Thursday, July 5, 2012

Highlights from the 2012 SBC Annual Meeting

Earlier this week, Veronica shared a few observations from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's General Assembly, held a couple weeks ago in Ft. Worth.  The CBF has emerged and grown since the Takeover as a way forward for Baptists who reject the SBC's creedalism, authoritarianism, and rejection of historic Baptist freedoms.

Unsurprisingly, a number of OBU alumni and friends have affiliated with the CBF over the years -- in Shawnee, throughout Oklahoma, and all over the nation and world.  Of course, OBU graduates are still affiliated in large numbers with SBC-related churches and institutions.  But as we'll detail soon, a surprising number of OBU religion and ministry graduates choose non-SBC seminaries and minister in non-SBC churches.  The CBF's ministry, leadership, and lay ranks are filled with OBU faculty, retirees, students, alumni, and friends.

In fact, while fundamentalists were exerting their political power in SBC life, OBU was much more closely aligned with the moderates than with the fundamentalists.  OBU President Bob Agee worked assiduously to protect OBU from the excesses of the Takeover while still maintaining good relations with the BGCO.  Agee's successor, Mark Brister, was seen as a rising star in SBC politics.  At OBU, however, Brister was much more likely to defend OBU's mission than to accede to the fundamentalists' wishes.  He was not a perfect president, of course.  But he did little more than the requisite politicking and good 'ol boy back patting.  To my knowledge, Brister is now out of the SBC elites' inner circle for good.  Clearly, he was not impressed with or swayed by their agenda.

The SBC in OBU Life
During my years at OBU, I was never aware of the SBC annual meeting being a major event in OBU life.  I never heard of any professors (clergy or lay) serving as messengers, though there may have been some.  Given the Convention's recent history of actions that were divisive (cleansing all institutions of moderates) and bizarre (boycotting the Walt Disney Co.), the feeling I got from OBU was that it kept the SBC label and all its racial, social, theological and political baggage at arm's length.  To the extent that faculty and administrators had opinions about the Convention that they shared with students, I usually got the impression that most people thought the SBC had been hijacked by amateurs and ideologues.

OBU's motto was "Unashamedly Baptist," but I quickly learned that while OBU was indeed rightly proud of its Baptist heritage, many of its leaders and professors were indeed ashamed of what the SBC had become.  This was especially obvious the day Richard Land came to speak in Raley Chapel (c. 2001), but that's another story for another day.

Sad as it is, given the post-Takeover reality of SBC life, there is precedent for OBU having a presence at the annual meeting.  I don't know whether President Agee attended regularly.  President Brister was a regular fixture.  In fact, I saw him at the only SBC I ever attended.  At the 2000 Orlando convention, I attended the OBU dinner with my parents (we lived in nearby Kissimmee).

So I am not complaining that President Whitlock attends the annual convention.  It's a requisite schmooze-fest that comes with the territory.  I just wish institutional arrangements were such that he didn't have to.  Nothing good can come from strengthening OBU's ties to the SBC, and, as we're seeing, plenty of bad can come from it.  OBU had a booth in the convention hall, as usual.  In this video, Dean Ken Gabrielse shows some class in turning down an opportunity to compare OBU to Liberty University (starts at 4:40).  (I have no such qualms.  There is no comparison, and if OBU ever becomes enough of a joke to merit comparisons to Liberty, then we will have already lost our battle.)

Highlights from the 2012 SBC
This year, OBU sent what seemed like a large contingent to New Orleans well in advance of the convention to give incoming SBC President Fred Luter an honorary doctorate even though he has absolutely no connection to Oklahoma or OBU whatsoever except for being an old buddy of Provost Stan Norman.  This move was pure pandering and, as far as I can tell, utterly without precedent in OBU history.  Attendees included Whitlock, Norman, Fine Arts Dean Ken Gabrielse, and Dean of Spiritual Life Dale Griffin.  I don't know how many of their wives were a part of the junket.  Also, I don't know if they stayed in New Orleans for the entire ten days between the Luter presentation and the SBC meeting, or whether they made two separate trips.  Either way, it seems like a huge waste of money.  Your tuition dollars at work.

Anyway, I have not paid attention to SBC politics in many years, but this year's convention seemed pretty typical.  It was mostly white, mostly old, and (like many denominations) mostly driven by clergy and denominational staff rather than laity.

The highlight was, of course, the historic election of Luter as the first black SBC president.  The main event was the unending circle of SBC elites patting themselves on the back for finally finding a black person who will go along with their social/political agenda atoning for all the racist sins in the SBC's past.  One prominent sideshow was the kerfuffle over whether or not LifeWay stores should sell a inspirational movie about race (The Blind Side).  (With Luter's support, LifeWay discontinued selling the movie.)

There was also a debate over the efficacy of the sinner's prayer, whether it is an advisable evangelism tactic, and whether it is followed with sufficient discipleship.  I don't want to open that can of worms here, though many Baptist blogs covered the debate.

Boards, agencies, and institutions gave their typical reports.  Nothing seemed especially newsworthy (though please correct me if I'm wrong).  The demographers reported continued membership decline (the SBC is below 16 million members for the first time in over a decade).  White church decline continues and nonwhite congregations appear to be something of a growth industry in the SBC.  I don't know how many legitimately mixed race congregations there are, but a few Latinos and a black person in the choir do not make your lily white church "mixed-race."  There is definitely a trend toward acknowledging the importance of "ethnic ministry," though when white people refer to everyone else as "ethnic," you wonder how much progress will ever be made.

Unfortunately, the current leadership of OBU gives every indication that it wants to get in bed with the SBC elites at every possible opportunity (metaphorically, of course).  Provost Norman is a known denominational climber and a true believer.  President Whitlock is more of a newcomer to SBC politics.  We have no indication that he is a lifelong fundamentalist sympathizer who has been in league with the Takeover faction since the beginning.  We know he attended last year's SBC to give an award -- offensively named for the late Rev. Dr. Herschel H. Hobbs -- to a Takeover leader with OBU and Oklahoma connections.  But this may have actually been his first SBC meeting as a messenger.

We can only hope and pray that now that he has had a taste of SBC politicking and sees the vast wasteland the Takeover has left in its wake at educational institutions, he'll reject the fundamentalists' agenda and devote himself ever more fully to the cherished (and threatened) ideals on which our great OBU was founded.


  1. When I was editor of the Bison about 1976 I editorialized against OBU granting honorary degrees to anyone when it could not grant an earned doctorate. The Bison came out on Wednesday mornings, the same time as compulsory chapel. So while three candidates paraded across the platform to receive their certificate of validation, all the students were reading one person's opinion as to why this was a farce. Now that OBU admin trudged to New Orleans on the paper chase to award an honorary doctorate to Fred Luter, my estimation 35 years ago of its value has been validated.

  2. Norman,

    Wow, thank you for sharing your story! That is very fascinating. It is also quite interesting to know that that was happening even 35 years ago and that students such as yourself were engaging with the issue. I see no real academic reason to dole out awards such as this. It's really quite bizarre, especially, as you noted, because OBU doesn't award any real doctorates in the first place! Not to mention Baptist administrators even at OBU seem to enjoy recognizing and awarding all sorts of people who have very little to do with academics or scholarship, another trend I noticed in my time at OBU.

    I know as a '11 grad, I'm always interested to hear how generations of Bison past interacted with issues of campus life, administrative decisions, etc. I look forward to hearing more about your story if you choose to add more of your voice.


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