Baptists rejig dance ruling

April 5, 1996

After 150 years, the largest Baptist university in the United States has lifted a ban on dancing. But the 12,000-student Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has promised to keep a tight lid on "lewd or provocative gyrations".

The first dance is scheduled for Dia de Loso, the Day of the Bear, a campus fair this month that dates back 30 years and has long included frisbee contests, softball games and other kinds of frolicking. The event has proved irresistible for the US media, and cameras for CNN and other news networks will be there. Students have duly nicknamed their president Bobby "Salsa" Sloan. But for university officials, it is no joke. It is a symptom of their caution that the first dance will be an open-air affair, says Larry Lyon, professor of sociology.

Many of the 50 or so Baptist colleges across the US have allowed dancing for years. But of six Texas colleges, Baylor is the first to break the mould, and the state's Baptist newspaper has opposed it.

The move comes at an awkward time for the Southern Baptists. One of the country's largest and most conservative denominations, whose ranks include President Clinton, it is in the throes of a struggle between moderate and fundamentalists over the church's direction.

There are no plans to abandon other university edicts: there are no co-ed sleeping quarters, premarital sex is strongly discouraged, no gay or pro-choice groups are allowed on campus, and neither are drinking or smoking.

Lifting the ban is justified in part to lure students back from off-campus nightclubs where they are exposed to alcohol.

But Professor Lyon and others, while they acknowledge that the dancing ban is "quaint", see the change as one more example of the declining role of religion in US higher education - and of Baylor's own struggle with its religious identity. There are now only a handful of "clearly religious" major colleges in the US, Lyon said, like Notre Dame in Indiana, where there are still Catholic crucifixes in every room, and Brigham Young University in Utah, financed and largely run by the Mormon Church.

Their ranks once included Harvard and Yale, but religion has since fallen behind academic ambitions. Baylor has set its sights on becoming a top-rank research university. Six years ago it broke free of church control. Though students must take at least two Bible classes, and there are mandatory worship services twice a week, only about half of the faculty and less than half of the students are Baptists.

Professor Lyon, who has studied Christian universities, believes the remaining colleges must promote their religious identity rather than try and hide it. "I think they have to be unapologetic, to see it as a positive to be exploited rather than a negative to be overcome," says Professor Lyon.

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