The Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion are the two most prestigious and influential academic societies for the scholarly study of the Bible and religious studies in North America. On January 12, the leadership councils for both societies contacted their members to explain why the 2023 annual meeting will still take place in San Antonio, despite concerns “about the politics and policies of the State of Texas,” including abortion policies in the wake of Dobbs. The councils indicated that contractual obligations to hold the 2023 meeting in San Antonio had been entered into “almost a decade ago, before the laws were passed that are concerning to many of us,” and that relocating the meeting would be costly.
“We respect your decision if you think it is best for you to skip the San Antonio meeting, so you will not be spending money in Texas,” the Society declared in its letter, which was emailed to members.
We also know that members with health and safety concerns, especially pregnancy-related concerns because of Dobbs, have to exercise caution. . . . While we do not have the answers for . . . Texas politics, we hope that this Annual Meeting will provide opportunities to promote a more inclusive future within different environments, including those inhospitable to our Society’s values. We hope, as your conscience and circumstances allow, that you will make the decision to join us.
Notably, the city of San Antonio has had markedly progressive political leaders in recent years, such as Julián Castro. Texas abortion law also makes exceptions for ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and other cases where the life of the mother is jeopardized. Should a pregnant member of SBL need a medical procedure to save her life, she would not be denied that care, as the letter implies.
Such a statement from SBL’s leadership council was likely intended both to pacify the most progressive members of the academic society, and to alienate members with pro-life values, such as myself, let alone conservative Texans. In the moral imagination of this letter, pro-life men and women, or municipalities and states that protect the dignity of unborn human beings, are “inhospitable” to the Society’s values.
The SBL and the AAR are not Christian or confessional institutions; they have long been secular. But the scale of these societies and their existence depends, to a significant degree, upon the existence of the Church. The political implications of the Church’s theology and reading of the Bible provides the raison d'être of the institutions, despite the fact that many of the Society’s secular scholars regard orthodox Christian traditions in general, and conservative evangelicals in particular, with disdain.
I participate in academic scholarship because I believe there is such a thing as the truth, that all truth is God’s truth, and that the truth is worth seeking, even at significant personal cost. Conservative or conservative-adjacent Christians will neglect participation in top-tier academic societies at their own peril because ivory-tower conversations today will create the world of tomorrow. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the moral regime that the leadership of the SBL and AAR seek to cultivate will likely exclude most Roman Catholic scholars and any Jewish and Christian scholars who hold positions that resemble historic, traditionalist, and/or confessional perspectives on human sexuality, abortion, and more.
The SBL Conduct Policy for professionalism and appropriate behavior in the academic society defines harassment “as vexatious comment or conduct in relation to a person or group of persons on the basis of personal characteristics . . . which has the effect or purpose of creating a hostile or intimidating environment.” One could argue that this letter creates such “a hostile or intimidating environment” for conservative Texans and pro-life members, since it has apparently become unconscionable to hold an academic meeting in Texas.
The Society’s letter acknowledges that there is no utopian locale immune from social and cultural controversy where the annual meeting might be held instead: “Not only are there a limited number of states in the United States of America where we would not face similar issues in this increasingly polarized political climate, but political landscapes also change suddenly and drastically.” Yet it singled out Texas for unacceptable politics post-Dobbs. This invites scrutiny into the nature of the Society’s values.
For instance, the council did not find the city of Denver inhospitable last year, even though the Colorado Convention Center was quite literally surrounded by people living on the frigid streets of downtown Denver. When I arrived at the front doors of the center for the annual meeting in November, three police officers were gathering around a woman who was injecting herself with drugs. Later that day, I walked to the nearby Target to purchase some food, and a man defecated on the produce aisle floor. Finally, as I walked with a friend of mine to the train station to return home after the meeting, a fight broke out between a man and two women who were living on the streets, one of whom was wearing only a shirt. As my friend and I crossed the street, Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan flashed like lightning across my mind: Here we are, religious scholars at our extraordinarily expensive conference led by cultural elites, crossing over to the other side to go our way with unsullied hands.
I mention my experience in Denver neither to disparage the city nor to complain about the presence of these impoverished human beings at our meeting. But there is a want of moral clarity from a leadership council that is comfortable spending vast sums of money on travel, lodging, and renting out luxury hotels for meeting space, while having little concern for the homeless living in squalor right on its doorstep.
One course, which the Ivy-League elites writing letters for the council seem to be pursuing, is to purge those who dissent from their ideological regime. An alternative course might be to recognize that we are better off together, that scholarly research is enriched, rather than impoverished, by tolerating not only progressive perspectives at meetings held in progressive strongholds, but also those of people such as myself, a self-consciously traditional Christian, a theological interpreter of the Bible, and an evangelical Anglican at that, who values unborn life. Perhaps we might even share Texan food with one another at a Texan table. We might rediscover that hospitality, speaking the truth in love with one another, fosters a better academic society— even if it includes provincial professors who love the Bible and attend the meetings on our own dime, because we believe it is a worthwhile endeavor, and that it is good to seek and commend the truth.
Joshua Heavin is an adjunct professor at Houston Christian University and a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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