Monday, May 14, 2012

Baptist College Race to the Bottom Moving to TN

From the earliest days of this blog, we've reported on the Georgia Baptist Convention's assalut on liberal arts education.  While there are a few state conventions that aren't even trying anymore (e.g., Louisiana, Florida), Georgia stands out the worst offender among Baptist conventions that either in pretense or in actuality claim to want to contribute meaningfully to the project of Christian higher education.  With GA's lesser Baptist colleges leaping headlong into fundamentalism, the GBC found the trustees and president it needed to force its flagship school, Shorter University, to join the others in a race to the bottom.

Our situation in Oklahoma is a little different because there is only one Baptist college.  So while it may be true that every dollar OBU gets from the BGCO is a dollar that BCMs, evangelism efforts, and Falls Creek goes without, at least OBU is not competing with other colleges for scarce funds.  In Georgia, Shorter gets about $2 million a year while Brewton-Parker and Truett-McConnell get about $1 million each.  Make no mistake: BPC and TMC would love to get their hands on a bigger piece of the GBC pie, and obviously have no qualms about trashing academic freedom and even respectability in order to do it.  Thus, Shorter is basically forced to do what it must to protect its share.  Unfortunately, Shorter's new president, Don Dowless, has been more than happy to oblige.

With more and more Baptist college presidents and trustees kowtowing to state convention fundamentalists, we're learning how ugly the political game can be.  The Tennessee Baptist Convention seems to have a decent relationship with Union University (which we profiled recently) and Carson-Newman College.  But it looks like things are going to get ugly in the Volunteer State.

The Tennessee Baptist Situation
The TBC is like Oklahoma and most other Baptist state conventions in many respects.  There is no competing fundamentalist convention as in Texas and Virginia.  So, fundamentalists and a few moderates coexist in the TBC, which has offices in suburban Nashville.  The convention sends about 15% of its budget to its two affiliated colleges (a little less than the BGCO sends to OBU).  Carson-Newman and Union get subsidies of $2.5 million apiece from the Cooperative Program.

These allocations grew after Belmont University left the TBC in 2007 following and ugly coup attempt by TBC fundamentalists.  In 2005, Belmont's trustees sought to have more autonomy from the TBC, but the convention rejected their plan and defunded the university, splitting Belmont's subsidy between the other two colleges.  But then the TBC attempted to replace the Belmont board with fundamentalists amenable to ongoing TBC control.  When talks broke down, the TBC demanded the return of every dime of subsidy money it ever gave Belmont -- $58 million.  The school and the convention settled out of court, with the school agreeing to pay back $11 million over 40 years. I guess freedom isn't free.  Belmont maintains a Christian identity, though no longer and exclusively Baptist one.

An Old Newcomer: Tennessee Temple University
Now, another once-crumbling fundamentalist college wants a piece of the TBC pie.  Tennessee Temple University, long an Independent Baptist institution affiliated with Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, wants back into the TBC.  Highland Park has sought to renew its SBC ties in recent years.  One pastor initiated the process of joining the local Baptist Association.  Another pastor continued the effort before he left to become dean of Liberty University's seminary.  The current pastor is a Southwestern Seminary graduate who previously served on staff of the alternative fundamentalist state conventions in Texas and Virginia.  Highland Park is asking Tennessee Baptists to assist in repairing a camp compound (church owned, not TBC owned) that was recently damaged by tornadoes.

Tennessee Temple's new president, Rev. Dr. Steve Echols, came to TTU from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  He shares Highland Park's desire to get a TBC subsidy for Tennessee Temple, and appears willing to throw Union and Carson-Newman under the bus in order to do it:
When Echols assumed leadership at Tennessee Temple, one of his priorities was for the school's trustees to adopt the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The school's April 30 spring graduation will include a formal ceremony in which all of the faculty sign the Southern Baptist statement of beliefs.  
"So our entire faculty has already agreed to be in line with the Baptist Faith and Message," Echols said. "We still have our belief statements that we've had all along, but we feel like the Baptist Faith and Message is in harmony with that. So I think that speaks pretty strongly. There aren't many schools doing that. We want to say to Southern Baptists, 'This is a safe place to send your students, theologically'" (emphasis mine).
It is unseemly to say the least for Echols to imply that Southern Baptists should send their children to TTU because other Christian colleges -- maybe even other Baptist schools -- aren't "theologically safe."

Leaders, faculty, and students at Carson-Newman and Union need to watch out.  Echols and Tennessee Temple need that Tennessee Baptist subsidy for their fledgling school really badly.  They are going around telling everyone how extra Southern Baptist they are.  Unlike Union and Carson-Newman, they'll never have to worry about academic respectability or accreditation, neither of which it has ever had.

But if the lessons of Georgia are any indication, TTU will have no problem engaging the others in a race to the bottom.  Union and Carson-Newman have enough problems trying to remain viable academic institutions without upsetting the fundamentalists who control the TBC.  The last thing they need is competition from Tennessee Temple.  Depending how vigorously TTU wants to compete for scarce TBC funds, things could get very ugly again in Tennessee.  Just ask our friends in Georgia.

Lessons for OBU
Frankly, I find the Belmont story more interesting and relevant than TTU.  While I would love nothing more than for some fundamentalist college to spring up and woo the BGCO until the convention drops us, I don't see any viable competition.  So at least we can be thankful we aren't in a race to the bottom.

But the Belmont example is instructive.  First, it shows how obsessive fundamentalists are about control.  They don't want to give a penny to anything they can't fully control.  Second, we see that it's also largely about money.  If OBU ever actually got the opportunity to disaffiliate from the BGCO, we would have to pay back huge sums of cash.  In our case, we would also have to buy the buildings and grounds, since the convention owns them.  But the Belmont case illustrates that a reasonable compromise settlement could be reached and that no court would rule that we have to pay back tens of millions of dollars.  Given that OBU has an endowment nearing nine figures that is completely independent of BGCO control, I still say the price of disaffiliating is a bargain to be free from outside coercion and control forever.

Shaking free from the BGCO wouldn't even hurt OBU's endowment as badly as one moderate recession.  And once we expand our constituency beyond Oklahoma Baptist life to the broader spectrum of American evangelicalism, we would eventually bring in many, many new donors.  Academic freedom would be secure.  The BGCO could spend on ministry priorities that are actually consistent with its mission.  Faculty would be better off.  Students would be better off.  Alumni would be better off.  It's a win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win-win!

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