Robert Lopez: How Baptist Colleges and Seminaries Mass-Produce Plagiarism

The Total Depravity of the Southern Baptist Convention, part 2

By Dr. Robert Lopez
Special to the Capstone Report

The outrage and debate provoked by plagiarism allegations focused first on the character of Ed Litton, the Alabama pastor caught copying other people’s sermons. Then, in recent days, the focus has moved rightly to the role of seminaries in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The sheer volume of seminary-educated people defending pulpit plagiarism might baffle the millions of people who went to upstanding colleges and were told never to use other people’s words without citing them. Most people would assume that the pulpit would adhere to a higher standard than a classroom or a newspaper, because preachers are supposed to be called to their profession by God.

The present SBC president has admitted to delivering other people’s sermons from the pulpit without acknowledging the source. The outgoing SBC president appeared in past online statements to have admitted to paying an outside service, Docent, to aid in sermon preparation for him. Both of these are dishonest acts for which a legitimate college would expel them. Yet they both received graduate degrees from Southern Baptist seminaries. Between them they represent the three most prominent SBC schools: Southern (Litton’s doctorate), Southwestern (Litton’s M.A), and Southeastern (Greear’s M.A. and PhD).

What went wrong?

The rot stinks the most at the top

Some people who normally do not side with Chris Bolt found his tweet on July 3 surprising. Bolt said:

“As of right now I cannot recommend that a student preparing for ministry attend an SBC institution, and I’m deeply bothered by it. We have an issue of integrity that directly intersects with the future of the academy and the pastorate.”

Bolt reacted to perhaps the most shocking fallout from the Ed Litton controversy: namely, the failure of the presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries to comment on Litton’s plagiarism.

The three presidents who should have come out strongly against plagiarism and rebuked their alumni were Albert Mohler, Adam Greenway, and Danny Akin, since their institutions conferred the graduate degrees on Litton and Greear.

Southeastern Seminary president Daniel Akin offered only praise for Litton’s response to the criticism and did not call for resignation. CAPSTONE REPORT has reported that Akin’s provost also tweeted support. As Jacob Brunton pointed out, Richard Land lost his Baptist radio show in 2012 and was heavily pressured to resign—and did resign—because he was caught plagiarizing (though racial politics also played a role).

Al Mohler, president of Southern, has not come forward to say anything, even though three years ago Mohler was quick to weigh in when Paige Patterson was removed from the presidency of Southwestern, referring to the controversy as “the wrath of God poured out.”

Allen S. Nelson IV tweeted this: “I do think it would be a bit hard for @albertmohler to address @EdLitton plagiarism too soon. It would just look like sour grapes. That being said, other seminary presidents should have already stepped up. And I do hope Mohler will address.”

Even worse, the unseemly role of Southwestern in propping up Litton predates the plagiarism controversy. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary received proper criticism for using institutional funds to host an event that amounted to a rally for Litton (see second half of this article for screen shots.)

The president of Southwestern, Adam Greenway, has only tweeted to reaffirm his support for Ed Litton. This prompted a negative response from someone named Jordan Pace on Twitter:

Adam Greenway also retweeted a message from one of his professors, Malcolm Yarnell, in which Yarnell implied that Litton’s plagiarism was simply “theology in community.”

To the shame of the seminaries, journalists weighed in already, covering the controversy even in press outlets that one would expect to protect Litton, such as Newsweek and the Washington Post.

Journalists have defended their professional standards, while seminaries have not.

In an interview with Jonathan Howe, Ed Litton doubled down on his self-defense and said that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary taught him the preaching methods that he put into practice when he ended up plagiarizing.

The audio in which Litton claims Southwestern professors told him not to cite sources (because it would clutter up his preaching) appeared in this tweet from Tom Buck. Up until now this is the only attempt by those accused of plagiarism to relate their practices to their seminary instruction. That nobody told them not to plagiarize in a master’s or doctoral program defies credulity.

No anti-cheating policy can counteract the basic sins that cause cheating

I taught college students for 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, including the years 2016-19 at Southwestern.

If you scrutinize the seminaries for proof that their official policies treat plagiarism lightly, you will not find anything. Students at both institutions will be told repeatedly that plagiarism and cheating are bad. These warnings amount to empty lip service, like Southern Baptist seminary presidents’ official statements that they oppose critical race theory or align with the Nashville Statement on homosexuality.

The seminary leaders know the game of public relations. They want to protect funding streams from all sides of the political spectrum. They know they have official policies that they undermine or undo through their managerial decisions. They know they cannot affirm publicly what they and their faculty advance through subtlety and subterfuge.

Having worked at Southwestern, I can assure you I never heard anybody justify or minimize plagiarism. Yet everything about the seminary converges to make students prime candidates for future plagiarism.

To understand this paradox, you have to understand where plagiarism comes from.

Plagiarism: outward symptom of an inner sin

College students who cheat usually know that cheating is wrong and do not want to cheat.

Why do they cheat? Because they don’t know enough to complete assignments based on their own aptitudes. The number one reason is that they have not kept up on the assigned reading and/or they do not have readable class notes (either because they missed classes or didn’t take notes).

Overwhelmingly they find themselves stuck before an exam or a project due date, and they don’t have enough time to learn everything they missed throughout the semester.

In my experience, “bad” students who have lots of disciplinary problems do not make up the bulk of plagiarism or cheating cases.

Plagiarists tend to be students who view themselves, and who have convinced others to view them, as driven, successful, and smart—but who just don’t know what they are talking about.

Sometimes the cheater’s sins result from his own vanity or delusions of grander combined with laziness or foolish self-government. In Proverbs 1 Solomon says, “let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (1:5-7)

Foolishness arises when people do not take the time to learn from pre-existing wisdom. The plagiarist is so often intoxicated by prestige and honor—in other words, his own pride—that he misses God’s warnings as well as the good-faith instruction from others. The problem of conforming to the standards of the world rather than to God’s standards becomes the subject of Paul’s warnings in Romans 1.

“Thinking themselves wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:22)

Picture this: the bright golden boy beloved by authority figures, handsome and athletic, with a bright future ahead of himself, has only one obstacle: he is as dumb as a brick. If you have spent any time around churches, you will recognize this type, as well as the strangely thin, long-haired and well-coiffed wife who tags alongside him.

With charm, money, and cunning, he can overcome his one obstacle, his foolishness. He can buy papers from somewhere else. He can tell the professor that he has to travel on the day of an exam so he needs to replace the proctored test with a take-home alternative. He can resort to Google or convince a gullible and adoring groupie to do the work for him. If the Lord does not discipline him with the misfortune of getting caught early, this can become a lifelong pattern.

At the age of sixty-one, the bright golden child, now a man from whom everyone expects wisdom, exposes himself as a fraud.

Or in his late forties, having used his tall and muscular good looks to flirt his way through sermon after sermon, with women gasping in desire and men aping him as all they want to become, he reads the report by a hostile journalist that he has been paying other people to do the sermon preparation for him.

Sometimes the sin is on the part of the school, not the student

What I’ve outlined above explains the plagiarism cases in which the primary driver of sin is the faulty character of the plagiarist himself. Litton and those whom he copied would probably fall into this category.

But the Southern Baptist Convention does not have a problem with a few bad apples. The denomination’s spiritual death has become apparent in how many copycats appear across all layers of church discourse.

The adjectives “shallow” and “derivative” best describe Southern Baptist culture. Christian books all sound the same, if not copies then redundant because of the telltale signs that the same ghost writers sell their wares to multiple authors with the help of the same editors.

The church music sounds like Christian radio stations, which all sound like each other, and which are mostly dull and uninspired.

The conference presentations are fungible, each lecture sounding indistinguishable from the one that came before. Bible school lessons often follow the same guideline, complete with the same discussion questions.

And the preaching. Too many sermons repeat the same weak content, hiding their imitative and redundant nature behind the spectacles of modern church. The smoke, light shows, glittering backdrops, and cool affectations of the preachers themselves convince audiences that some rich insight is being born in the moment—when in fact the message is disturbingly stale.

Stale is not the same as vintage. If the messages were drawn from timelessly classical insights, we would not have reason to complain. Instead the recycling involves soundbytes, anecdotes, witticisms, and jokes, with a decidedly contemporary and pop-culture flavor to them. The problem is mass-produced, like any fad from leg warmers to skinny jeans.

The factories that mass-produce the problem are the seminaries. The two trends in seminaries that most lead to a culture of plagiarism are (1) the systematic deprivation of students of substantial content in history, literature, and creative arts, and (2) the suppression of academic freedom.

Problem #1: The gaps in seminary students’ knowledge

For all that his name has been marred by allegations, Paige Patterson must receive credit for the vision behind his decision to launch the College at Southwestern in 2005 (some history provided here). In its initial form it was a rigorous Great Books program.

When I arrived in 2016 to work on the campus, Patterson explained to me the college’s purpose. In a nutshell, to serve well as pastors, people needed training in the liberal arts.

There was no point in teaching them how to preach or lead a ministry if they hadn’t read important books, learned languages, studied history, and received a broad-based education.

The College at Southwestern was launched precisely to prevent the stressful situation in which a pastor has to come up with sermons and doesn’t know what to fill the time with. Take, for example, the moment in Greear and Litton’s sermons that involves stories about Caligula and his horse. If both men had profound knowledge about Roman history and culture they would know more than a few choice anecdotes and would not run the risk of regurgitating the same cliché.

If each pastor had depth and curiosity in the humanities then there would be limitless material to cite and they could rely on the Holy Spirit to animate them in the pulpit. They wouldn’t end up picking up the same silly tale.

Without a broad humanities-based education, the hard deadline of Sunday morning will feel merciless. The preacher will have to scramble to find a phrase or detail and might, in the end, fall into plagiarism.

I cannot claim that Paige Patterson was perfect in every way. But the heavily politicized movement to remove him opened the door to an all-out assault on the Great Books education he had designed.

In American Greatness, in November 2019, I published an article reviewing in detail all the changes that the administration and faculty, having joined forces with outside agitators to oust Patterson, forced through the humanities curriculum at lightning speed. Adam Greenway was sworn in as president in February 2019 and was the sitting president when these changes went before the trustees to get approved.

While I still maintain that his administration fired me primarily because I would not allow his deputies like Colby Adams to control what I said and wrote, especially about homosexuality and sex abuse, the public statement from Southwestern claimed that my firing had to do with “curriculum changes.” My degrees were in Greek & Latin, literature, and political science, and I was the only faculty member fluent in Spanish or French. The first person they fired was Mark Jantzen, the historian and archaeologist in our program. They fired me next. More followed, however. To take their claims seriously we would have to conclude that Greenway wanted even fewer humanities courses. 

To the extent that there were curriculum changes, the changes did not appear to presage a bright future. Since I published the American Greatness article, I have been in touch with students who have left or had to stay extra years because the college was not offering classes they needed for graduation. Others have transferred out of the program. Music, archaeology, and creative arts programs were gutted, abolished entirely, or cut off just as they were being formulated.

The documents in this data dump show that I sought to preserve the humanities foundations against colleagues who were happy to dumb everything down as long as they kept their jobs. Like many conservative religious institutions, there was an ample supply of professors occupying the grey zone between theology and philosophy, but this resulted in imbalanced decisions.

Most notably, as pressure came down to slash the Great Books reading by 75%, the philosophy-dominated faculty kept the large focus on medieval history and literature unscathed—a reflection of the field’s high regard for Catholic saint Thomas Aquinas—while the Greek and Roman seminars, so crucial for Biblical context, were slashed by 75%.

I cannot hold the philosophers in the undergrad program blameless but these reckless decisions appear understandable given that Greenway was on a ruthless firing spree. Everyone wanted to save their own jobs and the best way to do so was to gang up on whoever was vulnerable. This meant the philosophers ganging up on lone experts in other fields. And the end result was that entire subject areas vanished from the undergrad college as the curriculum got twisted around to create a pipeline to the fields taught by the racketeers. If that meant rewriting the curriculum so their field was necessary and colleagues’ fields were discardable, so be it.

A similar dynamic developed in the implicit competition they set up among the three professors who had expertise in English. One was a rhetoric and composition expert while I was a literature expert and the third had focused on critical theory. The changes stripped literature out of the requirements but left the focus area of the other two required. They even voted to make the creative writing class, in which I taught students more than 24 literary classics not covered elsewhere in their studies, ineligible for credits toward the humanities major at all, even as an upper-level elective in the major, effectively writing the program’s death certificate.

The notion that Greenway needed to reduce the undergraduate faculty to a skeletal clique of fourteen people makes little sense. Below a certain threshold there just are not enough faculty to run an undergrad program at all, and anyway Greenway went on a spree to hire a host of his friends from Southern as soon as he slashed dozens of Southwestern faculty.

Bad leadership is endemic at the seminaries, which the Baptist world has treated like trophy cases and networking hubs rather than places to instill future pastors with a deep knowledge or curiosity.

The program was turning into a place for lots of people to talk about ideas and abstractions for hours on end, in increasingly vague ways. And those effects came from the decision-makers at the top who treated faculty like disposable slaves and who showed zero interest in the complexities of important humanities fields such as history, literature, or languages. 

In earlier discussions about scaling down the Great Books curriculum, the philosophy gang suggested making the Roman seminar and Renaissance & Reformation seminar optional for some students while keeping the medieval and Enlightenment seminars required. This, too, reflected the fact that philosophers hold the Enlightenment in higher regard, but Baptist preachers will suffer from skipping the histories and literature of Rome (when Jesus lived) and the age during which Martin Luther lived.

While the changes were too complex to review here, suffice it to say that all the programs that were cut short by my dismissal were major components of a well-rounded humanities education suited for a future preacher: literature, languages, history, creative writing, arts. Latin seems to have been squashed on campus, which means more future Ed Littons will have to plagiarize jokes about Caligula without being able to read the jokes in the original.

To replace these the Greenway administration stuffed the curriculum with required courses like “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing”, “Critical Thinking and Worldview,” and a second semester of “Academic Writing.”

All these changes had one consistent effect: they reduced content based on specifics (great literary works, foreign languages, historical events, creative works) and increased subjects that were vague or purely context-based and theoretical (“worldview,” rhetoric, philosophy). One area where this change has proved disastrous is the study of diverse cultures. As I explained in this essay, multiculturalism” does not need to be a dirty word as long as it refers judiciously to the study of languages, literatures, art, and history from multiple cultures. Indeed no evangelistic religion could conduct missions without such studies.

But “critical race theory” is the fruit of the vague kind of “theory” that comes with non-specific exercises like “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing.” “Critical race theory” is wrong not because it is wrong to study multiple cultures but rather because it is wrong to present intercultural relations as a set of predetermined generalizations about identity and power devoid of facts, dates, or objective specifics. As curriculum moves away from history, literature, languages and art toward theory and vague generalizations; people in the discussion become more unmoored from reality. They move from academic multiculturalism to critical race theory.

Let us look at a few examples. When I arrived at the college, a semester of literary study was required in the spring of a student’s freshman year. That was gutted by the dean after Patterson was ousted, and replaced by a second semester of “Academic Writing.” Literary works are specific texts written by specific authors; to understand them, a reader has to struggle to meet the author on the author’s own turf.

In “Academic Writing,” students are taught how to engage in rhetorical exercises, for which they can pick virtually any issue and argue it for a targeted audience whether or not they believe their point. While “Academic Writing” includes warnings against plagiarism, without the accompaniment of courses with more content, the field encourages plagiarism because students will have to scramble to find content knowledge they have never mastered.

There is an enormous gap between what a student learns in Academic Writing versus literature. In the former a student might write papers on gun control, abortion, and climate change, usually starting with a fixed opinion and then hunting quotations that support that opinion. In the latter a student might write papers on Heart of Darkness, Metamorphosis, and The Wasteland, and he would have to deal with the specific words of Conrad, Kafka, and Eliot; students can come up with adventurous hypotheses about what such texts imply but they cannot escape having to deal with what the primary texts actually say. They cannot begin with the presumption that Heart of Darkness takes place in China or that Gregor Samsa turns into a rabbit.

Let us, moreover, examine the difference between a foreign language and “critical thinking.” To learn a foreign language you have to memorize specific vocabulary, conjugations, declensions, and grammatical rules, or else you won’t be able to understand or translate anything in the language. In the undergrad program at Southwestern they had a policy of allowing students to replace a year of Greek or Latin with a year of logic.

By contrast, to study “critical thinking,” you have to digest vague rules about how to look at any issue at all and analyze it, but there is no requisite corpus. In fact, toward the end of my time at Southwestern, the associate dean told us that upper-level humanities seminars had to be theoretical and could not be content surveys or based on skills. In other words, we were forbidden from teaching them anything specific or useful, and were going to be forced to babysit them for several semesters of rambling chatter. I left before being compelled to participate in such a wasteful exercise.

As I explained in a curriculum memo in February 2019, the changes were multiplying the amount of duplicative and vague lectures they would receive. The students had to attend 10:00 AM chapels twice weekly, and were attending Sunday services and Bible school in addition to Wednesday night services, all in addition to their own participation in camps and missions. In all of these venues they would be receiving the same sort of discourse: topical, prosaic, and often duplicative.

In the absence of specifics, even a student who has been warned against plagiarism will still carry the impulse to plagiarize after graduation merely due to the dearth of knowledge. He will end up having, at the very least, to Google things. Then he runs the risk that every other pastor will Google the same term and come up with the same reference, which might or might not be correct.

How academic unfreedom drives a culture of plagiarism

By itself, a vacuum of knowledge might drive only a few people to plagiarism while not fostering the SBC’s shallow and derivative culture of spiritual death. But the seminaries made such a culture inevitable with the other thing they do wrong: They strangle academic freedom.

I cannot say that I had more academic freedom in a Christian institution than I did in the sin-plagued and cursed state colleges of New York, New Jersey, and California. Unfortunately the truth is that Southwestern, especially under the leadership of Adam Greenway, functioned more like a police state than any other place where I’ve worked. Once Greenway came to our campus he quickly fired large numbers of faculty in particularly sadistic ways, thereby setting all of us against each other in a dog-eat-dog battle for survival. Where I had friendly relations with co-workers before, now the slightest offhand comment in casual conversation would be reported to authorities in distorted form (this is why I started tape-recording conversations and had office hours in the library to avoid any casual interactions in my department.)

Within several months new rules came from Greenway’s office, saying that we had to clear any interview requests, public opinions, or writing ideas by the office of Colby Adams, a young and not very reliable or bright Mohler protégé transplanted from Southern (surprise!) to Southwestern.

I consider Colby Adams not very reliable or bright because he never actually rendered a decision on anything I ran by him for approval; each time, he simply reported me to Greenway’s administrators for allegedly doing something wrong in how I asked him to review my request. See the document dump file for more specifics on that.

I had already experienced a regime of policing at California State University Northridge, summarized in this piece I wrote in 2013: “The Marxist Brothers, along with potentially hundreds of nameless others who may have been behind the constant stream of ‘it has come to my attention’ messages, complained about things on my Facebook page, tweets, blogs hosted on blogspot, listserv postings, private e-mails, conversations with students, conversations with colleagues — with the hint that because I was an employee of Cal State Northridge, I might be violating California state law.”

But believe it or not, nobody at Northridge ever told me I had to ask permission to give an interview or publish an article. That would be seen as such an infringement on academic freedom that they would never risk accreditation.

In the Baptist educational world such worries pose no obstacle to someone like Adam Greenway. They have no hesitation in enforcing a fascistic uniformity on staff and students, to include what is sent in private messages or posted on Facebook. The recent testimonial from former Southwestern student Tiffany Eustis gives a fuller account of this police state from the vantage point of an abused student.

In the Baptist world, the rampant use of NDAs and shameless retaliatory networks make academic unfreedom even more pronounced. Many colleagues in the Baptist world literally cannot say anything because they have signed their rights to speak away in exchange for several months of pay and health insurance. Anyone who steps out of line risks being blacklisted from any Baptist ministries and conferences, as well as possible emotional torture in the form of church discipline.

The suffocating climate of Baptist education means that students see originality as a bad thing. It is a question of “do as I say, not as I do,” when their superiors tell them not to copy others. It is hard to take such admonitions seriously when they notice anyone who has a unique thought being hounded, harassed, psychologically tortured, and cast out from Baptist organizations. Moreover, one can only be called in so many times and told to “run things by” Colby Adams, or similar campus spies, until you finally get the message loud and clear: you shouldn’t write your own stuff. Instead you should use what others write so you don’t break the rules. Because the worst thing you can do is not sound like everybody else.

This is why SBC life is so dull.

There is no way to save the seminaries as they are currently staffed

My friend and former seminary professor Dr. Craig V. Mitchell put it perfectly when he said: “There are two New Testament qualifications to become a pastor; character and the gift of teaching. Our seminary system just isn’t placing those with those two requirements in pastor positions.”

While the SBC’s culture of plagiarism has many roots, the seminary roots run the deepest. As my friend Alan Atchison has noted, “how we train pastors matters.” We are training brainless yes men, copycats, company men, carnival performers, and sycophants. They got to the pastorate by flattering people in power, crafting a careful image, and allying with authorities to exile original thinkers and those who “travel to the beat of a different drum.” The seminaries taught them everything they needed to know, to become a plagiarist.

How do we fix that? I am not sure we can or if it is worth it. Having been on the Fort Worth campus when Adam Greenway slaughtered the faculty with his Stalinist layoffs, I do not think mass purges of any kind are healthy. On the other hand, I do not know how you end a system of cronyism and totalitarianism without purging the cronies, tyrants, and spies, which would be, well, everyone.

We have to ask ourselves whether we need SBC seminaries. Or whether we need an SBC. Things are so bad that the greatest honor to God might be to let the whole depraved house of horrors collapse on itself.

The best course of action with the seminaries might be to publicize the crisis enough to discourage anybody talented from attending them, or anybody with financial means from funding them.