The Paige Patterson scandal continues apace. Every new day brings with it a new revelation about just how terrible the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), his home denomination, really is for women. A few days ago, Al Mohler–one of the denomination’s biggest names–tried to cool that fire a little. Well, he only made it worse. Today I’ll show you what he said and why he probably said it. And I’ll show you how he’s likely only made the SBC’s position worse.
With friends like Al Mohler, Team Jesus sure doesn’t need any enemies.
Everyone, Say Hi (Again) to Al Mohler.
Al Mohler is one of the SBC’s biggest names. He’s been active in the denomination since before I even (briefly) joined it in the mid-1980s. Among a constellation of successes in right-wing Christianity, he’s been a president of the SBC’s flagship seminary (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), a big name in Focus on the Family, and a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).
As a hardline Calvinist, he’s also neck-deep in the so-called “Conservative Resurgence,” which is the SBC’s name for the political takeover and complete domination of the denomination by hard-right fundagelicals. He and his fellow ultraconservatives fought for years, but when they finished the fight, the SBC looked like it does today: authoritarian, utterly and completely regressive, focused single-mindedly on its quest for the sheer domination of American culture, and mercilessly, ruthlessly intolerant of dissenters within its ranks.
Under the careful cultivation of the people responsible for the takeover, the SBC shriveled and lost every single bit of whatever good spirit it had ever possessed. They stopped being evangelical and began being fundagelicals. And Al Mohler’s neck-deep in all of it.1
So yeah, Al Mohler is the worst of the worst. He’s a poster child for the misuse of power. What he’s wrought in the SBC is a case study in itself of how a vulnerable group can be easily turned into a broken system.
But Al Mohler didn’t accomplish his takeover of the SBC all by himself.
Oh no. I don’t think he could have.
In fact, you might recognize a few different names from that Wiki page about the Conservative Resurgence.
Namely, Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson were the instigators of the very beginning of the takeover. They met in 1976 in New Orleans to brainstorm that first phase of it: they were going to make sure that the SBC elected only ultra-conservative denominational presidents and board members. At the time, Pressler was a Houston judge, while Patterson was president of a little (and still quite new) Christian
indoctrination station college in Dallas.2 Al Mohler himself was one of the leaders of the Resurgency, coming to power as president of the SBC in 1993–and hailed as “a hero of SBC fundamentalism.”
Now, of course, we know that three different men have come forward accusing Paul Pressler of approaching them for sex. One of those men, Gareld Duane Rollins, has filed two lawsuits against Pressler (Pressler settled the first; the other’s still working through the system). Paige Patterson, of course, was demoted from his cushy job at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary a week ago to an ever-so-slightly less-cushy sinecure, and then fully fired just last night for grievously mishandling a student-reported rape in 2003.
Likely nobody outside of the SBC even knew who any of these three men were for a long time. Now they’re all infamous. Two of them have been destroyed. How do you suppose that might make the third man feel?
I do not believe for a heartbeat that Al Mohler wasn’t aware of what his bunkmates were up to. I think scrutiny is making him panic like a housecat seeing a dragon.
He Doth Protest Too Much.
Indeed, after reading the essay Mohler wrote, I perceive clearly that he is well aware that he’s in the fight of his life.
It’s quite the spectacle, this essay. He titles it “The Wrath of God Poured Out — The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Without once mentioning the names Paul Pressler or Paige Patterson, Mohler sobs and simpers his way through a denial of culpability that he desperately hopes his tribe will believe.
I read the essay, though I quite literally felt like I needed a shower afterward.
It’s really bad.
Al Mohler very clearly had two overpowering goals here.
First, he needs us to believe that he had no idea in the world that his pals were doing anything wrong. The news of recent weeks completely T-boned him. He just had no idea! He didn’t even see it coming–so he’s 100% innocent here. We’ll be talking about this goal today.
Second, this onslaught of abuse allegations and cover-ups had nothing whatsoever to do with the Conservative Resurgence, its doctrines, or its revised power structure. The system is perfect and operating perfectly within parameters. And its message is likewise perfect. Whatever is going wrong in the SBC, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Al Mohler’s sweet, innocent little baby. We’ll be covering this goal next time.
“We Thought This Was a Roman Catholic Problem.”
Al Mohler’s essay mentions early on the Catholic child-rape scandal:
We thought this [sexual misconduct] was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority.
I, too, remember how fundagelicals chortled with glee as that scandal broke the back of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s as if they were pointing fingers at the Pope himself. SEE? SEE? This is what happens when you force people into a totally-unnatural form of living. They go all weird. By contrast, OUR ministers have healthy sex lives. With LADIES. Therefore, they are better.
It’s a criticism I heard many times myself while I was a Protestant. We were years away from the full exposure of the child-rape scandal, but even then priests had a generally bad reputation. And we pinned many of Catholicism’s troubles on forced celibacy.
That forced celibacy stood in stark contrast to Protestantism. There, congregations encouraged ministers to have spouses and children. Catholicism was unnatural and dark, twisting and warping people’s natural needs and urges into something horrific. Protestantism was natural and ordained by our god, blessed and done according to divine will.
Back then, we talked about this difference in terms of spiritual fruits, meaning that correct beliefs always led to correct behaviors. In the same way, incorrect beliefs led to incorrect behaviors. (We can perceive the same thinking everywhere in Christianity–remember how Preston Sprinkle fell victim to it?)
We could therefore tell that forced celibacy couldn’t possibly be a divinely-approved notion by the simple fact that the custom produced priests who were dangers to everyone around them, while married pastors were fine.
This comparison was a very bad idea for Mohler to invoke–as we’ll see.
The First Goal.
The problem is, I don’t believe that Al Mohler really had no idea that for decades, the SBC has harbored a great many predators in its ministries.
StopBaptistPredators.org has been an active site for years. So has The Wartburg Watch. Most of all, Boz Tchividjian with his group GRACE has been active for years, and he’s always been right out in front telling fundagelicals that they had a sex-abuse scandal coming their way that was as bad as anything the Catholics were dealing with. And ol’ Boz here is literally the grandson of Billy Graham–d’you reckon Al Mohler didn’t notice what he was saying?
See, various watchdog groups have been trying for years to talk the SBC into adopting a denomination-wide database to prevent sexual predators in SBC ministry from hopping from one church to another within the denomination as they get caught. SBC leadership has consistently refused even to consider the idea. Moreover, in 2008 Paige Patterson called one of those watchdog groups (SNAP) “evil-doers” who were “just as reprehensible as the criminals.” (He said it because the group dared to criticize Patterson’s handling of sex-abuse accusations against his star protege, Darrell Gilyard.)
Al Mohler certainly knew about the database controversy. He was no fan of the idea.
Even aside from the database problem, the sermon that got Paige Patterson in such hot water was delivered in 2000. He mishandled that rape victim in 2003. Various groups cried out for years about the sermon, and the epidemic of rapes and assaults in right-wing Christian colleges finally broke news in 2014.
But Al Mohler’s first goal in writing his essay is to convince readers that he had no idea at all that his denomination was a festering pit of what he blithely minimizes as “sexual misconduct.”
What Did Al Mohler Know And When Did He Know It?
To be sure, the situation the SBC faces bears more than a few similarities to the one facing Catholics. One of the biggest similarities concerns a question that more and more Catholic leaders are hearing:
What did this leader know? And when did he know it?
In this case, I’m sure more than a few people are wondering what exactly Al Mohler knew about his fellow leaders, and when he knew it. I sure wonder. This essay seeks to put those questions to rest, but it really doesn’t.
Interestingly, Gareld Duane Rollins’ second lawsuit includes a statement that names a number of other SBC bigwigs as helping Pressler cover up his actions. Everyone from Pressler’s wife Nancy to his law partner to his pal Paige Patterson–but interestingly, not Al Mohler himself–show up in the complaint. Rollins’ lawyer, Daniel Shea, says Pressler’s alleged activities were the “worst kept secret in Houston.”
But in his essay, Al Mohler says this of the slew of sex-abuse allegations rocking the SBC:
No, our humiliation comes as a result of an unorganized conspiracy of silence. Sadly, the unorganized nature of our problem may make recovery and correction even more difficult and the silence even more dangerous.
Notice the italics? He wants us to know there was no organized conspiracy of silence. He din’ know nuffin. Instead, it’s just a wild coincidence that so many accusations have come up so quickly. It’s a coincidence that they keep involving the same leaders’ names over and over again. The left hand knew nothing of what the right was non-consensually doing.
If you can swallow a load of codswallop that thorny, you’re welcome to try. I can’t.
Unorganized vs. Organized: A False Choice.
Al Mohler’s essay seeks to establish that the SBC didn’t have a dedicated, planned-out cover-up response to scandals. For what it’s worth, I believe that. I don’t think he, Pressler, and Patterson regularly met up at strip clubs to drink illicit beers and discuss how they were going to deliberately suppress scandals. Instead, I think that suppression happened organically–case by case, moment by moment. I also think Al Mohler helped create an environment where suppression was easy to enforce, and then ignored all the warnings about where his efforts would lead. (A Southern Baptist guy who knows him sure agrees.)
He seeks to exonerate himself on the basis of intentions. One of the most serious flaws in the fundagelical mindset is this insistence that individual motivations are supremely important. It doesn’t matter what Christians do, only that they do it with pure intentions. If they have pure intentions, then it doesn’t matter what happens as a result of their actions. They are off the hook in terms of culpability.
If anything, though, we’re faced with a far more insidious outgrowth of this belief. The SBC is sprouting scandals left and right, each worse than the last. The scandals reach all the way into the very heart of the denomination. They taint the names of the denomination’s biggest names and brassest hats. But because the leaders of the denomination have convinced everyone under them that motivations are what matter, nobody’s allowed to wonder if something about the denomination itself is causing all of these scandals to happen.
Thus, Mohler’s invocation of the Catholic child-rape scandal was quite deliberate.
“Organized” equals systemic, in the broken system he’s helped to create. “Unorganized,” to Al Mohler, means it can’t possibly be systemic. It’s an individual problem, just like the SBC’s conceptualization of its problems with racism, misogyny, and bigotry in general. Al Mohler can blame this rash of scandals on just a whole bunch of individual Southern Baptist leaders with individual problems.
But he’s offering a false choice.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the conspiracy of silence is unorganized or organized.
The Bigger Problem.
Fundagelicals are never allowed to look at their system when problems inevitably arise. The system, which is both the messaging they internalize and the social structure they impose on themselves (and seek to impose on others), cannot ever be questioned. It is considered to be perfect–even sacrosanct.
Worse, the SBC’s leaders think that a real live god gave this system to them. They can’t possibly walk that pronouncement back now. If they even tried, they’d outrage their remaining members–and lose quite a lot of credibility.
So Al Mohler needs to persuade his fellow Southern Baptists that their system is perfect, and to do that, he must persuade them that he, personally, acted with pure motivations and simply had no idea that anything in his denomination was going so wrong. When the dust settles, ideally he’ll be standing above the rubble of the denomination with both his reputation and his precious Resurgence intact.
I hope I’ve made a solid case for why I don’t believe for a second that Al Mohler had no idea that his denomination was riddled with scandal. I don’t think he could have missed what was going on–especially not at his level, and not with super-close associates as corrupt as his have turned out to be.
His second goal in writing his essay was to clear the name of the Resurgence itself, and I’ll show you how his essay backfired there too.
NEXT UP: The string of scandals, involving as they do the biggest names in the SBC, reflects poorly not only on the denomination’s leaders but upon what they’ve wrought in the SBC itself. They reflect on the Conservative Resurgence. Even more so, they reflect on the values of that takeover. Al Mohler seeks to protect his baby there even more than he seeks to protect himself. Spoiler: I don’t think he succeeded at all on this front, either. I’ll show you why, next time. Please do join me!
1An earlier draft had Mohler as an “architect” of the Conservative Resurgence. A reader very helpfully pointed out that Mohler was not present at the initial meeting between Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. He’s as deep into the Conservative Resurgence as someone can get, but he is not guilty of that “sin.” I appreciate the correction.
(Also, I wonder if Al Mohler rose to the attention of the Powers That Be in the denomination in the 1980s. At the time, he was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary working for its then-president, Roy Honeycutt. Honeycutt sounds like an early victim of the Resurgence. He got ousted in what sounds like a spectacularly dramatic episode in 1992 when a trustee accused him of not really believing in the Bible–and used Honeycutt’s own writings to demonstrate that point.)
2 I highly recommend you read that chronology. It’s downright chilling to see how a vulnerable group can fall so quickly and so completely, despite every single decent member’s best and most concerted resistance. As we saw with “Project Blitz,” it doesn’t take a majority to completely destroy a system. Three men with an agenda destroyed the biggest Protestant denomination in the country, after all.
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