When the Board of Trustees at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia lost a long legal battle with an increasingly fundamentalist Georgia Baptist Convention, many of us held out hope that the faculty, students, and alumni would be able to fight back against the pernicious influence of fundamentalism. Our vigil is finally over. Shorter (now “Shorter University”) has drawn its last breath as a legitimate institution of higher learning. On October 25, 2011, Shorter’s Board of Trustees adopted a collection of documents which, according to university president Dr. Don Dowless, are to serve as a “continuing affirmation of our Christ-centered mission.”
On the surface, that sounds like a fantastic idea. A university centered on the teachings of Jesus would be an exciting place to study. Imagine a learning environment where students are taught to question everything they had ever learned, and to never settle for pat, easy answers [John 8:1-11]. Think of a school where students are taught to reject the materialism and acquisitiveness of modern society [Luke 3:11] and give all of their possessions to the poor [Matt 19:21]. An education centered on the teachings of Jesus would constantly challenge both conventional wisdom [Luke 6:20-26] and religious traditions [Matt 5:38-39]. It would certainly reject religious fundamentalism, just as Jesus did [Matt 12:1-12; Mark 2:27; 7:19]. Studying in such a place would mean joining into that beloved community of Jesus’ disciples who shared all their possessions with each other [Acts 2:44-47] and who shared constant fellowship in a setting that was free of prejudices of sex, social standing, or ethnicity [Galatians 3:28].
Unfortunately, the documents created by Shorter’s Board address none of these core biblical, Christian concepts. Instead, they talk ambiguously about “truth” and “biblical faith” and a “biblical worldview.” A little more digging reveals what they mean by these vaguely positive terms. The “Statement of Faith,” for instance, asserts that the institution takes the contradictory Babylonian creation mythology in Genesis as a literal, “historical account.” It even claims that there were two historical people named “Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings have come.” For Shorter, then, being a “Christ-centered” university means rejecting the major academic disciplines of History, Geology, and Biology. In addition, it means rejecting the well-established biblical scholarship that helps to preserve the value of these texts without requiring adherents to attain the cognitive dissonance necessary to take them literally.
The document goes on to outline other fundamentalist boundaries on the school’s theology, most of which would only matter to Religion scholars. Where the consequences of this meticulously worded theology become worrisome, though, is in the “Biblical Principles on the Integration of Faith and Learning.” That document states (and underlines) that “University staff will submit an annual plan with the letter of agreement that details how they will integrate the Christian faith into their specific areas of work.” Viewed in light of the preceding document’s definition of what the “Christian faith” is, every professor at Shorter – not just their Religion faculty – is now expected to conform their curriculum to Shorter’s incredibly narrow, and intentionally academically ignorant, characterization of what “Christian” and “biblical” belief entails.
This “Christianity” of Shorter University has little to do with the historic faith of the Church. Instead, it is a reactionary rejection of the past two hundred years of human evolution: progress that has given us ethnic and gender equality; progress that has freed us from ignorance about our past; and, progress that has saved us from superstition when we study the world around us. Since the Enlightenment, scholarship and study have toppled the authority of those who wish to indulge in prejudice and ignorance to advance their social and political agendas.
Consequently, fundamentalist groups like those now in charge at Shorter exist primarily to help those on the losing end of the Enlightenment reclaim the anachronistic superstitions that make their worldview possible. Fundamentalists camouflage their rhetoric in comforting terms like “Christian” and “biblical” in the hope that no one will have the theological or biblical literacy to recognize the hypocrisy and deception inherent in their approach. As a result, the greatest threat to their methods is an educated, literate populace – and so fundamentalists move their culture war to public school systems and, whenever possible, to institutions of higher learning. Shorter’s new policies make this agenda abundantly clear. Academic freedom at Shorter is now subject to an obscure and willfully obdurate understanding of “biblical truth.”
But the tragedy does not end there. The most bizarre and offensive of all these documents is the “Personal Lifestyle Statement” which all Shorter faculty must now sign. The document speaks of being “Bible believing Christians” and maintaining a “Christ-centered institution,” yet it makes no mention of pacifism, giving to the poor, rejecting religious fundamentalism, or any of the teachings of Jesus enumerated above and in the New Testament. In fact, being a “Christ-centered” professor at Shorter means having only four concerns: 1. Loyalty to Shorter and the Georgia Baptist Convention, 2. Drugs, 3. Sex, 4. Alcohol. Interestingly, the alcohol section is by far the longest and most detailed. Apparently Georgia Baptist fundamentalists are still fighting the Prohibition battles of the last century. That is particularly ironic since the Christ on whom the school claims to be “centered” famously made wine at a wedding [John 2:1-11] and was called a “drunkard” by his critics because, unlike John the Baptist, he drank alcohol [Luke 3:33-34].
Hypocrisy concerning alcohol aside, the statement on sexuality in section 3 is perhaps Shorter’s most tragic. That section equates premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality – actively attacking the trend towards increasing inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians in the larger Christian Church. As most of Christianity, and most of Western society, moves forward in rejecting anti-LGBT bias, Shorter University has chosen to plant its Crusader’s shield on the hill of bigotry and intolerance. As with all organizations that side with prejudice and ignorance, the judgment of history will record Shorter’s shame.
Shorter University has chosen to ally itself with those who want to draw a curtain of medieval shadow over the light of reason, learning and inclusiveness that sustains the work of a modern university. In so doing, they have consigned themselves to the ignorant backwaters of self-perpetuating fundamentalist scholarship, and they will eventually disappear into irrelevance – as happens with all institutions that uproot education and then plant indoctrination in its stead. By its own decision, Shorter University no longer matters in the modern world.
So then why should we care? What happens at Shorter matters for several reasons. First and foremost, the takeover and transformation of Shorter University should remind us all that education is a fragile thing. Many of the world’s evils are shielded by ignorance, and if we do not work actively to protect rigorous, open, free research and study we will lose them to forces eager to destroy them.
Secondly, it matters because we cannot allow people to easily ignore or dismiss what has happened to Shorter under the heading of “Well, that’s just what they believe. They should be allowed to teach what they believe.” Belief, like every other aspect of human experience, must be held accountable for its consequences and conclusions. Hiding ignorance and prejudice behind language of “faith” and “the Bible” cannot be tolerated. Slaveholders and abusive husbands did the same for centuries, and we can never return to a world where religious rhetoric becomes a sacrosanct excuse for oppression and bigotry.
Finally, what has happened at Shorter matters because, if it becomes the norm in Christianity, it foretells the death of the tradition. The Board of Trustees at Shorter College has chosen to define Christianity and biblical fidelity in terms of a small set of narrowly-constructed political issues. Apparently, for them being a Christian means: rejecting Biology, Geology, and History; oppressing LGBT persons; limiting academic freedom to narrow constructions of “truth” based on 3,000-year-old superstitions; and not consuming alcohol. If that is what Christianity becomes, it will be meaningless and dead within a century.
Standing against the forces of fundamentalism at Shorter University and elsewhere is not simply about fighting back against a far-right and reactionary political agenda. It is about preserving the ideals of post-Enlightenment education, holding religious beliefs accountable to the same standards of logic and cognitive health as any idea, and it is about preserving the expansive breadth of Christianity in a way that allows it to be continuously relevant to future generations. Shorter University has made it clear that the school stands directly in opposition to all of these things. The task remains for the rest of us to continue to move the world forward into a place where scholarship and faith instead work together to overcome superstition and injustice.
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines taught a wide range of courses – including Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Christian Theology, Church History, and Critical Thinking – as an adjunct from 2006 to 2008 in the Professional Studies Program at the former Shorter College. He now teaches as an adjunct in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at Mercer University.