For half a century or more, journalists seeking insights on religion news in America have given a consistent answer to the question, "Who you gonna call?"
The proper response, of course, is "Martin E. Marty."
So it's no surprise that the 88-year-old historian -- author of 60-plus books -- has weighed in on the media storm surrounding Baylor University's Christian identity, big-time college football and the painful challenges facing educators wrestling with sexual abuse, alcohol and the law.
The key, according to Marty, is that Baylor is involved in a clash between two religions -- Christianity and football.
"But isn't football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise?", he asked, in a "Sightings" essay for the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Marty's answer: "No." Anyone with a good world-religions textbook or encyclopedia will recognize the characteristics that define "religious" activities, he added.
Is this activity an "ultimate concern" for those involved? Put a checkmark there.
Does football provide "ceremonial reinforcement," adding a kind of "metaphysical depth" to life? Check and check. Are deep emotions involved in these rites, providing a crucial sense of "communalism" among the faithful? Once again, add two checkmarks.
Now what about football, especially in Texas?
Marty added: "Football, on the collegiate and professional levels and, in a world of trickle-down religions, often in high school and little-kid versions, fits most definitions of religion, some of them vividly at Super Bowls and Texas High School rites, sacrifices and glorifications, more than they might be visible at the friendly neighborhood church or synagogue or even in 'spiritual but not religious' (and yet 'religious') circles. We do not claim to be particularly original or perceptive in pointing here to the religious dimensions as seen … at Baylor but almost as dramatically year-round in the higher levels of football authority and engrossments."
Baylor officials are well aware that millions of sports dollars and national prestige are at stake. But at the same time, noted Marty, "Baylor does not hide its official and traditional faith commitment, and puts it to work in many policies, such as compulsory chapel for students for a year or two. Let it be noted … that some features of the commitment are strong: a 'Top Ten' (in some measures) religion department, notable graduate programs, and not a few eminent scholars. But they are in the shadows cast by the scandal right now."
When this story broke, even before the firing of head football coach Art Briles, The Washington Post contacted me seeking my point of view, as a journalist with two degrees from Baylor and two decades of experience teaching in Christian higher education. I noted that, even during my student days in the 1970s, Baylor was wrestling with public debates about sexual assault.
Here's the bottom line, I told the Post: It's already difficult for a university to defend centuries of Christian doctrines on sex in America's current legal and cultural climate. Meanwhile, as noted in media reports, nearly 200 colleges and universities are currently facing investigations under Title IX linked to sexual violence cases.
Baylor is one of a few major schools that face both tests.
After all, Baylor's "sexual conduct" guidelines proclaim that students, faculty and staff will be "guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity." In a support document, marriage is defined as the "uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime."
The Baylor regents, in their "Findings of Fact" about the current crisis, admitted that independent investigators said key administrators had a "limited understanding of the dynamics of sexual violence and existing barriers to reporting on Baylor's campus, including the impact of other campus policies regarding the prohibition of alcohol and extra-marital sexual intercourse."
Can Baylor honor the laws of God and man?
"Baylor is at least temporarily paying for its over-investment in the religion of football or in its failure to let norms of Baylor's faith-context and its monitors be alert, conscience guided and able to provide perspectives," noted Marty. "If the school can regain perspectives available in the better resources of its Baptist/Christian origins, it can serve as an alerter and guide for others."