Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Downward Spiral: Truett-McConnell Faculty Succumbs to Creedalism

In this series, we are looking at what happens when once-strong Christian liberal arts universities are taken over by fundamentalists.  Invariably, state convention power brokers force administrators to degrade the academic quality and integrity of the institution, or else they nudge trustees into hiring administrators who will do the conventions' dirty work.  Yesterday, we celebrated that -- thanks to a large, diverse, and growing activist network -- OBU's devolution into a fundamentalist Bible academy appears to be slowing.

The Save OBU movement, as most of you know, comes on the heels of spirited protests by students, faculty, alumni, and retired faculty against the new and unprecedented direction OBU administrators seem to want to take our beloved University.  Acknowledging our debt to those thoughtful students, courageous faculty, concerned alumni, and angry retirees, we claimed a victory yesterday after 4+ months and 100+ blog posts:

OBU will not carry out any ideologically-motivated dismissals this summer.

We coud be wrong, of course.  But at this point, we just don't believe the political will exists for them to go through with it again.  I hate to dare them to try it.  But we are confident that, at this point, the costs outweigh the benefits.  Let's make sure it stays that way.  If we let up our guard for an instant, their agenda will continue apace...

Which brings me to the aim of our Downward Spiral series.  Over the next three days, we'll examine three Southern Baptist colleges whose fundamentalist transformations are much more advanced than OBU's.  The point is to demonstrate how these efforts get started, how the state conventions are always involved, and what to look out for to prevent these kinds of things from happening at our beloved OBU.

Truett-McConnell College (Cleveland, Georgia)
Named for longtime (and, ironically, relatively moderate) pastors in Dallas and Atlanta, TMC has been working hard to beef up and brandish its super-Baptist credentials since the Georgia Baptist Convention parted ways with Mercer University in 2007.  No matter how far to the fundamentalist side the GBC goes, TMC is ready to follow its lead.  The watershed year was 2009.  That year, TMC elected 37 year-old Emir Caner president.  Despite his relative youth, Caner had been a darling of the fundamentalists for some time.  A convert from Islam, Caner and his brother penned the book that former SBC President Jerry Vines cited when he claimed in 2002 that the Prophet Mohammed was a "demon-possessed pedophile."  Caner was the founding dean of the College at Southwestern, an undergraduate program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX.  Though they won't come right out and say it, the College was formed by fundamentalists stung by the loss they suffered in trying to take over the Baptist General Convention of Texas and its affiliated colleges.

Later in 2009, TMC trustees announced that they would require faculty assent to the Baptist Faith and Message, a creed confession of faith altered in 2000 to reflect more clearly today's Baptists' obsession with female subordination.  (Rev. Dr. Anthony Jordan, the top BGCO executive, chaired the committee that wrote the "Submissive Women" article (Article XXVIII) in the BFM.)  In order to give some broad context, I will quote liberally from Bob Allen's December 28, 2009 article in Associated Baptist Press:

CLEVELAND, Ga. (ABP) -- Truett-McConnell College in northeast Georgia plans to become the first Baptist college to require its faculty to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message as revised by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000. 
"The Georgia Baptist Convention and our churches deserve nothing less than a faculty that will abide by nothing less than the essentials of the faith," said Truett-McConnell President Emir Caner, according to the Georgia Baptist Christian Index
"Institutions that do not faithfully support the theology of Southern Baptists do not deserve the faithful support of Southern Baptists," Caner said. 
The policy runs counter to other historically Baptist colleges and universities that in recent decades have loosened or severed ties with sponsoring state conventions. Most have done so to prevent pressure to force their professors to move from moderate theology to the more conservative ideology imposed upon SBC seminaries in the 1980s and 1990s. 
"The 20th century saw the degradation of sound, biblical theology," Caner said. "But thankfully on a national level our seminaries, mission agencies, the [SBC] Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and our other agencies are now faithful to the Word of God, but we can't say the same about all our state Baptist colleges. I will stand on the Baptist Faith and Message."
It's unclear to me whether the trustees, the GBC, or Camer himself came up with this idea.  If anyone knows more about the particulars of this situation, please let us know:  But it's certainly alarming when you have a president who is clearly in lockstep with the politically powerful SBC elites who long ago abandoned any commitment to academic freedom, academic integrity, or academic respectability.  Even worse is when you have a board of trustees that is willing to not only accede to this brazen fundamentalist demand, but did so unanimously.  Not only that, but TMC's religion department chair enthusiastically greeted the change, saying that not only would all religion faculty gladly sign the BFM.  And it's not that TMC hadn't gone down this road before.  TMC faculty -- regardless of department or field -- have long been required to sign a statement on biblical inerrancy. 

TMC Celebrates Its Descent into Creedalism
Because Dr. Camer wanted to handle this situation "pastorally," he gave a full 18 months before he fired everyone who didn't a) assent to every word of the divinely inspired politically conceived BFM and/or b) thought being forced to sign a creed was an inappropriate or unconscionable intrusion upon what used to be cherished Baptist freedoms.  I don't know how many people resigned in protest.  I would suspect not many because TMC has apparently been a fundamentalist institution for some time.  Neither US News nor Forbes even bother ranking Truett-McConnell, a death knell that these fundamentalists probably consider a badge of honor.  It maintains SACS accreditation for now, but TMC's accreditation renewal could get ugly -- and that's saying something given how much latitude mainstream accreditation bodies give religious schools.

On October 27, 2011, faculty signed the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.  The date was rescheduled from August in order to accomodate Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson, who delivered the keynote address at the signing.  Patterson, you probably know, is president of SWBTS, was an original architect of the Fundamentalist Takeover, and was president of the SBC when the 2000 revision was adopted.

Could this Happen at OBU?
Read and consider the following hypothetical press release:
Shawnee, Okla. -- The college that leads the nation in providing missionaries for the International Mission Board has strengthened its commitment to Southern Baptist principles, announcing today that all of its 85 faculty have signed the Baptist Faith and Message. 
"The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and our churches deserve nothing less than a faculty that will abide by nothing less than the essentials of faith," said President David Whitlock.  "Institutions that do not faithfully support the theology of Southern Baptists do not deserve the faithful support of Southern Baptists." 
College of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark McClellan said that he has long been comfortable with the idea, saying that he would question why any believing Southern Baptist wouldn't sign the statement. 
Likely impossible only a few years ago, a more activist and unified Board of Trustees unanimously affirmed the change.  Though OBU lost some longtime professors over the issue, the university gave them ample time to secure new employment elsewhere.  The BGCO now proudly boasts on its website that OBU joins a growing number of Baptist colleges that ensures faculty faithfulness to consensus Southern Baptist beliefs.
Does that sound even remotely far-fetched to you?  Substitue TMC for OBU, the GBC for the BGCO, Camer for Whitlock, and TMC Dean Sam Pelletier for McClellan and you have exactly what was said about the recent policy at Truett-McConnell.

So yes, this could indeed happen at OBU.  But it's not inevitable.  Important differences remain.  First among them is the trustee situation.  At present, it seems very unlikely that OBU's trustees would go along with something so radical and unprecedented.  Though there does seem to be a tendency to act by consensus that limits the clout of more moderate trustees (how many of them spoke up about the forced dismissals?), there is just no way OBU trustees would approve of this change unanimously.

Second, David Whitlock is no Emir Camer.  Camer is a theologically sophisticated ideologue.  While Whitlock may have good political instincts, no one thinks he is very interested in fighting these kinds of battles.  Several faculty have even described him as theologically naive and unsophisticated -- which is probably an asset if being like Emir Camer is the alternative.

Third, the TMC faculty was already much, much more doctrinaire and conservative before Camer came along than OBU's faculty.  Whereas TMC may have lost a few professors, OBU would likely lose dozens.  But make no mistake -- as we'll see in a few days, some Baptist college administrators and state convention officials see losing dozens of faculty as a good thing.

Fourth, the financial relationships may be completely different.  For all we know, after the Mercer vote in 2007, the three GBC colleges may have been going after this new pot of unallocated Mercer money. The BGCO's contribution to OBU is now so minimal as to be insignificant.  Though it would require some careful planning, OBU could rather easily survive without the BGCO's little subsidy.  Even if the BGCO tried some kind of sticks-and-carrots approach, well, the carrot is pretty tiny.  OBU could tell the BGCO to go jump in a lake.  In fact, we hope that day comes speedily and soon!

The only thing that makes this nightmare scenario more plausible is the difference between GBC Executive J. Robert White and our own Anthony Jordan.  Based on his published writings and the press clippings on the BFM issue at TMC, White seems to be much less of an ideologue, culture warrior, and SBC climber than Jordan.  In any case, White was wise not to leave his fingerprints all over TMC's change, for which President Camer and the trustees claimed responsibility.  If this happened in Oklahoma, it would almost certainly originate in Jordan's office, since neither Whitlock nor the trustees presently have the inclination to abandon historic Baptist freedoms, reverse precedent, and degrade OBU in such a dramatic way.

But make no mistake.  If we remain silent, this is precisely the kind of change we can expect to see at OBU.  Maybe not next year, maybe not even in 5 years.  But eventually.  Now that Whitlock and Norman have put the entire OBU constituency on alert, the BGCO will work harder than ever to make sure the "right" kind of trustees are elected this November and subsequently.  As it stands, Whitlock and the trustees know there is pressure from both sides.  If we remain vigilant, I'm confident we will prevail and disaster will be averted at OBU.  But if we back down and Norman, Jordan, and the BGCO have their way, OBU could be on its way to being just another barely accredited, academically irrelevant, has-been fundamentalist Bible academy like Truett-McConnell College in Georgia.


  1. You sure pat yourselves on the back with a claim that cannot be proven! That is like saying I put water on the house so it did not burn down does not matter there was no fire could be the same case in this situation but lets make our movement look big

  2. As an alum of one of the other 3 SBC schools (Shorter University), this is exactly what we're afraid of. I hate to hear that it's come to this at TMC.

    And just to add my two cents, from the outsider in, I think this kind of movement IS big. I see the SBC and it's affiliates getting smaller and smaller. Heck, the Southern Baptist Convention was toying around with changing its name a few months ago because of negative connotations. People are fighting this fundamentalist takeover, and the number of people doing so are growing. So, to say that there was no fire, well... I think that's like looking at the smoke billowing up and trying to convince the person standing next to you that the house ISN'T on fire.

  3. The point is they say nothing more will happen because of their movement. There maybe is no plans by admin to fire people besides the fact they are blogging

  4. Take a look at what's going on at the 3rd of the GBC's colleges, Brewton-Parker. It's been on academic probation for 2 years. At the end of this Spring, it either needs to come off probation and become unconditionally accredited again -- or it loses accreditation. It's no allowed to stay on probation any longer.

    1. Truett McConnell is loaning B-P its current President, Mike Simoneaux.
    2. SACS required that Brewton-Parker "teach out" its existing students in departments like Music that it was discontinuing. B-P chose to do this by arranging to Shorter College (another GBC college) do this. Yet, all the Shorter Music faculty are now being purged and/or driven off. How will the SACS team now at B-P take this new development? (On the other hand, has anyone at B-P told them of this new development? Probably not).


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