The Truth, Mainly - 05/09/2005

The Academic Wars revisited
by Leon Satterfield

I see by the papers—as Will Rogers used to say—that Virginia Baptists have been wrestling with Virginia Academics. As both a retired Academic and a retired Baptist, I take notice of such squabbles.

I took early retirement from my Baptist career back when I was 12 years old and listened to Satan whisper in my ear that it might be fun to jump out the window of the First Baptist Church in our little town. On that Sunday morning, Satan took the form of Duane Sparks, a bad boy who was a year older than me, and sitting next to me in the back pew. He double-dog dared me to jump. It was a hot day and the window was open—an apparent invitation. But my innate sense of decorum told me I should wait until the preacher gave his end-of-the sermon benediction.

"Amen," he finally said, and I jumped.

He had delivered his benediction from the back of the church so he could shake hands with everyone as we left. And since he was behind us giving his benediction, we couldn't see that he didn't close his eyes when he prayed back there.

So he saw me climb up on the sill and jump out the window.

And through the intervention of the Almighty he was miraculously on the ground under the window waiting for me to land. He grabbed me by the ear and marched me back inside the church. People watched.

"Now," he told me, "you walk out of this church the way God intended you to."

I didn't remember—still don't—any divine instruction on the preferred method of egress from the church. So that's when I decided to take early retirement from my Baptist heritage.

I lasted much longer as an Academic. I retired after 40 years of teaching English. When my last class ended I considered jumping out the window, but it was considerably higher off the ground than the church window had been, and I was not as brave as I was when I was 12. So my second retirement lacked the panache of the first one.

I tell you all this so you can see why the spat between the Baptists and the Academics back in Virginia piques my interest.

The Baptists involved are members of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. The Academics involved are members of the faculty and administration at Averett University in Danville, Va.

Averett has been a Baptist-related university since its founding in 1859. That means the Academics have been getting financial support from the Baptists—in recent times about $350,000 a year.

You might assume $350,000 would buy the Baptists lots of say-so on how the Averett Academics behaved themselves.

Ha. Check this out:

•In the fall of 2003, the chairman of the Averett religion department wrote a piece for the local newspaper praising the Episcopalians for ordaining an openly gay bishop.

•At about the same time Averett invited John Shelby Spong—a retired Episcopal bishop—to give a couple of lectures on campus. He accepted, and said right loud and in public that the God who appears in a literal reading of the Bible is "immoral" and "unbelievable."

•But the final straw came this past February when a student organization called the "Gay/Straight Alliance" sponsored a "Gay Pride Week" at Averett.

When the Baptists complained about what Averett might be spending their gift money on, the school's president, Richard Pfau, said "There was no official university endorsement" of Gay Pride Week. "I learned about it on the first day by reading it in the student newspaper."

Is he implying that student organizations are pretty much free to do what their consciences tell them to do?

The Baptists voted last month to end their financial support of the college. President Pfau responded with this:

The Baptists have "a set of core values and there's no reason why they should compromise those. Likewise, Averett has a set of core values…and unfortunately at this point in time, they're not compatible."

Sounds like he might be telling the Baptists to put their money where the sun don't shine because the school's not into indoctrinating students.

So my first biased impulse is to score it Academics 1, Baptists 0.

But my reconsidered evaluation is that everyone wins, that the Academics get out from under the Baptist influence they don't welcome, and the Baptists disassociate themselves from the Academic notion that people of all sexual orientation deserve equal respect.

A final observation: At the Averett commencement last week, six protesters from Fred Phelps Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka showed up to picket. Two of them were children, ages 7 and 12, holding signs saying "God hates fags."


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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