It’s the Theology, Stupid: Why the Shocking SBC Report is Anything But Surprising

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On Sunday, an investigation firm called Guidepost Solutions released a 300-page report recounting a disturbingly familiar pattern of abuse and cover-up in the Southern Baptist Convention, the mostly white, evangelical Protestant denomination that accounts for over 5% of the adult population of the US. The report, which includes numerous examples of sexual abuse in SBC churches, notes that “senior SBC leaders appeared to excuse abuse and/or support accused abusers… while at the same time survivors were ignored or treated poorly.” 

To put it mildly, we were not surprised. Nearly four years ago to the day, an RD headline read: “SBC’s #MeToo Problem isn’t a Rotten Apple, It’s a Rotten Tree.” 

In addition to its handling of individual cases, the report is also highly critical of the SBC Executive Committee’s failure to adopt relatively modest reforms over a twenty-year period, concluding that “very little was done to address sexual abuse within SBC churches.” And, according to the Washington Post:

Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied to Southern Baptists over whether they could maintain a database of offenders to prevent more abuse when top leaders were secretly keeping a private list for years.

As the report says, “the primary focus was on avoiding the risk of legal liability, sometimes to the exclusion of all other considerations.”

Bringing these shocking misdeeds into the light may be a good first step, but what’s next? How do we—or they—ensure that it won’t happen again? 

The truth is, while a report like this one may be excellent at demonstrating the existence of a problem, and even at showing us why the problem persisted, that doesn’t make it diagnostic. If it doesn’t tell us why the problem arose in the first place, it doesn’t provide the best chance to address it effectively. 

Below, RD Senior Correspondent Chrissy Stroop and contributor Jessica Johnson discuss the SBC’s scandalous failure in ways the report doesn’t—and isn’t, in fact, designed to—highlighting some of the ways in which the problem has been hiding in plain sight, and even connecting it to other violent products of a Christian nationalism growing in power.

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Chrissy Stroop: So, Jessica, did anything in the new Guidepost Solutions report about the scale of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last couple of decades surprise you? I’ve been writing about this topic since the first big abuse story broke in 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News released their investigation documenting 700 victims of sexual abuse over a 20-year period. At that time, I published a piece for Playboy called, “Why the Southern Baptists Won’t Solve their Abuse Problem,” so, as you might guess, I’m not surprised the scale of that problem turned out to be as massive as it was. As I wrote then: 

“Evangelical subculture is pervasively authoritarian, and any time an arbitrary social hierarchy is imposed and defended, violence follows. Authoritarianism is inherently abusive, and where it reigns, abuse—physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual—will be pervasive.”

Of course, the particular hierarchy imposed by the SBC and many other evangelical churches is explicitly patriarchal. In the SBC, belief in “male headship” and “complementarianism”—that God created men and women to fulfill distinct and “complementary” roles, and that women’s role is submissive—is non-negotiable. 

When only men are empowered within an institution, clearly, women and children are going to suffer. To borrow a turn of phrase, it’s the theology, stupid. And so long as the SBC’s leadership is unwilling to revisit these doctrines, as I predicted in 2019, it will never solve its abuse problem. Would you agree?

Jessica Johnson: I concur with your assessment, Chrissy. I was unsurprised by the report’s findings, but also by the fact that theology is unexplored in Guidepost’s “key solutions.”  

While I appreciate the comprehensiveness of the report, Guidepost Solutions advertises itself as an investigative body that “protect[s] facilities” (and provides crisis management), so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that I found their suggestions for systemic improvement wanting. For example, “Create and maintain an Offender Information System to alert the community to known offenders. Make the OIS available to churches on a voluntary basis.” Given the scope of their findings, it seems the OIS should be mandatory, not voluntary, and available to anyone considering membership in an SBC church. 

In my ethnographic research on Mars Hill Church, complementarianism—thank you for breaking it down so well—is the foundation for the kind of systemic sexual abuse we see evinced in the report. So is purity culture, the confinement of sexuality within heterosexual, Christian marriage. Women are expected to be submissive to their husbands at home and in the bedroom, according to the ways in which complementarianism and purity culture operate in tandem. 

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to see how damaging these teachings can be when men are considered the “heads” at church, too. Women are trained to submit to male leadership, no matter how harmful, in the church, workplace, and home, making it easy for them to be sexually exploited by men who abuse their power over them in these spaces. Female sexuality is severely regulated, and women are often blamed for “tempting” men who simply cannot help themselves, which comes up in the report. 

But, I think we can also see how the findings of large-scale sexual abuse are structural in other ways that intersect with the SBC’s history of racism and endorsement of white supremacy; its “anti-CRT” stance; its stance against LGBTQ rights (which sadly includes a strong opposition to recognizing hate crimes against LGBTQ identified people); and its stance on “abolishing abortion” (which is just another way to regulate women’s bodily autonomy and sexuality). All of these issues are intersectional (to use a critical race theory term maligned by the SBC that’s actually quite useful in this case), or interlocking. You need to address them holistically. 

What do you think would be a good next step for the SBC, or members within SBC churches, Chrissy?

CS: Some of the recommendations in the report are good, but I’m with you on it not going far enough, Jessica. The suggestion that SBC structures stop using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in connection with sexual misconduct settlements (unless requested by the victims) is a good one—it’s also currently the law in the state of California, and I wish we’d make it the law nationwide.

I’m not quite sure what the recommendation that the OIS be made available to churches “voluntarily” means, and I personally feel that it should be available to everyone, including the laity and the general public. The notion that individual SBC churches might become the gatekeepers to access to this database doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. 

Meanwhile, it’s hard to disagree that “enhanced background checks” would be a good thing—but it’s unfortunate, to say the least, that this recommendation is still needed. I highly doubt that the use of “Letters of Good Standing” and the adoption of new “Codes of Conduct” (why either term is capitalized in the report is a mystery to me) will have much impact. Under the white supremacist patriarchy that still shapes so much of the American experience—not least in the SBC and similar churches—predatory white men will always be able to find people willing to attest to their “good character.” I’m reminded of Supreme Court “Justice” Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in this connection. 

And you don’t change a culture overnight like the one created by the SBC after its 1970s-1990s fundamentalist takeover—particularly when you refuse to consider how the theology that shapes that culture is of a piece with the protection of white male leaders over all “others”—women, children, people of color, and queer people, as you note. I don’t see any serious stakeholders in the SBC willing to consider how patriarchal theology and attitudes are the root of the abuse problem. 

While Russell Moore has left the SBC, in part over its leadership’s failure to adequately address sexual abuse, I was disappointed to see him continue to romanticize the “conservative resurgence” and “biblical fidelity”—code for continuing to deprive women and LGBTQ folks of power—in his commentary on the new report for Christianity Today.

After all, both major architects of the power grab and purge of moderate and liberal actors from SBC institutions that SBC partisans euphemistically call “the conservative resurgence”—Paul Presser and Paige Patterson—now stand credibly accused of sexual misconduct and cover-up. And this was known before the new report dropped. It seems to me that leaders pursuing a politics of moral panic are certain to be power-hungry, and almost certain to be hiding something. Moore still doesn’t see the connection, or pretends he doesn’t, and certainly no influential figure who remains in the SBC is about to admit it exists.

Guidepost’s suggested reforms, if they are implemented, may help to mitigate abuse to a certain degree, but I’m confident that pervasive abuse and coverups will persist. We’ll have to wait for the SBC’s annual meeting, happening in Anaheim, California in mid-June, to find out which reforms they adopt and how exactly they decide to implement them. Of course, only men can vote on SBC resolutions.

JJ: Exactly. For a corporate body that seems to revel in lengthy “resolutions” about so-called “secular” issues (as I noted above), the SBC’s 2021 resolution “On Abuse and Pastoral Qualifications” is remarkably short. Thanks for looping in white men of “good character,” those who can separate themselves from “evil” one way or another, through their own testimony or that of others speaking on their behalf. 

When I was reading Russell Moore’s response to the Guidepost report in CT, I was struck by the headline, “This Is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse.” The subheading reads: “The abuse investigation has uncovered more evil than even I imagined” (emphasis added). He continues in the opening lines, “They were right. I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse” (author’s emphasis). 

While I understand the logic of his distancing himself from the report’s findings, and the use of theological lexicon like “evil” or “apocalypse,” as I read it I found myself critical of the use of this language because what he’s actually responding to are the actions of white men—not deities, not Satan—and they’re not surprising given white Christian patriarchy and the way it subjugates “others,” as we’ve both noted. He’s been privy and party to that subjugation himself, as you’ve noted. He’s profited from that complementarian system. 

Also, as we both are alluding to, there may not be much substantive change after all is said and done despite the report’s findings, which hardly warrants an “apocalypse.” It’s an indirect way of saving face for the SBC itself, in light of all the abuse uncovered. An apocalypse would mean destruction (and potentially, resurrection). We’re not there yet. Not even close. 

I’m also very tired of the ways in which these Manichaean us v. them “teams” are continually set up between “the Christian” and “the secular.” The righteous purity that this formulation requires already gives the SBC higher ground over any “secular” ways of identifying or being-in-the-world. That’s why the SBC has so many, many “resolutions” setting themselves against whatever they deem “secular”—be it “CRT” (or just racism–as Resolution 2 states it), LGBTQ folks, those who seek abortions, women who hold positions of leadership (or simply desire credit for the work they actually do), or even in this case, sexual abuse. 

It’s like, our [Christian] way of doing “it,” no matter how wrong or harmful, is still more redeemed somehow, so therefore we don’t need to regulate who leads our churches, or how people decide whether or not this church is “safe” for them. “Evil” is individualized through sin. So long as “bad apples” are excised, we’ll be ok; so monitoring systems like the OIS are seen as part of the solution, when the root cause runs far deeper. 

Systems in place—be they theological, institutional, cultural—are somehow more “pure” when they’re Christian, even when they subject people within “the flock” to spiritual, emotional, financial, and/or sexual abuse. And especially so when they subject non-white, non-“masculine,” non-cisgender, non-heterosexual, non-Christian, people to harm. 

I think that unless Christians (whether “conservative” or “progressive”) start to act like they aren’t that special after all, that they actually are both in and of the world, nothing will change for the better in the SBC or otherwise (e.g., when it comes to voting for the likes of Trump or his minions within the GOP). 

With that, I don’t understand why more Christians who oppose Christian patriarchy or sexual abuse within churches don’t start to speak out against extremist laws against women seeking abortions (with no exceptions for rape or incest). In some states, rapists will have more rights than survivors seeking abortions. When trans folks seeking medical care or educators providing any instruction on gender identity, sexuality, or the history of white supremacy and racism in this country are demonized, the divides between “good” and “evil” become more extreme and more prone to promoting violence against those deemed “threats” according to whatever “moral” or “family” values Christians think they’re upholding. 

No matter how amorphous the belief system, this vague notion of “Christian nationalism” based on “Christian values” still upholds white heteropatriarchal supremacy, with the potential to do violence inside and outside of churches. I’m worried about these amplifications in the kind of theological language that Moore uses in his piece, even if that’s not his intent there. Does that make sense?

CS: Mapping concepts like “apocalypse” and a battle of “good vs. evil” onto secular events, including politics, is certainly a dangerous thing, and I say this as someone who was raised and educated through high school in a Christian nationalist environment. Abortion was a “holocaust” we were “called” to stop, the Rapture was always just around the corner, and “spiritual warfare” was happening all around us. 

I can see why Moore might use the rhetoric of “apocalypse” for an internal critique of the SBC’s practice of Christianity, and on some level I appreciate his candor—though obviously not his advocacy of what amounts to “benevolent sexism” on theological grounds. Moore’s refusal to consider that some of his theology is toxic leaves in place the Christian supremacist understanding that “real” Christians—socially conservative Christians—are better than “secular” people. That sense may coexist uneasily with his rhetoric about “evil” within the SBC, but it’s clearly still there.

That internalized right-wing Christian supremacism often expresses itself in moral panics that involve the externalization of problems like sexual abuse that are in fact very close to home, and we’re seeing this today in the Christian Right’s drive to prevent age-appropriate discussion of sexuality and gender identity in public schools. 

We’re seeing similar scapegoating and projection in the spate of state-level anti-trans laws being passed by the GOP, or, as in the case of Texas, the governor and the attorney general pushing through an extremist policy change on their own authority, bypassing the legislature, in order to treat facilitating access to age-appropriate, gender-affirming healthcare to trans minors legally as “child abuse.”

As a trans woman who knows the Christian Right all too intimately, I’m frankly quite scared at where things are going in America these days. The Christian Right is raging as its foot soldiers, lobbyists, and politicians work to impose theocracy on the entire country, and I’m exactly the kind of “demonic” Other they’re currently fixated on. Their violent apocalyptic fantasies have already translated into violent action, as on January 6, and I think we’re only going to see more political violence going ahead. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s too, of course, LGBTQ people were scapegoated. It’s nothing new, but this moment, in which the Christian Right has amassed such disproportionate power, feels like a particularly dangerous one.

JJ: I hear you. There are strides made through reports like this one by Guidepost, or books like Jesus and John Wayne, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, The Color of Compromise, White Too Long, White Evangelical Racism, or Taking America Back for God, to name several that examine white Christian patriarchal nationalism and the harm it’s done and continues to do in the United States. But I still fear that until action is taken and some progress is made to bridge the divide between the “Christian” and the “secular,” we’ll continue to head towards a more complete fascist rule in this country. That should scare us all, no matter how we identify, religiously or otherwise. 

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