That Good Old Baylor Line That Led Me Back to Catholicism

That good old Baylor line!
That good old Baylor line!
We’ll march forever down the years,
As long as stars shall shine.
We’ll fling our green and gold afar
To light the ways of time,
And guide us as we onward go;
That good old Baylor line!

        (Eaid Eastland Markham ,“That Good Old Baylor Line,” 1931)

Next week I begin my tenth year as a faculty member at Baylor University. When I arrived in July 2003, I found myself smack dab in the middle of an old-fashioned Texas shoot out.

In one corner were the advocates of Vision 2012, a ten-year plan for the university proposed by then-President Robert Sloan. It was an ambitious vision with the goal of elevating Baylor to tier-one research university status while maintaining its Christian identity. It included a commitment to increased scholarship, better teaching, a truly residential campus, and outstanding athletic programs.

In the other corner were those who represented what is called “old Baylor.” Many of them were self-described “moderate Baptists.” Having survived the Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s and 1990s, they had valiantly fought the fundamentalist take-over of their most cherished and beloved institutions. So they were understandably suspicious of any transformative agenda that seemed to echo the fundamentalists, who had accused their moderate brethren of not taking their Christian faith seriously.

The Baptist moderates were certainly not opponents of excellence. I have come to know many of them over the years, some of whom strongly opposed my hiring. They are decent people for whom I have developed a great respect, even though we may part ways on certain theological and political questions.

I am proud to say that I now count a few of them as friends. What they feared was that Baylor University, the most impressive monument of their tradition and its accomplishments, would be appropriated to advance an understanding of the Christian life and its connection to the academy that is antithetical to authentic Baptist principles.

         Baylor University, Waco, TX

This feud is now, thankfully, ancient history. But unlike real Texas shoot outs, where the two sides eventually run out ammunition, the divisions in this gun battle eventually ran out of targets.

Much of the moderate faction has come to realize that Vision 2012 has largely succeeded without requiring that Baylor fall into the hands of the fundamentalists, real or imagined. On the other hand, what the moderates call “authentic Baptist principles” no longer carries the same cultural heft it did when I arrived in 2003. 

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to say these principles have been jettisoned or replaced. What has happened is that they are now seen by many on campus as part of a larger Christian narrative, one that locates the Baptist tradition in conversation with not only its predecessors in the Protestant Reformation but the ancient and medieval church as well. 

As the university affirms in its new strategic vision, Pro Futuris:  “Baylor is founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth. Thus, the University derives its understanding of God, humanity, and nature from many sources:  the person and work of Jesus Christ, the biblical record, and Christian history and tradition, as well as scholarly and artistic endeavors.”

In order to arrive at this point, Baylor had to hire on its faculty serious Christians from outside the Baptist tradition as well as Baptists who had a more “catholic” understanding of their own tradition. This meant that many of us found ourselves, for the first time in our careers, surrounded by a wide range of outstanding, accomplished, and thoughtful colleagues from a variety of Christian traditions, including Catholicism. It was, as my Baptist friend Timothy George would say, “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.”

It was in that communal environment that I first began to seriously entertain returning to the Catholic Church. Although, as I have noted elsewhere, several theological concerns were at the forefront of this exploration, I am convinced that the journey would have not commenced as and when it did if not for the fact that I was at Baylor.

When you are in the midst of an ecumenism of conviction in which confession, creed, tradition, and ecclesial place are at the core of your self-understanding and conversation with others, you have little choice but to seriously reflect on where you call home. You realize that you cannot remain in the corridor forever. For, as C. S. Lewis once put it, “it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.” So, for me – a native New Yorker who grew up Catholic in Las Vegas and left the Church in his youth – the journey back to Rome had to go through a Baptist university in Waco, Texas. Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana. Soli Deo Gloria.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).