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‘Abuse of Faith’ Two Years Later: What’s Changed in the SBC

‘Abuse of Faith’ Two Years Later: What’s Changed in the SBC May 23, 2021

Hi and welcome back. Right-wing religion in America looks very much like a veneer of Jesus frosting over a purely-authoritarian series of power grabs. One of the most tragic illustrations of this simple reality is the ‘Abuse of Faith‘ scandal still unresolved in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). First exposed in February 2019, we’re now more than two years on from this explosive story of Southern Baptist hypocrisy at its very worst. SBC leaders like to talk about their accountability, so today let’s see how they’ve held themselves accountable since this abuse scandal broke.

you can't change the sbc, but you can fly away from it
(Bob Brewer.) Time to fly free, unidentified birdies!

Abuse of Faith: A Recap of the Scandal.

Starting in February 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a series of absolutely explosive reports about sex abuse in the leadership ranks of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). These reports detailed 700 victims and over 200 confessed predators who worked or volunteered for SBC churches. Americans were shocked by the sheer depravity and degeneracy these abusers displayed — and by the apparent utter unwillingness of the SBC’s top leaders to do anything about it. Indeed, they shielded these abusers and shuffled ’em around from church to church to keep the abuse hidden from both congregations and the public!

That summer, the SBC held its usual bigotry jamboree — er, Annual Meeting. Protestors marched outside with signs demanding the SBC acknowledge and do something finally about this abuse. Inside, a few token and high-profile victims/survivors sat onstage with the SBC’s biggest names. Even the president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, managed to squeak out a few crocodile tears over the stories the victims shared.

And then, having offered up some performative sorrow over all that abuse, absolutely nothing of note changed.

In fact, a while later J.D. Greear himself hired a sub-pastor for his own megachurch without caring that the guy had a history of sexual predation!

Now, two years later, the SBC cruises into its 2021 Annual Meeting. Southern Baptists from churches that have paid the right amount of cash to the denomination will be showing up to elect a new president and vote on all kinds of resolutions.

And they’ll probably all feel very relieved that they’ve weathered their biggest scandal yet.

The SBC’s Response to the Abuse Scandal.

In the wake of “Abuse of Faith,” the SBC leaped into action — to refuse to adopt an independently-maintained database to keep track of abusers so they couldn’t just be shuffled around from church to church, exactly as J.D. Greear’s new pastor was.

It really seemed like the SBC’s leaders were downright frantic to avoid losing even one iota of their own power to any outside forces. They’ve always slammed down hard on any suggestions of such a database. (In 2008, Paige Patterson called a victims’ rights group “evil-doers” who were on the same level as sexual predators. Yep. He did.)

Over and over again, I’ve read of various bigwigs in the denomination flat-out refusing to entertain even the idea of a database. Their excuses for this refusal — blah blah member autonomy — always sounded so hollow considering their response to member churches who didn’t exercise sufficient cruelty toward LGBT people.

Here’s Augie Boto, as one example, offering the denomination’s crazymaking responses to both situations. He’s one of the original architects of the Conservative Resurgence (and a great help to his fellow architect Paige Patterson). So I’m guessing he wouldn’t approve of any checks on leaders’ power. Oh, but it’s okay for churches to be bigots for Jesus, as long as they don’t want an abuse database!

What Actually Changed for the SBC After the Abuse Scandal Broke?

I mentioned above that “nothing of note” had changed after the scandal emerged into the light.

I meant it.

Shortly after the scandal broke, I discovered, someone in the SBC switched a very old domain name, caringwell.com, to reroute to the SBC’s servers. I’m not sure what the URL did before then or who specifically owned it, but I did find a mail-order, Christian-run pharmacy by that name that got caught up in serious legal trouble years earlier. So now, the SBC had this pretty domain name. They began printing Caring Well stuff and creating webpages for it.

Of course, Caring Well was not mandatory for SBC churches. That was only the beginning of its many serious problems. In fact, nothing I saw on their site looked like it’d substantively help sex-abuse victims — or prevent predatory leaders from abusing anyone.

The SBC’s Caring Well program ended with a “Challenge.” (Way to make yourselves look like middle-schoolers, SBC dudes.) This “Challenge” simply asked SBC members to promise to do a number of things. It wasn’t binding or required.

And how many SBC churches and members participated?

Well, in 2019 the SBC had roughly 14.5M members and 47k churches. Out of all of them, a maximum of 750 churches participated to some extent, alongside a number of people I only heard specified as “thousands.”

And that’s about all that happened, aside from them pushing out a couple of very small churches for employing known sex offenders, according to Baptist News. Really. By June 2019, at least one survivor, Jules Woodson, was asking herself if the abuse she’d suffered even mattered to the SBC.

No Really, Is That It? What Else Might Be Changing?

Hmm. Well, in December 2019 the SBC trotted out some kind of abuse-reporting portal that looks like it’d just make matters worse for abuse victims. Nobody liked it, particularly because the SBC didn’t promise anonymity to those offering tips about potential abuse. Really. They didn’t.

Also, I found a writeup of what we might expect from the SBC’s 2021 sexism shindig — er, Annual Meeting. It tells us what the SBC might be looking at changing in the wake of their constant scandals and erosion of credibility.

They might be trying to change the name of their denomination from “Southern Baptists” to “Great Commission Baptists.”

Yes, that will definitely and totally and for realios fix everything. (/s)

All through 2019 and even early 2020, I saw a lot of folks saying that the SBC was heading for a so-called “reckoning.” Nope. Didn’t happen.

Whew! Problem Fixed!

J.D. Greear, who is still the SBC president for a bit longer, loves the new name and says his church will be using it to describe themselves. I’m sure once his flocks realize they’re actually Southern Baptists at all, they’ll be happy to embrace this sneaky workaround. No way will the flocks think for even a moment that the SBC is just hoping to walk away from its spectacularly-tainted brand by just adopting a new name and hoping nobody realizes they’re still offering the same exact product.

We’ll talk more about this name change, because OH MY LOL we must. It’s just so perfectly illustrative of how authoritarians think.

But that writeup I mentioned above about the 2021 meeting included nothing about abuse itself. Similarly, I don’t see mention of abuse on the meeting program so far or on their news portal.

Gee, y’all, it’s a crying shame that filthy heathens like us can’t submit our own resolution suggestions to their portal! I bet we’d have some good ones to suggest.

What the SBC Will Do About Abuse Instead of Real Action.

Over and over again in their history, the SBC has followed a particular playbook for dealing with their endless scandals.

They make a big deal about feeling very very sorry about everything, make promises of improvement, set up a few token committees and maybe even hastily create a voluntary program for the flocks to do as busy-work. Then, once the dust has settled and the flocks aren’t paying attention anymore, they just ignore that anything happened and move on to do the stuff they really want to do — like argue about their culture wars.

Over and over again, this strategy has worked.

I wonder if it will work now.

For a while, it seemed like a lot of evangelicals had high hopes for changes in the wake of “Abuse of Faith.” But that hope didn’t last long. After a period of anticipatory waiting, we began hearing from abuse survivors like Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander about just how beyond-impotent the SBC’s few paltry efforts have been.

Sooner or later, even the most hopeful hearts figure out that the SBC’s leaders have no intentions of changing a thing, and might well be purposefully dragging their feet and producing busy-work for others until people quit asking them about it.

Hey, the strategy works grandly for misogynistic evangelical husbands who don’t want to do their fair share of housework. Why wouldn’t the same exact kind of men use it on the institutional scale to avoid substantively addressing an endemic sex-abuse scandal?

Why Abuse Scandals Will Never Provoke Change in the SBC.

Know this:

The SBC will not and cannot change a thing in any substantial way. It doesn’t matter how many abuse victims bravely share their stories. It doesn’t matter how many predators we find skulking in SBC leadership positions and hunting for prey in churches full of trusting fundagelicals. None of it matters at all.

In organizations this big and this authoritarian, it takes a lot to steer them in any other direction. A 180 turnaround, which is really what we’d need here, requires far more than the SBC can possibly muster. It’d require a serious commitment from courageous leaders who are well-prepared to lose a lot of their own personal and organizational power as they rewrite their leadership rules. It’d also require buy-in from flocks who recognize that serious changes must happen if they’re to protect the most vulnerable in their churches.

The SBC’s leaders would then essentially need to re-create their denomination with a focus on what actually works to make any organization safe for members: respect for human rights (including consent), firm support for outside watchdog groups, and equal representation within the group.

None of that will ever, ever, ever happen in the SBC.

What Actually Might Work, But Also Won’t Happen.

So no. Nobody can fix the SBC, especially not anybody warming their pews right now. I’m not saying that because I’m a meaniepie heathen who just hates evangelicals’ Jesus Auras. Rather, I say it because the SBC’s leaders themselves have shown us their truth repeatedly, and I like to believe people when they show me exactly who they are. They’ve had two solid years and change to do anything at all about their abuse scandal, and so far they’ve offered:

  • nothing
  • nothing substantive
  • something that could cause big trouble for anyone reporting abuse

They’ve more than amply demonstrated that they have no intention whatsoever of voluntarily doing anything about “Abuse of Faith.” So we’re left with this last truth that shines above all:

The only good way to deal with power-maddened, abuse-condoning, predator-shielding, authoritarian zealots is to walk away from them.

Of course, I don’t expect a whole lot of Southern Baptists to do anything like that — at least, not yet. SBC membership is tanking harder every year, but not enough yet for SBC leaders to change their response strategy.

They still think the old playbook is working just fine, so they’ll be using it for a while yet.

NEXT UP: LSP! Next week, let’s dive into Hell together. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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