The Broken System: Asking the Right Questions

The Broken System: Asking the Right Questions January 12, 2016

I heard about this story a while ago, but I wanted to hold off on writing about it till now because it fit in so well with what we’ve been talking about lately regarding failed behavioral models and cultural expectations. It’s a fascinating story to me, though, and the delay in writing about it was not due to lack of interest but rather of time. You see, a Baptist minister might well be discovering that the beginning of wisdom is not “fear of the Lord,” but rather asking the right questions. And because he’s begun asking the right questions, I thought I’d take a stab at answering him because I’m helpful that way. Maybe someone else is wondering the same thing he is. Today I’ll outline why it’s so remarkable that the question even got asked.

But first I’ve got a question of my own.

They don't seem quite so bad to me. (Credit: Always Shooting, CC license.)
The Badlands. They don’t seem quite so bad to me. (Credit: Always Shooting, CC license.)

South Dakota, WTF is Wrong With You?

For such a sparsely-populated state, South Dakota’s having some problems lately with misbehaving pastors. Well, it’s nothing that churches all over the world aren’t seeing, but it’s worth a brief overview before we go further.

Last October, Tony Haglund, a 50-year-old Lutheran pastor, got three years in prison for having sex with a teenage girl.

Last June, Timothy Bariteau, who’d been a pastor at Morningside Community Church in Brookings, South Dakota, was arrested and later convicted of having sexual contact with a child under 16, which is a felony there.

Last year, Timothy Thompson, who’d been a Baptist pastor in that state, got arrested for having sexual contact with a child under 16 years of age. He’d even tried to follow his victim to Denver, which is where he was arrested.

And gosh, who could forget Presbyterian pastor William Guthrie, who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife of 30 years back in 2000. He died in prison in 2011.

We could go on and on and on, but why bother? Regular readers of this blog are already well aware of just how moral and upstanding Christian ministers can be. Though I believe that the vast majority of Christian ministers really try their best, there are a lot of bad apples in the basket. And there is a reason for the presence of those bad apples.

Speaking of which, Joseph Raleigh, the center of today’s post, had only been pastor of First Baptist Church in Miller, South Dakota since 2013 when he “fell to sin.” The young pastor (34-35 years old), who is married with four children, got arrested in late October last year while allegedly trying to buy sex from a girl he thought was 15 years old. Instead, he fell into a sting operation. He showed up for his meeting with the agreed-upon cash for the “girl’s” time, and he got arrested. If he gets convicted he’s looking at fines up to USD$250,000, supervised release for possibly the rest of his life, and of course prison time of at least 10 years to life.

Joseph Raleigh resigned his ministerial position with First Baptist very quickly after his arrest. Because he quit before he could get fired, his old church can let his wife and children stay in their parsonage for a bit longer and “minister” to them instead of just throwing them out on their asses, which is what would have happened had Mr. Raleigh not quit first. (That entire idea is its own can of worms, but I’m going to push ahead because we’ve got a lot to cover today. Also, a “parsonage” is a house paid for by the church where the minister and his family can live rent-free and usually tax-free. Some of these parsonages are very humble, while others are downright palatial.)

He’s currently awaiting trial and living in a halfway house called Glory House, which is run by Baptists but which is apparently evidence-based, with staff who have real degrees rather than the pseudoscience religious jibber-jabber we saw out of “Christian Counselors” earlier, and so is allowed to work with law enforcement in this way.

Who is Joseph Raleigh and Why Does He Matter?

Joseph Raleigh himself isn’t that big a deal, but what he represents is. He is, as I’ve noted, a fairly young pastor. He attended Luther Rice Seminary, which provides both classroom and online study from Georgia. Luther Rice is a fundagelical group that believes and teaches Biblical inerrancy and infallibility, and all applicants to the college must affirm belief in its creed in order to be accepted as students. Given the trajectory of Mr. Raleigh’s career, there’s no reason to suspect he had any issues with affirming that doctrinal statement.

After Luther Rice, Mr. Raleigh and his wife went to Ohio, where he got ordained in 2007. He pastored another church in Montana for a few years before ending up in South Dakota in 2013, where he began working for First Baptist Church of Miller. As you might have guessed from their extremely rudimentary “official” website, First Baptist is a small church of only about 35 members, so their new pastor had to get himself a day job, which in this case was at a ranch some of the members owned. The church is part of the Dakota Baptist Convention, which is a regional Southern Baptist Convention group covering North and South Dakota, with about 40 and 55 churches in each state respectively.

Very early in his career, Mr. Raleigh had developed into not only a fundagelical who believed in the idea of inerrancy and infallibility, but into what is arguably the worst of all fundagelicals: a Calvinist (to put it briefly, Calvinists are especially nasty, rules-oriented, controlling Christians who think that their god is a brutal bastard who “elects” some people to go to Heaven while everyone else was slated before birth for Hell). While in Montana Mr. Raleigh had gotten involved with Reformation Montana, an umbrella group of various Calvinist ministers and churches that seek to infiltrate existing denominations with their doctrines and theology. Mostly they’re Southern Baptists, but they profess something called the Second London Baptist Confession, which was developed in 1689. You can read the whole thing if you have a lot of time on your hands, but all I’ve got to say is “wow, so much for the easy burden and light yoke, huh?” because I’ve seen coronations that look less complicated, overbearing, rigid, and fussy than this document makes these particular Christians look.

Look Out We Got a BadassThe god that Mr. Raleigh served was implacable and all-powerful, and the system that he and his Christian ministerial buddies developed and bought into was supposed to mold Christians into properly humbled (UM-bulled–sorry, couldn’t resist; that’s how my old church in Houston pronounced it) and “God-centered” Christians rather than like all those other Christians who care more about “sound systems” (as in electronic audio equipment) than “sound doctrines.” Oooh, how clever and hardcore!

When he left Montana for South Dakota, Joseph Raleigh continued in his previous vein by joining a group called the Founders. The name refers to the fact that they think they follow the original doctrines and practices of the original Southern Baptists. (But minus the slavery, I’m guessing.) Here we discover his name in a list of “Founders-Friendly Churches in SD”. If you check out their “About” page, you’ll quickly notice that this group thinks that the Southern Baptists are just too damned liberal and have gotten way too watered-down over the years. Of course they are also Calvinist and love them some Second London Baptist Confession.

A year or so later after arriving in Miller, Mr. Raleigh decided he couldn’t hold back his urges any longer and allegedly got online to specifically seek out and buy sex from an underage girl. And because the police were the ones who caught him, there was little chance of him escaping notice or justice for what he’d allegedly done.

In and of himself, he is small potatoes. Smaller than small, really. He’s a small-town pastor for a church that can’t even afford to pay for a full-time minister position. He’s a tiny little cog in the vast machine is that is the Southern Baptist Convention, and one of many, many ministers of various denominations (both in and out of fundagelicalism) who’ve been caught or accused of doing something hugely inappropriate, criminal, or abusive. He wasn’t a minister for very long, never got that far into his career, and wasn’t a recognized name on his own. He likely got involved in this Founders/Reformers stuff because it suited the kind of religiosity he himself bought into, and it was a new enough movement that he had a decent shot at making a name for himself with it–who knows, maybe he would have become as well-known and successful as fellow Calvinist pastor Mark Driscoll. It’s a little odd that he seems to have gone to smaller and smaller posts, which makes me wonder exactly why he left his previous churches (especially knowing what I do about Baptist ministers who get shuffled from post to post rather than dealt with definitively when accusations of impropriety arise), but I’ve got nothing but guesses there; maybe this arc is perfectly normal for ministers who aren’t especially outstanding and this truly was the first time he’d ever been caught doing anything illegal or improper.

Nonetheless, every flood begins with a single drop of water, and I noticed something about this familiar story that was different, something that was new and unique, something I’d never noticed before.

This is the first time I’ve seen anybody official respond to one of these ministers’ falls with something besides the boilerplate “oh we forgive him and pray for him and his family” nonsense they’re required to spew whenever their hypocrites are unmasked (when they don’t flat-out blame the predator’s victim for encouraging him somehow, of course).

I think this response means something, and I’ve wanted for a while to call attention to it.

Someone’s Finally Asked the Right Question.

After Mr. Raleigh’s arrest and resignation, Buck Hill, the Missions Director for the Dakota Baptist Convention and a longtime missionary himself, began filling in for Mr. Raleigh by performing church services for First Baptist while they sought another pastor. He’s been living and working in that area for a while now, so he’s quite familiar with most of the names I listed at the top of this post. He’s served alongside many of them and even preached at their churches as a guest. So when journalists needed to know more about Mr. Raleigh’s situation in context of other ministers who’d similarly fallen from grace, Mr. Hill was the logical source to seek for an interview.

In that Capitol Journal article, Mr. Hill discussed some of the state’s other fallen pastors–name after name, sometimes noting that this or that criminal was extremely personable or persuasive. And of course he spewed the standard boilerplate nonsense as cited above, because his culture has dictated for years that that’s what he has to do.

But then suddenly he came out with this plaintive little question:

So when I heard about Joe [Raleigh], was I surprised? No, but I was sickened. Just like when I heard about Timothy Thompson. How do we get to this place, where this stuff happens?

And I said to myself, Wait, what? Hold on, back the truck up, what’d he say right there?

This is the question that every fundagelical in America really should be asking themselves–but which very few of them ever will. And there’s a reason why few of them will.

It’s a dangerous question.

Buck Hill may have begun to notice that his tribe’s behavioral model and culture do not work to protect the innocent and vulnerable from predators in their ranks. And that’s a dangerous realization. He’s asked the question that needed to be asked years ago, back when the word first began getting spread about the widespread abuse of young women and children in Baptist churches, but which for some reason was not. It’s the kind of question that people should have been asking–but still didn’t–when Boz Tchividjian began telling people that evangelicals’ official response to sex abuse is even worse than anything Catholic priests have ever done.

What Buck Hill has asked here is the kind of question that can lead someone straight out of Christianity. It is very similar in spirit to the question I first asked long ago when I began to deconvert: “Why does something real and true need so much fakery, manipulation, and dishonesty to prop itself up and sound compelling?”

How does his tribe get to this place, where this stuff happens?

Oh, how indeed.

It’s the kind of question someone can only ask once he’s noticed that the system doesn’t seem to be working the way everyone says it should be working.

Asking the right question is the first step to getting back on track and fixing a broken system. From what I saw in that article, Mr. Hill has unfortunately already begun to pull back from the abyss he’d just realized had opened up at his feet. We’ll see if he eventually takes the next step that must be taken if he and his peers are to address and resolve the rampant, widespread hypocrisy and abuse in Christian churches, but we will forge ahead with or without him. See you next time, when we start looking at how a group can get to a point where abuse is not only widespread but covered up, excused, and subtly encouraged.

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