Bad Sunday for the SBC

Southern Baptist

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest protestant denomination in the United States, and is second only to the Catholic Church in American membership in the Christian faith. And they have some soul searching to do:

The Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News teamed up on the reporting:

Journalists in the two newsrooms spent more than six months reviewing thousands of pages of court, prison and police records and conducting hundreds of interviews. They built a database of former leaders in Southern Baptist churches who have been convicted of sex crimes.
The investigation reveals that:

• At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct.

• Several past presidents and prominent leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are among those criticized by victims for concealing or mishandling abuse complaints within their own churches or seminaries.

• Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc.

• Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors. Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.

A few were adults — women and men who sought pastoral guidance and instead say they were seduced or sexually assaulted.

The reporting is extensive. Many will draw comparisons to the on-going scandals in the Catholic Church, but there are a few difference that should be noted. Local SBC churches, while under the umbrella of the national convention are fully autonomous and self-governed. Money and giving goes up but there is little of the authority the Catholic Church holds over their congregations coming back down. The piece goes into detail on how that model is ripe for predators, and how that makes any internal changes unlikely to be of much benefit.

“Change has to begin at the ground level with churches and organizations,” SBC President JD Greear is quoted in the report, “Our churches must start standing together with a commitment to take this issue much more seriously than ever before.”

We will see what happens now going forward.

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8 thoughts on “Bad Sunday for the SBC

  1. There are several paradoxes that seem to go on with strictness and religion in the Untied States and perhaps elsewhere:

    1. The more liberal branches of religion seem to have fewer scandals along the lines of the Catholic Church, now the Southern Baptists, and other strict/fundamentalist/conservative sects. This is not to say that they are perfect and squeaky clean but they have fewer issues along these lines but when you have less of a “sex is evil and wrong” vibe, it tends to cut down on the abuse seemingly.

    2. Liberal religious groups have a lot of trouble getting butts into the seats regularly and often have financial difficulties. I’ve noticed this in my Reform Judaism which always struck me as very rational and reasonable on the issues of sex and sexuality and other private lives thing. People might join when their have young kids but stop attending and paying membership dues once the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are done. Or they don’t think it is important for their kids to be Bar and Bat Mitzvahed. As far as I can tell, once religion gets sufficiently liberal the message becomes “Don’t be an asshole.” (I know this is glib). The liberal religions say that you don’t need to attend services to be a good person and/or to have a deity recognize your goodness. Eventually people then ask “So why get up on a Saturday or Sunday morning instead of sleeping in? Why go to Friday night services instead of a bar or restaurant? Etc.” The Temple President at my parent’s shul gets up and delivers the financials every year during the Yom Kippur morning service (Reform Jews tend to be twice a year people). Membership always seems to go down. Never up.

    3. More conservative religions tend to grow faster but also do the most damage to their younger congregants. The most easy-going atheists I know grew up in something like Reform Judaism. The most bitter and angry ones grew up in fundamentalist households/religions.

    I’m not sure how to untangle this or whether there is a solution.

    Another interesting factoid I remember was from an article in the New Yorker over a decade ago I believe. The article was a survey of sexual attitudes among red staters and blue staters especially teenagers. The thing that stood out to me is that allegedly Jewish teenagers have the fewest hang-ups about sex from a psychological prospective but are more likely to delay having sex (by how much, I don’t know) because they feel that an unwanted pregnancy could derail educational and career opportunities.

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    • I really think it’s more a matter of size and resources than strictness of theology. I’m pretty sure every mainstream Christian denomination still strongly encourages only having sex within a marriage – though the definition of marriage has expanded. But that is a *very* recent thing. And I would bet a small amount of money that at least one other largish denomination probably has the same problems – simply because, as we’ve seen w Michigan State and Penn State, and with the Boy Scouts the problem isn’t with religion, it’s with turn of the century youth organizations and their leadership.

      Also, when small religious groups do this, we call them a cult and send in the Feds guns ablazing.

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      • I belong to the ELCA, which is the liberal version of American Lutheranism. We really don’t discuss premarital sex much. Honestly, we don’t discuss sex much. We have kind of moved past thinking that religion is about the pelvic issues. If an unmarried couple started attending, we would probably assume in a casual way that they were having sex, but it wouldn’t really be any of our business. If a member were practicing dangerous or self-destructive sex that would be a concern, but the same is true of any community. At least it should be.

        That being said, there may be some official doctrinal statement somewhere saying sex outside of marriage is bad bad bad. I honestly don’t know. If there is, it is a dead letter, and likely was the day it was enacted.

        As for sexual predators being attracted to the organization, this is a problem with any organization, especially involving youth. My sense is that the liberal churches have been more open to following best practices about one on one encounters. I remember back in the 1980s my dad, who was a Lutheran pastor, used to drive kids to and from confirmation class without there necessarily being any third party present. Nobody thought anything of it back then. I would be surprised if a pastor today were to do this.

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    • Besides the theological messaging issues that liberal religions have, another reason why they can’t attract people is that they often lack the theater of more traditional and conservative religious groups. Whether it be a high Catholic mass, an African-American gospel choir, ultra-Orthodox Jews pleading together, or hundreds of Muslims bowing in unison, you get drama at most traditional religious services. Liberal religious groups seems at lot more wary of the theater and choreography of religion. The result are services that rarely move the spirt that much.

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      • This is often true, but not necessarily so My congregation practices the traditional liturgy and does it well, with a choir that can absolutely nail a Bach cantata. As for Catholic high mass, Roman Catholics can’t hold a candle to the Anglo Catholics. These in the US are all Episcopalians. They don’t touch the conservative offshoots. Why not? The people who split off from the Episcopalians do it over all the standard culture war issues. The Anglo Catholics want nothing to do with that. Their ecclesiastical theater is absolutely fabulous. They have no desire to subject themselves to a witch hunt.

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    • Adding to the above, I think one reason why we haven’t really seen Progressive Islam like we have Reform Judaism is that the more conservative and orthodox Muslim clergy observed what happens with liberal religion via other faiths and decided to work against any Islamic cleric or congregation that wanted to move in a more liberal direction.

      The other reason is that it’s a lot easier for not very religious Muslims to jump straight into secularism and for religious Muslims to live in modern society because of changing ideas on multiculturalism. When Reform Judaism first emerged, assimilation was considered to be the price of emancipation. You could not be an Orthodox Jew and get along in 19th century Western society because modern ideas about multiculturalism did not exist. At the same time, there was still enough Christian identity to require Jews have something of a religious identity. Going straight to secularism was not going to happen either.

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    • I think you are missing an important element in your analysis:

      Conservative religious groups give significant emphasis to the purity/shame angle. Purity and shame are very good levers for personal control. Victims in these environments are regularly shamed. The fact that you have been abused, makes you (not the abuser) impure, and you can, and are, shamed into compliance.

      More liberal groups emphasize harm and care. Abuse, for them, is clearly harmful and there isn’t (shouldn’t be) any shame associated to being a victim, just as there is no shame in being robbed. Without the ability to shame the victims, abusers lose their leverage.

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      • This.

        Also, IMHO, the shame/purity angle also tends towards encouraging forgiveness through symbolic, rather than rehabilitative, actions. I.E. Say 10 ‘Hail Mary’s’, as opposed to ‘Spend 10 sessions with a therapist’.

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