Martin E. Marty
It is not stretching things to conclude, as Sightings does here today, that two religions jarred each other in national big-news and comment-sources last Friday. We are referring to the front-page coverage of the eruption of scandal at Baylor University in Texas.
The headlines stressed the demotion of Baylor’s now-former President and now-chancellor Kenneth Starr in the wake of gross sexual abuse incidents, patterns, and cover-ups at the school, and the suspension-with-intent-to-terminate of the football coach who was accused of mishandling and misrepresenting the occasions in which athletes misused and attacked Baylor women.
Whoever will check the sources (below) or others easily available to them will note that virtually all stories stressed that Baylor was a Christian, particularly a Baptist, university. The press doesn’t identify most other schools denominationally, unless the school name banners it—as in Southern Methodist University. Newswriters don’t say that Princeton is Presbyterian, etc.
But 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, as we will note, 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.
So, that’s one of the two religions. The other? Football, as it is supported and publicized endlessly, especially, as in Baylor’s case, under the working of the now-suspended head coach.
But isn’t football just football, a branch of athletics, classifiable as entertainment and capitalist enterprise? No. Readers of Sightings who own encyclopedias and textbooks which deal with religion will find that they point to key characteristics of religions across the board. For starters: “ultimate concern,” “ceremonial reinforcement,” at least quasi-“metaphysical depth,” “emotional exactions,” “communalism,” etc. These are present somehow in all (we have to say, now, also in all “other”) religions.
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 this week at Baylor but almost as dramatically year-round in the higher levels of football authority and engrossments.
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. 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.
Michael Powell, describing himself as “secular,” began his long New York Times article/sermon, tinged with Schadenfreude and ending with irony: “The Baylor University Regents were outraged Thursday and saddened, too. They could not fathom how this could happen to a fine Christian University.” And, finally, Powell’s ‘Amens!’ “As for the Baylor University Administration, it promises to ‘foster an even more Christ-centered culture on campus.’ And isn’t that grand?” End of quote.
Powell, Michael. “At Baylor, Charity Toward Kenneth Starr Follows Outrage.” New York Times, May 26, 2016, College Football.
Markoe, Lauren. “Kenneth Starr reportedly fired for handling of university sex assault scandal.” Religion News Service, May 24, 2016.
Council, John. “Ken Starr Demoted as Baylor’s President.” Texas Lawyer, May 26, 2016.
Jacobo, Julia. “Baylor President Ken Starr Speaks Out After Being Demoted Amid Football Sexual Assault Scandal.” ABC News, May 26, 2016, US.
Grigsby, Sharon. “Baylor President Starr, end stonewalling on rapes for sake of victims—and your school.” Dallas Morning News, February 1, 2016, Opinion Blog.
Walters, John. “Ugly cover-ups and intimidation in sexual assault cases.” Newsweek, May 26, 2016, Sports.
Image: In this Oct. 19, 2013, file photo, Baylor head coach Art Briles, center, watches during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State in Waco, Texas. The university said in a statement Thursday, May 26, 2016, that it had suspended Briles "with intent to terminate;" Credit: Tony Gutierrez / AP Photo.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
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