The red flag of the religious

By TIM KALICH GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH,

When Dr. William Bynum Jr. resigned as president of Jackson State University a couple of weeks ago after being caught in a prostitution sting, a few memories about his time at Mississippi Valley State University came immediately to mind.

One was how he would treat his attractive wife as a trophy, boasting to the men in the crowd, when he would introduce her, about how well he did. It always seemed to make some of the women listening on — including probably his wife — squirm in their seats.

The other was how Bynum sometimes sounded as much like a preacher as a college president. From the moment he arrived in Itta Bena in 2013, he talked about what a God-fearing man he was and how his faith was such an integral part of his life. He seemed to suggest that he saw part of his mission as spreading his faith among the faculty and staff at the university.

That overtly religious side of Bynum continued when he left MVSU four years later  for bigger pastures at Jackson State. On his biography on that university’s website, Bynum said his personal and professional motto was, “Look back and thank God. Look forward and trust God. Look around and serve God. Look within and find God.”

It’s not uncommon for elementary and high school administrators in  Mississippi to blur the line between church and state, but I thought it was unusual for the president of a public university to do so, and to do it so openly, including at official university functions and on official university communications. It was as if he had no sensitivity to court rulings which have consistently said that public institutions and those who run them cannot promote one religion over another, including promoting belief in God over non-belief. Bynum seemed to be oblivious to possibly stepping over that line.

Now one has to wonder whether all of that talk was just for show.

Not to be a cynic, but my antenna goes up whenever I hear people in the public eye sound more like they belong in the pulpit than behind a desk or on the athletic sidelines.

Former Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze was a perfect case in point.

Before it was revealed that Freeze had the same “thorn in the flesh” as Bynum allegedly has, the Ole Miss coach turned religion into an effective recruiting tool. Audiences and some of the families of the athletes he chased after would eat up his claim that he was a born-again Christian who did things the right way, and that’s why his programs had been so successful everywhere he went. He had God on his side, he would suggest, even when the NCAA started turning up evidence that Ole Miss had committed recruiting violations to land some of the best talent in the country and transform itself into a Top 10 team.

Freeze had a deserved reputation as an offensive genius, pulling the nearly unheard-of trick of beating Nick Saban-coached teams at Alabama in back-to-back years. But he wasn’t too smart when it came to cheating on  his wife. Ole Miss, desperate to maintain a winning program, was prepared to stand by Freeze through the NCAA investigation until it was revealed that the head coach had been regularly making calls to a female escort service on his university-issued cellphone.

Mississippi and the rest of the South are considered to be the most religious region in the country. Southerners are more likely to attend church regularly and to give more of their income proportionately to charitable causes, with the top recipient usually being the church to which they belong.

Because of the importance the South puts on religion, though, it is a region that is more susceptible to religious charlatans, including some celebrity preachers.

Rival televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, both of whom would be eventually brought down by sex scandals in the 1980s and 1990s, built their huge followings from separate bases in the South. More recently, when Ephren Taylor preached the “prosperity gospel” while running a Ponzi scheme a decade ago that jilted 400 of his followers out of $16 million, the Kansas resident heavily targeted his swindle at megachurches in the South.

I have learned over the years to differentiate between those who are humbly devout and those who are ostentatiously so. The contrast between them has developed a beware barometer in my psyche. It goes like this.

If a person in a religious profession talks inordinately about money, hold onto your wallet.

If a person in a non-religious profession talks inordinately about religion, hold onto your trust.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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