What Lies Beneath

The Houston Chronicle is running a multi-part expose on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s a massive scandal.

It’s not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.

About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school teachers. Deacons. Church volunteers.

Nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, Calif., to Hillsborough County, Fla., state and federal records show. Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a kind of umbrella organization for the diverse churches that consider themselves to be part of the Southern Baptist tradition. The Southern Baptists, you might recall, are a vestige of the antebellum South, the part of the national Baptist convention that broke away in 1845 in support of slavery. Evangelicals in the northern states were leaders of the abolition movement. Today the Southern Baptists are the second largest denomination in the U.S., after the Roman Catholics, who have their own problems.

The Southern Baptists have a very loose administrative structure that gives local congregations a huge amount of autonomy. This is the excuse they are using for ignoring reports of abuse.

At the core of Southern Baptist doctrine is local church autonomy, the idea that each church is independent and self-governing. It’s one of the main reasons that Boto [August “Augie” Boto, interim president of the SBC’s Executive Committee] said most of the proposals a decade ago were viewed as flawed by the executive committee because the committee doesn’t have the authority to force churches to report sexual abuse to a central registry.

Because of that, Boto said, the committee “realized that lifting up a model that could not be enforced was an exercise in futility,” and so instead drafted a report that “accepted the existence of the problem rather than attempting to define its magnitude.”…

… Even so, the SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.

Yeah, funny how that works.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, had some words for his fellow Southern Baptists.

The first is to see with clear eyes what is before us. Some have ridiculed this concern as being some irrational sweep into a secular #MeToo moment, implying that the problem is “political correctness” over an issue that is no real problem within church life. Others have suggested that the church should not concern itself with questions of “justice” and that preaching the gospel itself will resolve matters of injustice. Others have implied that the horrific scandals we have seen in the Roman Catholic church are due to the theology of Catholicism, the nature of a celibate priesthood and so forth. All of these are not only wrongheaded responses, but are deadly dangerous both to the lives of present and future survivors of these horrors and to the witness of the church itself.

All rape and sexual exploitation is evil and unjust. Sexual abuse is not only sin but also a crime. All of it should be prosecuted in the civil arena, and all of it will be brought before the tribunal of the Judgment Seat of Christ. But nothing is worse than the use of the name of Jesus to prey on the vulnerable, or to use the name of Jesus to cover up such crimes. The issue of predators in the church is not a secondary issue, on which churches should brush up merely because of the cultural moment. This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning. The church is a flock, he told us, vulnerable to prey.

People often grumble about the evils of organized religion, but unorganized religion is just as bad. Some of the worst religion horror stories I know of were perpetrated by people unaffiliated with any organized religion.

But what we see from the Southern Baptists is the pure reflection of their values. Keeping women out of leadership positions is an important value. Opposing homosexuality is an important value. Protecting women and children from sexual predators is not an important value.

And notice I’ve gotten this far into this post without mentioning evangelical support for Donald Trump.

We are living in a time in of small-r revelations. Long-festering sexual abuse going on in many organizations, and not just Christian ones, are among those revelations. This sort of thing seems to go on everywhere that men are given exclusive, unquestioned authority. And when the predation begins to come to light, the organization first denies it, then covers it up rather than address it. But it seems the patriarchy is finally weak enough that the revelations are breaking through.

I see the messiness going on in Virginia in a similar light. The truth is that, probably, there are very few white southern politicians of either party who didn’t participate in some sort of racist expression in their wayward youth; there just isn’t always a photographic record of it. And I’m not making excuses for Ralph Northam, who ought to resign. White culture has winked at racist expression for way too long. And for too long, white liberal politicians have paid lip service to ending racial injustice without lifting a finger to dismantle the white power structure that perpetrates it. Karma will not be denied, however.

What’s next, I wonder?

12 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath

  1. I have come to think that churches are social clubs for those who focus on scripture instead of self examination. They also function to funnel money  which does little for society. It is patriarchal  socialization. And wields too much political power in this country. 

  2. I have come to think that churches are social clubs for those who focus on scripture instead of self examination.

    That’s what bothered me about what I came to call “churchianity”. That, and the pressure to conform to social norms. The mental straight-jacket of those who don’t read anything else except the bible, and who turn it into a fetish, “the word of God”. It took me many years to realize that this is not me, and that God’s OK with it.

  3. Several points:

    I predicted that the Catholics would not be exclusive in their problems long ago. Wonder why it took so long to reveal.

    Any large enough (> a few individuals) group will attract predators of various kinds. Pretending otherwise is what causes problems.

    I also predict that when women are ascendant, they will bring with them predators. Perhaps different kinds, and perhaps not equal fractions, but they will be there. Humans are humans.


    • Dan — predation will always happen, but the dynamics that keep it hidden and allow it to fester depend on unequal power and status.

  4. “I have come to think that churches are social clubs for those who focus on scripture instead of self examination.”

    I would put that somewhat differently. Churches to a large extent have become nothing more than social clubs that focus neither on scripture nor self examination. If they really did focus on scripture, they wouldn’t have these problems.

    For example:

    1 John 4:1 — Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

    Testing the spirits means that one must know how to examine the Scriptures.

    Matthew 7:15 — Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

    These churches are filled with false prophets who use God’s Word to prey on the vulnerable. Sexual abuse is just one predation.  Knowing the scriptures teaches that just because they are pastors doesn’t mean they are of God and should be trusted. 

    That said though, there should be no tolerance for church leaders who support or tolerate this abuse.

  5. If they really did focus on scripture..

    Any sufficiently complex scripture acts like a Rorshact test – what people see in it reflects who they themselves are. And so people are selective in what they focus on.

  6. "Welcome to our Southern Baptist Churches!

    You can schtupp  and molest all of the people you want!  Just as long as they're of the opposite sex!  Especially as you work your way up our hierarchy.

    But schtupp or molest anyone if the same sex?  YOU WILL BE F*CKED!!!


    Not just an opiate for the masses.

    But an historically organized way to control women and nonconformists – especially those who "deviate" from "accepted" sexual "mores."

    Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!  But ONLY fire on those we religious leaders approve of!



  7. When I was 6, my father did a guest preaching while we were on a family vacation far from home.  Before the service a man from that congregation took an unusual interest in me and insisted on showing my sister and I origami.  He’d start folding on my knee, then work the developing animal shapes up to my crotch.  My 5 YO sister wanted him to do it to her but he refused.  He only wanted me. My dad saw what was going on and stopped it.  The origami man was then absolutely insistent that I had to sign up for his class, even after my father explained that we lived 2000 miles away. 

    I didn’t understand what had happened until years later.  At the time, it would’ve been an excellent “Stranger Danger!” teachable moment.  And to this day dad won’t talk about it.  I think mental defense mechanisms play a significant role in situations like this.  Things that evil just don’t happen as part of Jesus Plan, not in His House.

  8. Proud to say that two of the four churches the SBC stopped supporting because of gay congregants and female pastors are right here in a couple of my favorite intown neighborhoods in Atlanta.

  9. The crime(s) are all individual. There was/is never church sponsorship of sexual abuse. The problem, as exhibited by the Catholic Church and repeated here, is a failure by leadership to take decisive action. Quite the opposite, and usually to avoid publicity that would reflect badly on church leadership, they become partners after the fact to a cover-up. 

    That's the part that's vile – ignoring the pain victims have had which the church knows to be factual. The truly vile part is allowing the predator back into the 'flock' to use the term they like. Knowing the history and with a high level of certainty they will strike again, they let them loose among the innocent. 

    For those who allow the abuse to continue, one hopes god keeps a corner of hell especially hot.

  10. In a country where many medical doctors want to preach to you and many religious professionals want to heal you, why is this shocking.  That churches provide a cloak of illusion for perverted criminals, at times, should surprise no one.  Even in recent history we learned about those who would lead you to the vat of the poisoned Kool-Aid. 

    Church may be a way to meet friendly people, or to associate with the illusion of a friend.  In some areas freedom from religion (read churches) is more of an important value than freedom of religion.  In many smaller communities, the secular and religious institutions are all controlled by a small number of powerful and usually rich people.  You are at the mercy of their institutions.  As we now see on a national level, the moral ethical character of powerful people may be incredibly suspect.  It is, I guess, the new abnormal.  

    Here again, rule number one is, let the buyer (donator) beware.


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