As the late Southern humorist Grady Nutt always said, you know you're in Baptist country when the preachers pronounce "dance" with four syllables -- as in "daaah-E-unce-uh!"
Nutt was a graduate of Baylor University, so he knew all about hot-button issues in the Bible Belt. It seems like every few years, journalists can count on the world's largest Southern Baptist university to make headlines linked to drinking, dancing, sex or all of the above.
Naturally, a recent chapel announcement that Baylor would begin holding on-campus dances was big news. The ban was mostly symbolic, since students have for years danced at university-approved "functions" elsewhere in Waco, Texas. Still, conservative critics cited the decision as new evidence of moral decay.
It's sad, even tragic, that these issues get so much ink, said philosopher David Solomon, a 1964 Baylor graduate who teaches at Notre Dame University. While some folks yelp about dancing, Baylor's leaders have for years been engaged in a high-stakes debate about a serious issue -- what it means to be a "Baptist," or even a "Christian," university. Similar arguments rage behind the scenes on hundreds of campuses.
Often, faculty members oppose open debates of this issue, noted Solomon, in a New Oxford Review article written while he was a visiting professor at Baylor. Clearly, many fear that exposure of the "creeping (or in certain respects, galloping) secularization" of their campuses will fuel "reactionary religious oppression."
"At Baylor, people are always talking about how the country preachers are going to come out of the woodwork and try to take over," said Solomon. "The fact is, no major American university has ever become more religious once it was secularized. Look at the Ivy League. ... The pendulum never swings back."
After years of observing debates at Notre Dame, and then briefly at Baylor, Solomon compiled a list of arguments that many academic leaders use against efforts to strengthen their schools' Christian identities. For example, some believe that hiring only Christian professors, or favoring members of one denomination, lowers standards. Others say that doctrinal standards can corrupt the spirit of a campus, causing hypocrisy.
Another popular argument is that universities exist to liberate students from the confining beliefs of the homes and communities in which they were raised. Ironically, conservatives -- such as Baylor's critics -- would quickly agree that this is the goal of many professors.
Meanwhile, Solomon is convinced that most modern students know little or nothing about church teachings and have little true faith from which to be liberated. It would be better to free them from "materialism, relativism, consumerism, technologism, careerism, hedonism and the other snares ... of secular culture" than from traditional beliefs, he said.
Others argue that it's impossible to know precisely what a "Christian," "Baptist" or "Catholic" university is. This is especially true for Baptists, who have no creed. Thus, some say it's wrong for a Baptist school to set any boundaries. Solomon noted that academic leaders never seem to mention this while raising funds or recruiting students.
"Parents are induced to impoverish themselves in order to send their children to these universities by being told that their children will receive a Christian education," he said. "If we genuinely don't know what a Baptist university is, then we need to ... start refunding money."
Finally, faculty members may oppose doctrinal and moral standards because they are committed to pluralism, one of today's most powerful educational concepts. But diluting all religious schools -- Baptist, Catholic, fundamentalist, Jewish or whatever -- will create sameness, not diversity, said Solomon.
"It is not the job of Baylor or Notre Dame to offer courses ... indistinguishable from those at the University of Texas -- or Duke, Stanford or Princeton," he said. "If they go the secular way of Duke, Harvard and Yale (as, of course, they are almost certain to do ... unless serious measures are taken to halt the slide toward secularism at both schools), pluralism in higher education in this country will not be enhanced, but dealt a serious blow."