Philosophy PhD Student Fired for Tweet Critical of Seminary President


A PhD student in the philosophy program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was fired from a $40,000/year food service job and had his $7,000/year tuition benefits taken from him after he endorsed, on Twitter, an article critical of the Seminary’s president.The Seminary President, Paige Patterson, is known for his highly conservative religious views, particularly the idea that women—abused women, in particular—should be “submissive in every way that you can.” Criticism of Patterson has been increasing since the recent circulation of a recording of an interview from 2000. The Washington Post reports:

Patterson… is heard on an audiotape being interviewed in 2000 about what he recommends for women “who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husband says they should submit.” 

“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson says. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.” Only on an occasion or two in his career, he says, when the level of abuse “was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough,” has he recommended a temporary separation and the seeking of help. He goes on to tell the story of a woman who came to him about abuse, and how he counseled her to pray at night beside her bed, quietly, for God to intervene. The woman, he said, came to him later with two black eyes. “She said: ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because it turned out her husband had heard her quiet prayers and come for the first time to church the next day, he said.

In an op-ed at Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer, a professor at Wheaton College and executive director of its Billy Graham Center, listed a number of problematic incidents involving Patterson and called on him to retire.

Nathan Montgomery, the philosophy PhD student, shared Stetzer’s piece on Twitter, saying “this is the best article I have read, and I agree with it fully.”

According to The Washington Post, the seminary told Montgomery that his Tweet was “indiscreet,” that his decision to speak publicly about the dispute “does not exhibit conduct becoming a follower of Jesus,” and that it showed he was not properly deferring to “those placed in authority over you.” The Post reports that Montgomery recorded the meeting at which he was fired and was told he was disloyal.

“Public disagreement does not align with Scripture,” a document outlining Montgomery’s termination states… Patterson said… that Montgomery had “a long history,” but declined to provide specifics. The document that lists reasons for Montgomery’s termination cited just one previous incident, which Montgomery said was a misunderstanding over catering for Patterson’s wife. He said he has never been given any warnings. Montgomery still hopes to stay at the seminary, where he expects his PhD will take another four years to finish. “I’m for the school,” he said while he sipped a Starbucks iced tea. “This is not a personal attack.”

Montgomery, on Twitter, says he is “not a victim” and that he will be appealing to the Seminary’s Board of Trustees to reverse the decision to fire him and revoke his tuition benefits.

Further details available here and here.

(via David Pulliam)

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Not giving my name
Not giving my name
3 years ago

And if the president hasn’t been a conservative? World the firing of the student still be objectionable to you? Not sure why you dwell on his social views here. Isn’t the issue just that the student was fired for criticizing the president?Report

Adam
Adam
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

I think that this is a plausible explanation: the social views were mentioned to explain what the fired student was objecting to. The issue is not *only* that the student was fired for criticizing the president. The issue is also that he was fired for criticizing the president who holds views that are highly and appropriately criticizable (e.g., the president saying “I’m happy” when a woman with two black eyes sarcastically asked him “are you happy?” after she heeded his advice about dealing with domestic abuse).Report

Not giving my name
Not giving my name
Reply to  Adam
3 years ago

Right. So, there are three things going on. One: the student criticized the president, and got fired for it. Two: the president is a conservative. Three: the president has presented objectionable views.

What principle are you advocating? That students should never be fired merely on the grounds that they criticize the president of their university? Or that they should be protected from being fired only if the president is conservative? Or that they should be protected from being fired only if the president has advocated bad things?Report

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

I choose to interpret Adam’s post — and what constitutes a conservative perspective — more charitably. Adam seems to be arguing both 1) and 3) without any contradiction. That is, a student should have the right to challenge what he believes are “appropriately criticizable” views of the president without fear of losing one’s job and scholarship. The president “holds views that are highly and appropriately criticizable” and this is so even within many conservative circles (e.g. Wheaton).

I don’t think being a conservative has anything to do with the principle being defended here. Had the president been a left-leaning materialist, the same principle would apply. Conservative students should be allowed to criticize specific positions of the president that they find objectionable without fear of retribution from the administration. In fact, in a forum like this, “Not giving my name” should feel free to give his name and stake a position without losing his job — even though the repugnant position he seems to be defending paints him in an unflattering light to most of us.Report

Niamey
Niamey
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

Well, that’s pretty easy:this article is, not advocating, it is presenting a context in which particular situation has happened.
You seem to be convinced that the context doesn’t matter – a principle is a principle. But is it really so? Would it be really the same if the student was opposing the university president by twitting about how a particular group of people should be exterminated? Or that people of certain colour are not human beings and should be treated like animals?Report

Not giving my name
Not giving my name
Reply to  Niamey
3 years ago

Fellow Hermeneut, I can’t imagine what position I’m in favor of here is “repugnant.” Aside from some questions I’ve asked non-rhetorically to investigate what the position is here, I’ve only made four claims: that I’m not sure why Justin mentions the president’s conservatism as part of the story; that the student implicitly criticized the president and thereby lost his job; that the president is a conservative; and that the president has presented objectionable views. The only controversial claim among them is the last one. Is it repugnant for me to have called the president’s views objectionable? I don’t understand what’s going on in your mind.

Niamey, my position is that students should almost never lose their funding as a result of retweeting something critical of their university president. I would have hoped that we could all agree on that. Regardless of our political stripes, there are issues on which we need to stand in solidarity. I began reading Justin’s post with happiness, thinking that at last there would be a rallying cry for free speech in a certain context (i.e. firing a student for criticizing a university president, thus leaving him financially in the lurch in the middle of his studies, which really seems beyond the pale) that would bring us together. But rather than take that approach, Justin has seen fit to emphasize that the president is highly conservative. Why? If the president had been a rabid political progressive, would this reaction have been justified? What’s the principle being appealed to here? Or is this only getting reported because we love to pile on conservatives?

The reason why the president’s political stance is mentioned seems clear to me, but I thought I’d ask just in case. It seems that the message is, “This president is conservative, and look, that makes him callous toward women, even abused women. So this student was correct, politically, to retweet something critical of the president, and that in turn made his firing morally impermissible.” That really seems to be the wrong, and needlessly divisive, moral of the story.

Obviously, there are some things a student could retweet about a president that would justify harsh action against the student: something containing nuclear launch codes, for instance. But by and large, the big point that this is the wrong way to treat dissenting students in general is getting lost as the whole thing is subsumed not just under the wrongful thing the president said about abused women, but the fact that the president is conservative, as though that mattes.Report

Fellow Hermeneut
Fellow Hermeneut
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

I apologize for accusing you of defending the president’s views. It is difficult to tell from your original posts whether you sympathize with his views on marriage and domestic abuse, or simply object to what you see as some anti-conservative bias.

To your last point: Your impression that the article’s message is “This president is conservative, and look, that makes him callous toward women, even abused women” might follow if Justin has simply left it at that. But he didn’t. He provided clear evidence that the President is indeed callous toward women. Moreover, the fact that he included criticism from a professor at Wheaton College and executive director of its Billy Graham Center, indicates that not all conservatives feel the same way about women and their right to leave abusive relationships.Report

Notgivingmyname
Notgivingmyname
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

Hi, Hermeneut. I honestly can’t imagine what it is I said that would make you think that I approve of a callous attitude toward women who have been beaten up by abusive husbands. Really. And I made clear that I’m on the side of the student who complained about the president. Why would you think I was defending the president?

I’m not even a conservative, by the way. I’m just an advocate of fair play. As an example of how it feels when the shoe is on the other foot, imagine seeing this story posted here with the tagline, “Simona Sharoni, who has a reputation for holding feminist views,…” https://www.chronicle.com/article/He-Makes-a-Joke-She-Isnt/243350

Actually, it’s worse than that, since it’s possible that most feminists would find Sharoni’s reaction reasonable, but it would be hard to find many conservatives who would agree with what Patterson says in the audiotape.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

I think the details of the views matter here for a different reason: namely, that this isn’t a straightforward academic-freedom case. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary isn’t a public institution and doesn’t even pretend to offer the sort of academic freedom that we expect from universities. (Wander around its website and you’ll find explicit statements that community members are expected to believe the core teachings of (a certain version of) Christianity, and that academic freedom is limited.)

So the question of whether someone should lose their job for making public comments critical of their institution’s leader presumably does turn on what those comments actually were. Generally I think we’d be better off as a society if people’s employers didn’t regulate their speech to the extent they do, but I don’t think that’s an absolute principle in the way academic freedom is. (And I know virtually nothing about the relevant institutional norms and structural constraints on Southern Baptist seminaries, which is why I haven’t said anything on this thread so far.)

There are reasonable questions to ask as to why an institution with that academic-freedom policy is running a philosophy PhD program, and further questions as to whether and to what extent the wider philosophical community ought to accept that PhD program as legitimate. (I don’t intend that to be rhetorical; I’m not sure what the answers to those “reasonable questions” are.)

From a little reading around on the story, the only detail that I found helpful but that isn’t in Justin’s OP is that this is an *internecine* debate between conservative Christians, not a Conservative/Liberal debate. Ed Stetzer, the critic of president Patterson who was approvingly quoted for this article, is himself very (religiously) conservative: he accepts the inerrancy of the Bible, in particular. His article is critical of Patterson on moral grounds, but is mostly phrased in public-relations terms: Patterson is giving Southern Baptists a bad name.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Not giving my name
3 years ago

I agree with the underlying regulative principle that we shouldn’t only be interested in protecting “appropriate” speech, but speech period (and so I think Adam is wrong). But I agree with Adam that the circumstances of the firing are absolutely salient, and you simply can’t report on the events without providing them. The conservative views of the president are essential to the story–both because they explain the student’s particular act of speech (the pres’s monstrous views about women) and the president’s response (his thinking that the student has to “submit” to his “authority” [gag]).Report

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

I’m catching up with the Hulu series “The Handsmaid’s Tale” and I have to say it’s so very depressing because it no longer seems like some entertainingly instructive dystopic horror but a far, far too plausible extension of what’s happening today, with abusive heads of state, “heartbeat” restrictions of reproductive choice passed by legislatures, and quotes from this OP about women from someone “in authority” over others in higher ed–“Everyone should own at least one” and ““Public disagreement [about women and basic rights] does not align with Scripture,” which could have come verbatim from Handmaid dialogue. We are in deep trouble in this country and world, and we’d better wake up and fast.Report

Sarah
Sarah
Reply to  Alan White
3 years ago

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is not a plausible extension of what is going on now. This university president’s attitude can be bad without the threat of institutionalized slavery. The anti-abortion measures can be bad without the threat of institutionalized slavery. There currently is sexual slavery of women in the world and it is horrifying. But, it is not a systemic state-institution and it never will be in countries like the US ever again. The fact that the current sex slavery is NOT state-sponsored is one of the major reasons why it is so hard to stop. (Other countries and the courts can’t intervene in the same way they would otherwise). It operates in the shadows.

Making these kinds of slippery slope arguments makes light of the actual horrific things happening in the world. It also contributes to the agonizing death of nuanced judgment. Aren’t philosophers supposed to be the champions of nuanced judgment?Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Sarah
3 years ago

Excellent and dead-on reply.Report

SmileS
SmileS
Reply to  Sarah
3 years ago

You seem to be confusing *plausible* extension with *actual* or *future* or *actual future* extension.Report

aleah
aleah
3 years ago

I thought it was the other way around. ” Me every woman should own at least one.” I thought that kind of thinking went out in the 70’s.Report

Pressler is BUILT!
Pressler is BUILT!
3 years ago

To further shed some light and hopefully assist those who seem confused by the term “highly-conservative” when describing Patterson – it fits the narrative. Honestly, this is exactly the sort of behavior you would expect from a “highly-conservative” mouth-breather like Patterson – very little tolerance for independent thought or free speech. Apparently in Texas, these things are not in alignment with scripture. I grew up in a SBC missionary’s home. I haven’t been as active in the church as I should have been, but this has been a real eye-opener. The SBC has changed, and not for the better. It once valued the priesthood of the believer, intellect, education, and even the lady-folk. Now, it just feels like a bunch of closed-minded, backward ass (I can use words like ass because I am not a minister – I am a preacher’s kid and we can get away with these things, unlike you…). rednecks who get a mail-order Bible certificate and plant a church in the trailer park. What an outrage. Most of you don’t even know how awesome SBC was until around ’79 when your boy Patterson and you Pedo Boy Pressler hatched their evil plan. Good bye SBC, cuz you aren’t my Father’s SBC.. Later.Report