Friday, December 16, 2011

Grady Cothen -- Forgotten OBU Hero

In the pantheon of OBU presidents, it always bothered me that Grady Cothen never seems to get his due.  John Wesley Raley's long tenure alone propels him to the top of the heap.  (Little known fact: President Raley spent several years seeking out F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, who finally agreed to deliver the commencement address in 1938.)  James Ralph Scales gets mentioned because he went on to become president of Wake Forest University, back when Baptists would have considered such a thing an honor rather than an apostasy.  The current president, David Whitlock, brings not only considerable business acumen, but also years of experience in higher education administration.  Leading a university is a difficult job, and we have been blessed with some very capable leaders over the years.

Grady Cothen arrived on Bison Hill at a momentous time.  He was Executive Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention of California at the time of his election to the OBU Presidency in 1966.  Cothen was succeeding perhaps the two most prominent presidents in OBU history.  Church institutions and denominationalism were at their height, but cultural changes were right around the corner.  In 1970, President Cothen left OBU to head New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  He finished his career at the Baptist Sunday School Board, leaving in the throes of the fundamentalist takeover in 1984.

Throughout his career and after, Cothen has for decades been a Baptist statesman of the highest order.  His vast service includes so many items that today's Southern Baptist leaders would scoff at:
  • Executive Committee of the American Association of Theological Schools
  • Member of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (which the SBC de-funded in the early 1990s)
  • Executive Committee of the Baptist World Alliance (which the SBC abandoned in 2004), including service on the body's Theological Education Committee
Sadly, if Grady Cothen applied for an administrative position at OBU today, he would be laughed out of the room.  In spite of his unparalleled and distinguished service, Grady Cothen has long since been blacklisted by today's Baptist power brokers.  To his great credit, he did not sit idly by while fundamentalist elites orchestrated and executed a political campaign to take over the Southern Baptist Convention and its boards, agencies, and schools.

In fact, Cothen wrote two books about the Fundamentalist Takeover.  As far as I know, there are no monuments on the OBU campus in his honor.  No lecture series, no professorships, nothing.  Obviously today's fundamentalist-controlled BGCO would never abide it.  I doubt Grady Cothen would be allowed to preach in Raley Chapel, even if he wanted to.  We would do well to consider Grady Cothen's position on what Baptist higher education is all about.  We've fallen a long way since his very fine stewardship of our cherished institutions.

I will share more insights from and about Grady Cothen, who is now 91, when I read his books.  Right now, however, I am filled with sadness about how Cothen and a whole generation of moderate Baptists were cast aside by the ascendant fundamentalists.  Maybe there was once a time when OBU and the BGCO could both affirm freedom of thought, liberty of the conscience, academic freedom, and other timeless Baptist principles.  But that day has long passed.  Unfortunately, standing up for academic freedom and Baptist principles today means standing up to the BGCO.  Since that will be difficult, if not impossible, we are advocating an end to this bad institutional arrangement.

One day, we will again welcome men (and women) like Grady Cothen on Bison Hill.  Until then, President Cothen, we salute you!

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