammy, in the public square. Thus, Baylor faces agonizing questions about its own identity and it's future in the Big 12.

Yes, of course this means holding Baylor to a higher, not lower, standard -- in comparison with secular schools -- when to comes to defending the safety and dignity of women. Walking this legal high wire will be even harder today, when the government principalities and powers are literally writing the commandments of the Sexual Revolution into the laws of the land.

Meanwhile, there is no question when ethical bar is set higher when you compare the Bible and rules of the NCAA.

So what does this mean for journalists?

For starters, it means digging into the facts of what Baylor leaders claim to believe and reporting them accurately (the topic of my second Baylor post). I am convinced that this means allowing skilled religion-beat veterans to work on this story. Dare I suggest that if newsrooms don't have a Godbeat pro then their top editors should, well, HIRE one?

There is no way -- as Marty noted -- to cover this story without paying attention to both of the religions that are shaping it.

Do Baylor people want to talk about that right now?

This week, Yahoo! writer Pat Forde went to Waco, researching a first-person essay on the crisis. I thought this was a revealing passage:

The people I most wanted to talk to in Waco on Tuesday were not boosters who were friendly with the coaching staff, athletic department and school administration. The people I wanted to talk to were religious leaders.
Baylor proudly advertises itself as the world’s largest Baptist university, and its very motto reflects the religious underpinnings of the school. “Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana” translates to “For Church, For Texas.”
But it wasn’t easy finding a Baptist leader willing to speak about the crisis that has gripped the school and threatened to undermine its moral identity. An email request to speak with Dr. Todd Still, dean of Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary, was routed to the university’s assistant vice president for media communications, Lori Fogleman.
“I was forwarded your interview request for Dr. Still,” Fogleman wrote back. “He is not available for an interview.”
I also attempted to reach First Baptist Church of Waco pastor Matt Snowden. He did not respond to a message.
What the clergy would not discuss, the boosters would.

Journalists! Keep asking those questions. Some of us have been asking them since the mid-1970s or earlier.

Baylor leaders, literally, have a doctrinal choice to make between two religions, between God and the golden gods of big-time TV sports. Can they find a way to honor both in this tense day and age? We will see.

Enjoy the podcast.

IMAGE: The "Jesus is my coach" statue for young football players.

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