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University Fights 'Debauchery' Charge : Fundamentalists Seeking to Control Baptist School

October 19, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

MACON, Ga. — When Playboy magazine ranked Mercer University among the nation's top 10 "party colleges" last winter, students and administrators at the small Southern Baptist school here were incredulous.

"Most people thought it was a bad joke, a slap by Playboy at Southern Baptists," said Ruby Fowler, a senior Christianity major and associate editor of the student newspaper. "Anybody who knows anything about Mercer knows it's far from a party school."

Not Lee Roberts, an influential fundamentalist Baptist layman and well-heeled mortgage banker from Marietta, near Atlanta, whose business cards read: "Dedicated to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through financing the growth of the local church."

To Roberts, the Playboy ranking was no joke but evidence of what he describes as a pervasive atmosphere of "debauchery and lewdness" at Mercer, engendered from on high by a "heretical" president and a morally lax board of trustees.

Other examples he cites: the nude photographs of two Mercer students in Playboy's October "back to campus" issue, a condom ad and a condom cartoon that were printed in the student newspaper, the R-rated films shown on campus and a university-sponsored seminar for pharmacists at which hard liquor was served.

In a move that is focusing national attention on Mercer, he has launched an all-out crusade to clean up the campus and bring the school's administration under stricter control of the fundamentalist-dominated state Baptist organization.

"If Mercer were a secular school, like the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, they could do anything they wanted to do," Roberts said. "But it is a Christian school and Christian schools are supposed to bring glory to Jesus by their actions. Mercer is not doing that."

Roberts' campaign is the latest offensive in a battle by fundamentalists to stem what they view as a dangerous drift toward secularism among Baptist colleges and theological seminaries.

From humble Bible-based origins, many of these institutions have grown into educational powerhouses with national reputations for academic excellence. The arts and science college and the business school at Mercer's branch campus in Atlanta, for example, were rated among the 10 best in the South last year by U.S. News & World Report. Mercer's medical school, on the main campus in Macon, pioneered the "case study" method of instruction now employed at such schools as Harvard University.

Straying Contended

But as these institutions have developed, fundamentalists contend, many have strayed further and further from their basic Baptist heritage--moving away from state convention control, drifting toward liberal theology, dropping required chapel attendance and growing in moral permissiveness.

Now, with the right wing in control of the 14.6-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and dominant in several state conventions, fundamentalists see a golden opportunity to begin returning the apostate schools to their religious roots.

"I think there's a momentum building in the fundamentalist camp that says: 'We've got the power; we've got the votes; let's clean house,' " said Jack Harwell, editor of the Christian Index, the state Baptist newspaper in Georgia.

A fundamentalist victory was scored earlier this year when the board of trustees of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.--one of the denomination's most important seminaries--came under conservative control.

Juicier Target

Mercer, which has a combined enrollment of nearly 6,000 students at its Macon and Atlanta campuses, is considered an even juicier target. The 154-year-old school is the flagship institution of Baptist higher education in Georgia and the second-largest of the more than 50 Baptist-affiliated colleges and theological seminaries in the nation.

Fundamentalists were jolted when Playboy's January issue hit the stands, rating Mercer ninth among the nation's top 40 "party colleges." Mercer President R. Kirby Godsey dismissed the ranking as a "bad joke" and said that "it has no empirical connection whatever with Mercer."

However, that did not satisfy his fundamentalist critics, already upset with him over reports of student drunkenness on campus and for permitting R-rated films such as "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rosemary's Baby" to be shown and advertised at the school.

Condom Ad

Nor were they amused when a one-third-page ad by Planned Parenthood appeared in the Cluster, the student newspaper. The ad showed a girl handing a gift box of condoms to a man, with the caption: "Oh, darling. You have everything I've always wanted in a man, except these . . . ."

Such ads were later banned, but what fundamentalists call the "grand finale" came when a news story and ad appeared in the Cluster announcing that a Playboy photographer was coming to campus. The executive committee of the state convention voted 54 to 20 in favor of a resolution calling for expulsion of any student posing for Playboy.

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