At that time, the fundamentalist movement was taking the Southern Baptist Convention by storm and had not filtered down into the state conventions. But the political organization and the crash and burn philosophy of the organized fundamentalists within the convention promised to take state conventions and affiliated colleges.
The methodology was amazingly simple: Replace long-time board members with those loyal not to the college but to the fundamentalist cause; after the board is solidly in the fundamentalist camp, begin to change college policies. A liberal arts college would become a denominational function with no real independence from the state convention. In more common terms, it would become a Bible college.
Though modern fundamentalist shy away from the term “Bible college” and cling desperately to the term “liberal arts college,” anyone who understands the term “liberal arts” knows better. Shorter is a Bible college. It will never be anything else. It was a liberal arts college, but those days are behind it.
I WAS SO convinced of the outcome of this dire process, that I began looking for a new job as soon as I heard about the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision to give Shorter to the Georgia Baptist Convention. I was in the first wave of faculty and administrators to leave.
At that time, the GBC was very interested in escaping a shaky relationship with SACS because they had been accused of exerting undue influence on the board, a violation of one of the basic requirements for accreditation. So they were promising sweetness and light. “What was all the fuss about? We have no interest in changing the college. We just want to reform the religion department.”
They were so interested in demonstrating good will that they elected Harold Newman president. But the convention would eventually replace Newman with “their man.” Despite a valiant effort to protect the college and its faculty, Newman was shuttled out the door — with all the same old feigned sweetness and light — so that the final phase of the takeover would be complete. We witnessed that final phase this fall. The faith statement that my colleagues had predicted in the 1980s had come to pass.
FUNDAMENTALISM has very little to do with the broad history of Christianity and almost nothing to do with higher education. It is a movement born of fear and paranoia of the outside world, and it is by nature reactionary.
It first appeared around the time of World War I. The move of the United States onto the world stage, as well as Darwinism and other new ideas from the sciences and psychology had created an identity crisis for Christians. Some of them — including the well-known William Jennings Bryan — did not support America’s entry into the war. The aptly named revival minister “Billy Sunday” began calling people to take a stand. If you were for America, you had to be for Jesus. If you were not for America, you could not be for Jesus. The simple black and white categorization, as well as the creation of insiders and outsiders, is enormously compelling, especially in times of change, such as the present day. It allows the fundamentalist minister to rail against a flesh and blood enemy instead of deal with the more difficult parts of Christianity and life.
Unfortunately, fundamentalism is not terribly compatible with many of the central tenants of Christianity, as the situation at Shorter has demonstrated: humility and loving your neighbor despite his perceived flaws or his politics; the recognition that your own flaws might be bigger than his; the recognition that in the context of God you know very little, almost nothing, and thus have no right to throw other people out the door for their beliefs, that in seeing the speck in your brother’s eye you might miss the log in your own.
IT IS ALSO not compatible with a liberal arts education. Such an education demands that you face problems, even overwhelming problems, and that you look at them from multiple angles, that you try desperately to understand other people’s points of view, even those with whom you passionately disagree, that you become conversant with other cultural and religious traditions, that you try to understand the greatest mystery of all — yourself. And that you live in the world, not behind a wall.
At the end of the day, a liberal arts education demands that you embrace freedom, the kind of freedom that the Bible demonstrates God gave to man: the freedom to make good and bad choices and to live with the consequences, but also the freedom to define yourself in a world that is scary and complex without having to spout a creed or declare yourself loyal to a minister or a denomination.
The simple dichotomies that fundamentalists create demand that you take a stand for the church or the doctrine or what they define as Christ, but upon analysis, they all rely on logical fallacies so obvious that anyone with a good liberal arts education can see through them.
For example, in last week’s Rome News-Tribune, Albert Mohler argued that there are only two paths that a church-related college may take: that of Mercer or that of Shorter; benefits for same-sex partners or a faith statement condemning homosexuality.
REGARDLESS of the merits or faults of either choice, the dichotomy is false. He ignores many church-related liberal arts colleges that have made neither choice. More importantly, like a carnival huckster putting a rigged target before his audience, he denies his audience the right to think.
You either are or you aren’t — there is nothing in between. In surrendering to this dichotomy, in choosing in such a context, you are giving up your ability to think — you are allowing Mohler and those like him to set the ground rules for your thinking. A man or woman who is created in the image of God deserves better. A good liberal arts education allows people to know better: to define themselves within the context of their understanding of God without a minister like Mohler setting the rules.
It is no accident that churches founded many of the great liberal arts colleges in this country and abroad — colleges like Shorter and Huntingdon College, my own alma mater. The biblical image of man was central to what became a liberal arts education: that man was created in God’s image and was thereby capable of living and acting in the world in a multitude of ways — politics, science, mathematics, literature and the arts.
Implicit in this type of education was the freedom to think and act and debate, the freedom to view subjects such as art and music as important in themselves without relating them to the church. This did not mean that the church was left out of the educational arena, but rather that the conception of God was broad enough to include all of life without specifically tying every subject to the church.
THE MEDIEVAL education that this new renaissance approach to teaching and learning replaced was quite limited: all roads had to go back to the religious perspective demanded by the medieval clerics.
The famous caricature of these clerics arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin reminds me of nothing so much as the petty, meaningless, denominational political squabbles, the cheap false dichotomies that have resulted in the loss of Shorter.
They have nothing to do with living in the world, with acting in the context of the freedom that God gave to each of us. And most of all, they have nothing to do with education.
I left Shorter College years ago, and though I experienced grief when I left, it is nothing compared to that of those who built the college as a church-related liberal arts institution. I grieve for them now. Some of them were standing on the road holding signs on Friday, Nov. 11 when the new president was inaugurated in a closed ceremony.
I am very proud that the Rome News-Tribune and other news media noticed them. The Georgia Baptist Convention never has. The convention cared nothing for their contributions years ago when it began moving to take the college. It consulted not one of them. They were outside the fold: the unwashed, the outsiders, the uncared for, the enemy. But compared to the petty 5 percent (now 4.2 percent) of Shorter’s budget that the Georgia Baptist Convention gives each year to support Shorter, these people gave much, much, much more in both money and time. Now they have nothing.
THE LATE Dr. Carolyn Ward was one of these. She had been educated at Shorter many, many years ago and spent her life working as a physician and supporting Shorter. A female doctor was not such a common occurrence back then.
She was a remarkable person and a remarkable example of what a Shorter liberal arts education could do: allow a person to imagine for herself a life that was unscripted and full of possibility, a life that others might have said could not be.
That, after all, is what the liberal arts are all about. She was a board member, a board chair, a devout Christian, a faithful Baptist, and a lifelong donor to Shorter. I have thought of her many times during the past few weeks.
The Georgia Baptist Convention cared nothing for her contribution to the college when it began its plan to take Shorter.
They steamrolled over her and others like her as if they were trash — she and the others like her were at most collateral damage in the wake of their political campaign. Though she was not with the protesters in body on Friday, Nov. 11, I am sure she was there in spirit as were many others.
At some point in the year after the Georgia Supreme Court decision came down, Dr. Ward said something about that decision that still sticks in my head: “I will never get over this,” she said. “I will never be the same again.” In some respects she spoke for all of us, for all of Rome.
Bill Rice of Rome was an English professor at Shorter from 1986 until 2006. He chaired general education from 1995 until 2001 and served as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts from 2001 until 2004. From 2004 until 2006, he was Interim Provost.