Antigay and Unemployed

Professor who sought refuge from liberal academe at a Southern Baptist seminary finds out why tenure matters.

December 11, 2019
 
Robert Lopez

It's rare for disaffected faculty members within the seminary world to speak out publicly against their institutions. But one now former professor’s tale of thinking that he’d finally found an intellectual home at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then losing it, provides a rare window into that part of academe.

If the name Robert Oscar Lopez sounds familiar, it might be because he clashed with his prior institution, too. In 2015, Lopez, then an associate professor of English at California State University at Northridge, said that institution was targeting him because he disagreed with letting gay parents adopt children. He faced a related complaint that a conference he’d organized and invited students to attend pushed antigay views (he denied this).

Lopez held other views outside the conservative mainstream, such as that homosexuality was inexorably linked to pederasty. Some called it hate speech. He said he based his insights on personal experience, and that being raised by a bisexual mother and her female partner made him socially awkward and led him to the “gay underworld” for a time.

Eventually, Lopez left California and secular academe for Southwestern. The Texas institution doesn’t have tenure, but he thought he had found a permanent place among like-minded, socially conservative academics.

Things went well for Lopez for a while. But he couldn’t have predicted the events to come. In 2018, amid the Me Too movement, the seminary’s then president, Paige Patterson, was accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention. An earlier audio recording of Patterson counseling prayer to women with violent husbands also surfaced, as did reports that Patterson had gravely mishandled two rape cases involving woman at the seminary, in 2003 and in 2015.

Patterson first stepped down and was later removed as president emeritus. The seminary’s governing board announcement cited, among other missteps, an internal email in which Patterson wrote that he wanted to meet with the 2015 rape complainant alone to “break her down.”

The seminary did something of a house cleaning following Patterson’s departure, even removing a set of stained-glass windows honoring both him and the ultraconservative late Southern Baptist leader Jerry Falwell Sr. The panels found a new home at Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell Jr., who commented at the time, “Well, now both of those windows have been removed by the new regime.” Southern Baptists must “have their own deep state,” he also quipped.

Sex Abuse Scandal Brings Change

The Southern Baptist community faced a larger sexual abuse crisis around the same time, with the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reporting that the church had seen 700 victims over 20 years. As Lopez watched how the church responded from his seat at Southwestern, he believed that victims of same-sex abuse were being left out of the discussions.

In April, he published a resolution for church consideration that included antigay language, including that some unnamed Southern Baptist groups had erred in mixing with Anglican groups who encouraged young Baptists “to explore homosexuality and even attend prurient homosexual events.” Later in the document, Lopez resolved that any nondisclosure or “gentleman’s” agreements between victims and the church should be invalidated, in the interest of transparency and healing. The idea, in part, was that NDAs were preventing male victims of abuse from sharing their stories. (Lopez had previously pitched a resolution supporting the "unfettered right of pastors, churches, biblical counselors, biblical counseling ministries and any other disciple of Christ to provide sound biblical counsel and assistance for any person seeking freedom from the sinful bondage to disordered homosexual desires.")

Southwestern Baptist replaced Patterson with Adam W. Greenway, a 41-year-old former dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kentucky. Greenway didn’t stop the cleaning house at stained glass. According to some accounts, including Lopez’s, Greenway pegged for termination or reassignment 26 professors soon after moving to Fort Worth.

Greenway may have been installed as an agent of progress, but the terminations sparked concerns that he was eliminating many of the seminary’s professors of color. The conservative Capstone Report counted, for example, that half of the affected professors were women or minorities. Southwestern Baptist cited budget concerns and academic program changes as reasons for the cuts. But it also hired some new faculty members and administrators, including a group of white men and some of Greenway's former colleagues from Southern Baptist.

Lopez lost his job, too. In a blog post for American Greatness called “I Didn’t Have to Die on This Hill But I Did,” Lopez said the post-Patterson seminary gutted the classics and humanities curriculum he’d worked to build in favor of works in philosophy and theology.

“I found myself in the unenviable and painful position of now having to fight conservatives so they would see that 1) the classics included imaginative and creative texts, and 2) multicultural diversity mattered,” Lopez wrote. “I was now the dirty disobedient liberal. The fact that I organized missions to El Salvador, founded a multicultural drama club, and proposed a media arts and culture major with an African-American music professor hurt my standing rather than helped it.”

In September, Lopez says, the seminary’s provost asked him to resign. In November, he saw that he didn’t have any classes assigned to him for the spring. And then he received a formal letter of notice, relieving him of his duties as of Dec. 31.

The letter says only that Lopez’s position is being eliminated. And it’s possible that’s true. It’s also possible that Lopez ruffled too many feathers fighting for the humanities program in the face of change.

Home to Roost

But it’s more likely that his antigay comments caught up with him -- albeit in an unexpected place, at least to him.

Documents Lopez shared with the conservative Christian website Enemies Within the Church -- including emails and recordings of meetings with administrators, all after Patterson's ouster -- suggest that he was repeatedly asked to clear any public comments about homosexuality with the institution first. Those included social media posts and media requests, such as one seeking Lopez's comment on a study seeming to link homosexuality to youth self-harm.

“Notifying us after you’ve submitted the work will raise some concerns,” reads one September email from Michael Wilkinson, dean of the seminary’s Scarborough College. “Also, I’m not sure that [Provost Randy] Stinson understood you to mean that you would continue to speak on these issues. He understood you to mean taking down the social media stuff and then to focus on the drama club and your classes.”

Stinson tells Lopez in a recording of a separate September conversation that among the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “your reputation is not good there with those folks.” 

Lopez says that he was targeted for trying to shine light on the same-sex abuse cases that he says don’t fit into what he’s described as the Baptist Church’s Me Too-oriented framing of its sex abuse scandal. As evidence, he cites a transcript of a meeting with Stinson in which Stinson acknowledges that he’d previously expressed concern about his resolution. It’s unclear from the transcript, however, if Stinson had a problem with the resolution because of antigay language or the NDA issue, or even which resolution he was talking about.

In a brief interview, Lopez said, “I was fired because I wanted to bring light to the problems of sex abuse and sexual suffering that the convention was trying to keep secret.”

He also wrote on his blog that his "testimony encouraged people to see themselves as God defined them rather than accept the 'born this way' myth so popular among gay activists. The seminary did not want the attention brought by this issue. So I was fired for sharing the gospel."

In an unusual public statement, Stinson said that “Lopez’s claims about what I have personally said about these matters are demonstrably false.” Stinson affirmed his support for “biblical sexuality,” saying that “in light of the growing cultural confusion on sexuality and growing pressure to force Christians to conform to prevailing opinions, my resolve on these matters is stronger today than ever.”

While Lopez’s position is being eliminated “due to changing program needs of our college,” Stinson continued, “our decision was undergirded by his own actions, which included his failure to comply with basic administrative policies, his being the subject of regular complaints from students and faculty colleagues, and, in the end, his refusal even to attend meetings with his supervisors.” 

He added, "Let me be absolutely clear: no faculty member, including Dr. Lopez, has been told, or would be told, they cannot discuss homosexuality."

In any case, things continue to change at the seminary. This fall it publicly affirmed its support for two female faculty members working in women’s theology, following an email from Patterson’s former chief of staff questioning their qualifications. And elsewhere in the seminary world, Karen Swallow Prior, a longtime professor of English at Liberty University and a vocal critic of President Trump, recently announced that she is leaving that institution for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. In so doing, she cited concerns about academic freedom at Liberty and an interest in Southeastern's more "traditional" curriculum. Prior had previously endorsed a controversial 2018 gathering, Revoice, for gay Christians who agree with Baptist teachings about sexuality. Lopez had criticized her for doing so.

Things, of course, are changing for Lopez, too. To many, his story will read as a just-deserts morality tale. Others may sympathize with his position -- voiced in a recent podcast -- that administrative doublespeak is worse in the seminary world than it is in secular academe. Some may put a finer point on it all: that homophobia is a professional liability just about anywhere in academe.

As Lopez wrote in his American Greatness essay, “Just like that, I went from tenure in California to joblessness in Texas.”

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