A former Southern Baptist Convention leader and Louisiana College alumnus criticized his alma mater for naming its planned law school after a “conservative resurgence” co-founder and retired Texas judge.
Wilmer C. Fields, a 1943 Louisiana College graduate and retired director of Baptist Press, told EthicsDaily.com that previous moves by fundamentalist trustees and administrators to make the Pineville, La., school more conservative have caused him to question their judgment, but last week’s announcement of the Judge Paul Pressler School of Law prompted him to question their “sanity.”
Whether another partisan law school patterned in the tradition of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell is viable or needed, Fields said, is at best “highly debatable.”
“But then to name such a dubious ‘school’ after a man who has done more damage to Southern Baptist life than any other person in the denomination’s history is an unreasonable, ludicrous act of ineptitude and rashness,” he said.
Fields worked 28 years at the SBC Executive Committee before retiring in 1987. His duties included directing the denomination’s official news service. Fields is widely credited with building BP from a loose network of Baptist publications and PR workers into a model for denominational news operations, respected in both religious and secular circles for its professionalism and editorial independence.
Pressler, a retired Texas appeals court judge from Houston, is widely credited with coming up with the idea of systematically replacing moderate trustees with conservatives by manipulating the appointive powers of the SBC presidency. Along with Paige Patterson, today president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Pressler is generally credited as a co-founder of the “resurgence” movement that transformed the nation’s largest Protestant denomination into one of the most conservative.
As a member and officer of the SBC Executive Committee, Pressler was also at the center of controversy that resulted in the 1990 firing of Fields’ successor, Al Shackleford, and BP editor Dan Martin, who worked with Fields for seven years before continuing under Shackleford.
Martin and Shackleford refused an offer to resign quietly, calling it an attempt to muzzle the news. After their firing, they were replaced with individuals viewed as more sympathetic to the SBC’s new leadership.
Shackleford later worked for the SBC Sunday School Board, since renamed LifeWay Christian Resources. He died in 2000 from injuries in a car accident at age 68. Martin eventually left journalism to become a pastor and chaplain.
The symbolic naming of the law school after Pressler is the latest in a series of moves that have alienated many alumni and friends of LouisianaCollege, once known for its tradition of academic freedom and open inquiry.
After gaining a majority through political processes in the Louisiana Baptist Convention, fundamentalist trustees elected President Joe Aguillard in 2005, against the wishes of a majority of the faculty. Aguillard took over in the middle of a year of academic probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, imposed over concerns about academic freedom and governance.
A group of alumni and supporters sued to have Aguillard’s election blocked, claiming the search committee that recommended him was improperly selected. A judge threw out the case and validated his election.
Depending on who is counting, as many as two-thirds of former faculty members are said to have left LouisianaCollege since Aguillard’s election.
“Judge Paul Pressler for us is the model of a jurist,” Aguillard told a Louisiana television station. Citing Pressler’s “strict constructionist” view of interpreting the law and his involvement in Southern Baptist life, the president said, “He really emanates the kind of model that we would have for our attorneys graduating from this institution.”
Also interviewed by KALB-TV, Pressler explained the conservative resurgence as “merely a movement of the grassroots Southern Baptists to re-establish the principles on which the Southern Baptist Convention was founded and which 90-95 percent of Southern Baptists believe.”
“It was a grassroots rebellion to replace leadership that was out of sync with the grassroots,” Pressler said.
A Houston native, Pressler, 77, attended high school at PhillipsExeterAcademy in New Hampshire and college at PrincetonUniversity in New Jersey. He earned his law degree at the University of Texas. He served in the Texas Legislature before being appointed and re-elected as a district and then appellate judge. He decided not to run for re-election in 1992 and retired from the bench.
A former Democrat, Pressler switched to the Republican Party in 1988. His is listed as a member of the Council for National Policy, a secretive but influential conservative political organization.
Despite spending his whole career in Texas, Pressler said he has many friends and family members in Louisiana.
In July 1989, President George H.W. Bush considered naming Pressler as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Amid reports his nomination had been dropped over concern his role in SBC politics would make it hard for him to be confirmed, Pressler said in October he was turning down the nomination.
At the time Pressler told Baptist Press he would have had to resign from the SBC Executive Committee, which he didn’t want to do, and that family health and business concerns made it preferable for him to remain in Houston, but he would agree to serve in a part-time appointment.
Newspapers in Houston and Washington, however, quoted unnamed administration officials who said a background investigation surfaced “ethics problems” that the White House felt disqualified Pressler and that fundamentalist religious statements made by the judge would have raised flags in a confirmation process.
In a 1999 autobiography, Pressler said he declined the appointment rather than face a personal vendetta in confirmation hearings.
“Incorrigible ignorance and unmitigated arrogance are diametrically opposed to the purposes of higher education,” Fields said. “LouisianaCollege, the students, alumni and friends of the institution, and all Louisiana Baptists deserve, and must have, something far better than this! Enough is enough!”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.