New podcast: Tensions with NCAA and Christian schools? That issue will not go away

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A decade or so ago, I had a chance to speak to journalism students at Oral Roberts University. My strongest memories — other than visions of the shiny modernist architecture — center on an unusual moment during a campus chapel service.

There’s nothing unusual about a Christian university having a full-house chapel service. There’s nothing unusual about a student-led praise-rock band blasting out Contemporary Christian Music songs that inspired lots of people to do their share of swaying and dancing.

But here’s the memory. My visit to the campus took place during a meeting of ORU’s board of trustees, who sat together near the front of the auditorium during chapel. Looking down from the balcony, I was surprised to see that (a) many of the trustees were rather young, (b) a much higher than normal number of them were Black or Latino and (c) several were enthusiastically dancing with the students, including at least one in an aisle (the current board doesn’t look quite as young).

All of this was a reminder that much of the racial and cultural diversity at ORU — a major factor in campus life — was and is linked to the school’s roots in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, a movement that as been highly multiracial since its birth. Founder Oral Roberts was a famous, and often controversial, leader among charismatic Christians, even though, as an adult, he aligned with the United Methodist Church (which is more conservative in Oklahoma than, let’s say, parts of Illinois and other blue zip codes).

I bring this up because of a recent USA TodayFor the Win” column that served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Here’s the headline for that piece, which was written by the “race and inclusion editor” at USA Today sports: “Oral Roberts University isn’t the feel good March Madness story we need.” Here is a crucial passage:

… As the spotlight grows on Oral Roberts and it reaps the good will, publicity and revenue of a national title run, the university’s deeply bigoted anti-LGBTQ+ polices can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

Founded by televangelist Oral Roberts in 1963, the Christian school upholds the values and beliefs of its fundamentalist namesake, making it not just a relic of the past, but wholly incompatible with the NCAA’s own stated values of equality and inclusion.

While the school has been soundly mocked on social media for its archaic standards of behavior and code of conduct that bans profanity, “social dancing,” and shorts in classrooms, it is the school’s discriminatory and hateful anti-LGBTQ+ policy that fans should protest as the Golden Eagles advance in the tournament.

Actually, charismatic Christians are not — if you care about the facts of church history — are not “fundamentalists” and this would certainly be true of any that elected to be United Methodists. The doctrinal and behavior covenant at ORU (which the columnist quoted) has its Bible Belt quirks, but offers basic Christian doctrines when addressing the hot-button issues in moral theology.

The key is that the column argues that — because of its “hateful,” “bigoted,” “toxic” and “dangerous” doctrines — ORU should, along with other schools of this kind, be banned from March Madness and, one can only assume, all NCAA competition.

At the end of the column, there is this summary:

However accomplished its young student athletes are, the school is a hotbed of institutional transphobia, homophobia with regressive, sexist policies. There is no way to separate their men’s basketball team from the dangers of their religious dogma, no matter how many top seeds they defeat.

Often, athletic accomplishments and victories on the court make up for moral failings all the time. In this case though, whatever the Oral Roberts men’s basketball team manages to do on the court can’t obscure the dangerous and hateful ideology of its core institution.

Let me stress that this column was clearly labeled “opinion” and, if it appears in other Gannett newspapers, it’s safe to say it will appear on op-ed pages or, if used in sports sections, will carry that same label. However, we live in an age in which the bright line between “news” and “editorial” content is fading and in many cases has been erased (as bluntly argued by the legal powers that be at The New York Times).

I heard from several GetReligion readers who were stunned by this piece — because they assumed it was news content. Actually, it was rather ordinary Gannett opinion material.

However, I would like to stress I point I made several times during the podcast: There is a valid hard-news story at the heart of this USA Today column, one worthy of balanced, accurate coverage that shows respect for believers on both sides of this conflict.

It is clear that LGBTQ activists have — for a decade or more — been focusing attention on the NCAA and its willingness, at this point, to cooperative with doctrinally defined colleges and universities. This is affecting big-time college sports in several ways.

Consider these headlines from the past few years, linked to these tensions:

* ”25 groups petition Big 12 not to add BYU to conference over LGBT issues.”

* “NCAA Ends Boycott of North Carolina After So-Called Bathroom Bill Is Repealed.

* “NCAA Looms Large In Debate Over Transgender Sports Restrictions.

Oral Roberts is not, of course, the only doctrinally defined (to one degree or another) school that is still dancing during March Madness. My own alma mater, Baylor University, is among the favorites in both the men’s and women’s tournaments. Some Catholic schools continue to defend their church’s teachings on marriage and sex, while many do not.

News consumers should expect to see more coverage in this issue in the future, often originating with the work of a growing number of “diversity” beat journalists in elite newsrooms.

To their credit, USA Today editors did allow Ed Stetzer, head of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, to write a response column: “No, Oral Roberts University basketball doesn’t deserve to be canceled from NCAA Sweet 16.” This column included a quote from a crucial statement by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (a global association in which I taught for several decades).

Stetzer noted that today’s inflexible definitions of tolerance means that “anyone who holds what is now a minority view on marriage and sexuality” will face fierce opposition. This includes evangelical Protestants, traditional Catholics, Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Orthodox Jews and others. Leaders in major African American churches are beginning to address (.pdf here) these concerns.

Stetzer concludes:

I serve as a dean at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution where students commit to a community covenant. We, too, call students to a lifestyle in alignment with our Christian beliefs. We don’t hold quite the same standards as ORU, but ours won’t pass the new tolerance test, either.

I get that it’s easy to pick on Oral Roberts University. But I’d remind my fellow people of faith, nobody will get a pass on these issues if the dogma of new tolerance continues to take hold. So why not take a stand now?

From Chick-fil-A to the Salvation Army to a baker in Colorado, we have to decide whether we want to run everyone out of everywhere they dare go with their biblically based ideas.

This is an important news story and it deserves serious, informed, balanced coverage.

Stay tuned.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, share it with others.

FIRST IMAGE: From the Oral Roberts University quick facts website.

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