History, Women, and the Southern Baptist Convention

by Patrick Thomas

We were thrilled to see that a recent post on our blog authored by our colleague Margaret Bendroth has led to an even more impressive and insightful piece for The New York Times.

Appearing yesterday in the Opinion section, “Could Southern Baptists Actually Become Feminists?” addresses how, despite the ousting of Paige Patterson, the SBC’s history of complementarian theology and local governance of church authority complicate further efforts to acknowledge and deal with claims of domestic abuse and sexual violence against women and children.  As Bendroth notes,

Southern Baptists do not take these steps lightly. They are acknowledging not just individual wrongdoing like Mr. Patterson’s but also a longstanding pattern of failure. This is a rare moment for any religious organization. Moreover, given their polity, the task ahead is especially daunting. Tracking and punishing abuse is hard enough under a hierarchy, but in a church body historically dedicated to “soul freedom” and the autonomy of local congregations, the logistics are formidable.

The 2018 Convention statement on SBC abuse offers some consolation with its concluding resolution: “…That we uphold the dignity of all human beings as image-bearers of God and the responsibility of all Christians to seek the welfare of the abused.” Whether and how the SBC continues to pursue and remove abusers and predators remains to be seen.

Or, as Bendroth puts it: “History has teeth, and it can bite. We best pay attention. Will Southern Baptists?”

Great question.

So Much Good Stuff to Read About Jeff Sessions and Romans 13

by William Trollinger

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (Romans 13:1-3a)

Much has been written about Romans 13 – including here! – in response to the efforts by Jeff Sessions to use the first few verses of the chapter to justify the Trump Administration’s ghastly policy of separating migrant children from their parents. In fact, so many good articles and posts have been written in the last few days that it is a challenge to keep up. Below are links to three of these pieces, with a few brief comments.

Melissa Florer-Bixler, “How Jeff Sessions Reads Romans 13 and How My Mennonite Sunday School Class Does,” Christian Century

Florer-Bixler is pastor of the Raleigh (NC) Mennonite Church, and she reminds readers that Mennonites are descendants of the Anabaptists, who in the 16th and 17th centuries were persecuted “for the anti-government action of baptizing one another upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ.” So it makes great sense that her Mennonite Sunday School class struggled mightily to understand Paul’s admonition to be subject to the governing authorities. She lays out various ways to read this passage, including an argument advanced by Mennonite theologians that to be “subject” means that a Christian must submit to the state’s punishment when they rightly disobey an unjust law. Interestingly, in this post Florer-Bixler does not endorse any particular reading strategy. But she is quite clear on the point that “the Bible is a weapon in the hands of coercive power,” as evinced by “Jeff Sessions, [who,] like other tyrants before him, utilizes scripture for the good of the empire, to keep people silent, in line, submissive.”

Lincoln Mullen, “The Fight to Define Romans 13,” The Atlantic.

In this erudite article Mullen – a history professor at George Mason University – details the ways in which Romans 13 has been used in American history. It played an important and interesting role during the American Revolution: while it is not surprising that the Loyalists made great use of the call to obey the established authorities, the rebels also appealed to the text, arguing (in keeping with John Calvin) that only just authorities had to be obeyed, and unjust authorities were to be resisted. As Mullen details, the argument over Romans 13 was reignited with the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act: defenders of slavery naturally argued for active obedience to the law, while abolitionists (in keeping with the Mennonites mentioned above) argued against complying with the law while also accepting the government-imposed penalties. Mullen ends with this indictment: “Sessions may claim the Bible’s contested authority, but what the attorney general actually has on his side is the thread of American history that justifies oppression and domination in the name of law and order.”

Casey Strine, “What the Bible’s Romans 13 says about asylum — and what Jeff Sessions omitted,” The Conversation.

The thesis of Casey Strine’s compelling article comes at the very end: “The logic of Paul’s words might have sounded helpful to Sessions in isolation, but the letter they come from undermines nearly everything Sessions wants them to support.” To make his case, Strine – a Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield (UK) – explains the occasion for Paul’s letter, which was the return of recently-exiled Jewish Christians back to Rome. Paul was determined that the non-Jewish Christians welcome the Jewish Christians as equals. Encouraging his readers to love their neighbors as themselves (Romans 13:9-10), Paul was drawing on Leviticus 19, which calls on the host people to care for migrants. As Strine observes, “the command to love a foreigner and to let them freely gather food that belongs to you puts us a long, long way from Sessions’ arguments.”

It is no wonder that Sessions (a United Methodist) has been issued a formal church complaint, filed by more than 600 Methodist clergy and laity for child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to . . . the United Methodist Church,” including “the misuse of Romans 13.”

Finally: if you know of any individuals or organizations needing a trial lawyer to represent asylum-seekers, please contact Barry Sawtelle at bsawtelle@kozloffstoudt.com. He has received specialized legal training with the Mennonite Central Committee, and he is volunteering his services.

Romans 13:1-2: How to Quell Dissent in Two Short Bible Verses

by William Trollinger

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

By the time I headed off to college in 1973 I was absolutely sick of these two verses.

Growing up in evangelicalism, I was instructed — again and again and again — by my pastor and my youth leaders and my Sunday School teachers and my parents that our Baptist faith rested on the authority of the Bible. So it was my task was to immerse myself in God’s Word. Not always an obedient child, in this instance I heeded their admonitions and read the Bible, particularly the Gospels.

But by the time I was 12 or 13, I had encountered a major problem. What I read in the Bible did not square with other things I was being told in church and home, particularly when it came to politics. How was I to square Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor with my father’s support for segregation and angry opposition to the civil rights movement? How was I to align Jesus’ instructions to “turn the other cheek” with my congregation’s full-throated support for the Vietnam War and disdain for the antiwar movement?

So in church and home I made what I thought were good biblical arguments in support of civil rights and in opposition to the war. And at some point in the “conversation” – things inevitably heated up beyond what could be called a conversation – my interlocutor(s) would often trot out a version of Romans 13:1-2.

God established government. So we are obliged to obey government. Those who resist will incur judgment. Argument clinched.

I thus felt as if I had been transported back to my adolescence when I watched Jeff Sessions and then Sarah Huckabee Sanders use Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administration’s morally reprehensible policy (just to be clear, it is not a law) of taking babies and toddlers and children away from their parents at the border. And in Dana Milbank’s op-ed piece, “This isn’t religion. It’s perversion” – where he points out all the other biblical passages that counter “the attorney general’s tortured reading of Romans” — I recognize my own adolescent counter-arguments.

The difference is that now I have a much clearer sense that those who use Romans 13:1-2 as their trump card are simply using it to shut down the conversation. That is to say, countering with other biblical passages is a pointless exercise. When it comes to separating children from parents at the border – as with the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement or even antebellum slavery (another instance where Romans 13:1-2 were favorite verses) – biblical context is not the issue. In this regard, my wise colleague Meghan Henning said it very well in a June 15 Facebook post:

I could offer an alternative interpretation of Romans, one that takes into account context, or even reads more than a single verse in isolation. But I won’t do that because the problem here isn’t one of interpretation, but of the history of interpretation. Sessions and Sanders have joined themselves to a long history of US figures who were comfortable reading the Bible in ways that do violence to other people. You don’t have to have advanced degrees in Biblical Studies to test whether your interpretation of the Bible is a part of this interpretive history. You only need to ask yourself one question: “Does my interpretation of this text hurt someone else or support violence to another person’s body?”

And then there’s Stephen Colbert’s brilliant “Jeff Sessions Cites the Bible in Separating Children From Parents”

The Pain Wrought by Complementarian Theology

Today’s post is by Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993) and Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton.

Book cover for _Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present_. (c) Yale University Press, 1993.

None of the revelations about Paige Patterson and his ilk, so clearly and passionately excoriated by Emily McGowin, surprised me in the least. Though I was not raised in an evangelical subculture—Christian Reformed Dutch people hoped that if nobody talked about sex it would eventually go away—I encountered the icky, paranoid teachings about sex and dating in Christian summer camp, and later on in college. I’m guessing that most women in Campus Crusade or InterVarsity had to fend off at least one overzealous suitor convinced that God was calling him to marry her. I know I did.

Even so, hearing Albert Mohler interviewed on NPR last Sunday made me angry. Mohler presented himself as a reasonable and trustworthy adult, saddened by Patterson’s misbehavior but resolutely holding the line on “biblical” standards. When the interviewer suggested (rather timidly) that “complementarian” gender roles might have allowed powerful men to exploit vulnerable women, he waved her off with a proof text. Yes, wives were to submit to their husbands, but hey, husbands had to love their wives “as Christ loves the church.”

Nothing to see here, just keep moving.

During the interview, I kept remembering a documentary I used to show students, about the conservative takeover of Southern seminary in the 1990s.  I found “Battle for the Minds” a profoundly depressing film, a parade of smug talking heads nattering on about inerrancy and St. Paul. Mohler’s role was particularly troubling. Vaguely egalitarian in the past, when he became president of Southern Seminary he saw which way the winds were blowing in the SBC. Without turning a hair he joined the crusade to exclude women from M.Div. programs and oust Molly Marshall, a beloved professor of theology. It was all supremely sad. Above all, the documentary showed the emotional cost of the conservative takeover, the gut-level bewilderment and hurt of women who were suddenly and arbitrarily deemed unfit to pastor a church.

This is why I’m deeply skeptical of any explanation of complementarian gender roles, however dispassionate and “biblical.” Even the most wonderful man who insists he is ready, willing, and able to love his wife “as Christ loves the church” is simply missing the point, and badly. The dictum that wives must submit to husbands and that men have a godly duty to lead in church and family—it’s more than just a set of ideas. It hurts. It causes sadness. And inflicting pain on another person is, well, abuse.

It’s surprising to me how obtuse people can be about this. Years ago, when Fundamentalism and Gender was still in the draft stage, a male colleague begged me, almost tearfully, to omit the two sentences I’d included about domestic abuse.

Although conservative evangelical and fundamentalist literature was silent on the subject of domestic violence, the model of family life it espoused was a risky one. Modern studies have found the highest instances of spousal and child abuse in families that are socially isolated and characterized by rigid sex-role stereotypes, poor communication, and extreme inequities in the distribution of power between family members.  

He was deeply concerned that this would provide ammunition for scholars already disposed to disdain or dismiss conservative religion. I get that. But what if it were true?

Fundamentalism and Gender was not an angry book per se. In the early 1990s there was plenty worse out there, and I imagined my argument was safely historical, explaining the sources of fundamentalists’ dislike of women instead of denouncing them as evil sexists. But even so, I believe it was an uncomfortable read for some evangelical historians. At least, I heard no outrage or apology, just a subtle, ongoing defensiveness—counterexamples of fundamentalist women in leadership positions, or counterarguments to show that conservative women weren’t actually oppressed.

To me, this was all beside the point. By that time I understood viscerally, from my own experience researching that book, some of the personal cost of fundamentalist rhetoric. I had long since made my peace with St. Paul, but I would still come away from the library feeling gloomy and oppressed. I didn’t actually worry that I was an inferior being, I just felt beaten down after reading page after page of men talking about women in patronizing, demeaning ways. All those explanations, over and over again, about why God mysteriously preferred men over women were a kind of slow poison.

Regardless of whether Paige Patterson broke some law or even if he was simply guilty of being an insensitive buffoon, he’s an abuser. Regardless of whether husbands who love their wives as Christ loved the church beat them with a hairbrush or not, they are inflicting damage. Perhaps, now that Emily and others are speaking uncomfortable truths so eloquently, we’ve reached a moment of acknowledgement, maybe even repentance—and maybe even redemption.


It’s Not about Paige Patterson, Continued: Sex and Gender Beyond Evangelicalism

Today’s post is written by Elesha Coffman, assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford). She is a graduate of Wheaton College and Duke University.

First off, let me say that I agree with everything Emily Hunter McGowin wrote about the gas-lighting of evangelical women long before, and far beyond, what has recently been exposed about Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention. I heard all of the same messages she did as I grew up in evangelical churches, conditioning me to believe that it was my constant responsibility to manage men’s sexual temptation while deferring to their authority. The specific contours of evangelical gender ideology, especially as defined by the Religious Right from the 1970s onward, place crushing burdens on women. I ultimately had to leave evangelicalism in order not to lose my faith and my sanity.

But it’s not just evangelicalism.

As the Patterson abuses were coming to light, I couldn’t help but think back to the devastating revelations about a sexual predator from a very different theological tradition, John Howard Yoder. In early 2015 (how long ago that feels, in scandal-years!) the Mennonite Quarterly Review laid out the case against the revered pacifist theologian, who had violated more than 100 women over the course of several decades. Every part of the story was awful—the violations, the years of cover-ups, victims not heard or believed, powerful men excusing each other’s worst behavior.

As with Patterson, Yoder’s egregious acts were already known (though not to their full extent) by insiders, but the urge to protect a hero, an institution, and theological insights deemed true and critically important drowned out the cries for justice. Until the cries broke through—and even then, the defensive urges rose up.

He might have failed privately, but he did great things for our church, people said about Yoder, and Patterson, and Bill Hybels, and Andy Savage.

He didn’t live up to his own theology, but that theology still stands on its merits, people said about those guys, as well as about figures as varied as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m sticking to 20th and 21st century Protestantism because that is the field I know best, but countless other examples could be cited from other time periods and Christian traditions as well.

McGowin is absolutely right that Patterson is fruit of a poisonous tree, and cutting him down—while a good and necessary step—will accomplish little unless the rotten branches are pruned and the source of the poison located. The same warped gender ideology that supported Hybels and Savage would fall to this pruning, but what about Yoder and the others? Is patriarchy so deep-seated in Christianity that it cannot be rooted out? On the other side of this question, what good fruit might be lost if we take this particular axe to the Christian family tree? Not all of these figures, or their ideas, seem to belong on the same burn pile, even though they all abused women.

These questions defy easy answers. I do think that there are two basic approaches that Christians and scholars of Christianity can take to them, one that is not helpful and one that can be:

1. Assume that the problem is localized and the damage can be limited. For the SBC, this approach would entail removing Patterson from leadership while leaving complementarianism and the “Conservative Resurgence” intact. The first test of this strategy is not encouraging: the preacher giving the big convention sermon in Patterson’s stead covered up child abuse at his church, ignoring the testimony of multiple women over many years.

This strategy is unsound in the classroom as well. As the Yoder story was emerging, a theology professor wrote,

to the extent that the theologian’s scandalous actions did not affect his theology (or biblical scholarship) I see no reason to make much of them. They should probably be mentioned in a biography but there’s no need to reject his whole theology because of them.

Scandalous actions and theology may, in some cases, be separable. King’s adultery, for instance, does not seem to have a whole lot to do with his theology of race, poverty, and nonviolence. But this is not a wise assumption to start off with. Minimizing, sidestepping, and tortuous justifications will almost inevitably follow.

2. Assume that the problem is systemic and the damage widespread. Emily Hunter McGowin articulated this position vis-à-vis Patterson, and she’s not alone. Other men and women are similarly calling for broader and deeper investigation, believing that Patterson’s abuses of women are inseparably connected to complementarian theology and the power plays that he and his proteges used to take over their denomination.

This assumption of a systemic problem also proved necessary in Yoder’s case. Theologians who admired him were loath to shelve his insights, eager to separate the scandal from the theology. But eventually, four of them wrote, they had to ask themselves,

what do we do with the places where Yoder’s actions were consistent with his theology? We must be willing to consider the possibility that in pursuing these relationships with other Christian women, Yoder just might have been applying his radical theology, though in ways the rest of us had, to his mind, not the courage to imagine.

Feminist theologian Cynthia Garrity-Bond wrote even more forthrightly,

I believe the weight of an accused theologian’s sexual charges must be brought to the foreground before, during and after examination of their writings. Using a hermeneutics of suspicion let the student wrestle with the weight of said theologian and their sexual misconduct. Absent a full disclosure and examination, only a false exegesis is given.

I heartily concur with McGowin that “this tangled mess of misogynistic axioms … must be rooted out and disposed of—within the SBC and American evangelicalism as a whole.” I only wish we could stop there. The roots of this problem are deep, the branches are wide, and the fruit is sickening.


It’s Not about Paige Patterson: Sex and Gender in the SBC and Beyond

Today’s post is from frequent rightingamerica contributor Emily Hunter McGowin, who  is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She also serves as a deacon in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). You can learn more about Emily at her website.

Last week, Dr. Paige Patterson was dismissed as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, one of five seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was fired due to a variety of misdeeds, including advising at least one rape victim not to report the rape to police (during his tenure at a sister institution), speaking of young women in sexually suggestive ways, and counseling a woman being physically abused by her husband to remain in her marriage and pray so that he might be saved.

Those outside the SBC probably don’t know that Paige Patterson is a hero of the so-called Conservative Resurgence—a series of events through which a conservative faction of Southern Baptists, led by Patterson and his friend, Paul Pressler, wrested control of the seminaries and national convention from a moderate faction that had been in control for some time. For his work in the takeover, Patterson has been lionized, idolized, and rendered practically untouchable—until now.

I became a Christian in a SBC church, received my B.A. in a SBC school, and served for many years in SBC churches. Even though I am no longer Southern Baptist today, I know firsthand the treatment women can endure in such environments. For this reason, many of my formerly Southern Baptist friends and I have followed the Patterson story with interest.

His firing is important for many of us because it signals that even larger-than-life figures like Patterson can be held accountable for their treatment of women. In an evangelical world that has been stubbornly resistant to dealing with its own #metoo crisis, this is one symbolic step in the right direction. And, on a smaller scale, it confirms what many of us have known in our guts about Patterson for a long time. After feeling like an entire institution was gas-lighting us for years, finally someone acknowledged the truth. And our guts were right all along.

Still, as my friend Todd Littleton has said, it is important to recognize that this isn’t really about Paige Patterson. This isn’t even about Southern Baptist seminaries. Patterson is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. And while Todd is right to call out the theology of glory at work in Southern Baptist churches, I would like to draw attention to something more specific: the sex and gender ideology that saturates the SBC and American evangelical culture more broadly.

After I became a Christian as a teenager, one of the first lessons I learned was that my body was inherently a sexual object—something for which I should feel both awe and shame. Awe for the immense power I wielded over the minds and bodies of men and shame for the times I failed to protect their fragile purity.

The other lesson I learned was closely linked to the first: because women’s bodies are sexual objects, relationships between men and women are always sexually fraught. That is, a woman’s body is always a temptation to men therefore genuine friendship between the sexes is not possible. And, because it is the woman’s body that is problematic, the majority of the responsibility for conforming to Christian sexual ethics falls on the woman.

Her role is necessarily precarious: Appear physically inviting to men (you must “take care of yourself”), but not too inviting (“you don’t advertise what’s not for sale”). Present yourself as open to sex (you don’t want to be a “prude”), but not too much (good Christian men don’t respect “loose women”). In short, you must say no, no, no to everything until your wedding night; then your job is simply to say yes, yes, yes.   

So, when, as a 17 year-old college freshman sitting in my first chapel service, an older male student placed his hand on my knee and moved it up my skirt to my thigh, the shock that froze me in place immediately turned into shame and self-loathing. What did I do to make this happen? Was it the skirt? Was it because I didn’t wear panty hose? Was I enticing this behavior without knowing it? His leering smile suggested this approach to women was not new to him and I was too terrified to tell him to stop.

Later, when I shared my story with another male student who inquired about my distressed appearance, he sympathized with my horror but implied it would be better not to go to the administration. It could hurt both of our reputations. Both of our reputations.

In the end, I said nothing. I endured classes with him every semester until he graduated. I never wore that skirt to school again. And that young man—now a middle-aged man—is still a Southern Baptist pastor today.

The way my experience played out makes sense within the culture that shaped me. Of course, the principles about gender and sex that we absorbed in SBC institutions and broader evangelical culture were not explained as principles. Instead, they made up an invisible web of discourse within which we learned to negotiate.

If the first thread of that web is that women’s bodies are sex objects and male-female relationships are always sexually fraught, then more of the threads could be summarized as follows:

A woman exists primarily for the benefit of the men in her life, typically her father or her husband. A woman who senses a calling apart from those roles needs to figure out how her calling complements and supports the calling of her husband. The husband’s calling, gifting, and agency takes priority over the wife’s. And this reality must be prepared for and practiced in the dating relationship. The man leads; the woman follows. (No mention was ever made of women who may not feel compelled to get married or who are not attracted to men at all.)

Men are inordinately preoccupied with and tempted by sex. Because this is their fundamental nature as men, it is the woman’s job to ensure she protects the men in her life from her body. This principle is in tension with the one stated above. In a dating relationship, the woman does not lead but she is primarily responsible for their sexual purity.

A woman cannot say yes to any sexual act before marriage. Thus, any sexual activity before marriage is shameful and makes the woman “used goods”. (Ask any girl who attended an evangelical youth group in the 90s and she’ll be able to tell you stories of being compared to chewed up gum, used duct tape, filthy water, and more.) There was no distinction made between sexual abuse and consensual sexual acts despite the fact that, statistically speaking, one in four women have been or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. Any sexual activity—wanted or unwanted—outside the bonds of marriage is shameful and something for which you will suffer in the future.

A woman cannot say no to sex after marriage. A married man has the right to have his sexual desires satisfied. And a married woman’s role is to satisfy the sexual desires of her husband. Therefore, a married woman should not say no to sex except in extraordinary circumstances. The underlying assumption here is that if she submits, performs, and willingly cooperates with her husband in bed, then the sex will be enjoyable for both partners and he will not become addicted to pornography or commit adultery. In the event that either of the latter scenarios come to pass, then it might be because the wife was not fulfilling her husband sexually. (I have heard men blame the wives of celebrity pastors for their sexual indiscretions more times than I can count.)

If a man harasses, assaults, or rapes a woman, she might bear some responsibility for it. A man’s sexual desires are not easily controlled and it is a woman’s responsibility to protect the minds of the men she interacts with. Perhaps she was in a place she shouldn’t have been, wearing what she should not have worn, saying things she should not have said, or doing things she should not have done. This is born out in one of the stories in the Patterson case: A student at Patterson’s seminary who told him she’d been raped was later disciplined for being in the man’s room.

Again, these principles were and are rarely stated in the explicit way I have outlined above. Nevertheless, they were the ideological water within which many of us learned to swim.

All of these threads in the web of the evangelical sex and gender discourse would be harmful enough on their own, but they are typically paired with one overarching axiom: Men are ordained by God to be leaders in the church and the home and women are to submit graciously to their leadership.

It is this last one—divinely ordained deference to male authority—that helps explain the stories emerging from Patterson’s tenure at both Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries. When joined with overarching male headship and a “touch not the Lord’s anointed” (Ps. 105:15) view of the pastoral office (and all of its derivatives), the sex and gender discourse that exists within SBC and American evangelicalism easily leads to the perpetuation and concealment of harm against women. Certainly, I know plenty of men who hold to male headship who do not endorse the other principles outlined above. Yet, the tangled discursive web remains in place, and women and men are continuing to suffer.

I’m afraid I could tell other stories. I could tell about the time a young man I dated briefly stalked me for months after I stopped seeing him because, “God told me you’re supposed to be my wife.” I could tell about the whispered innuendo concerning my relationship with a mentor professor and the implication that my body was the reason for my apparent success. I could tell about the covert (and sometimes overt) hostility from male students when I served as a guest instructor (“Do you have your husband’s permission to teach this class?”). I could tell about the comments on my appearance when I attended conferences and delivered papers. Or, the steely, awkward silence I endured as the only woman in the room. And I could tell about countless jokes and sarcastic remarks aimed at woman’s nature, gifts, and “proper place”.

All of this I endured quietly, mindful of my place in the hierarchy and aware of the consequences if I drew attention to myself. This was just the way the system worked, and I had to learn to deal with it. I was by no means the only one. But my friends’ stories are not mine to tell.

Of course, my experience in the SBC wasn’t all bad. Not at all. I owe a lot to Southern Baptist professors and mentors and I’m grateful for them. Also, I am proud and thankful to be friends with many Southern Baptists to this day. I have been encouraged by the reaction of many Southern Baptist pastors to the #metoo wave that continues to sweep through the United States. They are speaking out and trying, slowly but surely, to change a culture where misogyny has been allowed to flourish under the guise of benevolent patriarchy.

But that leads us back to Patterson. The web of sex and gender ideology I’ve described above exists with or without Paige Patterson and with or without the SBC. It is this tangled mess of misogynistic axioms that must be rooted out and disposed of—within the SBC and American evangelicalism as a whole. This culture is harmful to men, to be sure, but it is particularly devastating to women and girls. None of the above should be the price women pay simply for being women—in the SBC or anywhere else.

Between Us and Them

In the final chapter of her wonderful new book, The Second Coming of the KKK, Linda Gordon provides a very helpful discussion of the ways in which the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s fit and did not fit the label “fascist.”  In this regard, she noted the KKK’s extreme emphasis on the insider/outsider binary:

All social movements generate group loyalty, of course, and all draw a border between members and outsiders . . . But not all create intense aversion to those outside the group. The Klan tried to divide people between the pure and the impure, the godly and the ungodly, patriots and traitors. Eschewing nuance, these binaries raised a particularly high wall separating the righteous and the wicked. There are resemblances here not only to fascists but also to religious believers for whom individuals outside the faith are infidels, either susceptible to conversion or damned. (202)

Cover of Linda Gordon’s “The Second Coming of the KKK” (c) 2017, W.W. Norton & Co.

One of the most popular spots inside Ark Encounter is the “Ark Door.” As imagined by Answers in Genesis (AiG), it was through this door that Noah and his family entered the Ark in order to escape the global deluge to come. And as explained on a nearby placard, the Ark Door should be a lesson for all of us:

Just as God judged the world with the Flood, He will judge it again, but the final judgment will be by fire. We have all sinned against our holy Creator and deserve the penalty of death . . . The Ark’s door reminds us that we need to go through a door to be saved. Jesus Christ is our one door to salvation, the “Ark” that saves us from God’s judgment for eternity.

Next to the Ark Door is a placard entitled “KEEPSAKE PHOTO,” which includes the urging: “Take a picture here with your family and friends to preserve this reminder of the importance of salvation.” The placard features a photo of a woman (presumably a mother) taking a picture of three young girls standing in front of the closed Ark Door. Underneath the photo is the helpful warning that “those outside of Christ will perish, but those in Christ will be rescued.”  

Every time we have gone to Ark Encounter we have seen folks – sometimes lines of folks – having their picture taken at this spot. And for good reason, given that many or most visitors are evangelicals, and given that the Ark Door is presented as a symbol of the story of salvation. As a visitor named Lisa is quoted on the Ark Encounter website, “The DOOR was awesome, only one way to our Lord” (emphases included in original).

Just under Lisa’s quote on the website is a photo of the Ark Door, which is open, with the beautiful Kentucky countryside off in the distance. But as with the photo on the placard, in our multiple visits we have never seen the door open, and this makes sense. The main point of Ark Encounter is for visitors to identify with Noah and his family, who heeded God’s warning and boarded the Ark, and who were snug and dry as the flood waters rose. Salvation for Noah and his family, and if we heed the warnings in time, salvation for us.

Of course, in AiG’s own telling of the story, just on the other side of the Ark Door the flood waters are rising. Innumerable animals are drowning. Perhaps twenty billion human beings — adults, children, and babies — are drowning.

Think about this for any time at all, and the idea of happy tourist photos in front of the closed Ark Door becomes unbearably creepy. But Ark Encounter does its very best to ensure that visitors do not think about this. As explained in the Ark, those who are drowning are simply one gigantic aggregate of the wicked who have been justly judged by a righteous God. They are not individual human beings with whom we might identify.

As Ark Encounter would have it, the Ark Door is shut, and we do not see them at all. They are not Us.

So Much Good Stuff to Read about Evangelicals, Part Three

As we have said before, one of the few benefits of the Donald Trump presidency is that many smart journalists and scholars are now writing about white evangelicals in an effort to understand these Christians who make up his most loyal constituency.

The challenge is that so many excellent articles are appearing that it is difficult to keep up. In this post – the third in this series (here’s #1 and #2) – we provide links to and brief comments about three articles that have appeared in the past few days. It is worth noting that these articles provide further evidence that the Times and the Post are publishing a wealth of good material on evangelicalism.

In this compelling article Laurie Goodstein reports on the Red Letter Christians (RLC) – a group of evangelicals who oppose the “toxic Christianity” of pro-Trump Evangelicalism – and their April revival meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia (home of Liberty University). As we noted in an earlier post,  “A Specter is Haunting the Christian Right,” Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., threatened RLC leaders with arrest if they stepped foot on campus, and prohibited the school’s student newspaper from covering the event. But Goodstein adds depth to this story by explaining that the revival did not attract the numbers that organizers had hoped, in good part because the residents of Lynchburg (a town where Liberty is the biggest employer) feared antagonizing Falwell and company. As a local minister observed, “’Everyone’s afraid. That’s strong language. Everyone’s very mindful of how they speak and how they deliver the truth. It’s hard to tell the truth in a context like Lynchburg.’”

This powerful article is quite painful to read, particularly when the author is telling the story of gymnast Rachel Denhollander, who was abused as a child in her evangelical church, and then was abused by infamous USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Pease compares the level of sexual abuse in evangelicalism with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, the difference being that evangelicalism is radically decentralized, and so it is particularly challenging to gather information. But the evidence is there, including – and this is just one example from the article – a recent doctoral dissertation that reveals that, in 2016 and 2017, 192 leaders of influential evangelical organizations and churches faced charges for sexual crimes involving minors. Appallingly, many evangelical leaders have said little about the problem of sexual abuse and harassment and have done little to prevent it. Why? According to Pease, “the causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem, and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates.”

Using examples from Moody Bible Institute, Taylor University (which we discussed here and here), Calvin College, and Biola University, Worthen highlights the ways in which growing numbers of evangelical college students are raising questions about their school’s policies regarding sex and gender while also resisting the evangelicalism-Trump alliance. Worthen – the author of the terrific Apostles of Reason – observes that while we are some distance from a revolution within white evangelicalism, what is happening at evangelical schools matters: “A culture’s institutions of higher education are canaries in the culture war coal mine: They struggle with ideological shifts before these changes are apparent in the broader community.” So what is the future of evangelical higher education? In response to Worthen’s article a good friend suggested that the enrollment pressures on evangelical schools will force them to admit an increasingly diverse student body that will, over time, change these schools from within.


Why the Obsession with Sex?

Why do evangelical leaders and pastors devote so much energy, so much attention, to sex?

In particular, evangelical pastors and leaders spend an enormous amount of time delineating what constitutes God-ordained sexuality and God-ordained sexual roles. Man is to be the “head” in home and church; woman is to be joyfully submissive in home and church; marriage is between one man and one woman; homosexuality and transgenderism is unnatural, and sin.

The 2017 “Nashville Statement  – published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and signed by over 20,000 evangelical leaders — is the quintessential example of the evangelical effort to lay out these timeless truths regarding sexual roles and sexuality. And in the preamble to the statement the authors make clear why these issues are so pressing right now:

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being . . . It is [now] common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences . . . [But] our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be.

In his brilliant 2011 book, The Age of Fracture, Daniel T. Rodgers argues that the last decades of the twentieth century were a time in which the ideas by which Americans had ordered their lives began to come apart. Notions of consensus disappeared, replaced by imagined communities that grew smaller and smaller, and with more emphasis on the self. And regarding this self, identities became less fixed and more fluid, giving way to conceptions of human nature that stressed agency and desire and performance.

These changes are at the heart of the “culture war” in which we still live. On one side are Americans who thrive in this fluidity that marks “the age of fracture.” On the other side are Americans who find the destabilization of “tradition, certainties, truth itself” to be “a source of fear and outrage.” And while this culture war involved and involves a host of issues – immigration, patriotism, literary theory, schools and schoolbooks, and morality – Rodgers argues that gender is the cultural conflict:

Above all, in ways that historians of these culture clashes have only begun to realize, it was a battle over women’s acts and women’s and men’s natures. Of all the certainties whose cracking seemed to culturally conservative Americans most threatening, the destabilization of gender roles and gender certainties set off the sharpest tremors. (145)

Rodgers helps us to see that the obsession among so many evangelical leaders with sexual roles and sexuality is not just about obeying the Bible. It is about holding on to certainties that order all of human life. As they see it, abandon fixed and essentialist understandings of male and female, and all that remains is chaos.

At least, this is how many older evangelicals see it. Their children and grandchildren are not so convinced.

Evangelical Colleges and the Shrinking of White Evangelicalism

The numbers tell a remarkable story. White evangelicalism is shrinking, and at a brisk rate. While 23% of Americans identified as white and evangelical in 2006, that number had dropped to 17% by 2017. More than this, white evangelicalism is aging. As of two years ago the median age of white evangelicals was 55, with 30% of white evangelicals older than 65 and only 11% under the age of 30. Most dramatic, perhaps, only 8% of American adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are white evangelicals.

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that a primary reason white evangelicalism is shrinking and aging is its culture war politics, particularly regarding issues having to do with sexuality. In his tellingly titled article, “Are White Evangelicals Sacrificing the Future In Search of the Past?,” researcher Daniel Cox reports that, “for young white evangelical Christians,” the fact that evangelical leaders fiercely condemn homosexuality and oppose same-sex marriage “can be a source of considerable tension”:

If you are under the age of 30, it is increasingly difficult not to know someone who is gay or lesbian. Young white evangelicals are caught between their peers, who are predisposed to embrace cultural pluralism and express tolerance for different personal behaviors, and an evangelical tradition that staunchly resists changes in social, cultural, and religious norms.

A few weeks ago we spoke at a local high school about creationism, evangelicalism, and the Christian Right.  Afterwards one of the students (a senior who will be attending a Catholic university in the fall) said to us that

Most of the seniors I know have made a very big point of not wanting to go to any sort of religiously-affiliated university. The biggest reason is that they associate all religion with evangelicalism, which they think of as judgmental and hypocritical and hateful, especially when it comes to gays and lesbians. When I have tried to explain that there are other forms of Christianity and other forms of religion, I just don’t seem to get anywhere.

All of this raises a very interesting question for evangelical colleges and universities. How will they survive the demographic reality that the numbers of white youth who identify as evangelical are rapidly shrinking, in good part because young people understand evangelicals and evangelical institutions as homophobic and intolerant?

One obvious response would be for evangelical schools to drop their opposition to gay marriage and adopt open and affirming policies regarding LGBTQ students. But the evangelical school that did this would immediately face the wrath of evangelical leaders and their own evangelical constituents. This includes parents, many of whom want reassurance that their sons and daughters will not be exposed to dangerous ideas regarding homosexuality and gay rights.

It thus seems likely that evangelical colleges and universities will maintain their anti-LGBTQ policies (which vary in harshness from school to school). As Adam Laats has noted about Wheaton College and its recent crackdown on efforts to express LGBTQ pride on campus, these policies will only change if and when evangelical college presidents become “convinced that a large segment of the evangelical public is cool with LGBTQ pride.”

That day is not here. So it is that evangelical schools hold the course, in the process competing with each other for a rapidly shrinking demographic. And all the while their “evangelical” brand becomes increasingly tarnished as “judgmental and hypocritical and hateful.”

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