Cancel culture is nothing new in Baptist colleges.
The first day I stepped foot on campus in 1987 in my brand-new job as a religion professor at a Baptist college, a young student walked up to me and said, “I’ll never take one of your classes because women shouldn’t teach men the Bible.”
Samford University just disinvited Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham from giving an inaugural address because students protested his support of Planned Parenthood.
Meacham’s speech had nothing to do with abortion, but, apparently, his support of Planned Parenthood was enough to disqualify him from speaking at the event.
The university assured that Meacham’s speech would be rescheduled “at a more appropriate time to an event not so closely connected to the symbolism of the inauguration.”
Many years ago, I had the honor of speaking during Samford’s chapel hour on women and Christian leadership.
My first thought on hearing about Meacham’s disinvitation was that I probably wouldn’t be invited to speak at Samford now. After all, I’m pro-choice, and I support Planned Parenthood. I’m also an out lesbian, a feminist, a proponent of critical race theory and a Democrat.
Somehow, students at Samford made the leap from Meacham’s support of Planned Parenthood to the assumption that his speaking at an important event like an inauguration was somehow an implicit endorsement of abortion by the university.
Rather than disinviting Meacham for the inauguration, perhaps Samford could have used this opportunity as a teachable moment for students.
After all, inviting a speaker is not an endorsement of everything that person believes, says or does.
If that were the case, I imagine finding any speaker at all would be difficult. Likely, every possible speaker has something objectionable in their past, their writings, their teaching or their identities to some constituent group in a university.
What’s the value of hearing from people different from yourself? Hearing ideas you disagree with? Why should Baptist colleges welcome speakers from a wide diversity of points of view?
Now, I’m not talking about a peddler of hate speech like Ann Coulter or purveyors of falsehoods and lies like Holocaust deniers. These kinds of speech are counter to the mission of higher education and have no place on any college campus.
Rather, I’m talking about diverse perspectives rooted in legitimate academic inquiry across disciplines.
Core to the mission of higher education is the facilitation of critical thinking. Critical thinking is “a process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that gives reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualization, methods, and criteria.”
Other theorists add that critical thinking “involves the ability to clearly and precisely raise vital questions, gather relevant information and reach well-reasoned conclusions, make accurate decisions, assess the credibility of sources, identify cause-effect relationships, and effectively communicate with others in figuring out solutions.”
A key way of facilitating such critical thinking is through disagreement and dialogue. Setting diverse and competing ideas alongside one another is advantageous for the development of critical thinking.
As scholars of argumentation point out, when we make our best cases with one another, argue against other perspectives, and lay out our criticisms, we gain a better understanding of issues.
Research supports the contention that considering alternative views and differing arguments is key to coming to coherent judgments. Research also shows that, on their own, people are not very good at coming up with and weighing alternative arguments.
What researchers call “myside bias” prevents people from fairly and thoroughly generating and evaluating ideas with which they disagree. In other words, we really do need to hear from people who have different ideas from us, and we need to participate in diverse-thinking communities that challenge our beliefs and perspectives.
Samford also could have used this opportunity to teach students more about Baptist history and identity.
Baptists have a history begun in disagreement. The earliest Baptists in England were dissenters who demanded the right for people to worship as they felt led, to build autonomous democratic congregations of baptized believers, to read scripture for themselves, and to go directly to God without need for a mediator.
Even so, these Baptists fought among themselves. Some believed salvation was available to all who would choose it; others believed God had chosen those who would be saved. Some believed hymns could be sung in worship; some believed hymn-singing could lead right back to the liturgy of the Church of England.
In fact, Baptists have disagreed so much over the centuries, that Walter B. Shurden wrote a history of Baptists as a history of their conflicts titled, Not a Silent People: Controversies That Have Shaped Southern Baptists.
Most relevant, Baptists believe that the highest authority is the individual conscience before God.
That has meant Baptists have historically opposed any form of coercion in religion. Rather, they have relied on confidence that God can speak to each individual person.
In other words, historically Baptists have trusted people to think for themselves. I remember even the fundamentalist pastor of my youth often saying, “Don’t believe something because I say it. Search it out for yourself.”
That is the Baptist identity, and so Baptists, of all people, should be, not only willing, but eager to hear different perspectives. They should never fear hearing something they disagree with because they can have this confidence in their own conscience before God.
This also means they should have the humility to know that, however deeply felt their beliefs may be, they may be wrong. Only by hearing different ideas can we challenge our own limited understandings and seek new and greater insights.
While the individual conscience before God is the authority in faith, developing faith happens in community, a place of checks and balances, challenges, support and disagreement.
Echo chambers do not produce faith; they produce conformity. True faith communities create space for engagement and exploration, not indoctrination.
Not too long ago, I saw a cartoon, and in it the character shouted, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.”
If our beliefs are so fragile that exposure to different ideas is a threat, then perhaps those are exactly the beliefs that we need to challenge.
In fact, if we think of beliefs as well-defined and final, then we do our faith a disservice.
No one of us can possibly fully grasp truth. We see bits and pieces of it from our own finite perspectives, and even those perspectives can change across time as we encounter new experiences and as we age.
Beliefs are not the defining characteristic of faith. Faith is about relationships, with God and with others.
Beliefs are simply guideposts for right relationship. If beliefs become more important than relationships – even, and maybe even especially, relationships with strangers like Jon Meacham – then we are no longer living as followers of Jesus.
In disinviting Meacham, Samford failed both as an institution of higher education and a Baptist institution.
Assuring Meacham would be invited another time was not an effective compromise because the university’s capitulation signaled its unwillingness to champion critical thinking, diversity of thought, and engagement in difficult dialogue as key values of Baptist higher education.
What could have been a teachable moment about these values became another kind of teachable moment.
Students learned that they did not need to listen to ideas different from their own, they did not need to put their ideas into the crucible of scholarly dialogue, and they did not need to welcome a stranger who might challenge them to think critically.
Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She is author of Reflective Faith: A Theological Toolbox for Women and God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society and co-author with Grace Ji-Sun Kim of Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide.