Not long ago, we were looking at a Christian movie called Second Glance. It was made in 1992 with an incredibly young and particularly uncoordinated David A.R. White sporting Justin Timberlake-kinda ramen-noodle hair and a never-ending succession of baggy, shapeless t-shirts. He was getting a look at what his life would have been like without his growing up as a fundagelical youth. I’m glad we saw that movie because I could see a lot of the roots of fundagelicalism as it exists today in it. When the accusations began flowing against bigot-for-Jesus Roy Moore, that movie showed us exactly why Roy Moore almost certainly committed the crimes he is accused of committing. In this movie, we see the beginnings–the roots, if you will–of the worldview that has brought Christians in that end of the religion to a place where they enthusiastically support someone who routinely preyed upon underage girls. I’ll show you those roots today, and why they inevitably lead to such abuse.
No, It’s Not a Conspiracy.
I’ve personally heard a lot of Christians over the years–far too many, and in disturbing amounts of detail–try to claim that the current and constant onslaught of fresh scandals in fundagelicalism are being noised about because there’s some vast conspiracy to dig up dirt on their tribemates. Implicit in these denunciations is the admission that yes, the accusations are credible, but the sole problem fundagelicals have with the news coverage is that it makes them look realllllly bad.
At least one ex-fundagelical knows better: Boz Tchividjian (pronounce it like “davidian,” I’ve heard) asserts that the fundagelicalism-wide sex assault scandal is actually worse than the one that Catholics are facing over child rape. Think about that for a moment. Just close your eyes for me (please?) and think about it–and marvel in horror as I do at that hint of numbers and percentages. He’s been saying this for years, too–that link’s from 2014–and who knows, maybe at last people will start listening to him, even in Alabama.
But no! A conspiracy, fundagelicals think, is the literal only reason they can possibly see for why there are simply so many of these reports and accusations coming out lately–and why there always seemed like way fewer such reports involving non-Christians and non-conservatives. Even when that changed so dramatically with accusations coming out against comedian Louis C.K. and movie dude Harvey Weinstein and others, all covered in detail by media outlets that most fundagelicals mistakenly think are 100% liberal-leaning like The New York Times, it’s still easy to find Christians who are totally convinced that there’s a huge conspiracy among the mean ole evil librul lamestream media to make their tribe look bad.
Probably the best solution there is to combating that mindset is to ignore it or mock it and try to concentrate on the accusations themselves: do they have merit? Are they credible? Are they likely? Indeed we discover rapidly that the answers to these accusations against Roy Moore are merit-worthy, credible, and completely inescapable in his culture.
People outside that culture are of course and understandably shocked beyond comprehension when they hear about Christians who make excuses for rape and abuse of all kinds, but in Roy Moore’s neck of the woods, they’re the ones in the right. They’re the ones who are doing everything correctly according to the directions of a real live god.
And they think we’re the ones who are wrong about everything, but most especially about how we conduct relationships.
A Cultural Issue.
As our lovely Beth’s pointed out in her excellent piece for HuffPo and as Kathryn Brightbill has written for the LA Times, everything Roy Moore and his tribemates say and do only lends more validation to the accusations against him. Fundagelicals–especially those defending Moore, excusing what he did, and trying to discredit his accusers–inadvertently damn their hero because they have built-in blocks to understanding our entire worldview and our modern notions of stuff like consent and bodily autonomy. They’re part of a culture that is friendly to power-hungry men who want to prey upon others, and it’s friendly to these predators because it was engineered to be that way. Whether this engineering was done on purpose or by accident hardly matters, but that it was done is obvious.
Christians are very fond of claiming that any hypocrisy seen in their members–particularly among their leaders–is the result of an individual failing to follow an otherwise unimpeachable series of teachings about how people should behave and treat each other. But that cannot possibly be true simply because of the huge numbers of “individual failings” and how high up the chain of command those failings occur. Indeed, the people who should take those teachings the most seriously are the ones who seem to fail their rules the most often: the lifelong fundagelicals raised in deep fundagelical culture and those who claim they were appointed by a real live god to rule over the rest. Meanwhile, the marginalized people who should be the absolute safest among any group in the world are the ones who are abused the most often.
Worst of all, when (not if) someone is abused by a member of this holy tribe of TRUE CHRISTIANS™, it’s all but impossible for that victim to find justice and safety afterward. When an accusation does get made, the tribe almost always rallies to the defense of the accused and blames the accusers of any number of transgressions. They’ll make excuses that make outsiders cringe, but this part of the process is inevitable thanks to the culture they inhabit.
So sexual abuse scandals are not some aberration of Christian culture, nor the evidence of a great many individuals who simply can’t abide by the religion’s rules and teachings. They are, rather, the inevitable end-run result of that culture’s teachings.
Follow me into a tour of the dinosaur theme park, and I’ll show you what I mean. Strap in, wear your helmets, and don’t feed the T-Rex. She’s already feeling sick to her stomach after some nutbar gave her a Chick tract.
The Objectification of Women.
In Second Glance, David A.R. White’s character is infatuated with “Tamara,” a popular young blonde schoolmate. He’s petulant and pouty for the first act because Tamara clearly doesn’t see him as a romantic prospect–and why should she? He’s a petulant, pouty-pants child, selfish and mean even to his friends. But he’s sure that the reason she isn’t equally infatuated with him is simply because he’s a Christian–and the movie’s creators definitely see it that way.
But then “God” answers David’s prayers and creates this It’s a Magical Life sort of scenario for David where he can see how his life would have worked out if he’d never been a Christian. He learns that his parents are now divorced (because his prayers were all that was keeping their rocky marriage intact) and that he’s a slob who gambles well enough to have earned enough money at it to buy himself a red sportscar. Also, he’s now besties with the school’s bad boys, a prankster who almost kills his favorite teacher and laughs about it later–and the unfaithful boyfriend of Tamara.
For most of the second act, David is completely okay with all of this, in fact enthusiastic about it even when the full impact of this change becomes clear to him, and I can see why. He’s not at all different as an imagined lifelong atheist raised by a single sinful worldly mother as he is as a lifelong fundagelical raised by strict fundagelical parents (likely because the Christiano Brothers, who made the movie itself, can’t imagine any man being all that different at heart). Most of David’s griping in the first act consists him whining about having done all the correct things without reaping any of the rewards his culture promised he’d have. In fact, he’s missing all the fun stuff that his schoolmates–most of whom statistically are already Christian as well, just not as extremist, though the movie glosses this point–are enjoying. David was following those rules because it would gain him rewards, and this is a mindset that he will learn is perfectly acceptable by the end of the movie when he’s assured by an angel that he’s totally going to have ample rewards by the time his life is over. It’s a very utilitarian view of life itself as well as of religion–so it’s no surprise he’s like that with relationships too.
He’s already learned that Tamara is a very difficult and demanding girlfriend to have by the time he declares to his visiting angel that he’s fine with this new life. He’s okay with her being difficult because her personality was never a really important detail to him in the first place. What mattered to him throughout the movie, whether he was in act 1 or act 2, was her social importance as an attractive and popular schoolmate, not anything she thought or felt about anything–even him. Certainly she’s the same as she was in Act 1, and he had no idea she was like that despite having spent extended time alone with her (not, again, that he’d have cared). Her validation of him was what he wanted, not her companionship. When the audience (and David himself) finds out that he’s been cheating on her for a while with another equally socially-important schoolmate, it’s a sign that he didn’t really love her–and to me at least, it was a bit of a dud of a discovery for all that it provokes the crisis that almost literally comes out of nowhere to bring us to the end of Act 3. He wouldn’t have loved her even if he’d had her as a girlfriend in Act 1.
When Tamara finds out about his infidelity and dumps him, his non-fundagelical friends tell him that “girls are like buses–there’ll be another one along in 10 minutes,” assessing women as completely interchangeable. There’s every sign that David would have gone with that notion if the crisis hadn’t happened–because David’s character is exactly the same now emotionally as when he was as a fervent Christian back in Act 1.
This would have been a message that would have resonated with me and disturbed me even in 1992.
I’d already discovered that men considered women in my culture interchangeable. When one stopped being useful, another could be easily found to step into her place. (Remember how Andrea Yates’ husband Rusty remarried after his wife killed their children? Yeah.) Our teachings about marriage reinforced that notion, telling us at every turn that “God” decided who to put together based on an indecipherable plan only he knew. Pairings might occur between absolutely anybody, even between people who were totally incompatible in every single way, even between people who didn’t actually even like each other. The pair might argue like a pair of cats in a sack, but if they were meant to be together, then if they were doing their best to ascertain and follow this god’s indecipherable will then they would get together and stay that way somehow. Really, all a couple absolutely had to have was two people who were different sexes. (!)
I frequently saw men treat women in my culture that way–as objects that could be ordered about and moved around at men’s will, and replaced easily enough if they turned out not to be the correct pairing or left their mate’s company for whatever reason. And I had personal experience to guide me as well. I’d had a brief flirtation with a very fervent Southern Baptist guy that ended abruptly when I found out just how much he was objectifying me. The beginning of the end was finding out that he had always used the exact same weirdly specific pet name for me with past girlfriends, which he refused to accept might be objectionable to me and didn’t stop using. But it was his slowly-revealed tendency to literally explode in red-faced, screaming, terrier-like rage at me over the smallest disagreements in opinion that put the final nail in that relationship’s coffin before it could get anywhere. We weren’t even dating–and I knew from experience already that a man was on his best behavior then in my culture, with the rest of the ride being entirely downhill from there.
About a week after I told him that I was over the whole thing and quit trying to explain my decision to his complete satisfaction, he drummed up a new flirtation with a young woman he knew from our immediate social circle. He called her the same pet name he’d always used on all of his previous or potential girlfriends and did all that same other stuff that had made me feel so interchangeable. They got married before the end of that school semester. Nothing makes a girl feel special like seeing jusssst how quickly a guy claiming TRUE JESUS WUV gets over her, lemme tell ya.
In the case of Roy Moore, that same objectification is how he could move so quickly from victim to victim–and why his victims always fit the same basic profile: young, with either lax or absent parents, and trusting. In a culture that preached that adult Christians should marry quickly and early (in my UPCI church we “joked” about whirlwind Pentecostal courtships, haha omg ain’t it sooo funny) but cut quite a lot of slack for men perceived as powerful, Roy Moore–a man easily in his 30s who preyed upon and assaulted many teenage victims in succession–could take advantage of that slack to objectify women to his heart’s content.
Though the victims’ accounts vary in exact details of how he approached them, there’s a nauseating regularity that runs through their stories. He found his victims in settings where they were more likely to consider him an adult authority figure, groomed them with gifts and attention that were totally inappropriate for a man of his age to give to girls that much younger, much less for a Christian man who was supposed to be celibate outside of marriage, and then sexually assaulted them–before moving on to the next victim with the same methods.
There’s a damned near ritualistic overtone to his grooming tactics. But that’s no surprise to me either.
Sexual Stereotyping for Optimal Victim Creation.
Fundagelical culture teaches a form of very ritualized, formalized behavior between men and women, and this too is a failing of their teachings. Their rules about courtship are presented as a way of protecting women from the predations of men, but it also functions to program women to be the victims of men as well as to silence and shame women once that victimization occurs, a silencing that only works to the benefit of abusers and predators in fundagelical ranks.
We see the roots of this programming in Second Glance when David A.R. White is tasked with the role of initiator and point man in every single relationship his character has, while the women around him are held to an ideal of obedience and demureness. Tamara (and later Melanie, who David’s worldly self is cheating on Tamara with) are both presented as sexually forward if not voracious–which is contrasted with the sweet submissiveness and celibacy of the blonde girl that likes David and is ignored by him until he gets his second wind at the end of Act 3, when he’s put back into his Christian life and given new enthusiasm for his overzealous, extremist worldview. Only then can David appreciate this young woman–or even really notice her. She’s invisible to him until then. (Heck, she’s almost invisible to me. I have no idea what her name even was in the movie.)
The worse a Christian group stereotypes genders and the more it idolizes a form of femininity that emphasizes sexual meekness, the more likely that group is to foster and condone abuse in its ranks. Predators will rapidly see that if they can finagle a way into these groups before committing their crimes, their victims are unlikely to seek help or justice because any crimes committed against them will be assumed to be their fault. Anyone those victims tell about their abuse is likely to think that the abuse happened because the victim brought it upon herself through her own disobedience to the culture’s rules.
And this I’ll tell you for free, too: any group that thinks that the blame for a sexual assault lies anywhere but with the person committing it is a group that will, inevitably, shame and mistreat abuse victims. Inevitably when one of these scandals erupts, Christians huddle together to figure out how much blame to portion out to the victim. It’s a grotesque display. Did she “seduce” her rapist? Did she dress too revealingly? Was this 14-year-old child known to be a “loose woman?” If the answers to any of these questions is decided to be a yes, she is treated as having deliberately stepped outside of the circle of magic protection of her culture’s teachings. Once a victim is decided to have done this, there is no sympathy left for her anywhere–and her rapist/abuser is going to be given that much more leeway.
This condemnation is exactly why Roy Moore’s accusers took so long to speak up against him. If he hadn’t looked like he was grasping for power at a national level, they might never have gathered the courage to do it. They knew that they would be accused of lying, that they would be discredited, that their past lives would be raked over the coals to make Roy Moore look like an angel in comparison to the women saying he’d sexually abused them. (I’m sure they weren’t even all that surprised to hear fundagelicals calling for them to be given unreliable and unscientific lie detector tests, even for them to be taken to court over their accusations as I heard one Christian say on Twitter.) That’s how fundagelicals think. They can’t do anything else. That’s how their leaders have taught them to behave. They can’t begin to understand that a predator gets 100% of the blame. They think that’s a terrible idea. They have a litany of reasons for thinking so, all of them demonstrably false and serving the interests of predators at the expense of victims.
And people wonder why Republicans are solidly Team Rape since they got commandeered by fundagelicals…!
Remember Second Glance and my description of David being the initiator in all of his relationships? The movie was made just when a new Christian push for “purity” in women was beginning. Not long after this, we began seeing “courtship culture” in that end of Christianity, something echoed in the angel Muriel’s sermon to David about not dating until he thought he was ready to get married and only dating women he thought were potentially suitable to marry (and only until he’d ascertained their suitability as wives).
In fundagelical culture, the main trait a Christian man should demand in a potential wife is sexual purity. That meant that she has abstained from sex, yes, but also from an increasingly-restrictive list of behaviors as the 90s marched on. In my day, dating was fine but anything past kissing or light petting over clothes was unacceptable. Later, even that became unacceptable. And later still, dating at all became unacceptable, as Christians cruised right toward a weird form of legalistic Sharia law and a return to parentally-arranged marriages.
Even in the mid-1980s, young Christians were getting taught to view dating only through the lens of spouse-seeking, and women were not supposed to initiate any of it lest they step outside the fundagelical circle of protection. To do so meant that they were not pure at heart, and without purity they did not deserve (or get) protection–either earthly or supernatural.
Only by following a very rigid and formalized style of courtship and cultivating a poorly-defined quality known as modesty could a woman be sure of getting a properly loving and kind husband. This was also the only way she could be guaranteed to escape sexual assault and victimization. That the guarantee failed far more often than it succeeded was absolutely never discussed. Ever. In our culture’s folk tales and urban legends, angels literally materialized to protect properly demure and modest Christian women from rape. So if a woman got raped, obviously she wasn’t being a good enough Christian to merit any supernatural protection.
Fundagelical culture pushes a vision of marriage as being between a knowledgeable, sexualized man and an innocent, childish/childlike bride who is unawakened sexually. So it’s no surprise at all that quite a few people around Roy Moore knew perfectly well that he was preying upon high school girls while he was in his 30s, nor that they knew and said nothing at all about it even if it kinda creeped them out. Of course he was sniffing around teenagers. Seeking such a relationship was not only acceptable but all but required in his fundagelical culture.
In the Deep South, where Roy Moore was raised and where he found his prey, youth in women was tied not only to beauty but also to obedience, docility, and sexual inexperience. For decades, fundagelical men have been telling us that they value youth in women for these exact reasons. We’ve talked before about Phil Robertson saying that the best age for a woman to marry was at fifteen (provided she could pluck, dress, and adequately cook hunted gamebirds, of course, and was a fervent Christian, which is to say she obeyed fundagelical rules for women), before she learned to get all independent and feminist and all. That was far from a weird or unacceptable view in Robertson’s culture, and that’s the same culture that spawned Roy Moore.
One of the most horrifying responses to Roy Moore’s growing scandal is a response by a state-level lawmaker in his state who dared to compare Moore and his many victims to Joseph and Mary in the Gospels. Other Christians are defiantly comparing his behavior to that of patriarchs in the Old Testament. And Moore himself is claiming that all of his teenage victims were “consensual” girlfriends, which only makes things worse for him–but we’ll take his not-pologies and backfired excuses up in detail next time because it’s all too WTF to ignore.
One can see why they’re all taking that tack, too. They literally have no idea how to deal with mutual consent, but they’re very experienced at dealing with accusations like the ones facing Roy Moore.
Any group that fixates on women’s imagined sexual purity is going to be a group that punishes women who don’t fit that model–and that means it’s going to be a group that any predator would perceive as a fertile hunting ground for victims. Any man who can get his dick inside any woman’s body is going to be applauded, while the woman in every case will be considered devalued and debased in value (as Mark Driscoll’s wife felt she was, and as Elizabeth Smart felt too). And a man who abuses or assaults a woman expects to get full benefit of the doubt from his peers, who would expect nothing less of him if it was them being accused.
As with every one of those truisms, there is no group that differs on this point. There is no Christian group that can avoid scandals if it objectifies women, devalues sexually-active or assaulted women, removes sexual agency from women, apportions any amount of blame to women who are victimized, polices women’s sexuality, seeks to punish women for disobedience to their script, or views women as marginalized Others with no power. There is literally no other way that can work out. The more of this stuff a Christian group does, the more likely that group has a closet packed with howling skeletons trying to be heard above the noise of blustery preaching.
Ripping Away a Dark Facade.
A central tenet of the very worst and darkest parts of fundagelical culture is now being examined in the light by people who had no idea before that any of this stuff was going on.
And those people are not liking what they see.
This was a culture that already unabashedly served the interests of misogynistic, bigoted, cruel-hearted men who fantasized about being kings, lords, and masters in their own domains. As mainstream culture began drying up those opportunities by holding abusers and despots to account (at least a little better than it had once), these kinds of men had to look elsewhere for an outlet.
They found it in fundagelical Christianity.
The more isolated that culture got from mainstream culture, the more extremist it got regarding its already-abysmal treatment of women and the less protection the vulnerable people in their groups could expect to receive.
There are women right now in fundagelical marriages who don’t see a whole lot of difference between their situations and sexual slavery. I was one of them once, and things have only gotten worse since then.
As fundagelical groups grew more extremist in every way, they attracted to themselves men from outside their groups who were even worse. These men were angry, resentful, and frustrated. They ached for the unilateral power this form of religion promised them. They hated (with every bone in their bodies) the cultural changes that they saw as having stolen away their birthright and robbed them of the power they felt belonged to them by right. They rallied around the banner that fundagelical groups flew. And these dark-hearted, power-hungry men flourished in those groups and got worse and worse, encouraged by their peers and by their newly-adopted ideology. Worse, they became today’s leaders in the religion.
They never expected anything to change–how could it? This relationship model they eagerly absorbed was supposed to be the will of an eternal, unchanging god! But they did change–for the worse. The more the religion changed, the more its adherents hurt people and the thicker their facade of happiness, contentment, security, safety, and protectiveness grew.
Now suddenly the facade has been ripped away, allowing millions of people around the world to see for themselves exactly what this religious system’s culture is like. And they are reacting with the horror that one should expect of any decent people.
Even before this scandal, a growing number of fundagelicals have been leaving that culture and disavowing even the labels involved (like “evangelical”), and we already know that Donald Trump’s election has only hastened the rate of that disengagement. Roy Moore’s fight to gain Congressional power won’t just hurt his party of Republican cowards and pandering cronies. It’s going to hurt his entire religion. And it should. The fact that polls indicate that a certain percentage of belligerent fundagelicals are only more likely to vote for Moore in their election next month is only going to be another nail in their own religion’s coffin, but it’s not like we’re lacking nails right now as it is.
And gang, think on this: these sorts of accusations aren’t new. Victims have been coming forward for years to talk about the dramatic failure of fundagelicalism to protect women from sexual assault and abuse. I agree with The Hill: the really big problem for Roy Moore–and the big headline for us–is that Americans have moved far enough away from the misogyny of fundagelicalism that we’re starting to hear, notice, and believe these abuse stories. The regular tactics that fundagelicals have always used to discredit their victims and bury accusations of abuse just don’t work anymore.
Take this scandal as a further sign of Christianity’s general decline in power, because that is exactly what it is.
Whether Roy Moore wins or loses his race, he–and his tribe–are going to lose much more in the end. One of the surest signs that no gods exist is that he could abuse so many victims for as long as he has and still have the full support of the people who claim to believe the hardest and most fervently in such supernatural beings.
Ya know, maybe we’re kinda realizing that at last.