Last month OBU's president, the Rev. Dr. David Whitlock, approvingly tweeted that an OBU religion professor represented OBU at the Baptist World Alliance's annual gathering. This may seem innocuous enough. But it actually reveals quite a lot about a) how out-of-step today's fundamentalist SBC elites are with the Baptist tradition throughout the world, b) how David Whitlock is still finding his way among that elite, and c) the delicate and difficult balancing act Rev. Dr. Stan Norman, with Whitlock's backing, has created for faculty to actually do legitimate scholarly and ecumenical work while also staying in the new regime's good graces.
The SBC and the BWA
As the Takeover progressed into the 1990s, hostility toward the Baptist World Alliance among SBC power brokers increased. I have tried to stay away from secular politics on this blog, and the SBC pullout of the BWA had a lot to do with the convention's new commitment to conservative politics. Please pardon me for not delving into the whole back story in this post. Perhaps I (or someone else) will tell the story in another post or series. But you can read about it here, here, and here.
Long story short: The BWA was formed in the early 1900s, largely through SBC support. During the 20th century, the BWA participated in the worldwide ecumenical movement through the World Council of Churches and other organizations. The BWA came to stand for ecumenism, social justice, the separation of church and state and unity in diversity. As all Baptists used to be, the BWA opposes creedalism. So, as you might imagine, the SBC's new powerful men hated pretty much everything the BWA had worked nearly a century to champion. The fundamentalist SBC machine launched a smear campaign, making the BWA a liberal/communist/socialist/secularist bogeyman. Messengers to the 2004 SBC meeting voted to sever ties with the BWA.
Whitlock Still Finding His Way
Given all that, I sure was surprised to see President Whitlock so enthusiastic that one of OBU's junior professors was attending the BWA gathering (held last month in Santiago, Chile). Anyone paying the least bit of attention to SBC life over the past 15 years would know that the BWA is anathema to the new SBC. For instance, Baptist college presidents like Union's David Dockery and Truett-McConnell's Emir Caner would know this. The good news is that Whitlock apparently did not know.
It turns out there are have been a lot of things Whitlock did not know. Current and former faculty have described him to me as "theologically naive" and "theologically, an infant." Several people recalled that, while appearing at the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, Whitlock seemed innocently clueless about why relations between that congregation and the BGCO have been so tense over the years.
Now, under normal circumstances, you would not want words like "clueless" and "naive" to apply to a college president. But when you consider that we're dealing with a post-Takeover state convention-run Baptist college, it's actually a huge blessing for us. Ninety-nine times out of 100, we would have ended up with a Takeover henchman as OBU president when David Whitlock was elected in 2008. I would have expected a true believer like Stan Norman -- someone who knew well why the BGCO hates FBC OKC and why the SBC elites hate the BWA.
The fact that we got someone who may actually be more interested in the competent administration of an institution than taking the Baptist wars to Bison Hill is a huge blessing. Or maybe the BGCO colluded to get a naive figurehead at the top and a hatchet man like Stan Norman to do the dirty work.
In the past two years, and certainly at the past two SBC annual meetings, Whitlock has gotten a taste for what it means to be an SBC elite man, an insider. Lets hope he doesn't find it intoxicating. But I'm afraid they've seduced him.
The Trouble They've Created
The absolute last thing I want to do is create any trouble for the assistant professor who went to the BWA gathering. For all I know, he could have been going an as observer to write articles in third-rate fundamentalist "journals" about how evil the BWA is. Or he could have been doing legitimate scholarly research. Or he could have attended out of personal or professional commitments. I simply don't know and don't want to speculate.
But it does raise an important issue. How has the new regime affected the kinds of scholarly work OBU faculty members conduct? Once the news about this professor's attendance at the BWA gathering gets around, will College of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark McClellan institute rules about what kinds of conferences OBU religion faculty can attend with university funding? At this point, nothing would surprise me. I just hope these capable scholars will continue to pursue their vocation, either at OBU or somewhere more supportive of academic freedom, open inquiry, and commitment to the scholarly enterprise.
Credit Where Credit is Due
I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I've received a lot of flack from supporters and friends for being too easy on Dr. Whitlock. I can't even remember how many people have said, essentially, "Even if Provost Norman is the culprit in institutionalizing fundamentalism at OBU, Whitlock is complicit. He's the president and he has the power to reign Stan in, tell Stan it's time to move on, etc. If he wanted to, Whitlock could stay out of SBC politics and claim the mantle of Raley, Scales, Cothen, Tanner, Hall, and Agee, all of whom stood for academic freedom and all of whom would be aghast at what has occurred under his watch.."
If we reject the naivete hypothesis and take President Whitlock at his word, then we simply have a leader who expressed pride that a junior faculty member took part in a gathering of Baptists from around the world. But in doing so, Whitlock publicly repudiated every single SBC power player of the past 15 years -- from Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson on down the line -- all of whom are on record as absolutely loathing the Baptist World Alliance.
And if Dr. Whitlock has what it takes to stand up to that crowd, then maybe there's hope.