(This post is not so much a political statement as it is a comparison of responses from evangelical leaders, both pastoral and political, in the U.S. towards sexual violence. Additionally, the term “evangelical” has become political in recent years. Evangelical Christianity is a broad category with many different perspectives and is not monolithic. Simply because someone self-identifies as an evangelical does not mean they necessarily hold to the basic definition of evangelicalism or agree with more popular voices.)
#ChurchToo reveals the ways in which the church has dehumanized survivors and objectified their bodies, blaming them for the violence perpetuated by pastors, seminary presidents, and prominent evangelical organizations that once sought to keep sex “pure.”
I will allow these examples to speak for themselves:
- The Southern Baptist Convention (the same group promoting True Love Waits) was found to have over 700 victims of sexual violence in past 20 years or so. Victims were “shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.”
- Paige Patterson, a prominent leader in the SBC, was fired for mishandling reports of rape, and later given a position teaching an ethics course.
- Bob Jones University’s counseling department was found blaming students for their abuse and calling them second-class Christians. Specific individuals named responsible have not apologized or faced consequences for their actions.
- Bill Gothard sexually harassed or molested over 30 women associated with his homeschool ministry.
- Andy Savage, a pastor from Highpoint Church, sexually abused a student in his early days of youth ministry. 20 years later he resigned from his pastoral position. Highpoint Church later implemented a safety assessment for their community.
- Sovereign Grace Ministries found a youth leader had molested four young boys. SGM argues there is not enough credible evidence.
- #MeToo and #ChurchToo
Sadly, there are even more examples to list. While a minority of cases involve positive steps to repair the damage, generally, the church has not appropriately handled the prevention or response to sexual violence. Instead, survivors have been ignored or silenced in order to protect those in power, namely influential male leaders.
Read the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual statement and consider adding your name.
American Evangelicals & Political Power
Politically, some American evangelicals are still inconsistent in what they teach and what they do. There is a vast difference between President Bill Clinton’s scandal and the way the church has recognized Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump.
If we narrow our scope to the words of Dr. James Dobson, a voice for many evangelicals and large force behind purity culture, we’ll find he seems to have changed his mind about moral character or sexual immorality within the presidential office over the years. In his September 1998 newsletter, Dobson writes about the scandal between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (The full letter is archived in this book beginning on page 303 but you may also be able to find it online.) Here are a few excerpts with emphasis added:
“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people…”
“There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter…”
“Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?“Dr. James Dobson, September 1998 newsletter
In this letter Dobson is adamant that character matters. Personal history matters. He questions the nation’s ability to discern the “red flags.”
As candidates appeared in the race for office in 2015-2016, researcher George Barna reported “Evangelicals are seeking something in a candidate that very few other voters are searching for: strong moral character.“
Strong moral character quickly went up for debate. While Hilary Clinton’s campaign promoted questions of integrity, Donald Trump’s personal life and political campaign also caused significant controversy.
- Over 20 women accused Trump of past sexual violence. Accusations have continued, even in 2019. Trump denies them all.
- Ivana Trump, his first wife, spoke out in 1993 about allegations of marital rape. In reference to this, special counsel to the Trump Organization, Michael Cohen, falsely stated “You cannot rape your spouse. And there’s very clear case law.”
- A recording and transcript of an interview between Trump and Billy Bush was made public. Trump is recorded describing explicit and objectifying sexual advances he made toward various women. Billy Bush lost his job when this interview was widely publicized and Trump was promoted to president of the United States. (Very few evangelical voters considered this description of sexual violence in their votes.)
Within in this context, Dobson appeared to affirm Trump’s recent Christian faith (which he later denies) and joined the evangelical executive advisory board, which does not require members to endorse the President but is significant. This interview just prior to the election is also interesting.
Also on the advisory board, friend of Dobson’s via his late father, and president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. stated in an interview with the Washington Post that there was nothing Trump could do to lose his support. Falwell believed Trump’s “personal behavior”, or sexual immorality, was irrelevant when compared to his business acumen.
Why this shift in support among Dr. Dobson and others? What part has fear or nationalism played in this?
How can many American evangelicals teach sexual “purity” or “pro-life” values and protect (and elect) perpetrators of sexual violence at the same time?
Food for thought:
- (Blogpost) Patriarchy and Abusive Churches by Rachel Held Evans
- (Podcast) Gender, Power, and Fairness with Tarana Burke
- (Podcast) Connecting #churchtoo, Kaepernick and Christian nationalism
- (Article) For Evangelicals, A Year Of Reckoning On Sexual Sin And Support For Donald Trump by Tom Gjelten
- (Book) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll
Read more in this series: