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Southern Baptist Convention report on sex abuse shines a light on evangelical culture

We need to take a long look at the theological and structural conditions that enable abuse — starting with purity teachings that shame survivors.
Image: Purity ball
Ballet dancers of the Regal Daughters Ballet Company carry a cross into the ballroom at the annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 14, 2007.Rick Wilking / Reuters file

Sexual abuse was never just a Catholic problem. But unlike the Catholic structure, evangelical churches like the one I grew up in and have spent the past 13 years researching are largely self-governing. This means we’ve mostly lacked the kind of bureaucratic record that might prove systemic abuse the way it’s been documented in Catholic dioceses.

Now, a report on a major evangelical denomination is changing all that.

A joint investigation by two Texas papers, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, resulted in a three-part report revealing that over 200 Southern Baptist pastors, youth pastors and deacons were convicted or took plea deals for sex crimes over the past 20 years — leaving behind over 700 survivors. When the vast majority of rapes in the United States never lead to a felony conviction, these numbers suggest an astronomical level of violence.

Sexual violence extends well beyond the church, yet I have found that religious authoritarianism and purity culture can enable it.

In fact, it was a multi-church sexual misconduct cover-up that first challenged my own allegiance to evangelicalism. When I was in high school, my Midwestern non-denominational youth pastor was convicted of child enticement with intent to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl from our youth group. The ensuing investigation revealed that he had previously been quietly let go from two evangelical institutions for similar behavior.

As an adult, I went on to spend more than a decade researching sexuality and the evangelical church and heard story after story of minimized and unreported abuse. To be sure, sexual violence extends well beyond the church, yet I have found that religious authoritarianism and purity culture — hallmarks of both Catholicism and evangelicalism, among other groups — can enable it.

Purity culture teaches that there are two types of people: those who are sexually “pure,” and those who are “impure.” Some teach one can lose their purity by having sexual thoughts or feelings or making sexual choices outside of a heterosexual marriage. Some even teach you can lose it by inspiring sexual expression in others.

Too often the prestige of a high-ranking perpetrator protects them, as we have seen happen in secular spaces as well, for example with former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and film producer Harvey Weinstein. However, “prestige” doesn’t quite do justice to the untouchability a religious leader can enjoy in a highly stratified community where it is believed that they have been hand-selected or at least approved by God. Many parishioners see their pastor as the conduit to a higher power and will go to great lengths to protect them even if it means ignoring, blaming and ultimately hurting survivors.

In America, a contributing factor is a strong culture of collective victimhood in the evangelical community. My interviewees and I were taught growing up that evangelicals were the real victims — that the world hated us so much they’d do anything to make us look bad. So, it was our job to represent our community in the best light possible for more people to join us and enter into heaven. The underlying message was clear: a good Christian keeps their mouth shut.

Those who speak out about sexual abuse in authoritarian religious communities are often shamed in an attempt to quiet them. They may be accused of seeking attention, or of trying to bring down a godly man. They may be told they’re selfish — indulging in their own pain when they should be paying attention to the pain they are causing others, including the people who will turn away from the church and spend an eternity in hell because of the poor light they’ve portrayed the church in.

After all, abusers don’t just groom victims, they groom communities, preparing them to rise up and protect them.

Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct when they see it, and when they do are often dismissed. For example, when my youth pastor was applying for the position, he was given a kind of audition: lead a youth retreat. Our head pastor asked us to report back on his performance. I did. As did at least one other girl. Each of us told the head pastor that the man applying for the position made us uncomfortable. Soon afterward, it was announced that he was our new youth pastor.

Meanwhile, when women and girls come forward as survivors, purity culture — which focuses largely on them — can be used against them. Many of my interviewees and I were taught that men are weak when faced with the temptation of the female flesh and it was therefore our responsibility to protect men from the threat that our bodies posed to them. We had to walk, talk and dress just right to ensure the alleged purity of our entire community, safeguarding against all sexual expression outside of marriage — the implication being that anything that did happen, even sexual violence, was our fault.

When women and girls come forward as survivors, purity culture — which focuses largely on them — can be used against them.

Sexual abuse of adults is too often lumped in with so-called sexual sin more generally speaking. For example, and as I talk about in my book, until somewhat recently the “Sexual Misconduct” category of the Code of Student Conduct at the Catholic University of America included both rape and consensual sex outside of marriage.

The failure to differentiate between purported sin and violent crime can also be observed in how cases are sometimes handled by churches. The report on the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, found that some accused and convicted abusers were never reported to law enforcement by church leadership; some are still working at churches; some are even still in the pulpit.

It’s only recently that evangelical leaders have even begun to be held accountable for sexual misconduct. Last year, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced into early retirement after reportedly mishandling rape allegations, and superstar megachurch pastor, Bill Hybels, retired early after a number of women accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior. But if we really want to deal with systemic sexual abuse in the church, we need to do more than remove a few bad apples. We need to take a long look at the theological and structural conditions that enable abuse — rejecting purity teachings that are used to shame and blame survivors, renouncing authoritarianism and elevating the voices of the many who remain unheard.