Southern Baptist scandal: It’s no coincidence that anti-abortion churches protect sex offenders

“Shocking.” It’s the word you hear both in the media coverage and social media reactions to a nearly 300-page report released Sunday that details both widespread sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and an extensive effort to cover it up by denominational leaders. As Christianity Today bluntly notes, the convention had “a secret list of over 700 abusive pastors,” but “chose to protect the denomination from lawsuits” rather than the victims or potential future victims on the pews. Instead, protecting predators became the norm, and victims of abuse were often blamed. One victim, whose abuse began when she was 14, “was forced to apologize in front of the church”, but was forbidden to name the pastor who forcibly impregnated her.

The situation is indeed horrific. It’s a small miracle that this report even happened. Activists demanded it, but faced massive institutional resistance from leaders of America’s largest Protestant denomination. One cannot help but marvel at the nerve of some Southern Baptist leaders who have engaged in the cover-up. SBC General Counsel Augie Boto, for example, responded to victims and their allies by accusing them of being part of a “satanic plan to completely distract us from evangelism.” Boto even appeared as a character witness for a Nashville gym coach who was convicted of assaulting a 10-year-old girl.

RELATED: Southern Baptists and #MeToo: Advocates for Church Sex Abuse Victims Push for Reform

But for feminists, none of this is shocking in the least. It lacks the element of surprise that the word implies. Not just because this whole situation is a retread of sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, down to the pattern of reassigning predatory pastors to new churches where they can start abusing a new group of unsuspecting worshippers. Like the Catholic Church, the SBC is one of the most vocal anti-choice religious groups in the country. Opposition to reproductive rights and tolerance of sexual abuse go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The common thread that connects the two, of course, is male supremacy or, to use an old-fashioned feminist term, patriarchy. As Laurie Penny writes in her new book, “Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback,” it’s a culture that “is comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence but determined not to not let women get away with consensual sex”. Indeed, to say “comfortable” could be an understatement. Sexual violence and anti-choice ideology are rooted in the same tendency to view women (and often children) as objects to be used and discarded by men, who have no rights or autonomy worthy of respect.


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I call it the “grab ’em by the pussy” philosophy, named after the most memorable line from Donald Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, in which he bragged about regularly sexually assaulting women. Trump, of course, also named three of the Supreme Court justices who will likely be part of a majority vote to overturn Roe v. Wade very soon. There is a tendency in the mainstream media to treat the religious right’s support for Trump as reluctant, as if they had held their noses in support of this compulsively promiscuous sexual predator, in exchange for these judicial appointments. In fact, polls show that white evangelicals — many of whom are Southern Baptists — are by far Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. One of its first champions was Jerry Falwell Jr., who may be disgraced now, but in the 2016 campaign he was probably the most famous Southern Baptist figure in the country. There is nothing “transactional” about Trump’s relationship with evangelicals: it’s real love.

Let’s stop pretending that the religious right’s support for Donald Trump was reluctant. Evangelicals are the most enthusiastic fans of a compulsively promiscuous sexual predator: that is true love.

Of course, just as Liberty University was eventually forced to get rid of Falwell, Southern Baptists and the wider evangelical community must maintain the pretense to oppose the sin of sexual abuse. Some, like the women-led activists who pushed for this investigation, even think so. But the enthusiasm for Trump, whose own boastful admissions have been backed up by more than two dozen women attesting to his abusive ways, is part of this larger misogynistic pattern. It’s not just the tendency to look the other way when men commit sexual violence. It’s about contempt for women who dare to assert their autonomy over their own bodies. Whether that means saying no to pregnancy or saying no to sex, in the eyes of a male-dominated church, the right to make the decision is simply not his.

RELATED: Extreme anti-abortion rhetoric and ‘catch ’em by the p***y’: The right wing’s ugly fantasies about women

In Boto’s rant accusing women who speak out against sexual violence of being in the grip of a “satanic scheme”, he also argues that women “are not to blame”, as they are supposed to be powerless in the devil claws. (And clearly need strong male guidance to deliver them from Satan.) Adopting an attitude of pity or condescension towards women – who can’t even make decisions on their own, poor things – is a favorite tactic of anti-choice who want to escape accusations that they want to prosecute or imprison women who have abortions. For example, many advocates of the new Texas abortion ban claim they have no desire to punish women for abortion, using language that portrays women as overgrown children, easily swayed by emotion, who lack the maturity or intelligence to make their own decisions. .

This condescending dismissal of women’s intellectual abilities, however, is mostly a cover story for a deep-seated hatred of women who think they have a right to self-determination. This becomes evident in this 288-page report on the SBC, which is replete with stories of survivors of sexual abuse who say that when they spoke out about their abuse, they were the ones who were attacked and demonized. And while proponents of the abortion ban can swear loud and clear that they have no intention of arresting women for abortion, as soon as they think they can get away with it, the handcuffs come out.


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There have been many twists and promises of improvement from SBC executives in response to this report. One would do well to be skeptical. After all, one of the leading contenders for the position of SBC president is Tom Ascol, a right-wing preacher who is committed to rolling back the supposed “revival” plaguing the church. Ascol described allegations of systemic sexual abuse within the church as a “nebulous” concept akin to believing in “the existence of an invisible imp”. Instead, he argues, the answer to sexual abuse “lies in the Seventh Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.'” Adultery is not even a criminal offence, we note. .

Ascol is not so dismissive of the evils of abortion, of course. While sexual predators are just a flavor of adultery in his book, a woman who has an abortion has “contracted a murderer to murder”, he says, and should face homicide charges. Unlike adultery, homicide is a crime. On the one hand, it’s refreshing that Ascol doesn’t even claim, as so many anti-choice do, that it doesn’t want to prosecute the roughly 800,000 people who have abortions each year. On the other hand, it demonstrates that the SBC is unlikely to change its commitment to being a male supremacist organization. It likely also means the same refusal to take sexual abuse seriously, the same disregard for victims who speak out, and the same concern to protect men accused of abuse. One report, no matter how “shocked” we claim to be, is not enough to change the misogynistic foundations upon which the Southern Baptist Convention rests.

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