A Tale of Two Buffalo Grads in the Southern Baptist Convention
The University at Buffalo is a large institution. Many view its graduate schools as the flagship of the New York state system (Binghamton usually reigns as the flagship undergrad program.) Perhaps no place could be farther removed from the American South in the popular imagination. Famous snow blankets Buffalo for much of the year. Natives speak with a nasal accent halfway between Canadian and Brooklynese. Buffalo is one of the most Democratic stomping grounds in America. For example in 1984, Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan in this county by 15,049 votes.
Given how little Buffalo resembles Southern Baptist strongholds like Dallas, Nashville, or Raleigh-Durham, one ought to take a moment to consider the bizarre emergence of two Buffalo grads as key personalities in Southern Baptist news.
Karen Swallow Prior graduated from the Buffalo in the late 1990s with a PhD in English, while Robert Lopez graduated from the same program in 2003. They seem not to have overlapped much while they studied. As he explained recently, Robert Lopez remembers meeting Dr. Prior in his early graduate years and knowing she stood out as a Christian. While they had extremely different journeys in their academic careers they seem to have collided in the Baptist media because of their respective job statuses.
Recently Prior announced she would leave her post at Liberty University to take a professorship at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This news did not come without friction. Many conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention expressed alarm over Prior, who holds more liberal views than most Baptists do, taking a position in one of the Convention’s key seminaries. On November 21, the Founder Ministries tweeted this statement: “The @SEBTS hired a professor who has endorsed and defended her endorsement of a conference whose purpose is to empower ‘gay and lesbian Christians.’ And Southern Baptists are expected to just sit back quietly and pay her salary.”
Prior reached the rank of full professor at Liberty University.
Robert Lopez, as of today, is still listed as a full professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. All that seems certain to change. In a piece in American Greatness dated November 16, Lopez went public with news that the provost at Southwestern had asked him to resign two months earlier. According to Lopez all signs indicate that he is to be let go: “By September 19, I was asked to resign by the provost. In early November, the spring 2020 schedule was published, indicating that I had no classes at all. Just like that, I went from tenure in California to joblessness in Texas.”
Lopez alludes to the fact that the current president of Southwestern, Adam Greenway, fired “26 professors in 24 hours,” citing a budget crisis, but then later hired at least six new professors, “all white.”
The two words “all white” piqued the curiosity of some conservatives because Greenway’s predecessor, former Southwestern president Paige Patterson, had been attacked online only days earlier for supposedly holding racist beliefs about the qualifications of ethnic minorities. A 2012 letter had surfaced that many Baptist outlets interpreted as proof that Patterson held prejudices against hiring minorities. Some infer that Adam Greenway, who has expressed support for multiculturalism, can constitute a “new day” and take a new direction away from Patterson toward ethnic inclusion. But the Patterson-bad-Greenway-good formula does not square with the notion that Greenway would fire 26 professors and then replace them with new hires, all of whom were white.
Soon the plot thickened and curled back to Karen Swallow Prior. Which invites us to consider some unusual contrasts between Lopez and Prior as two Buffalo grads bubbling up in the Baptist news. Capstone Report did some digging to find more details about Greenway’s firings and discovered that the post-Patterson situation at Southwestern was less rosy than many thought.
Capstone Report tracked down the names of the 26 dismissals that corresponded to Lopez’s reference in American Greatness. Many white males had been let go under Greenway. But according to Capstone, one could count thirteen minorities and women who were listed on the faculty prior to Patterson’s dismissal, but who had been demoted or had disappeared by the spring of 2020, a full year and a half into the post-Patterson governance at Southwestern. While Lopez alluded to six white professors hired, Capstone reported that public records indicated that the correct number was ten. Ten new hires were not only white but also male.
The disconnect between the popular narrative of Patterson as an icon of the white patriarchy and the reality that he hired a range of minorities and women whom Greenway fired matters because of how Patterson left the presidency in 2018. He did not resign. The trustees fired him because of public outrage, first over the racial undertones of an offensive photograph five of his faculty took in 2017, and then over insensitive comments Patterson made about women in 2018. A certain prominent woman in the Baptist world led the charge to remove Patterson, starting a petition that successfully pushed the trustees to oust him.
And who was the woman who started the petition? Karen Swallow Prior.
Now Prior will join the Southeastern faculty just as Lopez, who was hired by Paige Patterson, will lose his position on the Southwestern faculty. These stories speak volumes to where the Southern Baptist Convention is heading. Both Prior and Lopez do their academic work in the field of literature; their time periods overlap somewhat because both have published scholarship on the eighteenth century. In American Greatness, Lopez laments that his literary focus placed him at odds with his employer because after Patterson’s ouster the new administration moved to strip most literature out of the curriculum in favor of new courses such as “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing.” Yet Prior, who also specializes in literature, receives a warm welcome at Southeastern. Adam Greenway and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern, seem friendly to one another, as evidenced by the fact that Greenway had Akin speak in chapel at Southwestern.
How to explain why Lopez is out and Prior is in?
One would probably do right to examine these cases not as reflections of the individual seminaries but rather of the larger dynamics of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention now finds itself in the throes of massive debates about “critical theory” and its daughter field, “critical race theory.” At the 2019 annual meeting in Birmingham, the SBC Resolutions Committee passed a resolution saying that “critical theory and intersectionality” could be useful analytical tools. This became extremely controversial as conservatives viewed “Resolution 9” as proof that the SBC was lurching quickly to the far left and abandoning Patterson’s Conservative Resurgence. So much conflict arose over Resolution 9 that the Tennessee convention of Southern Baptists recently passed a resolution denouncing critical race theory.
As Robert Lopez notes in a recent blog post, critical race theory grew out of critical theory. And critical theory has to have had some impact on both Lopez and Prior because of where they went to graduate school. In the fall of 2018, Jeff Klein wrote an article specifically about Buffalo’s inextricable ties to critical theory. Klein notes:
Girard was only one of several world-famous French intellectuals who taught at UB in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond. The roll call includes Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous. They, and others who passed through as lecturers and guest speakers, helped open minds to new approaches to interpretation and reshape the rigid Western literary syllabus into the more inclusive canon taught at universities today.
Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida stand as the triumvirate of critical theory. The department that conferred doctorates on Lopez and Prior must have been a cauldron of postmodern and deconstructionist thought, certainly far to the left and indigestible to people who follow the Baptist Faith and Message. Along the way in their careers, both Lopez and Prior ended up in the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. It seems they had strong faith in a secular environment and took similar paths to live out their convictions.
The similarities end there, however. Below is a list of the contrasts between Lopez and Prior.
|The “It Gets Better” campaign and proper interaction with children who struggle with sexual identity.||Prior wrote in Relevant Magazine in 2011 that the church should be “thrilled” about “It Gets Better,” which she characterized as “a pro-life message geared toward young people.” She calls for the Church to launch a program telling young people it is “okay to be gay” and upholding the conviction of young homosexuals that it’s absolutely certain their sexual orientation can never change. She writes, “ I mean, what if such a project—an anti-bullying, anti-suicide, pro-hope project—had been initiated by the Church?”||Lopez wrote in American Thinker in 2011 that the “It Gets Better Campaign” “involves marketing the adult gay lifestyle to teens whose parents might oppose it. Gay, Inc. has convinced countless people that the only problem facing gay youth is homophobia from straight peers. The fact that the gay community is often unsupportive and shallow might be a more pertinent factor in the high rate of gay teen suicides. These efforts constrain and confine young people, because young people are encouraged to identify themselves publicly in ways that may erode their happiness and will not be easily reversed.”
|The Revoice Conference for LGBTQ+ Christians||In 2018, Lopez actually interviewed Prior about Revoice. She stated clearly that she supported it. From her published interview: “The reason I endorse the conference is that I believe Christians who are attracted to those of the same sex can and should live in obedience to scriptural teaching. I think that is becoming increasingly difficult in today’s culture to do so because of so many who say, wrongly, that homosexual behavior is not a sin. If the church does not support those in the midst of this struggle who are trying to live biblically faithful lives, they are at greater risk of giving up and embracing the false teaching purporting that homosexual behavior and Christianity are compatible. They are not.”
|In 2018, Lopez responded publicly to Prior’s endorsement of Revoice. Lopez rejected the premise because he stated that if we believe homosexuality is a sin it is wrong to encourage people to remain identified as homosexual. Elsewhere Lopez has asserted that all people are inherently heterosexual anyway, because their physical anatomy is the only objective reference point and aligns with the creation story in Genesis 1-2. Lopez wrote in 2019: “Some people feel powerful same-sex desires… This does not change the fact that they are heterosexual already, because God made them that way… Men in his situation need to stop self-analyzing to see if they can become straight—that is a moot point. They need coaching to help them date marriageable women.”|
|Abortion and Reproduction Issues||Prior points to her life history and past arrests as a pro-life activist to establish her pro-life bona fides. But she has tended to focus a lot in recent year on how to frame the pro-life position rather than on banning abortion. She seems to minimize the urgency around abortion, favoring common ground with pro-choice people. She also appears comfortable with artificial reproductive technology. In a 2015 interview in Patheos, Prior wrote: “Ethical questions around such technologies as in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, prenatal testing, and pre-embryonic genetic screening often leave Christians confused, particularly when they try to apply their views on abortion directly to these questions. Because such technologies are employed to alleviate suffering (due to infertility or a family history of genetic disease, for example), Christians can feel torn between their respect for prenatal life and their compassion for those who suffer. Often, we respond to our confusion by failing to engage productively with such questions at all. How might a fresh perspective on the abortion debate also help reframe the conversation around reproductive technology, and inspire more helpful responses that address concerns with prenatal life while also addressing the great pain that such technologies aim to alleviate?”
|Lopez holds a hard line on rhetoric about abortion and seems to view a softening of rhetoric as prelude to capitulation on abortion itself. In a 2015 essay on American Thinker, Lopez likens abortion to war atrocities and insists that graphically depicting it is necessary whereas “saccharine” representations numb people to the urgency. He writes in 2016 that “sensitive” pro-choice rhetoric relies on assumptions based on 1950s conditions that no longer exist: “To get large numbers of women to abort, you need organized distortion – a massive behemoth like Planned Parenthood, peddling antiquated 1950s anxieties to women who live in a twenty-first-century world where abortion is a shameful relic far past its necessity.” Lopez edited an entire book, Jephthah’s Daughters, about the harms caused to children, women, society, and the international community by technologies and industries that commercialize adoption and treat children as commodities. In a 2014 piece that provoked angry pushback Lopez drew connections between surrogacy and the history of slavery. Lopez emphasized in 2014 that he felt children had a natural-born right to be born free, not bought or sold, and to have a mother and father.|
|Immigration Law||Prior advocates strongly for waiving or mitigating immigration laws in cases where people not lawfully in the United States have come to feel more rooted in America than in their country of origin. In a 2018 article co-written with a “Dreamer,” Prior says: “But it is as an American citizen that I urge our lawmakers and leaders to refrain from denying our nation of people like Bruno who are contributing so much and have so much more to give to our common life. Beyond politics, these are real people, and losing them would harm our churches, community and economy. Furthermore, as a Christian, I cannot ignore my neighbor Bruno — nor his fellow DACA recipients.”
|Lopez has criticized as racist the assumption that undocumented immigrants are best served by permanent residency and eventual citizenship in the US. In a 2016 piece Lopez insists that for many foreign nationals, the better action is to leave the US and return to their homeland where their values and culture are rooted. He writes: “Is it more racist to say, ‘You come from a beautiful home country that needs your talent and hard work’ or ‘Come to America so you can change and become just like Miley Cyrus and George Clooney’?” In a 2018 video Lopez underscores the pain of family separation caused by migration out of El Salvador, which he witnessed there in missions. In a 2019 article he likened mass migration to the Exile in the Bible.|
|African American Politics||Prior seems to support Black Lives Matter. In a 2016 interview with Christianity Today, Prior states that the pro-life and racial justice movements are linked at their very core: “I did not spend years standing outside abortion clinics pleading for the lives of little black babies only for these babies to be born into a world that would deny their dignity and worth—and sometimes their very lives—because of the color of their skin. Those of us who hear the cries of the unborn must not turn deaf ears to the cries that black lives matter, or blind eyes to the injustices that give birth to these cries.”||Lopez has served several years as state executive director of Urban Game Changers, a mostly black conservative organization. In 2019 rejected critical race theory but said he supports multiculturalism; he favors arts, history, and dialogue to improve race relations and uplift depressed communities. As founder of a multicultural drama club, he wrote an original play about black history, The Lady and the Girl, and brought outspoken writer George Yancey to speak to his club. He has never equated the pro-life movements or signaled support for Black Lives Matter.|
|Trump||In 2018 Prior appeared on a panel of women at a Calvin College conference, at which she indicated agreement with the notion that Trump has damaged the evangelical brand so much that it led to, in Prior’s words “brokenness.”||In 2016, Lopez was a signatory to the manifesto by Scholars and Writers for Trump. Lopez has never retracted his support for the president though he has not commented in great volume about Donald J. Trump in his editorial writing.|
|MeToo||Prior famously led the charge against Paige Patterson, Lopez’s boss, and has been outspoken on her support for the tactics and aims of the MeToo movement. She is often associated with ChurchToo, an offshoot of MeToo.||In 2018 Lopez signed a statement objecting to inequities and lack of due-process in the victim-centered approaches of MeToo. Lopez wrote about his own experience as a survivor of sex abuse, in this 2017 piece.|
|Undergraduate training||Prior graduated from Daemen College in Amherst, New York.||Lopez graduated from Yale University.|
|Following||Prior has a large following, with 36,000 Twitter followers. She has been featured in mainstream publications such as Vox.||Lopez is not known beyond a small circle of pro-family activists, largely because of a 2012 essay in Public Discourse. He’s not on Twitter.|
Lopez and Prior graduated from Buffalo but arrived at entirely different belief systems. One sees traces in their writing of a certain Foucauldian mischief, as they are always breaking down commonly held arguments and “complicating,” “problematizing,” or “nuancing” them. It seems that Prior applies her postmodern training to critique mainstream evangelicalism from the left while Lopez does the same to apply his critiques from the right. As far as can be inferred from public communications, they have had moments of friction with each other—in a 2018 piece Lopez refers to her as a friendly acquaintance who fell into “snide betrayal”—but their interviews over Revoice hint that they are not entirely antagonistic to each other.
Less mysterious is what their divergent fortunes within the SBC imply. Lopez’s viewpoints, from Trump to homosexuality to race, fall on the more conservative side while Prior’s fall more on the liberal side. As of now, it looks as though Lopez has been booted from the Baptist professoriate while Prior has been welcomed with open arms. Coming from the same field and even the same department, their fates cannot exactly be explained away by differences in qualifications. Whichever way you look at it, the SBC is leaning toward Prior’s world and slowly throwing Lopez’s world down the memory hole.
Buckle up and get ready. The SBC is taking a sharp left turn.