Poor Paige Patterson. The fallout continues for this domestic-violence-advocating Southern Baptist leader. Why, the SBC denomination itself has begun tearing at its own flanks as a result. Two sides square off for a Battle Royale. And possibly the most tragic figures of all in the squabble are the right-wing Christians who don’t understand how the conservative movement they love so much has led their end of Christianity directly to this pass. Today, I’ll show you what I mean.
More Bad News for a Guy Who’s Bad News.
A couple of days ago, The Atlantic ran an article by Jonathan Merritt called “The Scandal Tearing At America’s Largest Protestant Denomination.” The scandal they mean this time is the one swirling around Paige Patterson. A couple of days ago, I showed you how his 2000 audio recording has finally come home to roost for him.
In it, he gleefully relates how he advised a woman who came to him for help with domestic violence. Instead of calling the police, he told her to go home and provoke her abuser by praying audibly in bed. She showed up the next Sunday with two black eyes–and he was “happy” to see these bruises, he told her, because her abuser had been struck with such intense shame for hurting her that he’d finally come to church and joined up as a result.
But The Atlantic discovered that this recording wasn’t the only terrible thing Paige Patterson has ever done. Jonathan Merritt lists off a Rogue’s Gallery of absolutely mind-blowing hypocrisy on the part of one of the SBC’s biggest names. From quips about how nice he felt it was to own a woman to his bizarrely-inappropriate sexualization of a teenage girl, from cover-ups done to benefit his friends to interviews done in the wake of the scandal that have only made him look worse, Paige Patterson is quickly becoming a tainted brand all his own, in a denomination struggling with its very own tainted brand.
Fundagelicals are having trouble figuring out how to respond. In the SBC, in particular, compassionate people must square that natural compassion with their indoctrination and loyalty to the tribe.
The Broken System.
A broken system isn’t necessarily a short-lived one, or even an inept one. Indeed, some last for centuries, and most are brutally effective at reaching their unstated goals. Broken systems are, rather, systems that do a lot of damage to people, that can’t fulfill their own stated goals, and that serve mostly to enrich the group’s leaders at the expense of their followers.
Once you learn the signs of a broken system, you’ll recognize them very quickly.
Case in point: the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This entire denomination began as part of a schism over slavery. Its entire engine finds its fuel in culture wars even today, with practices and ideology as regressive as one can get without ending up a government list somewhere.
But they weren’t always like this.
Around the 1970s, they went full-throttle right-wing as part of their politicization and entrance into a full culture-war mentality. Paige Patterson functioned as one of the architects of that takeover, called today the conservative resurgence. Most of what we know today as the denomination’s worst flaws come from that takeover.
And the fundagelicals who disappoint me the most are the ones who can’t figure out how that resurgence is tied to the denomination’s constant eruptions of scandals and hypocrisies.
Power Protects Itself.
Paige Patterson’s words and deeds create a real dilemma for fundagelicals–especially ones in the SBC. Do they support someone like this, who is very clearly antithetical to their stated ideals? Or do they shut their mouths and support a very high-status leader?
Just as we saw with Donald Trump’s ride to the Oval Office, fundagelical leaders find themselves split over this question.
Some of them wholeheartedly support Patterson, while many cowards remain steadfastly silent on the matter. A few notable exceptions condemn him.
Thom Rainer issued an unequivocal condemnation of Paige Patterson. He might have gotten wrong the question of why domestic violence is bad, or why people have inherent value, and he might not have any action plans in place to make sure that abusers come to justice, but his heart’s in the right place–which is more than we can say about his peers. Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer joined him.
As we’ve seen many times, however, in a broken system, power protects itself.
The powerful people in the SBC have built a net for themselves; all of them function as longtime peers, mentors, students, patrons, and disciples to each other. The lines of power here are inbred worse than in 16th-century European noble courts. Thus, their loyalties run to each other, not anywhere else. These powerful people rally around their fellow powerful co-leaders. They hand their sympathies and resources to each other, rather than to the victims of their leadership.
One day, after all, they might be the ones who need sympathy and resources from the other leaders!
The Group Focuses on the Guarding and Gaining of Power.
In a broken system, power runs along unequal lines. One small faction gets handed unilateral and totalitarian power over the rest. Usually this power runs along demographic lines: men get it, or white people, or some other privileged subgroup.
The other faction has no power at all. They do not get any say in their own representation; they are granted no way whatsoever to make serious changes to the group’s structure, ideology, or rules. Obviously they are never allowed any real authority or leadership roles within the group. That would dangerously dilute the majesty accorded to the powerful demographic, and open the floodgates to possible changes to that power structure.
And when these powerless group members face abuses–not if, never if–they might think for a brief time that their leaders will help them. That hope evaporates quickly. Instead, these leaders order them to keep quiet about the abuse. These leaders blame them for the abuse itself, and often even demand forgiveness and “repentance” from these victims for various crimes reckoned to have caused their own abuse.
Every single thing I’ve described here happens because the powerful people in these groups are terrified of losing their own power.
They know what being powerless means in their broken system. Their whole lives focus on not being powerless. They know very well how the powerful in these systems treat the powerless.
The Group’s Image Matters More Than Victims Ever Do.
The leaders of the SBC have, for years, built a group that is hellbent on preserving itself at the expense of its own integrity and credibility. In a very real sense, the SBC is the first priority for the SBC.
Russell Moore himself should know that truth. Remember how he almost lost his job last year because of how vehemently he opposed Donald Trump? The tribe had decided they liked Donald Trump, and they couldn’t tolerate anybody in a leadership role not echoing the party line.
Ed Stetzer himself has criticized Donald Trump often in the last couple of years–such as in this link–but now that he’s decoupled himself from the direct SBC organization, I perceive vastly-increased boldness in him regarding his former masters. Indeed, his criticism of Paige Patterson takes a far more direct tone.
(Worth noting at least briefly: Both of these men opposed Donald Trump for exactly the wrong reasons. He wasn’t extremist and culture-warrior-y enough for them. Not all of Trump’s evangelical critics feel that way, but these two sure do.)
And they–along with all the other Patterson detractors–have all talked about one serious reason why more critics haven’t emerged alongside themselves:
The SBC enforces a strict culture of silence when it comes to abuse allegations or any problems within the denomination. Really, the worst “sin” someone can commit there is to shine light on anything awful that the SBC is doing.
“The Tight-Knit Southern Baptist Boys’ Club.”
Jonathan Merritt’s article outright calls the leadership situation at the SBC “the tight-knit Southern Baptist boys’ club.” Citing the long list of other dealbreakers associated with Paige Patterson, he writes:
A wave of such damning allegations and confirmed quotes would be enough to drag down almost any giant. In a #MeToo moment, it’s astounding that Patterson is still standing. But Southern Baptists are a loyal bunch.
Ed Stetzer more pointedly explains how serious a matter it is for anyone in the SBC to criticize its big names. In his post for Christianity Today, he recounts what happened when he criticized Patterson’s seminary (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary):
That day, several SBC leaders told me it was my last day as an SBC employee. As one son of an SBC entity head told me, “Nobody criticizes Paige Patterson and keeps their job.” . . . Again and again, no one says anything [critical] because that’s what we are told to do—SBC leaders do not speak ill of one another.
Now we’re going to zero in more closely on something else Ed Stetzer wrote in that same post. Ed Stetzer represents the most disappointing Christian of them all: one who inches right up to the edge of understanding, only to cringe away from it in the end.
The Message Turns Into the Messengers.
Repeatedly through his CT post, Ed Stetzer makes clear that he’s thrilled that Paige Patterson largely built the SBC as it stands today: a bastion of regressive, ridiculously-conservative, deeply-politicized zealots whose ideology hinges not even a little on actual observable reality and facts.
Seriously, Stetzer all but throws a parade for his hero:
Paige Patterson and a judge named Paul Pressler met in 1967. Over the next decade, they set out to turn the SBC in a different direction theologically. They started a grassroots movement that is one of the many reasons I am a Southern Baptist today.
That “grassroots movement,” Stetzer informs us, consisted of working “for years to turn the SBC toward greater conservatism, rallying around the banner of inerrancy.”1 He considers this shift “a victory.”
But he makes a major mistake in assuming that Patterson’s–and Paul Pressler’s, for that matter–hypocrisy is somehow totally divorced from that work of politicizing and polarizing the SBC. He doesn’t understand how Patterson’s message became the hypocrites who became its messengers.
Follow the Money.
Remember, power protects itself in broken systems. That means that only someone who already has a great deal of power can actually make big changes to that system.
But that rule also means that these agents of change will only make changes to the group’s rules, ideology, or structure that are advantageous to themselves. They will not make changes that detract from their own power levels. Nor will they knowingly craft changes that could one day destroy their own rank within the system.
When we see endless scandals erupting out of any group, we need to start asking the really dangerous questions. We need to start asking how these groups’ structuring, ideology, and rules create a culture in which powerful group members feel entitled to do stuff like this.
Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, far from being the holy paladins Ed Stetzer envisions, are truly horrible human beings. And so the system they crafted decades ago allowed them–and people like them–to operate unfettered. Indeed, that newly-crafted “resurgence” rewarded both Patterson and Pressler with a constellation of titles and honors.
And that same system also shielded them from criticism and discovery.
Really, the new system did everything that they designed it to do.
Nested All the Way Down.
A lot went into this “conservative resurgence.” None of it was good.
See, inerrantism as a modern fundagelical doctrine cannot be defended through reality-based observations (nor even by Biblical scholarship). Neither can literally anything else in the fundagelical playbook. Even the SBC’s lopsided power structure constitutes a serious weakness that should be immediately obvious to anybody who’s ever studied group dynamics (like how the United States determined the necessity of representation very early on).
So Patterson and his cronies had to shape the SBC into a group that didn’t care about reality. Luckily, they didn’t have far to go–thanks to the SBC’s already-morally-rocky beginnings.
They needed the SBC to be the kind of group that saw nothing wrong with unilateral power handed to one faction, nor with the total stripping-away of power from other factions. They needed the SBC’s flocks to idolize its leaders and to be afraid of being wrong or of criticizing anything. Of course, they also needed those flocks to decouple methods from results and to stop caring about results altogether.
Most of all, they needed this new SBC to be utterly incapable of changing course and of self-introspection.
All of that had to happen before the SBC could buy into Patterson’s desired changes. At that point, the doctrines themselves almost became an afterthought.
The Flowering of Bad Seed.
And this is why none of us should be surprised that so many fundagelicals wholeheartedly support Donald Trump, either, or that so many of them fall for scams like MLMs and various conspiracy theories. They all rest atop the same groundwork!
Ed Stetzer loves that his denomination has signed on to inerrantism–and that it is so solidly and unabashedly ultra-conservative. He even thinks that his god has totally demanded that the SBC go this route. He can’t understand that those stances and doctrines literally couldn’t happen without also incurring all the hypocrisy and scandals as well. Nor can he understand that he thinks a god signed off on this stuff because he absorbed that groundwork years ago.
Like Preston Sprinkle, Stetzer also doesn’t get that the good things he loves twine together with the bad things he criticizes.
Just as fundagelicals can’t keep sanctioned bigotry in their culture without also seeing their members mete out hideous abuses of gay and bi people, just as they can’t criminalize abortion without also seeing waves of dead women and human rights abuses in every area that does that, they can’t keep inerrantism and ultra-conservatism without also opening the door to scandals and hypocrisy. They don’t have any magical way of making it happen. “Jesus” sure won’t help them make it happen.
Set Up to Fail.
And no wonder this system produces so many failures. No wonder Christian hypocrites are
five million ten-a-penny. The system so many of them are following wasn’t created in the first place to produce successful Christians. It wasn’t even created to help guide loving, compassionate leaders in shepherding flocks of congregants.
No. Rather, it was created to help power-hungry people reach positions of power and then to stay there. We know this by looking at what it actually accomplishes.
As far as non-leaders are concerned, Christianity’s system produces Christians who can’t possibly succeed using this system, its rules, and its ideology.
We’re going to take up there next–see you then!
1 Inerrancy is a Christian doctrine that states that the Bible contains not one error anywhere–that all of it is 100% truthful. Literalism usually goes along with it; that’s the doctrine that the Bible is 100% literally true from start to finish, with no stories being metaphorical in any way. Together, these doctrines constitute the bedrock of fundamentalist branches of Christianity. Before Patterson’s takeover of the denomination, evangelicals weren’t fundamentalists. Now the vast majority of them are–which is why I call them fundagelicals.
Endnote: I heard once that wagon wheels started getting used in decoration in pioneer days. Like, wherever the wagon broke down, that’s where people built their homes. The broken wheel then became a decoration, to commemorate the decision to stop there. I have no idea if it’s true, but the idea sure seemed to fit today’s post.
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