Whenever you hear about any institution or group that specifically singles out one group to hold all the power and exalts the voices of that group while stripping other groups of power and voices, abuse and scandals not only become more likely, but they become inevitable. There isn’t some other way that can work. Today we’ll talk about why and how that is.
I’m bringing this up because of a story making the rounds on my social media today: it’s a story from last year, but I guess it just got some renewed attention. The popular youth pastor of yet another church preaching misogyny-as-the-bonus-plan fell due to a sex abuse scandal. Yes, yet another youth pastor turned out to be a raging hypocrite and predator. I wish I could be surprised anymore by that.
A year ago, Nathaniel Morales got 40 years in prison for sexually abusing three boys in his care some years ago. He tried to claim that he had selective amnesia about the abuse he perpetrated on these (and likely many other) victims, but the judge wasn’t buying these self-serving and obvious lies. In fact, Judge Terrance McGann called this now-ex-pastor “pathetic” and a “cowardly pervert.”
Cowardly pervert and pathetic he may be (I sure won’t argue that point), but you must admit that Nathaniel Morales found the perfect vantage point from which to hunt for victims. Conservative churches are fertile fields of prey for predators.* These organizations have left absolutely nothing to chance here; the system they have created for their leaders is nothing less than a perfect storm for the creation of victims and an open invitation to abusers. (I wrote about this a little here, but I’ve had a little more time to think about this subject.) Obviously, you can apply these dynamics to other groups and other power structures, as well, but I’ll focus on gender since that’s what’s going on with these conservative church groups.
Here’s why and how this abuse happens.
1. One group has all the power. Everyone else is stripped of power.
By sheer dint of his penis, Mr. Morales was considered to be more qualified to lead in all areas of life than anyone who didn’t have one. A man who can’t find respect or willing followers elsewhere due to his lack of qualifications or aptitude will find a happy home in these churches. A fully-qualified and competent woman wishing to lead is considered heretical and worse by these churches–I heard such a woman referred to as “a Jezebel spirit” many times.** Docility and submission were what were prized in women in my experience across the board of the religion. And children had no voice at all and no way to protest their treatment; they were and still are considered the full-on no-qualifiers property of their
slave masters owners parents, which is largely why religious zealots react so poorly to being told they must vaccinate their kids or get them decent educations–and can’t beat the tar out of them. Men are at the top of the heap in every single way and own all those below them.
This mindset is called complementarianism. It means that men and women were totally created equal, but with totally different roles based on their biologies assigned by the God of the Universe, who is for some reason thought to be intensely interested in who exactly does the dishes in a household and does the preaching in a church. It’s nobody’s fault that men just so happened to be assigned the role of leader and women just so happened to be assigned the role of follower. Nope, nobody’s fault! Orders from the top! Can’t change it!
You might notice that this policy looks a lot like “separate but equal” from back in America’s Jim Crow days. Oh, men back in my day whined a lot about being the chosen leaders–about the heavy lifting they had to do and how hard it was being responsible for their families’ souls and whatnot. Not even the most fervent of my female friends was fooled by this charade. We all knew that it was an act–but what could we do about it? We all thought this was what Jesus wanted. Unjust as it might be, unfair as it constantly felt, as rife with potential for abuse as it was, we didn’t feel like we could speak out against it or rebel–because by wild coincidence, rebellion was the most unforgivable thing a woman could ever do. Even being angry about this mistreatment and unfairness got women accusations of rebelliousness, selfishness, and “bitterness.” Instant, mindless, smiling obedience was the only acceptable behavior for us; joy and contentment, peace and serenity were the only approved emotions available for us to feel about it. When we agitated too much, we got told to pray more and be even more obedient to make the Jesus Power flow more, which would make our husbands into better leaders.
The idea was–and is–that Jesus Power will make men into great leaders, or at least make men behave themselves. If everybody is praying enough and being extra-sure to follow the Bible’s dictates and Jesus’ “still small voice,” then that will ensure that abuse doesn’t break out.
If When abuse does break out anyway, then the leader in the group (be it a husband or a pastor) will be blamed for sinning–or his victims will be blamed for sinning, because clearly someone thwarted all that Jesus Power. One or the both of them will be seen as the problem, because the system itself cannot be the problem by definition because it’s perfect. The many times that abuse breaks out is seen as a failure on the part of those trying to enact the system, not a failure on the part of the system itself–and the few people the system actually does work for will be paraded around as success stories to inspire–or shame–the rest of the flock into complying with it.
When I was Christian, my own eyes were dazzled by these few happy, gloriously harmonious-looking couples, whose success was always heaped at the feet of their obedience to the system of complementarianism. When I seemed to get nothing but abuse whenever I tried my best to live by those principles, then either I or my Christian husband was blamed for failing to live up to the ideals of the system in some way. I began to think that a truly divine system wouldn’t be that difficult to put into action, nor would it seem to sprout with abuse and drama so often, but I kept that idea to myself.
Pretending that this system was easy to do and guaranteed to result in a happy, harmonious family, church community, and society was very much to my leaders’ advantage. Vilifying disobedience and resentment was also to their advantage.
Eventually I’d realize that actually, every part of that system was to their advantage–at the expense of those who were not part of the power structure alongside them.
2. The group in power is deeply invested in maintaining its power and jealously guards its own privilege.
That’s true of any group. The status quo doesn’t exist to help the underclasses; it exists to help the leaders of a group stay in power. That’s why it gets invoked by the leaders of the group whenever anyone hints at making any changes that would strip away any of their own power. When a marginalized group starts making noise, it is not trying to move closer to “how we’ve always done things;” it is trying to move away from that space toward something different.
That’s why women’s rights enrages and scares the crap out of conservative Christians; if women gain power, then that means less power for men. They know perfectly well that power is a zero-sum game. There’s only so much of it to go around. Conservative mens’ resistance to sharing their power is not so much a fear of change–though I perceive that happening too–as it is a fear of not being in power anymore.
Men in these denominations and churches can see exactly what it’s like to have no power. They’re not idiots. They think they know exactly what will happen if they put themselves under that same authority they demand over others. They won’t willingly endure what they have demanded of their followers for so long, and in their world, those are their only two options: be in power, or be ground underfoot by those in power.
Instead, they come up with distortions of language, spin doctoring, denials and the concealment of wrongdoing, and even outright doublespeak meant to make themselves seem like the servants and the ones lacking power–and/or to make women seem like they have much more power than they really have. I frequently heard women in my denomination say out loud that they considered having real power to be a step down from the imaginary power they’d been told they wielded, and wouldn’t accept leadership positions even if it were an option for them to have it in their churches because they genuinely believed it’d be demeaning to them as women to do it. I do not think much has changed; if anything, the attitude is probably more pronounced as conservative Christianity continues its campaign of resistance to women’s equality.
3. Inevitably, this power imbalance will result in abuses as the underclass begins to agitate for justice and their leaders slap them down.
At some point, the underclass will realize exactly why their leaders don’t allow them to have voices or an equal say in the rules that will govern their lives–and their leaders will react punitively by making the situation worse. They can’t just ignore the situation once it gets to a certain level of noise, or the dissatisfaction will start infecting the other followers. Nor can they react with wisdom and grace because that would involve them giving up some of their own power. Their only real option is to drill down harder on the virtues of their system and deny that anything is wrong. And for a while, especially if the system has legal or cultural power and can make dissenters’ lives miserable, that tactic works.
But that won’t work forever. Human nature and human dignity may be crushed for a while, but not forever. News of abuses creeps out more and more often, and as more areas around the group gain freedom, the lack of freedom under the group’s system becomes more and more obvious. Its shortcomings are a throbbing wound that cannot be ignored forever.
The reason that “separate but equal” got struck down in 1954 was because it became glaringly apparent that the leaders of society–white men–were not in any way offering equal resources and facilities to black people, like they had said they would and as they claimed would happen under that ideology. It took a while to get to the point where this inequality was even acknowledged, and longer still before it became a big enough issue that our government had to seriously examine it. Right-wing Christians still can’t even acknowledge that the system is broken, so it will take time for them to figure out that they need to do something else. Make no mistake here, though:
History Continues to Repeat Itself Until the Lesson is Learned.
If you’re wondering, Covenant Life Church–Nathaniel Morales’ church–still hasn’t learned its lesson. They’re still preaching misogyny-as-the-bonus-plan. Look at that first link I gave you–they’re still preaching the same doctrines that got them Nathaniel Morales. And I’m sure they’ll continue to do so. It’s more to their (19 out of 19 male) pastors’ interest to maintain their status quo than to change anything.
I’m not saying that equality for women at Nathaniel Morales’ various churches would have saved his victims from his predation. But I am saying that there are observations I can very safely make. Women’s rights are a sort of barometer for a church’s level of safety and fairness. A church that understands women’s equality is also a church that tends to understand that owning a penis doesn’t automatically make a man a leader, any more than not having one disqualifies anyone from being a leader. That’s an organization that tends to welcome and value all voices, not just male voices–and considers equal representation in places of power to be not just something they’ll grudgingly put up with or allow in very special cases, but something they actively require to prevent that kind of in-group entrenchment of privilege. It’s a group that tends to understand that injustice and unfairness cannot possibly be the requirement of a truly just or loving deity. And it’s one that tends to understand that when abuse happens, it’s the result of a systemic failure–and a shortcoming of their way of doing things that can be and indeed must be meaningfully addressed.
That’s why you don’t see these kinds of scandals coming out of churches with women in power, churches that don’t enshrine men as the sole group to wield power or have the capacity to speak. I can remember exactly one in all the time I’ve been blogging–and it was a volunteer who didn’t actually get his hands on any kids in the church, largely because his church had plenty of safeguards in place to protect women and children in case Jesus Power didn’t make everyone in power behave themselves. Not for nothing did Boz Tchividjian say that evangelicals are actually facing a far worse scandal with sex abuse than Catholics are already grappling with; speaking of his faith system (he himself is evangelical), he said, “Protestants can be very arrogant when pointing to Catholics,” but that “I think we are worse.” I would agree with him.
Separate-but-equal doesn’t work as a social system. It can’t work, it never has worked, and it never will work–no matter how much Jesus Power its adherents believe they’re putting into it.
These scandals aren’t an aberration of the system. They are a direct result of the system and part of its architecture.
I’m very glad to be out of a religion whose loudest voices are leaders who are this savagely proprietary about their own power and self-interest–all while scandal after scandal erupts from their diseased ranks.
* By this I mean both conservative right-wing Catholicism and conservative right-wing Protestantism; they have much more in common with each other than they do with the more liberal arms of their own ideologies. I can’t really use “fundagelical” or “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” here, since such Catholics practice “separate but equal” just as fervently as their Protestant brethren do–which is precisely why their own group is rocked by scandals as well.
** Trans men have an equally difficult time of it–though I personally know they’re men, the plumbing is what qualifies them for the label in churches like these. When Christian leaders even recognize that transgender people exist at all, it’s generally to denigrate, dehumanize, and vilify them. I’ll focus here on cisgender women since that’s my experience; I just want y’all to understand that it’s not just cis women who don’t get a voice, it’s anybody who doesn’t have a male body and also identify as male. BTW, for the new folks, “cisgender” means someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth. A cisgender woman is a woman who was assigned “female” as her gender at birth and identifies as female. A transgender woman is one who was assigned “male” as her gender at birth, but she identifies as female. So I’m a cisgender woman, while Caitlyn Jenner is a transgender woman. It’s okay to use “cis” and “trans” for short.
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