Big 12

Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Ever since the 1980s, I have been telling editors and journalists that conflicts about religious liberty were going cause some of the biggest news stories on the American horizon.

Anyone who has been reading GetReligion since 2004 knows that I've been saying that, over and over. Amen If you listen to this week's "Crossroads" podcast, looking ahead into 2017, you're going to hear more about that. No apologies.

The roots of this concern run back to my graduate-school work in Baylor University's church-state studies program, where -- in 1977-78 -- we could hear the early rumblings of what would become Bob Jones University vs. United States case.

Why is that important? Do you remember this crucial moment in the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell debates about same-sex marriage?

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is, it is going to be an issue.

That's why religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling, in his recent pair of memos looking ahead to 2017, stressed that religious-liberty cases -- linked to LGBTQ issues, again -- would remain on the front burner for major American newsrooms. Click here and then here for those two Ostling posts.

You can see the same themes again, over and over, in the recent "Acts of Faith" year-beginner piece at The Washington Post by religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey (yes, a former member of the GetReligion team). The headline: "Here’s what we think will be the major religion stories of 2017." Here is the overture:

The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.

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The Big 12 hits stop button on expansion: So ESPN avoids faith issue in new coverage?

The Big 12 hits stop button on expansion: So ESPN avoids faith issue in new coverage?

I grew up in Texas during the glory days of the old Southwest Conference (which was a pretty tough time to be a Baylor University fan, until the legendary Grant Teaff came along). Thus, even though I live in the heart of SEC Country, I still pay close attention to what is happening over in the Big 12 (yes, which currently has 10 members).

At the moment -- in terms of journalism -- there is much more to Big 12 gazing than watching football. Yes, there is a religion-news hook here. The question of whether the Big 12 will add new members to get back to 12 has turned, in part, into yet another battle between LGBTQ activists and allies of traditional religious groups.

Notice that I did not say this is a religious-liberty conflict.

The Big 12 is, of course, not a government agency. We are talking about a private, voluntary association of schools and, thus, the conference's leaders are pretty much free to create and tweak their membership requirements whenever and however they choose to do so. Voluntary associations -- left and right -- can define their own rules and, well, doctrines.

This brings us to the Big 12 candidacy of Brigham Young University and, in the long run, it's easy to see questions being raised about the Big 12 status of charter-member Baylor. Yes, this is another story linked to religious private schools having the right to promote and even protect the religious doctrines on which they were founded. Hold that thought.

As always, if is good to pay close attention to the ESPN coverage of this controversy. It's significant that the BYU controversy received zero ink in the most recent report on the Big 12 decision not to expand. Here is the key material from the top of that report:

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

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. And the other is pretty obvious.

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ESPN: Baylor's fallen QB, tears in his eyes, delivers faith-free challenge to team

ESPN: Baylor's fallen QB, tears in his eyes, delivers faith-free challenge to team

Fellow sports fans, how do you feel when you are watching the post-game show of a major sporting event -- let's say college football -- and Jesus shows up in the commentary on the sideline?

I am not referring to the tradition that many players have of kneeling together -- a circle involving players from both teams who want to take part -- to offer prayers of thanksgiving for their safety and to pray for anyone who was injured in the contest. That isn't a situation in which television cameras are automatically part of the scene (especially in the National Football League, in which the powers on high never show these images).

I'm talking about the moment when the sideline reporter asks a player a basic question and he opens his remarks with a few phrases of personal testimony about his faith. Let me be clear: The players have free will (and the First Amendment) and can say what they want. I am also not saying that these moments are all shallow or fake. No way. I am saying that I understand that many viewers may shake their heads and doubt the sincerity of some of these mini-sermons.

This is even true, for me, when watching Baylor University football games. What can I say? Decades ago I covered the team for the Baylor student newspaper and, well, I knew some of those players and knew that some were much more faithful and sincere about those testimonies than others.

This brings me to a recent ESPN piece about Baylor's star quarterback Seth Russell, who is out for the year after breaking a bone in his neck. Apparently, Russell was part of a remarkable scene the other day in which, with a brace around his neck, he confronted the team and urged them to get behind his replacement and to carry on. Here is how that story opens:

WACO, Texas -- When Baylor’s lifting session ended ... strength coach Kaz Kazadi and his staff stepped out of the weight room. Art Briles wasn’t there, nor were his assistants.
Just Baylor’s players. On most days, they’d gather around Kazadi as he stood over them atop a plyo box and delivered a parting message. Instead, their quarterback was front and center.

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The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.

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