Since 1854 when Baylor University bestowed its first diploma on a graduate in Independence, Texas, the university has held commencement ceremonies, awarding degrees and diplomas to students who have successfully completed their studies. Being a school in the Baptist tradition, it has long been a ceremonial tradition for a person who has a special relationship to a graduate to pray. There was nothing new about this year’s ceremony when Rev. Dan Freemyer, whose son was graduating that day, walked up to the lectern to pray. What was different is that, in the aftermath of his prayer, writers for certain self-described conservative media outlets publicly criticized the prayer, leading some people to call Baylor University and other Baptist institutions to angrily complain. This complaining group was so convicted in their anger that the university’s leadership has found it appropriate to engage in some level of damage control and to distance itself from the prayer.
What is all the vitriol about? Rev. Freemyer’s prayer asked the Lord to bless the graduates and give them confidence in their knowledge and skills. It also asked for God to grant the graduates humility to seek wisdom from sacred texts, from the Holy Spirit and from older generations. It went on to ask that God provide the graduates with the awareness to understand their extreme good fortune and privileges. And, specifically, the reverend prayed for God to give the graduates the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we’re trying to give them to a planet that we’re poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities — a planet with too many straight white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus.
And there’s the rub. These words brought comfort and inspiration to many who heard them. To others, the words provoked outrage and distress.
While controversy about a prayer may feel “new” for some in Baylor’s leadership, it isn’t new at all for people of faith. This theme is all over both the Old and New Testaments. We learn in Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Psalms how God cares about the marginalized, but when the prophets preach it, they are stoned. It gets even more serious in the New Testament. The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus went back to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and opened the scripture. The word Jesus read that day was from the prophet Isaiah, claiming good news for the poor and marginalized. People were distraught that a person from their hometown was speaking like this. The people took him to a hill and attempted to throw him off the edge.
I don’t personally know Rev. Freemyer, but I know he’s no stranger to Baptist institutions. He is an ordained Baptist minister, holds a degree from Baylor University and graduate degrees from Southern Seminary. When he prayed at Baylor’s commencement, he was returning home. In the same way that people didn’t like what the hometown prophet in the New Testament had to say, there has been concern over Rev. Freemyer’s prayer. But Baptists have never been afraid of these things. The faith tradition stands on the tenet of freedom of conscience — soul freedom, the ability for God to speak to individuals and for individuals to pray what is on their hearts.
I don’t know what was on Rev. Freemyer’s heart when he returned home to Baylor to pray. He might have been concerned about those who have suffered from the violence of sexual assault in his “hometown.” He might have been concerned about fairness the university has shown toward its African-American students in light of recent reports that students (including some of the graduates) have been troubled about racial injustice. Perhaps he was concerned about the university’s continued refusal to recognize LGBTQ student groups, leaving many LGBTQ students to suffer silently in the margins while the university empowers others to target them.
While I don’t know what was on the reverend’s conscience that day, I do know that in a tradition that goes back millennia, the Spirit of God was moving his child to pray. And it is a sad day when the largest Baptist university in the world believes this requires damage control. As an alumnus of Baylor and a child of Baptist institutions, I will speak up and defend the power of prayer till my dying day. I hope and pray that Baylor University will do so as well.