America’s largest Protestant denomination and second-largest Christian denomination is rocked by a sex abuse scandal that sheds a harsh light on one of the nation’s most politically powerful religious groups and renews attention to its past. racist.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a collection of loosely affiliated member churches, with just under 15 million members, and is dominated by white members, who are generally deeply socially conservative. The convention has often been a powerful tool for right-wing organizing in recent years, especially on issues related to abortion.
But the SBC is now so mired in scandal that a recent former senior official said it faces a “Southern Baptist apocalypse”.
At issue is the SBC’s release of a 205-page document naming hundreds of Baptist leaders and members accused or convicted of child sexual abuse. The list, which includes 700 entries on cases between 2000 and 2019, was released after an independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions, which said the convention’s leaders on its executive committee had let the public and its community down. mishandling cases of sexual abuse and mistreating victims and survivors. .
SBC leaders Rolland Slade and Willie McLaurin released a statement saying the list “reminds us of the devastation and destruction caused by sexual abuse. Our prayer is that survivors of these heinous acts find hope and healing, and that churches proactively use this list to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.
The initial report was released after a seven-month investigation found that 380 SBC leaders and volunteers had been publicly accused of sexual abuse. He said the SBC’s general counsel and spokesperson had maintained their own private list of abusive ministers and that SBC executive committee leaders had focused for decades on trying to shield the SBC from accountability. in cases of abuse in local churches.
“In service of this goal, survivors and others who have reported abuse have been ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action because of its self-reliance regime. church – even if it meant the convicted abusers continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” the investigators wrote.
Among those named was Johnny Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and former SBC president, who was accused of sexually assaulting another pastor’s wife while on a beach vacation in 2010.
Hunt, who resigned last month as senior vice president of evangelism and leadership at SBC’s National Missions agency, denied assaulting the woman, but admitted on social media a “sin staff” and called it a “brief but inappropriate encounter”.
Others named were a former vice president of SBC who was credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old; a former president who delayed reporting allegations of child sexual abuse out of “sincere concern” for the accused; and another who did not report allegations of abuse against young boys.
But the publication of the report and the ensuing list of names has led to backlash within the organization – despite the gruesome details it contains. “I am terrified that we are breaching our longstanding position of being a voluntary association of independent churches, when we start telling churches that they should do this or do that to protect children or women,” said Longtime North Carolina attorney Joe Knott. committee member.
But some say the report into decades of sexual abuse cover-ups is an opportunity for the SBC to take a closer look at its roots in white evangelicalism, including how it was founded in 1845 to protect the institution. of slavery.
A study of this creation, White Evangelical Racism, published last year, investigated the roots of the SBC in the south. According to author Anthea Butler, the SBC used scripture to deny enfranchised black people the vote during Reconstruction and to later side with racist segregationists. More recently, the SBC has also come under fire for debating critical race theory, an academic discipline that studies institutional racism in American law and society.
“The two biggest crises of the SBC are sexual abuse and critical race theory debates, and the two are very much connected,” said Sara Moslener, director of the After Purity Project at Central Michigan University. “A big part of white racial identity is obscuring the reality of America’s racist history and obscuring the issue of sexual assault in evangelical churches.”
For both to be revealed, says Moslener, would undermine the status quo in the SBC, theologically and nationally, for white evangelicalism. “Ever since the report came out, people have been talking about it as an ‘apocalypse,’ but an apocalypse can mean both destruction and revelation.”
A New Republic article published this month went further, suggesting that the SBC’s crusade against “critical race theory,” while obscuring sexual abuse within its own ranks, “further suggests that racial terror is still very present within the organization. .
In 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama decided to resolve that “critical race theory and intersectionality should be used only as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture – not as transcendent ideological frameworks”. The convention further resolved that “the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society”.
This statement on race caused several black pastors to break with the SBC and sparked high-level meetings to discuss whether the black evangelical church had a place in the convention whose leaders had in some cases spoken out in favor of Donald Trump.
According to Pew Research, black evangelicals made up about 14% of all African-American Christians, while 85% of Americans who identify as Southern Baptists are white.
In a later statement, the SBC chairs said they recognized the “reality of racism on both a personal and systemic or structural level,” but still viewed critical race theory as incompatible with teaching. baptist.
The SBC has been on the right track since the 1970s, when a backlash to desegregation — Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” — was hitched to anti-abortion sentiment toward which the convention had previously been relatively neutral. This effectively led to the rise of the religious right in the United States – a phenomenon that still has huge repercussions today, especially as America seems on the verge of losing guaranteed abortion rights. by the federal government.
“Abortion happened to be the new issue and the one that worked very effectively to create such a powerful voting bloc that a southern white evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, lost to Ronald Reagan because white evangelicals in came to see Reagan as reflecting their values. more than one of their own,” Moslener said.
Carter eventually left the Baptist church over his refusal to ordain women, but the issue cemented the relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party.
Even if the SBC takes care of its sexual assault problem, says Moslener, and comes out to say that we honor women and will give them equal authority roles, “Even if they did, and we see places where evangelical feminism is emerging from the shadows, they still haven’t addressed the legacy of racism in the church. They still only have part of it.”