“Won’t people get mad if we criticize religion in our presentation?” my student asked. She was referring to the prevalence of sexual abuse allegations against religious leaders and my recommendation that we talk about them in our Women’s Leadership Project trainings at her high school. When it comes to reckoning with sexual violence in the #MeToo era, the veil of silence around the faith community remains a toxic deterrent that destroys lives. In February the Houston Chronicle reported on decades of abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches in a three-part series (the SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the country). The report was an important first step toward holding the evangelical Christian community accountable for the same kind of institutionalized sexual abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church.
The unseen, everyday atrocity of sexual violence is amplified in the insular culture of American evangelical churches. For this reason, it’s important to reiterate what invisible Christian privilege and supremacy look like.
All Christian religious institutions enjoy tax-exempt status in the United States, granting them fundraising clout and political influence held tenuously in check by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and by the Johnson Amendment to the US Tax Code. These institutions are bolstered by a hyper-religious culture where it’s still considered dangerous for a politician (especially one of color) in national office to identify as an atheist. They are automatically granted the presumption of innocence in matters of morality relative to atheists and humanists. Despite the Bible’s endorsement of rape, murder, misogyny, and other acts of violence, Christian religious institutions are routinely allowed to explain away duplicitous acts by their leaders as not representative of “true” christlike principles. They benefit from a culture where virtually anyone can throw up a shingle or set up on a sidewalk, deem themselves a Christian house of worship, and enjoy some measure of social respectability. They are given the unquestioned license to act as arbiters policing the bodies, sexuality, and reproductive rights of women and girls. And they wield outsized influence in school curricula and school policy, meddling in science, health education, US history, and the treatment of LGBTQ+ students across the nation through coordinated policy campaigns like “Project Blitz.” Thus, although the United States was not founded as a “Christian nation,” it effectively functions like one. These factors allow Christian churches to operate as though they are above the law.
The Houston Chronicle series exposes the SBC for hiring sexual predators (offenders Timothy Reddin, Charles Adcock and Doug Meyers are all named). It also documents how SBC officials covered up their abuse by either denying it outright, blaming the victims, or allowing predator pastors, volunteers, and rank-and-file employees to transfer to other churches (such as former missionary Mark Aderholt, charged with assaulting victim Anne Marie Miller).
At the same time church leaders were cosigning sexual abuse, they were persecuting LGBTQ+ pastors and parishioners for their supposed sins against God. The Chronicle notes that SBC governing documents outlaw homosexuality but not sex offenders. These practices are hardly surprising given the SBC’s history of opposing same-sex marriage and prohibiting women from entering the clergy.
The notoriously conservative denomination emerged as a nineteenth-century proslavery organization that endorsed Jim Crow and continues to entrust ordination to local churches rather than a national governing body. As African-American pastor Lawrence Ware noted in a 2017 New York Times op-ed regarding his break from the church, the SBC “was founded in 1845 because white Southern Baptists disagreed with the antislavery attitudes and abolitionist activities of Northern Baptists.” Ware also contends that with the rise of Donald Trump, “They hesitated to adopt a resolution that condemned white supremacy, (but) did not hesitate to throw out activists who tried to raise awareness about the ways in which the convention fails its LGBTQ members.”
SBC governing documents outlaw homosexuality but not sex offenders. These practices are hardly surprising given the SBC’s history of opposing same-sex marriage and prohibiting women from entering the clergy.
The breadth and depth of SBC officials’ crimes illustrate how the structure of organized religion encourages predation. In interviews with Chronicle investigators, some of the predators commented on how easy it was to reel in victims under the guise of Christian moral authority (the reporters solicited written responses from convicted felons and conducted oral interviews with them). The church provided unlimited access to victims, allowing predators to hide in plain sight. As one survivor maintained, “It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister.” Of course, the con artist/predator wielding unchecked power and authority is at play in high-profile cases outside the church, with powerbroker victimizers like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby. Yet religious institutions hold a special appeal precisely due to the cult of patriarchal authority “sanctioned” by a fictitious God. Because of this propaganda, many adult victims reported seeking out church predators for guidance, while child victims were lured or left in the care of predators.
The toxically familiar pattern of indoctrination and betrayal extends from the Catholic Church to contemporary black churches that demand blind faith as a bulwark against corrupting outsiders while they rape, steal, extort, intimidate, and annihilate with impunity. Nobody will love/validate/purify/redeem you the way we do, they all say to the so-called sinner in true pimp-pusher mode. And hour after hour, day after day, week after week, decade after decade, millions more get fatally addicted to their insidious propaganda.
Even after victims pressed charges and implored the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt comprehensive standards for rooting out abusers, the SBC refused. It kept abusers in power, cosigned the abortions of victims who’d been raped, and drove some victims to suicide. The SBC case isn’t just a religious crisis but a humanist crisis. Institutionalized sexual violence against women and girls continues to be the most normalized health epidemic in the world, cutting across class, ethnicity, and nationhood. Sexual violence against men and boys is also a growing epidemic—vastly underreported, if not normalized through rape culture.
As activism spotlighting the devastating social, cultural, and economic impact of institutionalized sexual violence increases, radical humanist practice can play an important role in changing public policy, school cultures, workplace practice, and social attitudes. There’s a growing need for professional development that actively challenges the way heteronormative gender roles influence violence and harassment in K-12 schools, workplaces, and religious institutions. There is a growing need for programs that redress the harm done by religious institutions and religious dogmas that prop up binary gender roles. And, as per the Catholic Church indictments and recent criminal charges against R. Kelly (prompted in part by author-activist Dream Hampton’s documentary), there’s growing consciousness about the pernicious role of enablers. The predators that thrive in secular and religious institutions do so because the cultural norms of these institutions encourage it. This culture of violence ends when silence and complicity are no longer a shield for enablers.