Labels and Terminology
Something is always lost when you use convenient labels to describe and generalize about a large group of people. Nonetheless, labels and generalizations are inevitable. There was a definitive shift in the leadership, administration, and direction of the SBC in the 1980s. Those who favored that campaign and its tactics refer to the shift as the Conservative Resurgence. Those who opposed it speak of a Fundamentalist Takeover. The new leaders who swept to power referred to their opponents as liberals. Those who opposed the takeover/resurgence and its tactics say the shift was brought on by fundamentalists. These labels generate no small amount of confusion, distortion, and hurt feelings.
Many of the "fundamentalists" think of themselves as conservatives. And virtually all of the "liberals" are actually moderates and conservatives. Dr. James Shoopman's, in his introduction to the book The Fundamentalist Takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, adds needed clarity. During the Takeover/Resurgence years, ascendant fundamentalists/conservatives "often implied a meaning for the term 'liberal' that far exceeded the truth about seminary professors and denominational executives." If a "liberal" is someone who does not believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, denies the divinity of Jesus, and does not believe in salvation by grace through faith, then there were never more than a handful of liberals in the SBC.
Shoopman goes on to provide a good rationale for how to use terms like conservative, moderate, and liberal. The issue is how much change there should be in traditional church teachings on topics such as
- The nature of God, the person of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit;
- The nature of the Bible -- its authorship, styles of study, and interpretation;
- Marriage, divorce, sexuality, abortion, prayer in public schools, and separation of church and state; and
- The place of women in the workplace and the church.
Shoopman defines conservatives as people who maintain that there should be "little or no change in how the church teaches on these subjects, unless it is to make that teaching even more strict." Liberals, on the other hand, "maintain there should be a great deal of flexibility in how the church teaches on these subjects, usually in the direction of greater liberty." Moderates, he says, prefer a middle way:
They take a more liberal approach to some things and a more conservative approach to others. Some teachings should change and some teachings should stay the same. Moderates assume that newness or oldness does not make an idea good or bad. Instead, an idea is good or bad depending on whether it is consistent with the Bible, our conscience, and sound study. If an idea is truthful and useful, it may lead to change, but not all "modern" ideas are sound, and not all "traditional" ideas are sound, either.Fundamentalists
Shoopman defines fundamentalists as people who angered by changes in the world or in church teaching: "A fundamentalist is a person of very strict belief and behavior who requires absolute certainty about his or her beliefs and is willing to fight for that certainty." Moreover, "fundamentalists cannot abide any challenge to their beliefs through either the behavior or the beliefs of others. They tend to regard any deviation from their norm as dangerous. There are fundamentalists in all of the major world religions that have been affected by modernity, and they are characterized by anger at modernity, strict legalism, and a desire to fight for more control of their environment.
Based on these descriptions, I believe that President Whitlock and Provost Norman are enacting fundamentalist ethos and agenda OBU. But few will claim the label "fundamentalist" for themselves because, though accurate, it has a negative connotation. You can judge for yourself whether those negative connotations are justified. In Southern Baptist life, the term "liberal" as defined above is virtually meaningless. No one claims the term because it has an even more pejorative connotation than "fundamentalist." There were never more than a handful, if any, liberals teaching in SBC seminaries or leading SBC agencies. And there were certainly never any liberals teaching at OBU. Now let me be clear: There are, of course, professors who are to the left of the fundamentalists, and there may even be a few who have voted Democratic. But speaking strictly theologically, there are no liberals.
Opinions and Facts
Just as it's important to be precise in terminology, it's vital that we distinguish between opinions and facts.
Though we are mostly concerned with OBU, the broader context is the Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover. You can call it what you like, and you can think it was a good thing or a bad thing. You may think it was a needed corrective to align the denomination with its fundamentalist membership or you may think it was a dirty, disingenuous campaign about power, ideology, and worldly politics. You cannot, however, deny that the convention and its institutions and agencies experienced a definitive, qualitative change in leadership, emphases, and ethos that reflected fundamentalists' values and was hostile to moderates.
The Resurgence/Takeover in the BGCO
A similar dynamic transpired at the state convention level. Again, you're free to call it what you want and judge it to be a good change or a bad change. Our sense is that the partnership between BGCO Executive Director-Treasurer Bill Tanner and OBU President Bob Agee was the last time the OBU/BGCO relationship worked even reasonably well for both entities. Since Anthony Jordan became head of of the BGCO, pressure on OBU (which had long existed, flaring up occasionally) ratcheted up big time. Also not up for discussion is the fact that the convention's annual subsidy to OBU represents an ever shrinking share of the university's operating budget, falling from 25% to less than 5% since the early 1980s. During that time, the convention has continued to elect all 32 of OBU's trustees and exercises more power over trustee nominations. You can decide whether you think that is fair or just. But you can't deny it.
The BGCO is, in many ways, a black box between the post-Takeover/Resurgence SBC and OBU. It's hard to prove definitively that convention elites are behind the changes at OBU. Relevant meetings are not public, relevant personnel will not speak on the record, and neither the convention's "newspaper," the Baptist Messenger, nor OBU's student-produced newspaper, The Bison, have the latitude to ask tough questions or editorialize about the BGCO/OBU relationship except to cheerlead for the status quo.
The Resurgence/Takeover at OBU
During the Agee presidency (1982-1997), a deliberate attempt was made to insulate OBU from the effects of the resurgence/takeover. As an institution, OBU seemed not to take a side, focusing instead on striving for excellence in its core mission. Since Agee's departure, OBU is much more blatantly aligned with the "new" SBC. Fundamentalists assumed President Mark Brister (1998-2007) would be "their man" at OBU. Neither "side" was fully satisfied with Brister. Ultimately, Brister's commitment to OBU's mission outweighed his desire to stay in Anthony Jordan's good graces.
The kinds of administrative interference and wholesale disregard for institutional norms and contractually-mandated processes President Whitlock and Provost Norman have undertaken with impunity are altogether new at OBU. These kinds of moves were unheard of at OBU during the decades when it gained a national reputation for excellence in Christian higher education. Indeed, they would not have been tolerated. But since the president of OBU ultimately serves at the pleasure of the BGCO executive director-treasurer (who can control trustee nominations), faculty have virtually no recourse. The Faculty Council came close to taking a no-confidence vote last fall. But one wonders who would have lost that fight, now that we've seen Baptist schools get rid of faculty by the dozens.
Some people view the changes at OBU as positive. They say that OBU is within its right to use administrative authority to bring the ethos of the institution more in line with the convention that pays an ever shrinking share of its operating budget, even if norms are disregarded and ethically troubling procedures are employed. We happen to disagree. We believe the changes are negative and pose grave threats to academic freedom, OBU's reputation, its quality and rigor, and its proud tradition of excellence in distinctively Baptist Christian liberal arts education.
Like it or hate it, however, you cannot deny that OBU's direction is qualitatively different and has experienced a marked departure with long-established norms.
Worldview: How Big is the Tent?
So how does all this related to the claim that Save OBU is for conservatives? Unlike the new OBU, which is slowly on the path to becoming more monolithic, more insular, and more constrained at the far right end of the ideological/theological/political spectrum, Save OBU is a big tent. A big tent full of conservatives and moderates, with a handful of liberals thrown in. It's actually been hard to attract liberals. Quite a few of them have emailed me and said things like, "You're wasting your time," "This battle was lost 30 years ago and there's nothing we can do to change it now," "OBU is a lost cause," etc.
Clarifying a Point about Christian Worldview
I take part of the responsibility for the misperception that Save OBU is for theological moderates and liberals. For instance, in our worldview series, I'm afraid that questioning the usefulness of the term "the Christian worldview" may have been off-putting. As I tried to point out in one of my reviews, I was much more bothered by the use of the definite article than by the concept in general, which of course can still be useful. A friend recently pointed out to me that my reluctance to talk about the Christian worldview might have made some conservatives think I am reluctant to affirm that the Christian faith has any specifiable cognitive content whatsoever. Conservatives might be uncomfortable with that message, and justifiably so! I have long believed texts like Job 19:25 (I know that my Redeemer liveth) and the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 constituted the framework of a Christian worldview. Just because someone is reluctant to define the requirements of Christian worldview in ever narrower term does not mean they think "anything goes." The main point is that the Christian worldview is in fact much broader in scope than the one being currently enforced (and apparently taught) at OBU.
Why Conservatives Should Support Save OBU
It's pretty simple.
- Most of the people who already support Save OBU are conservatives. Most of them were saved and baptized in Southern Baptist churches; they affirm the divinity of Jesus, the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, the fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man. Save OBU is not a movement of liberals -- theological or otherwise. Sure, there are a few people who left the SBC sometime after the Takeover/Resurgence. And I bet we even have a few folks who are disaffected with the whole enterprise, angry at God and/or the church, and just hope that OBU can still be a true liberal arts university. But judging from our Facebook fans' likes and comments, almost everyone who supports Save OBU reads their Bibles, prays regularly, and goes to church on Sundays. They are mostly white, mostly suburban, and mostly Republican. The common theme among all of them, however, is their deep affection for OBU and sincerely held concerns about its future.
- If OBU goes down the tubes, it hurts us all -- faculty, students, staff, and alumni without regard to who is liberal, moderate, or conservative.
- We are not advocating that OBU become more liberal. Rather, we are pleading that it not become fundamentalist. Higher education in Baptist life is in a precarious position today. At the denominational level, the SBC seminaries are shells of their former selves. They were once among the most rigorous and well-regarded institutions of theological education in the world. Rigor and quality took a backseat to ideological conformity. Academic freedom no longer exists. The guardians of authentic Baptist theological education were fired long ago. Now that the seminaries have been transformed, the colleges are being targeted.
- Some state convention-run colleges have already been taken over. Administrators at schools like Louisiana College, Truett-McConnell College, Brewton-Parker College, and Shorter University have sold these schools down the river for thirty pieces of silver. The changes being enacted at these and other Baptist schools are so radical that they will almost certainly lose their accreditation in the next decade. We all have an interest in preventing that fate at OBU.
- As for Save OBU's core argument -- that our problems begin and end with the BGCO -- we see dozens of evangelical colleges that are flourishing without denominational ownership and control. All we see with convention-controlled colleges is politics and strife.
We welcome all who love OBU and who are passionate about Christian higher education to join our movement (we're on Facebook and Twitter), support our aims, and invite your friends, classmates, and colleagues to take part! If you think of yourself as a conservative and you love OBU, let me be the first to welcome you home.