Well! Welcome back from Easter and our Prodigal Planet special! I wanted to segue briefly to show you something that happened last week in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Really, it is hardly even news anymore: yet another fundagelical Christian leader got caught with his dick somewhere it shouldn’t be, whereupon he got to quit-before-he-could-be-fired. This scandal, however, is news precisely because of who this particular leader is, and what his contributions to fundagelical culture have been. We’re talking about Frank Page, the onetime executive leader of the SBC, and today I’ll show you one of the two important things that his downfall tells us.
Oh, and by the way, our lovely photographic assistant for today will be Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Preserve in Madagascar, typically considered one of the hands-down most dangerous natural places in the whole wide world. If you’re wondering, the word tsingy in Malagasy apparently means “where one cannot walk barefoot” and refers to the limestone formations that exist all through the area. It won’t take much reading to figure out how those formation might have gotten that description.
Overall, I can’t imagine a more appropriate reference for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Everyone, (re)Meet Frank Page.
Frank Page is–or rather was until extremely recently!–one of the biggest names and highest-up leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Specifically, he was the President and CEO of their Executive Committee, which leads the denomination’s daily operations and does a whole bunch of absolutely necessary things in that capacity to keep it all running.
And we’ve mentioned him in passing a few times over the years–like here, where we mentioned that he was the guy who single-handedly saved Russell Moore’s job when he got too tetchy about Donald Trump for his belligerent, enraged flocks to handle. Or here, where he whined that SBC pew-warmers weren’t evangelistic enough to save his ailing denomination from a decline that’s lasted even longer than the one now engulfing Christianity as a whole.
One would be hard-put to find a more important leader within the denomination, or one with more power at his command. (He’s even shown up on a small business’s list of “the Fifty Most Influential Christians in America,” Wikipedia tells us, though that page is defunct.) You can be sure that the man–because obviously they’d never pick a woman; don’t be silly!–who fills this position is going to have the brightest, shiniest Jesus Aura in the entire denomination.1 Because of the role’s power and influence, obviously the hiring committee takes a while to be positive that “Jesus” extra-approves of their choice, even for a flavor of Christians already known for praying for divine guidance before anything and everything–including where to eat lunch.2
Frank Page probably seemed like a shoo-in for the role, though, having been involved at the highest levels of the denomination since at least 2006–and that after decades of being a pastor of at least one really fast-growing church. Really, he’s as close to wearing a Jesus Seal of Approval as fundagelicals can possibly get.
To put it simply, Frank Page is a true believer in the perfection of his tribe’s message. The only way that a perfect message can fail is in the execution of it–and so he’s been steadily blaming his flocks for not following it closely enough. If they’d only do what he’s demanded, their tribe would easily reverse its decline–and you can just see how frustrated he gets whenever the flocks hear him rattling on and then proceed to do whatever the hell they want, just like they always have.
OMG A SCANDAL!
Last week Frank Page informed the other officers of the Executive Committee that he was retiring because of “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”
As usual, fundagelicals’ sympathy firmly rests with their Dear Leaders over any victims of those leaders’ hypocrisy. The committee’s chairman, Stephen Rummage, made a statement in which he requested prayers for “everyone involved in a situation like this, and especially for Dr. and Mrs. Page” and specifically for the Executive Committee itself.” This total lack of concern for whoever else was involved in this scandal makes sense only if the morally inappropriate relationship was with Frank Page’s right hand.3
About the only saving grace there is for Page right now is that so far, the “personal failing” to which he’s confessed doesn’t appear to have involved anything blatantly illegal (translation: it doesn’t appear to involve anybody underage or the use of illegal substances).
The Schadenfreude Is About to Get Thicker.
Frank Page isn’t just the leader of the Executive Committee.
He’s also one of the leading voices in that end of the religion on a variety of other matters–like church growth. Remember I mentioned that one of his churches did phenomenally well for the SBC in terms of church growth? Fundagelical pastors must be just in awe of anybody who can even keep a church flock stagnant through this period of intense decline; one who can actually grow a church, even if it’s very nearly a megachurch, is going to be a rock star with them these days, especially if such a pastor adheres to strict fundagelical doctrines. (They think it’s really easy for a lax pastor to grow a huge church.)
And Page has certainly parlayed that success into the publishing and selling of books about not only reversing an “incredible shrinking church,” but also stuff like how a church hiring committee can select just the right pastor to lead them. (That Baptist Press writer jokes that it ought to be called Pastor Searches for Dummies, which does a great job of accidentally highlighting exactly how much trouble these hiring committees have in locating leaders.) Nothing says we’re totally just a cult of personality like the fundagelical concession that hiring exactly the right pastor matters enormously to a church’s growth, but here we are.
The scandal gets considerably better/worse, however.
The Wartburg Watch, an excellent religious-watchdog blog that keeps an eye on fundagelical leaders, reminds us of something else that Frank Page did during his time as leader of the Executive Committee that suddenly throws this scandal into very sharp relief.
Stop Baptist Predators–Or Not.
In addition to building a reputation as a bridger of divides between the more contentious subgroups within his denomination, in 2007 Frank Page also vehemently resisted the idea of creating and maintaining a database within the denomination to keep track of sex offenders in ministry.
You heard me.
Around 2007, when the Catholic child-rape scandal was still hitting its peak of awareness and people were starting to realize just how similarly pervasive sex abuse was in fundagelical circles, survivors’ and watchdog groups began pressuring the SBC to develop a database to track sex offers in SBC ministry, similar the one developing for Catholic priests.
This database would track not only convicted sex abusers, but also any minister or volunteer who’d confessed or been found credibly accused of committing sex crimes. The database was (and is) considered a necessity because most sex abusers haven’t been formally convicted, so a typical criminal background check won’t reveal them to a hiring committee.
SBC predators, in particular, take advantage of that lack of oversight in a number of ways. First and foremost, they know that victims will have a tough time being heard and believed by ministry teams–and that these crimes, despite falling under mandatory-reporting guidelines, often won’t even be reported to the police. Second, because the SBC’s leaders typically care much more about maintaining their reputation as a denomination than about protecting the vulnerable flocks, anyone credibly accused of a sex crime will typically be quietly allowed to quit–and then be shuffled away to another congregation (which will not be forewarned about the sex abuser about to join their ministry teams). Third, because the whole episodes are hushed up, even if a ministry hiring committee wants to avoid selecting sex abusers, they won’t be able to make a fully-informed hiring decision.
Oh, the SBC did the equivalent of offering past and future victims of sex abuse thoughts and prayers by totally passing a resolution in 2002 demanding “sexual integrity” of its ministers, one that was inspired by the Catholic child-rape scandals erupting every day by then. Somehow that resolution failed to do anything to rein in the growing accusations against SBC ministers.
When it came to taking truly meaningful action to protect people attending SBC churches, however, Frank Page flat refused. His reasons?
First and foremost, he didn’t think the SBC’s sex-abuser problem was “wide or systemic” enough to require such a database.
Second, he insisted that SBC churches were just too independent to allow his committee to demand accountability in this fashion from them.
Both of his reasons are so damning to the SBC that one wonders if he thought either of them through before opening his piehole and letting it flap around in the breeze without supervision.
But he made the situation even worse by accusing those seeking such a predator database of being “nothing more than opportunistic persons who are seeking to raise opportunities for personal gain.”
Yes, that was Frank Page flinging unfounded and baseless accusations at SNAP-Baptist, a sub-group within the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and at Christa Brown, an abuse survivor who started and maintained the website Stop Baptist Predators at the time. Yes. He was really and truly saying they were just greedy opportunists out to enrich themselves, and he was making these accusations to avoid having to confront how widespread sex abuse is in his denomination and having to meaningfully track those abusers.
He’d been responding to the news of Baptist predators in this way for a while, however. This wasn’t some off-the-cuff response, some poorly-considered reply to something he hadn’t adequately studied yet. When 20/20 did a story that same year (2007) on predatory ministers, Frank Page accused them of conducting “yellow journalism.” He was far more upset with the show making his denomination’s leaders look “uncaring and uninformed” than he was about taking every possible precaution he could to protect the overly-trusting Christian flocks within it. (Robert Parham, the founder and executive director of the Baptist Center of Ethics who just passed away last year, at least lamented that Page had done that typical fundagelical thing of shooting the messenger instead of “hearing the truth of the message.”)
Frank Page went on to refuse to consider that database for years–Wartburg Watch has in its story a 2014 letter from him to SNAP about it.
Thanks in great part to Frank Page, that database never happened.
And it probably never will, for a variety of reasons all related to exactly why and how the Southern Baptist Convention is a broken system.
What This Scandal Means.
So for Frank Page to get caught with his dick in the cookie jar is huge.
Generally speaking, Christians are very quick to discount every single thing one of their tribemates does when falling out of favor. Every time a Christian musician deconverts, or a leader decides that being gay is okay with Jesus, Christians agonize about whether or not they now need to burn or throw away every single book or CD they ever owned by that person.
Certainly we’ve got lots of examples, particularly as touching the anti-gay culture wars that Christian bigots so enjoy. Here’s no less than Russell Moore himself rattling off on that exact question about Eugene Peterson, who briefly seemed to be changing his mind about bigotry-for-Jesus. And here’s a lecture admonishing TRUE CHRISTIANS™ not even to listen to music produced by Christian musicians who have come out as gay. Oh, and we can’t forget World Vision, which lost a considerable amount of support when they briefly flirted with the idea of allowing openly people in same-sex marriages to work for them.
Obviously, I don’t think anybody’s going to be wringing their hands over whether or not to keep their Frank Page books around. Nobody’s going to suggest that his YouTube videos be destroyed or at least taken down. There’ll be nobody pushing to make him a pariah. His ideological purity matters so much more–and he still clings to that, at least.
More than anything else, therefore, this scandal truly highlights the SBC’s wackadoodle priorities.
See, even within the SBC, whose member churches Frank Page insisted were just sooooooo independent that he could never require them to volunteer enough information to make a database meaningful, we see the same demands for rigid lockstep on culture-war topics as we do within the Christian music or publishing industries.
It’s so rigid that Page can’t demand that a member church volunteer for a predator database, but the SBC’s Executive Committee sure as hell can insist that an affiliated church be pushed out of the denomination if its pastor decides to reject bigotry-for-Jesus, as Neil Carter so profoundly discussed in his 2014 post “By This Shall All Men Know That You Are Baptists?” For that crime, Frank Page’s Executive Committee will even meet in the off-season, when the convention itself isn’t even in session.
A Crystal-Clear Lesson.
Don’t ask the Southern Baptist Commission to create or maintain a predator database. That’s not important enough to them.
Maybe what, 4-7% of the population is LGBT, and that’s enough to pull those evildoers out of hibernation in an emergency session to vote unanimously to throw out a member church that is edging suspiciously closely toward not hating them enough to maintain ideological purity.
But for an untold number of victims of ministerial sex abuse–rape, pedophilia, and all the rest–they just can’t possibly lift a finger.
I can see no better way for the SBC to communicate to anybody observing this scandal what their priorities really are.
I won’t be the only person who has drawn this conclusion, either. Very likely, quite a few people within the SBC are already drawing it. It’s even more likely that a lot of those people will be the few remaining Quiltbag-friendly and -inhabiting Baptists still remaining after the denomination’s ideological purges.
Today Lord Snow Presides over a scandal that points to a signal failure of the Southern Baptist Convention–in more than one way. Next time we’re going to talk about the other way it lights up the SBC’s failures–and I hope you’ll join me!
1 A Jesus Aura is the imaginary light that Christians think emanates around a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Typically they express the Jesus Aura thusly: “There’s just something… I dunno, different about you.” See more here.
2 YES. This was something I literally saw happen many times when I was a fundagelical. It’s really weird to think that any gods care if their followers eat at Taco Bell vs. McDonald’s, but the people doing it were scared that if they went to the wrong place, they’d miss an evangelism opportunity.
3Me, totally out of the blue after an hour of silent typing and muttered profanity: “Honey, what hand does a right-handed man typically masturbate with?”
Mr. Captain, suddenly realizing just what he signed onto five years ago when I began blogging: “Um… his right hand, I’d assume?”
(Here is a sexologist’s take on the matter.)
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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who presides over my household like Mufasa lounging on Pride Rock.