Thursday, July 24, 2008

Honoris Causa or Honoris Fraude?

A number of recent articles in Ethics Daily (see here and here) have sought to expose as fraudulent high-profile conservative religious leaders in the U.S. and Canada who hold academic and, more commonly, honorary doctorate degrees from unaccredited institutions that generally require little or no academic work in exchange for a degree.

While white North American Baptists are making a fuss over this practice, it continues to be a widespread and, largely, unquestioned part of Black church tradition, both in North America as well as the Bahamas. Here in the Bahamas, for example, it often seems as if the country has more D.D.'s than M.D.'s and when one hears somebody being addressed as "doctor" it is rarely in reference to a physician. One of the reasons that honorary doctorates are so widespread is due to an unaccredited U.S.-based institution that comes here each year and hands them out like candy. Even so-called "earned" doctorates are not much more credible, generally being issued from fly-by-night correspondence schools in the U.S. that are really no better than advanced Sunday school when it comes to academic rigor.

So why has the popularity of unaccredited honorary and correspondence degrees remained largely unquestioned in the Black church tradition? In part, this is because for many years Black clergy were not allowed to attend accredited schools where they might have earned an academic doctorate. Consequently, the Black church has offered the same respect and status to its clergy who have acquired a doctorate degree through alternative means as is commonly bestowed upon those who have had the opportunity to earn one through an accredited institution. Given that opportunities for Black clergy to earn a legitimate doctorate (e.g., Ph.D., Th.D., or D.Min.) are much more prevalent in North America today than in decades past, is it possible that the value of unaccredited doctorates will begin to decline in the Black church? I'm not sure. But here in the Bahamas, where accredited theological education is still hard to come by, I suspect that non-accredited degrees will remain popular for a long-time to come.

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