Hi and welcome back! Eighteen months ago, the Houston Chronicle broke a massive investigative series they called “Abuse of Faith.” In this series, their journalists revealed an ongoing pattern of sex abuse perpetrated by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders upon many hundreds of confirmed victims. And in turn, the SBC’s top leaders swung into action — to avoid dealing with it. Recently, I wondered what they’ve been up to on that front. What’s changed since we last checked in on them? As it turns out, the SBC’s leaders have been busy. Today, I’ll show you the SBC’s general strategy for dealing with their sex-abuse scandal and what they’ve managed to accomplish in this past year-and-a-half.
(Previous ‘Abuse of Faith’ posts: A Long-Overdue Reckoning; J.D. Greear Is SO BROKEN Over This; Circling the Wagons; #SBC2019’s Distraction Tactics; Pretending to Care About Sex Abuse; It’s Getting Worse.)
Anatomy of a Bloated Deer Tick.
First, we must remember something important about how the SBC’s top leaders operate.
Some of them are more or less appointed. This group includes Russell Moore, Paige Patterson, Frank Page, and Al Mohler. Once installed, they rule their corners of the SBC litterbox until they’re fired or they retire, or they die. (What I describe here represents one of the biggest weaknesses in the entire SBC system, and the one that largely allowed the Conservative Resurgence to happen in the first place.) This group protects its own power with avaricious eyes always seeking more. Their goal is to keep the denomination truckin’ along just like it is now and has been for decades.
But their big cheese, the president of the entire howling-mad denomination, must be elected. That man (it’s always a man, and has been a white man at that for almost every single election they’ve ever had) leads them for two years only. He swans around for those two years, then gives the crown to the next pretty princess and luxuriates in his triumph forever more.
For the most part, the SBC’s presidential elections speak more to the attendees’ general opinions about where the denomination is going and where they want it to go — like a barometer of their own feelings about the SBC’s future.
In this particular case, J.D. Greear — the current president for a third year — represents a figurehead of change-but-not-really. He’s very young and talks a big game about church growth (though it’s largely not true, we’ve found), but he’s also a Calvinist and a die-hard culture warrior.
Twisted luck has handed Greear a third year. But it won’t matter in the end, regarding this “Abuse of Faith” scandal or anything else.
Why Nothing Can Change.
In order to make big sweeping changes in this denomination, here’s what must happen:
- At one of their big annual meetings, someone suggests the change. Everyone votes on it.
- If the group likes it, then a committee is formed to examine the question over that next year.
- The next year, the committee reports on what they found. Then the meeting attendees decide what they want to do next.
- It’s almost certain that the whole idea will be memory holed at that point. (See also: Evangelism Task Force)
An election will either be happening that year or has already happened by Step 3, so whoever the next president is can just ignore whatever the committee decides. It wasn’t his committee, after all, and whatever initiative was suggested won’t be known as his monument-to-ego but his predecessor’s.
As a result of the SBC’s own bloated bureaucratic system, there’s not much that anybody in charge could do to change anything about it, even if he wanted to do so, which almost none of them really do. The people who hold the actual power in this denomination — those deer ticks mentioned above — don’t want anything to change. And so nothing shall.
And J.D. Greear’s third year of rule as the King of Baptist County has really highlighted that truth like nothing else ever could.
A Committee! Let’s Form a Committee!
Committees, committees, endless committees.
The first line of defense the SBC has always maintained against change is the committee. As soon as I hear about one forming, I know immediately that the denomination’s real leaders want to look like they’re doing something about a problem without actually doing anything tangible.
A committee garners more rewards for the denomination’s leaders than that, though. Committees get lots of low-level leaders and up-and-comers involved — and many committee leaders even appoint women and people of color (POC) as participants. If these participants perform well, the denomination will likely assign them to even more important committees in the future — except for the ones who slam against the denomination’s glass ceiling, of course.
The committee members’ earnestness and buzzing-about makes the rank-and-file flocks think their denomination’s totally gonna fix something. Then, by the time the next meeting rolls around, they’ve all largely forgotten all about it, so the committee can be safely disbanded and ignored.
A Series of Motions Before the Committee.
In the case of “Abuse of Faith,” J.D. Greear immediately appointed a committee to examine the situation. Well, he kinda redirected one that he’d already created.
Back in 2018, almost a year before “Abuse of Faith” investigation blew wide open, the SBC’s sex scandals had already become a powderkeg about to explode.
In the SBC’s 2018 Annual Report (p. 56, #18)), we see that a member named Phillip Bethancourt raised a motion to ask J.D. Greear “to appoint a task force to help churches protect against sexual predators.” Yes, it’s very poor wording. The leaders of SBC churches are largely the source of this predation, while Bethancourt made it sound like predation was landing on churches out of the clear blue sky. But it was a start.
Later on (p. 91, #91), the approved motion got assigned to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), which handles questions of policy in SBC churches. The policies in question involved how churches would hire and fire employees — even pastors. As well, the SBC would need some better policies on handling scandals as they erupted, and definitely would need some training on handling abuse survivors themselves.
The 2019 Results of Those 2018 Motions.
The next year, Bethancourt presented another motion (p. 57, #15). This time, he wanted “to request each SBC entity to provide an update on addressing abuse.” He also wanted to know exactly how each SBC entity (by which we mean the ERLC, LifeWay, and all those other corners of the litterbox) was partnering with the newly-created Sexual Abuse Advisory Group (SAAG). And Bethancourt wanted those answers in 2020.
This motion passed and was handed “to all SBC entities” (p. 63, #60).
Since then, the SBC has passed some very weak-sounding “reforms” that decidedly lack teeth and substance. One of them is a constitutional amendment proposed to the SBC’s operating rules that seeks to push out any member churches that “mishandle abuse” cases. The SBC’s leaders are thrilled at this faux-progress, but actual abuse survivors ain’t feeling it so much. Christa Brown says, of the disfellowshipping proposal,
“It’s a step,” Brown said of the new credentialing committee. “Is it a good step? No. Because it’s so tiny.”
By the way: neither annual report seems to mention that Phillip Bethancourt is the Executive Vice President of the ERLC. Weird, huh? Or was, anyway. In early 2020, he quit that position to go pastor a church in Texas. In fact, the Houston Chronicle noticed “a handful of recent departures from high-level staff” along with him.
But all the stuff we’ve discussed today doesn’t cover the entirety of the SBC’s strategy. Oh no. They’ve got an ace up their sleeves. It’s the one they’ve always had there, ready to bring forth and lay down whenever the heat gets turned up too high in their dens of iniquity.
QUICK! LOOK OVER THERE!
We see the first signs of this ace card in the 2019 Annual Report in its “Resolutions” section (p. 94).
Resolution #1 involves drilling down on the anti-abortion culture wars and trying harder to introduce anti-abortion laws into state legislatures.
The second one finally gets around to addressing “the evils of sexual abuse,” though without engaging much with the specifics of “Abuse of Faith” or mentioning any scandal by name or even the suspected number of victims. It’s a high-level, soft-focus affair all the way around.
Predictably, the SBC lays blame on not Jesus-ing enough and demands that all of their pastors magically change into leaders who care more about the safety of their flocks than their image, and who definitely follow local and federal laws in reporting and handling abuse scandals.
(I can see it now: “Gosh, I didn’t care about sex abuse victims before. I cared more about my church’s image and my job security than informing parents about predators in their midst! But now, this resolution has shown me the light!”)
Oh Won’t Someone Think of the FETUSES??
But it’s the placement of the first resolution that really caught my eye when I read this report last year. It feels like the SBC’s top leaders are reassuring the flocks that whatever else happens, they will definitely not let it interfere with the denomination’s beloved culture wars.
It feels like SBC leaders are doing their best to minimize the sex-abuse scandal by comparing it to the bombastic, super-manipulative (and erroneous) talking points they’ve developed around abortion. As I mentioned, they don’t go much into specifics on the sex-abuse scandal in 2019’s second resolution. They leave it at this:
“WHEREAS, New revelations of sexual abuse have come to light [. . .]”
However, they haul out a half-dozen very specific talking points for the first resolution about abortion. They use charged, loaded words like “killed,” “innocent, unborn children,” “the womb,” and specific numbers like “more than fifty million.” It’s nauseating, especially considering the SBC doesn’t have much of an abortion scandal on its hands — but it sure does face one about widespread sex abuse reaching into the uppermost levels of leadership in the denomination.
It feels like the SBC’s saying “yes yes, sex abuse is just awful, we get it, BUT HAVE Y’ALL SEEN ALL THESE DEAD BAYBEEZ??? WELL? WHAT ABOUT THEM?!?”
If I were an abuse victim in this denomination, I’d feel absolutely offended by this hamfisted attempt to minimize my suffering and their own rightful blame for that suffering.
Russell Moore Gives Away the Game.
In December this past year, Russell Moore, the leader of the ERLC, pushed harder on this strategy in a letter he released about the SBC’s response to “Abuse of Faith.” In fact, he pushed hard enough on it that his letter should function as a wake-up call for Southern Baptists — but it won’t.
Moore begins his letter by invoking the now-iconic image of that young man in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 — standing alone in front of tanks with his plastic shopping bags dangling from his hands. Yes, Russell Moore is absolutely comparing TRUE CHRISTIAN™ culture warriors to Tank Man. More than that, he is comparing the fat-cats in power at the top of the SBC pyramid to Tank Man:
It’s one of the things that your Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission strives to do each day. Be willing to speak the truth as we see the Bible telling it.
The sheer arrogance and narcissism needed to make such a statement blows my mind.
Next, Moore plunges into the sex-abuse scandal, now that he’s got his audience primed to see the ERLC as Tank Man. He reveals that SAAG has been busy — creating more and more bureaucracy. They’ve made a website, caringwell.com, and have created a report.
Hooray, a report has been created! Hooray! (We’ll be looking at the site and report later on.)
BUT MUH BORSHUNS, y’all!
After patting himself on the back lots and lots over doing nothing tangible whatsoever, Russell Moore makes a hard right turn into the anti-abortion culture war. It’s amazing to watch the sentences unfurl. He begins by talking generally about how much the SBC totally cares about abuse generally, which we can tell because “Abuse of Faith” happened at all. Then, he makes this swerve:
But at the ERLC, we wake up every morning and we imagine what a post-Roe world would look like.
Really? Because I’d hope that the SBC’s top leaders wake up every morning and remind themselves that “Abuse of Faith” happened on their watch. Actual real people are suffering and have suffered for decades under their denomination’s care, but they’re really worried about abortion here?
While this nutjob natters on about “life and human dignity,” thousands of his pastors and volunteers are busy robbing countless victims of their futures and their dignity, but he’s really much more worried about ending the human right to obtain a legal and perfectly healthy and normal healthcare practice?
Indeed, the rest of the letter involves the other SBC culture wars. Moore ends by invoking Tank Man again — and claiming that if they, the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ fighting alone against human rights and civil liberties, will continue to stand strong, then they will totally inspire tons of other people to join them just like Tank Man did:
That’s what your ERLC is here to do, and to equip our churches to do as well.
Oh, and in the letter Moore also compares the ERLC to Paul Revere, “running out ahead and alerting our churches of dangers that are coming and questions that need to be considered.”
Whew! Just the blistering arrogance of this guy!
So: What Have They Actually DONE?
All in all, it looks like the SBC hasn’t done much at all about its sex-abuse scandal. They’re largely waiting it out and hoping the flocks move on to something else soon.
To help trick the flocks into thinking action is being taken and that their Dear Leaders totally care about this issue, the SBC’s leaders have formed committees, made websites, proposed rule changes in the most general ways possible, and piously proclaimed how much they caaaaaaaaaare about abuse victims. They’ve even made sex abuse their #2 concern after BORSHUN (like, what more can someone ask?).
However, no actual rules changes and no tangible policy changes have yet emerged from any of this preening and simpering.
Every single resolution that the SBC has made simply asks that pastors get on the ball with reporting crimes to civil authorities, be more compassionate toward victims, and demand stronger civil laws to protect “the vulnerable in our society.” They’re asking pastors for these changes, not telling them that they’d better change or lose their affiliation. Not yet.
Why They Don’t Demand Change.
SBC leaders have huddled behind the shield of church autonomy for years in addressing their scandals.
They can’t possibly adopt a denomination-wide predator database, you see, because MUH CHURCH AUTONOMY. 2019’s Resolution #3 (p. 97) does nothing to change that autonomy. It only warns churches that if they mishandle abuse allegations, Jesus will be extra-angry with them. OH NOES!
Russell Moore sure doesn’t change or add or subtract anything from this strategy in his letter, either, and it’s very clear that nothing’s happened over 2020 to move the SBC any closer to successful resolution.
Well, I mean “successful” by the standards of Reality-Land. By the SBC’s alarming parameters, the ERLC is already patting itself on the back over its lackluster, do-nothing response.
Go ahead. Tell me again how TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ makes the SBC’s leaders better than us unwashed heathens. Sure. Tell me again how Jesus totally makes Southern Baptists do the right thing with MUH OBJECTIVE MORALITY.
Go ahead. I need the laugh today.
NEXT UP: CaringWell.com ain’t it, chief.
See you tomorrow!
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