Sunday, April 29, 2012

To All Who Say "It Can't Happen Here"

As regular readers know, earlier this month we profiled three Baptist colleges in Georgia in various stages of collapse at the hands of emboldened fundamentalists.  The case of Shorter University is the most tragic because, until the past decade, Shorter was, like OBU, a shining example of how to offer a distinctively Baptist, authentically Christian liberal arts education to bright and eager students.

We are concerned because Shorter is being absolutely destroyed in the most sudden and dramatic way possible.  Whereas at OBU, we have "only" seen two professors forced out since fundamentalists flexed their muscles, Shorter is actually going to lose at least two dozen professors and hundreds of students.  The precipitating event is a "Lifestyle Statement" that all Shorter staff must either sign or face termination.  While Georgia Baptist Convention fundamentalists are salivating at the prospect of remaking Shorter in their own narrow image, the fact is that entire departments are being decimated and Shorter's accreditation is in perilous danger.

We'll continue to study the long history of Shorter's takeover and demise, alert to any parallels with OBU's own unfortunate position vis-a-vis the BGCO.  But today, I want to focus on a single vignette that illustrates how easy it is for even one fundamentalist pastor to dramatically reshape a Baptist college's Board of Trustees.  The story comes from a former Shorter trustee, the Rev. Dr. Larry Burgess.  Save Our Shorter has printed his recollection in its entirety, so I encourage you to read it there.

The story is absolutely chilling, and I can't comment on every part of it in a single blog post.  A single Georgia Baptist minister, concerned that Shorter was too "moderate," requested a meeting with Shorter President Edward Schrader.
They shared a meal at a Cracker Barrel on I-75 on the north side of Atlanta. The pastor, quite prominent in the Georgia Baptist Convention, was very critical of Shorter. He said the whole religion faculty should be replaced. He criticized Shorter for being too liberal, too “Moderate.” He was quite confrontational and it was clear he intended to see radical changes made at Shorter.
If you don't believe there are BGCO pastors who would have said the same thing about OBU two years ago, you are badly mistaken.  Anyway, at the next Georgia Baptist Convention meeting, the norms for electing Shorter trustees were completely discarded.  Previously, the university had sent a list of suitable nominees to the convention, usually with about double the number of names as trustees to be elected.  The convention's Nominating Committee would whittle down the list and the convention would elect a group of trustees. This time, the Nominating Committee rejected all the names that Shorter provided, and forwarded to the convention a slate of replacement trustees, which the GBC subsequently elected.

Before long, the same pastor who ambushed Schrader was named Chairman of the GBC Nominations Committee.  Eventually, the GBC packed more fundamentalists and GBC loyalists onto the Shorter board.  The nasty battles that ensued wound up in the Georgia Supreme Court, where the convention won by one vote.  And now, as a consequence, the GBC is claiming its spoils.

What's most important to note about Larry Burgess's story is how naive he was.  I don't intend this as an insult or attack -- he admitted as much several times in his account.  But that very naivete -- that the convention has the university's best interests at heart -- ultimately allowed the fundamentalists to take over a once-proud institution.

In Oklahoma Baptist life, a lot of people like to say that moderates and fundamentalists have coexisted relatively peacefully.  But it's just not true.  From the early 1990s onward, there has been a deliberate, calculated attempt to marginalize moderates and reward the most strident Takeover henchmen and cheerleaders.  Sure, there have been a few prominent, popular BGCO pastors who are strong OBU supporters and who are relatively less fundamentalist.  But the writing is on the wall and has been for more than a decade.

Once President Whitlock (whether unwittingly or not, it's hard to say) turned his friend Stan Norman loose on Bison Hill, the BGCO fundamentalists began to see their dreams for OBU realized.  Unfortunately for them, Dr. Norman is being reigned in somewhat (for now).  If we remain vigilant, perhaps we can hold off the onslaught.  So far, he seems to be the only administrator with the appetite to force this battle.  Soon, he will have to undergo a performance evaluation that includes faculty input. Even if he survives in his position after that, every indication is that he will be sufficiently chastened.

But on the BGCO end, it's difficult to predict what will happen.  Of course, if OBU wasn't beholden to the BGCO, we wouldn't have to worry.  But if the Georgia experience is any indication, unethical and unprecedented actions by university administrators are just a small part of our concern.  Convention fundamentalists will use any means necessary to achieve their ends.  If even a small faction BGCO power brokers turned their sights on OBU, things could unravel quickly.

And if you actually believe that this scenario is unlikely, please take time to learn about any of the Baptist institutions (colleges and seminaries) that the fundamentalists have taken over in the past 20 years.  We are doing our best to tell their stories here at the Save OBU blog.  God bless people like Larry Burgess, who served because he was asked and because he loved Shorter.  But we need to get our heads out of the sand.  If OBU is taken over, it won't be because we were caught off guard.  And the opposition the takeover faction will face here will be the best-informed, loudest, and most passionate in history.  I have to say, I like our odds.  But to believe that OBU is not a takeover target is not only wishful thinking, it's flat-out ignorant.

Read former Shorter Trustee Larry Burgess's story.  And pray to God it doesn't repeat itself here.

1 comment:

  1. The Burgess story reflects not only our denomination but our country today. The money changer elite have merged with the fundamental religious elite to create a most unholy power alliance while good, upright, decent Baptist Christians have slept all along the way. We have lost so much.


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