When it comes to higher education, Georgia Baptists are of two minds these days. On Oct. 21, the trustees of Shorter University in Rome, Ga., approved a covenant requiring faculty and staff to support the "mission of Shorter University as a Christ-centered institution affiliated with the Georgia Baptist Convention." Then they asked employees to "reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality."
A fortnight latter, Baptists learned about a "fall update" email from leaders at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., announcing a policy extending health care and other benefits to the "domestic partners" of faculty and staff, regardless of sexual orientation.
The Georgia Baptist Convention cut its historic ties to Mercer in 2005. Now, the school's strategic shift brings it "into line with other leading private universities ... including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Tulane, Furman, Rollins, Elon and Stetson," noted Mercer President Bill Underwood, in a statement quoted at EthicsDaily.com, a progressive Baptist website. "It is also consistent with our established policy of not discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation."
While this divide may shock outsiders, these decisions are "totally logical" in light of trends in Baptist life and higher education, stressed Lutheran scholar Robert Benne of Roanoke (Va.) College, author of "Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions."
"These schools are headed in opposite directions because their leaders want them to become radically different kinds of institutions," he said. Shorter wants to "become a 'Christian' university in terms of its approach to education and campus life. ... Mercer is trying to become what its leaders see as an elite institution, the kind of place where if you tried to talk about 'Christian education' the faculty would raise all holy hell."
In some ways, these Baptist conflicts resemble those among educators in other religious groups, he said. For example, many American Catholic colleges and universities have become highly secularized, while their leaders insist that they remain rooted in "Catholic" values or some specific educational tradition, such as the legacy of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, a few other Catholic schools publicly stress their loyalty to the Vatican.
With that in mind, it's significant that Mercer's Internet homepage states: "Founded by early 19th century Baptists, Mercer -- while no longer formally affiliated with the Baptist denomination -- remains committed to an educational environment that embraces intellectual and religious freedom while affirming values that arise from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world."
Benne noted that few well-known schools can accurately be labeled "fundamentalist," as would be the case with the independent Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Meanwhile, most conflicts in Southern Baptist academia involve debates about accepting some explicitly "Christian" approach to education, often referred to as the "integration of faith and learning."
Thus, it's symbolic that Mercer leaders openly say they want to go the other direction, following in the footsteps of universities such as Vanderbilt and Duke, and historically Baptist institutions such as Furman and Wake Forest. The Mercer student handbook, for example, contains no moral code covering student conduct on premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality.
At this point, Shorter accepts non-Christian students. However, Benne said Shorter's new doctrinal and lifestyle code for faculty and staff suggests that it will soon ask its students to sign a similar covenant of faith and moral conduct. If so, covenants of this kind are common on Christian campuses, including famous liberal arts schools such as Wheaton College, Calvin College, Biola University and numerous other members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).
Many of these schools retain ties to the denominations that founded them, but they are reach out to recruit other evangelicals or traditional Christians as students, faculty and staff. Some of these schools now openly appeal to Catholics, as well.
The problem for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on "soul freedom" and the "priesthood of every believer" that they struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the "lukewarm people who are not really committed to the their school's vision."
The result is a perfect Baptist Catch 22.
"How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions," he said, "without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?"