Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reflection on Calvin College (and Other Non-Baptist Evangelical Schools)

I've spent the past three days attending a conference at Calvin College.  Calvin's Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Religion and Politics hosted the Seventh Biennial Symposium on Religion and Public Life on the school's Grand Rapids, Michigan campus.  (Outside my involvement with Save OBU, I am a political science Ph.D. student with research interests in the area of religion and politics.)  I had occasion to talk with many professors who work in evangelical higher education, all of whom were very interested in Baptist schools' recent lurches back toward fundamentalism.

Lately, our blog has focused attention on happenings at colleges that are, like OBU, affiliated with Baptist state conventions:
  • The coming split between the Kentucky Baptist Convention and Campbellsville University
  • The transformation of Cedarville University from a liberal arts college to a fundamentalist Bible academy
  • The ever-bizarre goings-on at Louisana College
  • The Georgia Baptist Convention's shameful assault on Shorter University
  • The GBC's support for fledgling fundamentalist schools like Truett-McConnell and Brewton-Parker
  • Ongoing problems at my own beloved alma mater, Oklahoma Baptist University
Considering the all-out assault on OBU's liberal arts heritage from 2009-2001, it has been very disheartening to learn that, with respect to academic freedom and ethical administration, OBU actually has it better than a lot of Baptist colleges.

But we have talked about non-Baptist evangelical schools before.  Last summer, when the new round of Forbes rankings came out, we saw that non-Baptist evangelical colleges not only have fewer restrictions on academic freedom, but also better reputations than Baptist colleges.  (We've also talked about how, before the changes, OBU was regarded as the best Southern Baptist CCCU-affiliated college.  Now it is quickly losing ground to Union, Ouachita, Samford, and others.)

We also speculated about how the purported "Evangelical Renaissance in Academe" is likely not to include Southern Baptists as long as their rightful heritage as legitimate liberal arts colleges is continually under attack from fundamentalist forces.

Baptist power brokers want you to think that if they don't exercise control over colleges, the colleges will quickly abandon Christianity.  That idea is laughable to people affiliated with schools like Wheaton College in Illinois and Gordon College in Massachusetts which, in spite of having no denominational ties, manage to sustain a strong Christian commitment and identity.

Calvin is a bit of an anomaly.  The denomination that controls it, the Christian Reformed Church in America, is not nearly as fearful or dogmatic as today's Baptist state conventions.  Yet in spite of having a rigorous faith examination as part of new professors' hiring process, Calvin does not seem interested in imposing restrictions on academic freedom.  Calvin faculty hires must produce a letter of affirmation from a pastor, commit to joining a Reformed congregation within two years, and appear before a committee of faculty and administrators to discuss matters of faith and the meaning of Christian education.  Yet no one is being run out of the Calvin philosophy and theology departments for doubting  that Jonah was really swallowed by a fish or that the earth was created in 6 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago.

Also to Calvin's great credit, it attracts academically talented students.  Just as a team is only as good as its worst player or an orchestra is only as good as its worst instrumentalist, there is a sense in which a university is only as good as its least academically capable student.  Let's be honest.  OBU has a HUGE problem in this area.  OBU admits almost everyone who applies, often probationally.  Calvin (and many of the top-tier evangelical colleges) are more selective in admissions and less willing to compromise academic rigor and quality.  If OBU truly wants to be a peer of Wheaton, Calvin, and Gordon, it needs to be more intentional about attracting (and retaining) better students.

When I tell evangelical professors about the worsening state of Baptist undergraduate education in certain quarters, they are almost universally sympathetic.  They cannot fathom seeing colleagues dismissed for the reasons OBU (and so many others) has given.  They cannot believe how much power is concentrated in fundamentalists' hands.  They are frankly offended at the notion that fellow evangelical scholars/professors cannot be trusted to sustain an institution's Christian identity without heavy-handed administrative intervention and denominational oversight.  They are perplexed by the dismantling of philosophy departments and the increasing trend toward dumbed-down "apologetics" and bizarrely defensive "Christian worldview" classes.

For the record, these people are NOT liberals, let me assure you.  They are people who believe in Christ as their personal savior, trust the Scriptures as authoritative, and go to theologically conservative churches every Sunday.

The more I reflect on the massive variation in academic freedom among Christian colleges, the more I think the CCCU needs to get involved.  We've expressed our qualms about the CCCU before.  But for better or worse, it is the institutional representative of these conservative Protestant schools -- Baptist, nondenominational, and otherwise.  Obviously the CCCU lacks an incentive to meddle in member institutions' internal affairs.  But the quality of the schools that have academic freedom starkly contrasts with frankly embarrassing turn of events at Cedarville, Louisiana College, Shorter University, OBU, and elsewhere over the past few years.

The fundamentalists won the Takeover fight in the SBC -- we get it.  "To the victor goes the spoils."  But now that the Takeover has moved from the state conventions to the colleges, we have to ask, when is enough enough?  There are many fine examples of academic freedom, ethical administration, and the responsible integration of faith and learning at so many evangelical institutions.  Baptists can do better.

1 comment:

  1. Praise God we are seeing a return to the Biblical heritage that OBU was founded on. You say the word Fundamental as a bad thing, but without a firm foundation anything else built on it will collapse. Perhaps this is exactly what OBU needs to be the light it once was in a dark world.


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