Today we celebrate the visionary Oklahoma Baptists who bequeathed our beloved OBU, as well as the men and women who have sustained it over all these years. This year, we find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing -- but unusually active -- debate about who the true bearers and keepers of that age-old vision really are. Maybe a brief reflection on OBU's Founders' Day Chapel and what it represents can shed some light.
In OBU's chapel service this morning, students forced to gather for worship heard from a distinguished alumnus and legendary Southern Baptist pastor, the Rev. John Bisagno. He was most famously the pastor of FBC Houston, which grew to 25,000 under his leadership. Less known is the fact that he was the first in a string of pastors from First Southern Del City who become prominent post-Takeover SBC figures. Rev. Bisagno was by all accounts a creative and adaptive pastor, and has remained active in retirement. OBU is right to give such a distinguished alumnus a platform from which to speak, and to hire him for its summer Pastors School.
What's less-known and mostly forgotten about Rev. Bisagno, though, is that he ended up playing a pivotal role in cementing the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC. Takeover architects Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson knew it would only take 10 years of electing fundamentalist presidents to fully remake the SBC in their image. By 1990, the transformation was all but complete. As messengers prepared to assemble in New Orleans, moderates and traditional Baptists needed a miracle. Unfortunately, it was not to come. Rev. John Bisagno, who by most accounts had remained relatively neutral in the controversy that was tearing the SBC apart, announced his support for fundamentalist pastor Rev. Morris Chapman for the SBC presidency. Chapman was elected with 57% of the vote, and the fundamentalists' decade old dream was cemented. The victorious fundamentalists arrived by limousine to celebrate:
Following their massive and rather final defeat of the moderates, Paige Patterson and others went to the Café Du Monde in the French Quarter to celebrate their victory. Patterson and Pressler were given framed certificates honoring their achievements. The Convention parliamentarian, supposedly neutral and from another denomination, was present for the celebration, and even called it to order! When his presence at this meeting was challenged as inappropriate, he first explained that he was “just passing by, picking up an order of doughnuts.” When the challengers pointed out that the parliamentarian had actually been seen arriving at Café Du Monde in a limousine with the Convention president, he amended his story to say that he was on “24 hour call” and therefore obliged to accompany the President wherever he went. When one messenger tried to tell the story of what he had seen at Café Du Monde to the Convention the following day, he was deterred. Twice the President refused to recognize him and twice his microphone was turned off. Such abuse of the chair was common all during the Takeover.
I wonder if John Bisagno was present for the celebration. Within a few years, the SBC seminaries, boards, and agencies became fundamentalist and millions of faithful Baptists were left in a denomination they no longer recognized. Of course, no one can argue that Rev. Bisagno caused the Takeover. But when he had an opportunity to slow its progress, he cast his lot with the fundamentalists.
Somehow I doubt he told that story in his talk (well he's male so I guess we can call it a sermon) today. But to the victors go the spoils, I guess, and OBU has done a marvelous job of using the Raley Chapel pulpit to give a platform to fundamentalist leaders and sympathizers. We are not suggesting that fundamentalists not be invited to speak, but it would be nice to get some acknowledgement that their views are hardly representative of the student body and represent only a tiny fraction of the faculty.
The fundamentalists' march continued from the national level to the state conventions. In Oklahoma, they marginalized moderates in every possible way. OBU, however, remained an elusive takeover target. Even after electing Rev. Dr. Mark Brister to the OBU presidency in 1998, fundamentalists knew they had their work cut out for them. Brister, who had been an up-and-coming leader in the SBC's conservative resurgence, turned out to be a bit harder to control than the BGCO elites had anticipated.
But make no mistake, the BGCO has been cheering loudly for the very same changes we have been protesting. In President Whitlock, the BGCO thinks they finally have their man. And, obviously, preliminary evidence suggests they may be right. Dr. Whitlock knows what the BGCO expected of him, but he knew he had to do it in a "winsome" way. So when the winsome Whitlock brought on Stan Norman to do most of his dirty work for him, it seemed like the perfect plan.
Unfortunately for them, the vast OBU community was not willing to lay down and die so easily. Hopefully, the trustees will not lay down easily, either. Post-Takeover, institution boards have mostly rubber-stamped what the fundamentalist administrators wanted all along. Yet we have seen that some Baptist schools refused to let the fundamentalists destroy their institutions. And even now, trustees at one Baptist seminary are flexing their muscle (over managerial incompetence rather than ideology, apparently).
I'm sure that many fundamentalists see a direct line from OBU's founders to the Fundamentalist Takeover to the present-day erosion of academic freedom and hostility toward faculty. We see a different story. OBU founders built an institution that two generations of capable and visionary leaders molded into a proud liberal arts university. Academic freedom and open inquiry were cherished values. Baptist distinctives like soul competency, liberty of the conscience, and priesthood of the believer ruled the day.
We did not stray from our moorings. Rather, the ground was pulled out from under us by fundamentalists who feared anything they could not control. They launched slanderous personal attacks against Baptist academics. They ridiculed and questioned the deep and abiding faith of people they did not even know (as some commenters on our Facebook page have recently done to us). And they used the politics of fear and division to make themselves powerful and wealthy. That Takeover movement, from which OBU was largely insulated for 20 years because of capable and devoted professors, administrators, and trustees, has now arrived on Bison Hill.
If we do nothing, if we remain silent, the radical transformation of OBU will continue apace. We may lose this battle even in spite of our protests. But we need to raise our voices, claim our rightful places as stakeholders in OBU's future, and stand firmly for the values that are presently threatened. Who knows which professor will be forced out next? Who knows what book will be tossed out of the curriculum? Who knows what student or staff member will face retaliation for protesting?
Our little movement has grown quickly, and already we are having an impact. The principals now now that the opposition is larger, better informed, and more vocal than they had anticipated. Ideally, we will gain enough strength that administrators will realize they are better off siding with us than siding with the fundamentalists. But in the meantime, it seems likely to me that we have them in a difficult position, probably facing pressure from both sides. We can't offer them the same huge salaries, generous pensions, fancy retirement dinners, and plush post-retirement positions that the BGCO elites can offer them in return for their loyalty. But fortunately we can offer them something more meaningful: being on the right side of history, standing for truth and justice over politics and power, championing the values that made OBU great, and holding fast to the vision and mission of OBU's founding.
God bless OBU!
P.S. If there is a recording of the OBU Chorale's performance today, I'd love to hear it!