Welcome back! Early this year, journalists uncovered a huge sex-abuse scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The leaders of this denomination have been trying to get ahead of it ever since. Of course, this scandal happened right on the heels of the denomination’s other sex-abuse scandal. And both are ongoing while the denomination struggles to overcome tanking membership numbers. As Southern Baptists gear up for their big Annual Meeting and Bigotry Jamboree, which began today, let’s look at how they’ve chosen to address all of these staggering problems.
Having Their Cake and Eating It Too.
The SBC has always wanted to have its cake and eat it too. They love the power that comes from having a huge, sprawling denomination. However, they don’t love the whiff of accountability that comes of having that power.
Nor can they actually effectively administer the group they’ve assembled. They can’t stop bad actors from getting into positions of power. Neither can they easily remove any bad actors from those positions, once they’re discovered.
Their ideal situation is now exactly what they’ve crafted over many decades of political maneuvering: a lopsided, dysfunctional giant lurching to and fro–and stomping constantly on the people they’ve stripped of power.
Any changes whatsoever to their current structure and operations will, of necessity, involve the powerful players in their game losing power–and their onetime victims gaining at least some of theirs back. They consider that outcome a fate worse than death, and they will do anything in the world to prevent it from happening.
I want to be 100% clear: the system the SBC has devised is little more than a hatching-ground for abuse.
The foxes guard the henhouse. They silenced the hens many years ago. The foxes insist that the farmer himself told them to take the job. They see nothing amiss here at all.
A Regular Pattern.
When–not if–scandals come to light, the denomination has a studied pattern of reaction to those scandals.
Last night I ran across this 2010 resolution on the SBC’s website. They issue these resolutions all the time–they’re probably at it right now as we speak at their Annual Meeting. (See endnotes for an interesting one.)
This one concerns divorce. At first, I just noted it in the comments to the last post. Right then, I didn’t think it was relevant; I’d run across it quite by accident while looking for something else and just thought it was funny. It looks like the community thought it was as funny-sad-pathetic-illustrative as I did. (Is there a word for that combination of feels?)
Then, last night, I bolted upright in bed (and startled both cats as they lay along my side). I’d just realized that actually, this resolution illustrates perfectly how the SBC handles pretty much every controversy. It wasn’t irrelevant or tangential. It was perfect.
Take a look at it with me.
“On the Scandal of Southern Baptist Divorce.”
In 2010, the SBC’s leaders realized that a lot of their married members were getting divorced. In fact, they realized that their members got divorced way more than couples did in the big bad secular world. Wherever their churches dominated a local cultural scene, the divorce rate there looked terrible compared to the rates found in more secular areas. Lastly, those divorces most definitely did not fit into the one or two types of marital breakups allowed by Jesus in the Gospels (abandonment by an unbelieving spouse; a spouse’s infidelity).
All of these facts are absolutely true.
Their resolution doesn’t hand-wave away those facts or try to ignore them, interestingly enough. We’ve seen fundagelical leaders do both in the past. Sometimes, they claim that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never seek divorce, so obviously the fundagelicals getting divorces weren’t Jesus-ing correctly or hard enough. If people only looked at TRUE CHRISTIAN™ rates of divorce, why, they’d discover vanishingly few divorces and all of those divorces would be the allowable kind. One SBC leader, Tom Ellis, trotted out exactly that claim in 2002, in fact.
But the SBC accepted reality in 2010.
It’s what they did with that reality that brings us to the WTF portion of this subsection.
The WTF Portion of This Subsection.
- Blame “accommodation to the divorce culture” of the non-SBC world (but see endnotes about this blame attempt);
- Stop being so “therapeutic” (read: compassionate, supportive) toward divorcing members, instead disapproving at them extra-hard;
- Demanding that divorcing couples offer more telepathic apologies to Jesus for hurting his feelings;
- Make sure to show extra disapproval of divorce during couples’ wedding ceremonies;
- Insist that pastors only conduct those ceremonies for couples who have either never been married or who sought only allowable divorces (and are thus free to remarry according to Jesus);
- Push troubled couples toward Jesus-approved “counseling,” which of course is geared at all times toward making the couples feel like divorce just isn’t an option; and most importantly:
- Think even harder at the ceiling than ever in hopes that their magical invisible friend in the sky would make Southern Baptists want to divorce less often than they currently do.
They felt absolutely sure that these resolutions would make the whole world marvel at the strength and “counter-cultural love” of SBC members’ marriages. (See endnotes for an observation.)
A Toothless Demand.
We see two other nearly-universal elements here in this divorce resolution:
First: At no point does the SBC resolve to critically examine any systemic forces within their denomination’s culture that might be contributing to the problem they’ve identified. As far as they’re concerned, their god himself handed them this culture and its rules, so no changes can be allowed to any of it.
Second: They provide no real reason at all for anybody in the denomination to do as they
command suggest. That might be why nothing changed in their divorce rates in the ensuing years.
So in many ways, the SBC’s resolutions resemble nothing less than performance art. Their leaders issue these performances to soothe their members, to quiet the many outrages and resentments simmering in the henhouse, and–always and primarily–to ensure that their leaders retain the power and perks that drew them to that henhouse in the first place.
If the foxes can convince the hens that all these problems will get fixed, then the hens will stay in the henhouse way longer.
“Abuse of Faith.”
For decades, the SBC has weathered countless scandals–and has passed countless resolutions just like the one I’ve named above.
In 2007, when the scandal came to light of Baptist ministers preying upon children and getting shuffled around when caught, they passed exactly the same kind of resolution about child abuse. As you can see, it follows exactly the same template as I’ve described above–right down to their refusal to set up any concrete structures, accountability, or repercussions when predators get caught.
- “On Abuse” decided that the SBC was super-duper-sorry to hear about all this abusin’ of women going on, and that all those women being abused needed to deal with it themselves.
- “On the Dignity and Worth of Women” told women to stop wanting equality within the SBC because it was absolutely never gonna happen. This resolution also completely reaffirmed the SBC’s vision of divinely-mandated sexism. (They call this vision complementarianism, but you might know it by its more recognizable name, separate-but-equal.)
But then along came the latest scandal. This one, titled “Abuse of Faith” by the journalists who uncovered it, alleges that the SBC’s leaders engaged in a systemic cover-up of pervasive child sexual abuse over many years.
Swinging Right Into Action!
The SBC’s response to this sickening scandal so far has been, to say the least, lackluster and uninspiring.
J.D. Greear cried a lot of crocodile tears over how upset he totally was about the report. Another big-name leader, Al Mohler, managed to briefly mention the scandal on his blog. He blamed member churches for letting it happen. Meanwhile, Russell Moore blamed the scandal on “sin.” Committees sprang into action to “study” the problem.
At the end of May, the denomination’s Executive Committee made some noise about slightly amending their bylaws to prevent more cover-ups. It’s hard even to put into words how small that slightly really is, but it requires a brief segue to explain.
In the SBC, member churches must solemnly swear to uphold the SBC’s culture wars to the utmost and to hold certain other doctrines. The SBC also wants a certain level of financial support from member churches.
When churches both contribute at that level and adhere to the doctrinal requirements, the SBC considers them to be “in friendly cooperation.” Those churches get to send people to the conventions to vote. If a church doesn’t care about voting, then only the doctrinal adherence is really necessary.
The proposed change:
To be considered “in friendly cooperation,” churches’ leaders would also need to not have been caught sexually abusing anybody or caught covering up sex abuse.
I just. Can’t. EVEN. With these unspeakable, reprehensible wingnuts.
And the New Scandal-Within-a-Scandal.
The very day after we learned about this (non-)solution, however, the Houston Chronicle released another piece of the SBC scandal. The new story, “Abused by Missionaries,” alleged pervasive child sexual abuse by some top-performing American SBC missionaries while serving in foreign countries.
As the Chronicle discovered, as well, those missionaries’ governing body, the International Mission Board (IMB), allegedly covered up that abuse. The IMB apparently silenced victims and victims’ families, shuffled offenders around, and generally did nothing to protect anybody or even warn them about the predators in their midst. At least as far back as 1992, the Chronicle tells us, people knew about this scandal. They knew what was happening. But the IMB refused to take action, fought like lions in court to avoid paying damages to victims, and did everything they could to keep law enforcement out of the matter.
(So yes, the SBC’s leaders acted exactly like another really authoritarian Christian group: Catholics. Weird how “Jesus” doesn’t seem to help anybody in either group, isn’t it?)
The Shoes Continue to Drop.
The patterns of behavior and cover-ups detailed in the Chronicle simply stagger the imagination. They sicken the heart.
I wonder if, when Paige Patterson’s scandal rocketed across the SBC, and “Abuse of Faith” first came out, if the IMB’s leaders felt fear? If they wondered if–when–their own behavior would come to light? Did they consider confessing right then? Or did they hope to scuttle further under their dank rocks and evade detection for a while longer?
On June 3, the IMB announced it was totally making huge changes to how they operate. Among other details, they said they’d be hiring “a full-time senior staff member” specifically to oversee abuse prevention and resolve abuse reports. They’ve also hired a law firm to make suggestions for improvement.
And then today, June 10, as the SBC cheers and rah-rahs their way through another big convention, the denomination’s leaders will be selling a solution package to the hens. Those leaders will no doubt be hoping against hope that the hens mistake this package for an actual solution, instead of what it will always be:
An attempt to stave off real change for just a little while longer for the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
And precisely how much does the SBC want to quash any talk of change?
This much: today, the hens re-elected J.D. Greear as their Fox-in-Chief!
NEXT UP: I was going to talk about this next topic today, but we ran out of time. Join me next time, then, for a look at a really gross distraction tactic the SBC’s top leaders have already set in motion. They hope it will keep the hens fluttering in the henhouse for just a little while longer. See you soon!
About the SBC’s Abortion Resolution: In 1971, the SBC passed a resolution offering limited approval of abortion–you know, the usual song and dance offering a free pass to the women they think don’t deserve the punishment of an unwanted, forced pregnancy. That resolution, of course, passed well before Roe v Wade in 1973 and before the conclusion of the fundagelical takeover of the SBC–and the denomination’s subsequent headlong plunge into the culture wars. (Back to the post!)
Regarding the SBC’s blame game around divorce: How exactly does the SBC’s supposed “accommodation to the divorce culture” result in a considerably higher divorce rate than that contained within this imaginary “divorce culture?” Going strictly by percentages, the SBC itself represents “divorce culture” compared to their enemies. And mind you, the rate is that high despite their pervasive disapproval of divorce. How much higher would it be if the SBC’s leaders minded their own business? (Back to the post!)
About that impossible dream: Hilariously, if the SBC cultivated a reputation for its members’ strikingly happy, loving, faithful, lifelong marriages despite fostering a culture guaranteed to produce the dead opposite, yeah, that’d get a lot of people’s attention. We wouldn’t have any idea how this was even possible. Alas, that ain’t quite what we think about the state of Southern Baptists’ marriages. Back to the post!)
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