Sunday, March 11, 2012

Does OBU Make Students More Liberal? (Part 1)

For decades, pastors in Oklahoma Baptist churches large and small have warned high school seniors and their families, "Don't go to OBU.  It's liberal.  And if you go there, you'll lose your faith."  Please excuse me for a few moments while I laugh hysterically at the ridiculous, paranoid, and hopelessly incorrect assertion that Oklahoma Baptist University's doctrinal/ideological/theological/political ethos could accurately be described as liberal.

[I've actually been trying to write this post for two weeks, but the notion that OBU is liberal is so outrageous that it's difficult to even discuss this topic.]

Okay, I'm back.  As someone with a modest amount of theological training and some background in social science methodology, I find this question to be one of those maddening cases where the answer is obvious and intuitive, but the language we use to discuss the issue is imprecise and the complicated and important distinctions between correlation and causality make it difficult to say anything definitive.

So let's start with language.  First, there's the issue of the liberal-moderate conservative spectrum.  For our purposes, let's put politics aside.  We're not talking about whether OBU makes you more likely to vote Republican or Democratic.  Furthermore, the literature on political ideology and educational attainment is complicated and contradictory.  Race, parents' partisanship, income, and religiosity are among the variables that are better at predicting an individual's political ideology than what kind of college s/he attended.  Let's just skip the political element of the "spectrum" for now.

When good candidates for jobs steer clear of OBU because it's gone off-the-deep-end conservative and pastors preach against OBU as a liberal bastion, the spectrum is theological.  The language is imprecise because the spectrum is so relative.  We say the BGCO is run by fundamentalists.  They say anyone who defends academic freedom or opposes their agenda is a liberal.  Neither of those labels is entirely accurate in every case.  And what you see depends on where you stand.

If you're a fundamentalist pastor in Oklahoma, everyone looks like a liberal.  If you were at OBU in the 1970s-1990s as it was earning a reputation for excellence in Christian higher education and you see the professors who are being hired and the leaders who are calling the shots today, everyone looks like a fundamentalist.  The matter is even more complicated because the relative distance between both sides has increased as those who call themselves conservatives in this debate have moved so dramatically to the right as those who call themselves moderates have stayed the same.  Another complication is that this theological spectrum has different dimensions, such as where you stand on classical Baptist freedoms such as liberty of the conscience.  With their pastor-as-pope model, their creedalism, their authoritarianism, and their unqualified embrace of partisan politics, the modern-day SBC and BGCO have undeniably retreated from our cherished freedoms.  Thus, even if their literalist view of the Bible hasn't changed much, their rightward lurches on these other dimensions has a cumulative effect of moving them dramatically to the right on the spectrum.

Back to our original question: What happens when a student comes to OBU?  How does s/he move along this theological spectrum.  The only way to establish a causal link between an OBU education and students' placement on the liberal-conservative spectrum is to survey them before they matriculate and then after they graduate and using statistical techniques to control for students who transfer, drop out, etc.  To my knowledge, this has never been done at OBU or any other Christian college.  If you know about where we can find this kind of data, please let us know.

For now, the best I can do is point to a study done 20 years ago by a prominent sociologist (herself an alumna of Southwest Baptist College in Missouri).  She does a good job of taking politics out of the conservative-liberal spectrum and showing the association between "theological parties" and educational attainment:
But notice that she has not distinguished between different types of education.  Take a look at the chart below.  Here, we see membership in theological parties broken down by type of college attended:
According to these data, Southern Baptist laypeople who attended secular universities are more likely to be fundamentalists or conservatives (81%) than Baptist college graduates (67%).  Conversely, Baptist college grads are much more likely to be moderates or moderate conservatives (32%) than Baptist who went to secular universities (19%).

These results suggest that Baptist colleges have a substantial moderating influence on students' theological positions.  Over time, we can speculate as to why.  But I think that whenever students have access to the books, the intellectual tools, and the encouragement from faithful Christian scholars that OBU until recently prided itself on providing, the inevitable result is that few will remain fundamentalists for long.

Findings such as these poke huge holes in the increasingly fundamentalist BGCO's entire rationale for operating a college in the first place.  It turns out that those demonic secular universities that people worship on autumn Saturdays but rail against every other day of the week actually do a better job of keeping Christian young people in the fold.  This is no surprise when you consider the masterful job Baptist and parachurch organizations have done at creating fundamentalist enclaves within state universities.  And the fruits of this trend (theologically conservative state school grads and theologically moderate Baptist college grads) is evident throughout the BGCO today.  I have not been able to find even one BCM campus minister (besides OBU's own) that came from OBU.  In any event, it's a certainty that no more than a handful of the people the BGCO pays to minister to Oklahoma college students are actually OBU grads.  Then there is the matter of how, for all the BGCO's desire to only hire pastors from the SBC's fundamentalist seminaries, a shockingly high proportion of OBU ministry grads would never dream of attending today's SBC seminaries and the ones that do tend to be quite a bit more moderate than the BGCO would prefer.  That's why the pipeline into BGCO pulpits usually runs from state schools and Southwestern Seminary, and not nearly as much as you would expect from OBU.  Anecdotally, it seems that the OBU brain drain results in a stunning proportion of graduates ministering and working outside Oklahoma.  I'm sure the BGCO would never allow OBU to publish a report on its ministry grads because it would be such a colossal embarrassment to the convention and would undermine a huge part of OBU's reason for existing.

Despite the BGCO's fervent wishes and best efforts, it seems undeniable that, in the aggregate, OBU has a moderating influence on students' theological views.  Given the stunning lack of OBU graduates in the BGCO hierarchy and the surprisingly low numbers of OBU grads in BGCO pulpits, it's clear that the pastors who have been OBU's detractors were onto something.  Their paranoid fears that OBU is liberal are, of course, ridiculous.  But their sense that OBU's mission and the BGCO's goals are contradictory if not outright hostile to one another is right on target.

What can you do about it?

  • Let Oklahoma Baptist clergy and laypeople know about Save OBU.  They will want to protect their hard-earned offering plate dollars from being used as a subsidy to an institution with an $80 million endowment.  Their interests are best advanced through BCM, evangelism, and Falls Creek.  OBU devours Cooperative Program resources that could be used in these vital ministry areas.  Instead, $2.5 million per year is being funneled into OBU, and Oklahoma Baptists have shockingly little to show for it.
  • Speaking of spreading the word about Save OBU, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  This will help dramatically expand our social reach.
  • If you are an Oklahoma Baptist, start a conversation in your church about whether OBU is really the kind of investment the BGCO should be making.  A number of very fine Baptist schools have parted company with their state conventions.  Years after they split, the colleges and the conventions are much better off.
  • We'll be ramping up our activism in the weeks and months to come.  But for now, we need help getting our message out and letting the BGCO know that there are actually two camps that see the convention's ownership of OBU as disastrous.  The protectors of academic freedom and the Christian liberal arts heritage, obviously, will not abide OBU administrators' recent policy changes.  But, equally as significantly, there are plenty of Oklahoma Baptist clergy and laypeople who have known for decades that this partnership is mutually draining and not very fruitful given its huge cost and the battles it has fomented through the years.
  • If the BGCO is so desperate to run a fundamentalist Bible academy, maybe it can throw its millions behind struggling dumps like this or this.  I know of a couple administrators who might fit right in.
  • Just for fun, take the poll at the top-right part of our home page.

We'll take up this topic again from time to time as new evidence and arguments arise.


  1. The fact that you call organizations that don't line up with your particular line of theological thinking "struggling dumps" begins to show what I have come to see as the true colors of this movement. Just because they line up with a more fundamentalist/literal view of scripture does not mean they are any more or less correct in their theology than you are. I would ask you to keep an open mind about the beliefs of others, but from all I've read on this blog, I think that's asking a bit much.

  2. I graduated from OBU in 2003 and I have mixed emotions when it comes to OBU.

    Education wise, I enjoyed and wish that I did not party as hard and I wish I tried harder in class instead of settling for 2.22. Of course I made up for that my senior year and it carried on with me into seminary 3 years later.

    Spiritually speaking, OBU almost killed my spirit. The way chapel was set up and the speakers that spoke and the welcome week that felt like summer youth camp, I felt that I was always seen as an alter call and nothing more, especially when we are only encouraged to attend EBC. The only thing I could participate in spiritual wise was our cross country prayer group. I appreciated those guys who walked with me but I do not credit OBU with that.

    I was on the verge of leaving Christianity behind because I only knew the ultra conservative way and it didn't work for me. It wasn't until I became the youth minsiter at UBC and two ministers opened my eyes to a whole new place where I was welcomed as a person and not as a statistic.

    I can honestly say that I left more moderate and transitioned into a more moderate/progressive theology and if OBU had anything to do with it, it would be of the way I felt seen as a statistic.

  3. I would like to see a list of Oklahoma Baptist churches and pastors that say, "Don't go to OBU. It's liberal. And if you go there, you'll lose your faith.” I do not believe this statement is widely held. I decided to attend OBU five years ago, and my decision received a warm welcome by my Baptist church. I don’t understand the validity of your presumptuous bias. You want a democratic survey of graduating students’ political views, but you assume the views of Baptist Pastors. This blog is starting to operate more like the media at large rather than a group of faithful graduates who want to see change.

    1. Hmm, not sure exactly what you mean. The survey is unscientific and just out of curiosity. It has NOTHING t odo with politics. I have heard numerous alumni from different eras express that hostility toward OBU among fundamentalist pastors is widespread. Notice how OBU's percentage of students from Oklahoma has dropped through the years (though this could have to do with the high cost of attendance which the BGCO is increasingly unable to subsidize). The main reason we emphasize this irrational fear of OBU being too liberal is to highlight that the administration is facing pressure from two poles. It's not just that we are demanding a return to academic freedom and true Christian liberal arts education. It's that there is a constituency that has long wanted to pull OBU in the direction it is going. The balance is tricky, I concede. But it would be a lot easier to maintain if OBU did not have the BGCO to appease.

    2. This reminds me of a parable between a overburdened administrator and a beloved student. Yes, that story. The moral: People feel pressed to appease an audience of some kind and may get off track of what actually matters. Oft in the process, they begin to look much less like Christ than any would like to confess.

      Post hoc ergo proper hoc: "Oklahoma Baptist churches and pastors" has now morphed into "fundamentalist pastors.” The common theme, you ask? HEARSAY! Ergo, we are again off track and loosing objectivity. As a growing organization, I challenge you to survey Oklahoma Baptist churches and pastors on their views of OBU. Better yet, petition Anthony Jordan on his thoughts regarding OBU. OBU is inherently and fundamentally (in a different context) BAPTIST. Separation from the BGCO will not change that. The BGCO (composed of OK Baptist churches and pastors) has not caused the “fundamentalist” controversy at OBU.

    3. Anonymous, I'd love to survey OK Baptist clergy. Not sure they'd be responsive to me. And I certainly don't think Dr. Jordan would. If the BGCO has not caused this unprecedented and bad change of direction at OBU, then why isn't the BGCO leading the Save OBU movement? I think the evidence strongly suggests that the BGCO, or at least its senior leadership, is elated with the changes we abhor. But the convention does not want to be seen as A) interfering in OBU's affairs or B) publicly cheerleading a descent into fundamentalism. So Dr. Jordan sits back and smiles as Drs. Whitlock and Norman do the dirty work Jordan has been unable to accomplish over the past 15 years. I agree that OBU would still be Baptist without the BGCO. In fact, I'd argue that it would be even more authentically Baptist. But I see no other option but to interpret the BGCO's silence as tacit approval of the policy and personnel changes. And I think "tacit approval" is much too mild -- it's more like barely suppressed euphoria. The Takeover faction that purged moderates and seized power in the BGCO 15-20 years ago has been waiting for years to take over OBU. Just my $0.02.


We invite you to join in the conversation. However, anonymous comments are unwelcome.