I HAVE A NAME
I have joked to friends that when the history of the takeover of the Georgia Baptist Convention is written, my story will be a footnote on the page that describes the forced resignation of Bill Neal from the Christian Index. My story occurred on the same day as Neals ouster. Ironically, the chairman of the committee to replace Neal was also the chair of the Board of Trustees at Brewton-Parker College where I worked.
My story is familiar, but is of course no joke to my family or me. They have suffered and that is probably the point fundamentalists so easily forget. They hurt people in the name of God.
On a Thursday in January 2003 at 4 p.m., I was called into the presidents office at Brewton-Parker College. I was informed that I had been removed immediately as the Chair of the Division of Religion and Philosophy, a position I had held for over a decade (I had been at BPC since 1989). I had no warning and I was stunned. I immediately knew that I had been on the agenda at the trustee meeting earlier that afternoon.
The issue was not my teaching. I had won teaching awards at the college and had just recently received a superior rating on a teacher evaluation by the Provost and another division chair. I had published frequently.
The issue was not my administrative ability. Just that fall, the Provost had appointed me to chair an important ad hoc committee to evaluate the tenure and academic rank policies at the college. In announcing the appointment to the Academic Council (division chairs) he said that my selection was quite appropriate since I was a faculty leader and I had (four year previous) been the very first faculty elected chair of the colleges Faculty Assembly. I had also been a chair of one of the subcommittees to help the college attain reaccreditation, a task complicated by the financial scandal of the late nineties and subsequent budget woes. Ironically, my removal as chair was one of institutions first moves after reaccreditation had been achieved. A new day was officially dawning.
In retrospect, the decision to remove me had been made much earlier. In August 2003, the president called me into his office and offered me a promotion to Assistant Vice-President for External Programs (BPC has an extensive setup of off-campus satellite centers). I was told that I would do well because students loved me, and I would give external programs instant credibility with the on-campus faculty due to my leadership.
I declined the offer. My ministerial calling was to teach and I wasnt ready to leave the classroom. Actually, as I discussed the job with my wife, I didnt have a good feeling. I wondered if this was a fundamentalist attempt to kick me upstairs. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind (Baptist professors never lose the thought in fundamentalist environments). When this nice attempt to remove me failed, the brutal one came five months later. A few days after my removal, the faculty and staff received a memo indicating that the chair of the division of religion and philosophy was vacant, effectively immediately. The memo never mentioned me by name (along with another person, also unnamed). As one colleague told me later, it was as if you had been erased; you no longer existed. As a tenured full professor, I could teach as long as I wanted to at BPC, but of course, the message was pretty clear. My name was a part of BPCs past.
The issue behind my removal, and behind the rightward jerk of Brewton-Parker College, is of course fundamentalism. Fundamentalists arent used to losing anything in recent years, and the loss of Shorter College has angered them. BPCs administrators admitted to me and another faculty member last fall that the Shorter situation had resulted in increased pressure for other schools. Because of the Shorter conflict, other schools would be looked at through a microscope. Consequently, I knew, both BPC and Truett-McConnell needed to demonstrate good faith toward the conventions fundamentalist leadership. I turned out to be a sacrificial lamb.
Friends and students will tell you that I am no liberal. The old line to describe Baptist personal morality, I dont drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do fits me literally. My students always knew that I affirmed the historic beliefs of Christianity. I have affirmed the virgin birth, miracles in the biblical record, the full humanity/ divinity of Jesus, etc.
But of course I am no fundamentalist. I am a strong advocate of the best of the Baptist tradition (priesthood of believers, soul competency, religious liberty, etc.). I have criticized galloping creedalism and I have opposed the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. I have supported women in ministry (not just selected ministries that men choose). Hopefully as any professor would, I never forced my beliefs upon students, but tried to get them to think. But fundamentalist leadership has to have persons who never dissent. The old saying is true, the only way to cooperate with a fundamentalist is to obey HIM. Orthodoxy for fundamentalists is not simply a set of beliefs that they define (inerrancy, no women pastors, and other items they will continue to add), but it is absolute loyalty to their agenda and their power.
I had already seen the effects of fundamentalist pressure on the academic process. In 2000, a very popular professor in our division resigned to teach at another institution. To my surprise, I received a letter from the administration that gave me a list of protest schools that I could NOT recruit from. I was told that the convention would be looking very closely at the person we brought in and it was important to make the right choice. I expressed dissent at these rigid guidelines, which I thought Baptist faculty could do (we had always been encouraged to participate in collegial governance). I was particularly disturbed that Baylor University was on the list. The popular professor who left had graduated from Baylor. Our department had achieved top scores from student evaluations. The goal, I hoped, was to find another candidate similar to the one we had lost to continue the excellent reputation our department had on campus. Why should we only accept someone from an acceptable school, even someone ABD (degree not complete), if we could get someone that was a devout Baptist and a good academic? Of course I knew the answer.
After discussions, Baylor was taken off the list of prohibited schools. The top candidate turned out to be a Baylor graduate. I did cooperate and participate, however, in another aspect of the hiring process that I thought was a terrible and dangerous precedent. The president invited the executive- committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention to meet the proposed candidate at a dinner meeting. We took the three hour drive to Atlanta and had the meeting (only one committee member was able to come). Interestingly, no hard questions were asked. The candidate was approved by the president who had evidently fulfilled his personal goal of showing good faith to the convention. The professor then won a teaching award his first year, a rare feat at any school. When the search committee to hire my replacement was compiled, however, this professor was not included as he should have been, according to policy. The faculty were told that he was new to the college and didnt know Georgia Baptists. In fact, he had grown up in Georgia and the person put on the committee in his place was not from Georgia and had less than a year at BPC. With trustee approval, the president became a member of the search committee.
Why has BPC jerked to toward fundamentalism?
The answer is obvious. With the financial crisis of the late 1990s, the college struggled to survive (and still has financial constraints). The money loaned to the college, of course, had (spoken or unspoken)strings attached. In the wake of the Shorter crisis, the GBC has demanded that Brewton- Parker and Truett-McConnell conform to their fundamentalist vision. Whether the president of BPC felt pressure and conformed, or whether he voluntarily jerked the school to the right, is irrelevant. (When he was hired, his theological answers were not fundamentalist, and trustees at that time said they were not hiring a fundamentalist. Interestingly, the first time that the president ever used the language of inerrancy was in his opening convocation address in the fall of 2002).
My family enjoyed our fourteen years at Brewton-Parker College. For the first few years, my children were practically raised on campus. The college today has faculty members who deeply care about students and are excellent teachers. They work in an environment, however, that increasingly devalues open discussion in favor of fundamentalist pressure to conform. I am deeply grateful to their support during a difficult spring. I was given a standing ovation at my last faculty meeting, and I received the outstanding teaching award for 2002-2003 by a vote of faculty and staff. The colleges faculty passed a statement on faith and learning (after my removal) with many Baptist phrases from my pen (I doubt the trustees, who later approved the statement, knew of my significant involvement).
Ironically, I have landed at Baylor University and look forward to teaching at a university with a vision for genuinely focusing on faith and learning.
At some point in the future, even the compliant BPC administration will have to address its ultimate defining moment. The president is on record that he will never require the faculty to sign a faith statement. Surely this will not be acceptable to the GBC leadership in the long run (I wonder if they know of his proclamation). Fundamentalists would be inconsistent (something they claim to abhor) if they did not enforce the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 at all their institutions (with allowances for non-Baptists on the article on ordinances?).
It seems that fidelity to the Cooperative Program would demand it.