Baylor and Notre Dame are natural rivals on the basketball court who meet Tuesday in the NCAA Women’s National Championship Game. And it’s a rivalry with an intriguing religious subtext: Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university; Notre Dame is the world’s best-known Catholic institution of higher education.
Born and raised Catholic in New England, I had never met a Southern Baptist until I graduated high school. Working for the Catholic church in rural Oklahoma, I was welcomed by many Southern Baptist families who I knew through my work at the local middle school. In attending Baptist services, I was struck by a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I had rarely experience at a Catholic Mass. But I was also struck by the diverse approaches to worship: the devotional aesthetics of Baptist celebrations were so different from a Catholic Mass. These differences did not have to do with the obvious cultural differences between Massachusetts and Oklahoma, but stemmed from even deeper differences about how to define and characterize the Christian tradition itself.
In spite of these differences, I did get hints of something else. During church baseball games in that small Oklahoma town, Catholics and Baptists would eschew discussions about theological differences to speak about their shared concerns over the rights of the unborn, the removal of religion and religious imagery from public life, the spread of pornography, and the sexualization of popular culture. Underlying it all was a feeling of not being taken seriously in and by American society and culture.
Recent years have brought Catholics and Baptists much closer together. There has been a substantive dialogue between the World Baptist Alliance and the Vatican. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist theological seminary, wrote rather strikingly about the “contraceptive mentality,” a theme popular in contemporary Catholicism that is deployed to describe the “banalization” of sexuality in its separation from procreation. Baptists have been some of the strongest supporters of the Catholic bishops in opposition to the HHS mandate. Here the issue of shared concern revolves around the status of religious conscience and a perceived governmental effort to further truncate or circumscribe the role of religion in American public life.
It is this concern that brings us back to Christian higher education, Notre Dame and Baylor--and to NCAA basketball.
Notre Dame reached prominence initially because of its football team. For many Catholics, Notre Dame’s success opened up new possibilities in a day and age when being Catholic and being American were considered to be mutually exclusive propositions. Far more than simply indicating “a healthy body is a health mind,” Notre Dame’s triumphs gave witness to Catholic values of collective discipline. It was a muscular ethos of teamwork that was seen to be Catholic but also undeniably American.
But while Notre Dame’s athletic program gave the school prominence, athletic trophies could not be bartered for intellectual cachet--at least not immediately.
Given the prejudice against colleges with a religious identity, a Catholic school like Notre Dame had to create its own academic gravity. And this it has most certainly done. In the professional circles in which I travel, Notre Dame is well known for seeking out scholars who apply the Christian tradition more broadly to areas like philosophy, political science, economics, and literary theory. Many of these scholars are Catholic, but a good number are Christian evangelicals. The shared goal is to reclaim a position for Christian scholarship in the landscape of American higher education. To achieve this goal, national prominence is a necessary but not sufficient condition. It also helps to have money-lots of it.
Baylor seems to be following a similar trajectory in its strategic planning. Not only has the woman’s basketball team been tremendously successful, Baylor’s quarterback recently won the Heisman Trophy. Plans are being made to build a new football stadium. There also is a concomitant interest in attracting top-flight academic talent. I do know that conferences at Baylor are felt to be welcoming places for Catholic intellectuals who believe that Christianity has an important counter-witness to offer against dominant trends in American higher education. A university with Baylor’s religious identity needs to be big and bold-not just to be taken seriously, but to be heard at all.
At both institutions, intersections between religious identity and the academic life have occasioned contestation. Some scholars at Notre Dame lament what they perceive to be a rightward turn in the institution’s intellectual culture. Others were outraged that President Obama was invited to speak on campus and there has been a deep disagreement surrounding the Vagina Monologues. Such divergent perceptions reflect the polarities in American Catholic life more than anything else.
Baylor too has seen its share of controversies, whether regarding intelligent design theory or the treatment of left-leaning faculty. Of course, for both universities, a crucial issue is how the other-worldly quality of Christian commitment relates to the very worldly character of big-time college athletics.
What makes the Baylor/Notre Dame matchup most interesting is that we are no longer talking about male sports and male athletes. Though the public persona of American Christianity has long been overwhelmingly masculine; that seems to be changing. Also it does not seem to be the case that anyone is seeing the game between Notre Dame and Baylor as a clash of archetypes on some cosmic plane. I don’t think Baylor plays a Baptist brand of offense, and I doubt Notre Dame’s players would see the way they dribble as being irreducibly Catholic. And so, we can appreciate the intelligence and athleticism of Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins without falling back on religious stereotypes. But we should also appreciate that both Notre Dame and Baylor are institutions seeking to carve out distinctive and substantial places for themselves in American higher education. It will be interesting to see to what extent the increasing prominence of women’s athletics on both campuses contributes to those goals.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross.