Baylor University's Decision to End Its Ban on Dancing Has the Faithful Wondering Whether They Can Prevent Church-Affiliated Schools From . . . : Losing Their Religion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gyrating hips, Jesus and--to hear some people tell it--a conga line of demons will converge here next month.

Under the glow of granite street lamps honoring students who died in World War II, a 150-year-old Baptist tradition will officially get the ax. On April 18, Baylor University plans to allow dancing on campus.

The news has set off a ripple of controversy among the faithful--and a tidal wave of curiosity in the media.

Not since David Koresh went up in smoke three years ago have so many reporters flocked to this central Texas city, whose other landmarks include a Dr Pepper Museum and an antique suspension bridge built as a model for the one in Brooklyn.

The level of scrutiny is so intense, school officials say, that Dan Rather has asked about broadcasting "CBS Evening News" from the dance.

"I guess it's hard to find anything that colleges don't allow anymore," shrugs Baylor public relations chief Stan Madden, whose telephone went into "cardiac arrest" after the story broke.

Yet, all the attention on the dance may be missing the point.

The "Footloose" fracas, it turns out, is just a skirmish in a much larger war--one that affects not only Baylor, but also Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Loyola Marymount and a number of other schools dealing with creeping secularization.

What's happening at Baylor is the struggle for a university's soul.

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In an air-conditioned tower along the edge of Baylor's parched 432-acre campus, sociology professor Larry Lyon sifts through a stack of obituaries.

Actually, the file is a dossier on church-affiliated colleges, but it doesn't take much reading to figure out the pattern.

The roll call of schools that began as religious institutions then segued into secularism is staggering: Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth (Congregationalist); USC, Duke, Northwestern (Methodist); Princeton (Presbyterian); Brown, Wake Forest, Vassar, the University of Chicago (Baptist). . . .

Lyon is hunting for clues that might help Baylor avoid the same fate.

The outlook is grim. "Any student of history would bet it can't be done," he concedes.

Only a handful of major universities--and even this list is in dispute--still operate under some semblance of church influence: BYU, Boston College, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Baylor.

But each is under siege, Lyon says. And the result has been a bizarre series of intrigues involving everything from sabotaged fax machines and faculty firings to feuds with the pope and mysteriously vanishing facial hair.

Baylor's battle goes back at least a decade, but the school has always had travails. Named after a Baptist judge who once roomed with Davy Crockett, its earliest crises were financial as well as theological. During the Civil War, the university had to accept cows and cotton as tuition. A few years later, unable to pay a roofing bill, the campus was sold at auction for $250.

Religious challenges soon followed, first from the left (a rival university official said church colleges were a fraud and should be disbanded) and then from the right, when fundamentalists blasted Baylor for hiring a professor who endorsed evolution.

But that was about as liberal as things got. Even during the 1960s, when other colleges were coping with sit-ins and LSD, Baylor women still had to wear overcoats in summer to walk between the dorms and the tennis court, which was the only spot on campus where shorts were allowed.

And dancing was simply out of the question.

The "D-word" wasn't even used on campus until the 1970s, Lyon says. Although students had been hoofing it off campus for decades, the events were always advertised as "foot functions."

To Baptists, dancing was as sinful as sex--if not worse. As one old joke put it: The reason Baptists don't make love standing up is because it might lead to dancing.

Mothers of Baylor students were even known to check their children's shoes for suspicious wear spots.

So when the school finally lifted the ban this year, promising to keep the events free from "lewd or provocative gyrations," fireworks were inevitable.

Students and teachers generally applauded the idea.

Now, instead of driving to Waco nightclubs like Midnight Rodeo or Club DV8, where liquor flows freely, "we have a lot more controlled environment," says freshman Jill Voss.

The campus humor paper, meanwhile, began referring to university President Robert B. Sloan Jr. as Dr. Bobby "Salsa" Sloan, saying he had had a vision instructing him to "allow either dancing or legalized prostitution on campus."

Church officials took a dimmer view. The state Baptist newspaper labeled it a "bad decision" and Bill Merrell, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville says, "I haven't heard anyone say [dancing] is a way to draw closer to God."

Nobody, however, had any power to stop it.

Six years ago, Baylor broke free from direct church control in a carefully plotted coup designed to thwart a possible fundamentalist takeover of the campus.

The fear was that conservatives would pack the faculty with biblical literalists and derail the school's plan to transform itself from a respected regional college into an internationally renowned research university.

So Baylor trustees, armed with a sheaf of legal documents, quietly rewrote the university's charter during a meeting at which every fax machine in the building was switched off to prevent outsiders from sending a last-minute court injunction to block the maneuver.

Conservative Baptists are still fuming.

"Quite a number of [our] universities have [made similar moves]," Merrell says. "We believe it's a great mistake for the cause of Christ and a great mistake for the cause of Baptists."

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Adrift from its traditional moorings, Baylor--like many Catholic universities that loosened ties to the church--now finds itself wrestling with the question of what it means to be a Christian college in the 1990s.

A century or so ago, the answer was a lot less complicated. Universities--including many state schools--saw their primary purpose as building character.

Harvard, for instance, had a 40-page rule book on student behavior, and even a few state campuses required chapel attendance.

Today, "Schools have more regulations on what you can't do to electrical appliances than they do on sexual relationships," says Michael Beaty, a Baylor philosophy professor who has teamed with Lyon to study the dilemmas faced by Christian universities.

The shift came after the Civil War. To meet the demands of a modernizing economy, universities had to turn from a liberal arts emphasis to more specialized and scientific training--fields that hastened the divorce between scholarship and spirituality.

Most Christians approve of such secularization, writes George Marsden, a history professor at Notre Dame: "We do not want the pious mechanic of our car to tell us there may be a devil in the carburetor. In the . . . vast areas of our lives that [involve] technical activities, we expect religion to play, at most, an indirect role."

Another factor was cash.

"More than anything else, what transformed the small colleges of the 1870s into the research universities of the 1920s and then into the [mega-universities] of the late 20th century was money from industry and government," Marsden adds.

When steel magnate Andrew Carnegie created a then-lavish $10-million foundation for nonsectarian schools, Protestant colleges such as Vanderbilt threw off church control for a chance at the funds, says Father James Tunstead Burtchaell, a former Notre Dame theology professor who's writing a book on the demise of Christian higher education.

That story repeated itself in the 1960s, when New York lawmakers offered grants to "independent" colleges--and 90% of the state's Catholic universities "abruptly declared themselves nonsectarian," Burtchaell says. One rewrote its brochures to delete references to Catholicism, stripped crucifixes from classroom walls and removed its entry in the annual Catholic Directory.

Adds Marsden: "Ironically, while [modern] universities have prided themselves on becoming free of outside religious control, they have often replaced it with outside financial control from business and government."

That might explain why the Mormon church provides the lion's share of funding for Brigham Young University and why, in the words of a school representative, "they will keep it that way."

BYU has proved more vigilant than most about religious purity. Students and staff must sign pledges to abstain from tobacco, booze, coffee and tea. And the no-beards clause of the dress code is so strict that school officials even retouched a portrait of BYU's founder to remove his facial hair.

More recently, church authorities cracked down on faculty by firing two "liberal" Mormon scholars and ordering every professor to submit an annual letter of recommendation from a bishop.

Still, no school is totally immune to worldly influences.

Even the most strait-laced colleges by today's standards would seem scandalously lax if transported back in time. At Biola University in La Mirada, for instance, it's still verboten to dance, smoke, drink or gamble. But that's tame compared to the old days, when holding hands with a member of the opposite sex or going to see even a G-rated movie could lead to expulsion.

Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia has likewise loosened its grip. As recently as 1985, freshmen and sophomores could only double-date, and interracial couples needed parental permission for romance.

Those rules (and others) are now gone, but is Liberty less godly? When is a change reasonable--Baylor allowing dancing, BYU permitting shorts--and when is it the handiwork of Satan?

Colleges have been second-guessed on that score for centuries.

As early as 1744, evangelist George Whitefield was railing: "As for the universities, I believe it may be said their light is now become darkness. . . . Tutors neglect to pray with and examine the hearts of the pupils. Discipline is at too low an ebb."

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It all boils down to this, Lyon says: "What does it mean to say you're a 'Christian university'? That we're all nice to each other? That students have to attend chapel for two semesters? That we don't dance on campus?"

Such symbols are important, he argues, but the real litmus test lies in the classroom.

And that's where the showdown really begins.

When Baylor administrators circulated a memo in August saying the school would "lawfully give preference in hiring to Baptists and other Christians," it ignited a firestorm on campus, Lyon says.

One teacher branded the idea of connecting faith with learning absurd: "Are we to believe that history is somehow different at Baylor [than at] Texas A&M;? . . . Ridiculous!"

Burtchaell, Lyon and other researchers concede such courses as math might be impossible to integrate with religion. But unless belief is introduced elsewhere in the curriculum, they warn, the school inevitably turns secular.

Catholic universities are about 30 years further down this road. In 1967, led by Notre Dame, most began shaking off church reins. But in the push for more academic freedom and respectability, the percentage of Catholic professors went into a tailspin, prompting a debate that still rages.

In 1990, the Vatican stepped in, issuing an 11,000-word manifesto on international standards for Catholic higher education. In it, the pope said colleges should abide by church teaching "in matters of faith and morals," but he yielded to pressure from American educators by guaranteeing academic and institutional autonomy.

The document also recommended at least half a university's faculty be Catholic, but Burtchaell fears the damage is already done. In 50 years, he predicts, most U.S. Catholic universities will be utterly secular.

Father Thomas Rausch of Loyola Marymount's theological studies department disagrees: "The universities won't be what they were before the Second Vatican Council, but they will maintain a Catholic identity."

Or at least the appearance of one.

At Notre Dame, for example, a 10-story mosaic of Jesus hovers near the football stadium, a crucifix hangs in each classroom, and religious statues and chapels abound.

Even if the school removed the icons and erased the mosaic, the campus would still be laid out in the shape of a cross, says David Solomon, a Protestant who teaches philosophy there.

"To render Notre Dame finally and fully secular would require tearing it down and rebuilding it--and renaming it!" he wrote in a recent New Oxford Review article titled "What Baylor & Notre Dame Can Learn From Each Other."

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At Baylor, where less than half the faculty and students are Baptist, no such safeguards exist, a testament to the faith's traditional disdain for sacred symbolism.

Still, president Sloan insists the school will preserve its heritage:

"We're not on a slippery slope. We're on a pilgrimage."

School spokesman Madden offers a more telling image: a tightrope.

"We have chosen a path that will never be easy," he says. "There are great intellectual schools in this country and there are great Bible schools, but there are a limited and declining number of places that have been able to combine the two. So we're going to get criticized from both directions."

So far, the experiment looks promising.

On the scholarly side, on a path not unlike so many Protestant schools before it, Baylor has added more graduate programs than any school in the nation (in the past decade), boosted its endowment to $341 million and signed on to join the Big 12 athletic conference.

In the spiritual realm, a new seminary is up and running, the president and trustees are all Baptists (Sloan, in fact, is a respected theologian and minister), and school officials insist that the bans on coed dorms and alcohol--unlike dancing--are nonnegotiable.

Burtchaell and other observers say they're watching the school with fascination.

"Baylor alone among major Protestant [colleges] has a chance both to become a research university of the first rank and also to maintain rich ties to its [faith] tradition," Solomon says.

But Madden concedes: "It's easier to fall off a tightrope than stay on it."

For some, that's too great a risk.

As a Notre Dame student put it in a letter to his campus newspaper several years ago:

"What does it profit a university if it gains worldwide recognition as an excellent research institution and loses its own soul?"

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