Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whitlock Cozying Up to SBC Elites Again, Gives Luter a Doctorate

It's a well-known fact that the Southern Baptist Convention has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.  One obvious and tragic consequence is that Baptist higher education has suffered badly under the new regime.  A related problem is that the convention and its institutions have become outright hostile to anyone who is not in lockstep agreement with the Takeover faction's rigid, dogmatic ideology.

As a Baptist college trying to nurture fearless inquiry, critical thought, and rigorous study in an anti-intellectual denominational climate that values conformity, loathes academic freedom, loves giving pat answers and is nervous about people asking hard questions, you might think that OBU would steer clear of blatant associations with the post-Takeover SBC.  And while the Takeover was happening, that's pretty much what happened.  Under Bob Agee's watch, OBU steered clear of denominational politics.  Chapel speakers included fundamentalists and moderates.  Agee maintained OBU's independence from the infighting, and his statesmanlike leadership kept OBU above the fray.

Fifteen years later, however, the man who considers Agee a role model has decided to do the exact opposite.  Instead of keeping fundamentalist SBC elites at a distance, OBU President David Whitlock apparently wastes no opportunity to unilaterally prostrate OBU before the current generation of SBC elites.  At least year's SBC meeting in Phoenix, Whitlock and other administrators presented International Mission Board President Tom Elliff, a fundamentalist with a particularly vengeful attitude toward moderates, with an award from OBU.  To add insult to injury, the new honor, presumably to be given annually, is called the Herschel H. Hobbs Award for Distinguished Denominational Service.  Attaching Hobbs's name to fundamentalist causes is about as insulting as giving Confederate generals the Abraham Lincoln Award.

But it apparently wasn't enough to give Elliff the Hobbs Award.  Just last month, OBU awarded Elliff an honorary doctorate.  As Hobbs spoke at OBU's commencement ceremony, the faculty behind him had to applaud politely for the man who, upon leaving the SBC presidency in 1998, boasted that he had marginalized moderates in the convention, or, in his words, "removed barnacles and parasites from the Ship of Zion."

Now, a month later, we're handing out another honorary doctorate.  And by "we," I mean President Whitlock, Provost Stan Norman, Spiritual Life Dean Dale Griffin, and Fine Arts Dean Ken Gabrielse.  Now, I don't know who votes on these things, or if giving out fake degrees is the exclusive prerogative of the president.  But at least with Dr. Elliff, there is an Oklahoma/OBU connection.  Alongside with his spiritual cleansing crusade, Elliff did manage to pastor a large church in Oklahoma and serve on OBU's board of trustees.  I think maybe one or more of his children attended OBU, too.  Plus, his "distinguished denominational service" has probably enriched him so much that he might make a generous donation to OBU some day.

But Fred Luter, as far as I can tell, has no OBU connection whatsoever.  This honorary degree seems to serve no other purpose but to ingratiate the SBC's president-in-waiting to OBU and its new coterie of fundamentalist and fundamentalist-sympathizing administrators.  For all his fine pastoral work, he hasn't done anything to bring pride or distinction to OBU.  The ONLY reason Whitlock (maybe Norman is behind it -- he may have been an old seminary buddy of Luter's for all I know) is cozying up to Luter is that Luter is going to be elected president of the SBC later this month.

Yet last night in New Orleans, the same city where the fundamentalists' Takeover plan was hatched, Whitlock and colleagues were wining and dining (well, dining anyway -- they are Baptists, after all) the Luters in celebration of his doctorate.

Students: Behold, your tuition dollars at work.

I'm sure at least some of these OBU administrators will be in New Orleans for the SBC annual meeting June 19 & 20.  I don't know whether they are planning on staying for 11 days, or if these are two separate junkets.  Rather than keeping the SBC at arms length as you might expect administrators at legitimate institutions of higher learning in the post-Takeover environment to do, OBU seems to be sparing no expense to make sure that OBU is right there in the mix.

I shudder to think about who might be awarded the Second Annual Herschel H. Hobbs Award for Distinguished Denominational Service at the SBC meeting.  Maybe someone who chaired a trustee board that forced out seminary presidents in the late 80s or early 90s?  Perhaps one of the several guys who, over the years, forced board, agency, or institution employees to sign the Baptist Faith and Message or be fired.  But the fact remains that, either in spirit or in fact, whoever gets the award will be someone who booed Herschel Hobbs at the 1980 SBC as he warned against the disastrous effects of the coming Takeover and its tactics.  The more I think about it, the more it disgusts me.

As for honoring SBC presidents, pre- or post-Takeover, I don't know what precedent exists.  But Luter is joining a who's who of fundamentalist preachers who, in the last 30 years, have actively degraded institutions of higher learning, enforced doctrinal conformity, and made insulting and bizarre public statements.  Maybe Luter will be different.  But I wouldn't count on it.  And it can only be bad that OBU is on his mind at all.  Fortunately, he probably doesn't give a hoot about this little OBU award.  He likely sees out for supper last night and having a ceremony this morning as part of the territory -- someone that powerful and well-connected will inevitably have political climbers and kiss-ups all around him.

If not for the one two Elliff awards and the history of tacit and explicit support of fundamentalist-inspired administrative tactics at OBU, I wouldn't be bothered by this little song and dance.  It would still be weird, given Luter's lack of connection to OBU in any way whatsoever, but it would be innocuous enough.

But Whitlock is dramatically deviating from his supposed mentor's modus operandi.  Rather than insulating OBU from the corrosive effects of the Takeover, Whitlock seems to be going out of his way to kowtow to the very men who have used their political power to dismantle historic Baptist distinctives, cheerlead the degradation of Baptist academia, and disparage the faith and work of people like the fine men and women who have taught at OBU.

When the fundamentalists make their move at OBU, can Whitlock be trusted to stand for academic freedom?  Or is he going to lead us in a race to the bottom?  I think you know the answer.  It's already happening.

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