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  • Larry Payne

Sin, Secrets, and Sex

I left the Southern Baptist Convention in 2001, believing it had gone the wrong way theologically, ethically, and politically. This post by Heather Cox Richardson about the culture of abuse and denial revealed in yesterday investigative report confirms that decision:

"Yesterday, a nearly 300-page report from a third-party investigation revealed that the leadership of the Southern Baptists buried sex abuse claims for more than 20 years. They ignored accusations or attacked sex abuse survivors to protect the church from legal liability, describing survivors as “‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’”

The modern Southern Baptist Convention story begins in 1967, when Paige Patterson, a seminary student, and Paul Pressler, a Texas judge, met in New Orleans to discussing taking over the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and ridding it of liberals, purging those who believed in abortion rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. By 1979 their candidate was elected head of the organization, and in the 1980s, Southern Baptists, who then numbered about 15 million people, were active in politics and were staunch supporters of the Republican Party.

Between 2003 and 2018 the church lost a million members. Both Pressler and Patterson were accused of sexual misconduct and by 2018 had been forced out of leadership roles, and a new leader called for “a new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.” While he set up new systems for responding to abuse, other leaders continued to blame the victims. In one internal email, senior staff member D. August “Augie” Boto, who drove much of the church’s response to abuse allegations, wrote: “This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”

In 2019 the Houston Chronicle ran a series calling attention to the 380 pastors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention who had been accused of sexual abuse, blowing the lid off the scandal. In March 2021 the hugely popular leader Beth Moore, herself a survivor of sexual assault, left the church. In May, Russell Moore (no relation to Ms. Moore) left the church leadership and then, the following month, left the church itself over its handling of sexual abuse allegations and racism.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in 2021 was the largest one since 1995. Members rejected a hard-right leader and chose as president Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, who since at least 2014 had focused on racial reconciliation. Members also called for an investigation of the escalating sex scandals, which had become so toxic after Trump’s election that In setting up an investigation, church members were leery enough of the leaders investigating themselves that they set up a task force to manage a third-party investigation. The task force hired the investigating team, Guidepost Solutions, on September 9, 2021.

Its report is so damning that Russell Moore’s first reaction was to say: “I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention…a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.” The investigation, he says, “uncovers a reality far more evil and systematic than I imagined it could be.” “How many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced,” he asked, “while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.”

“That’s more than a crisis,” he said. “It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”

The 13 million or more Southern Baptists have provided strong support for Republicans since the 1980s, molding to their patriarchal model that president Ronald Reagan sold with the image of the cowboy. This report has ripped the cover off the abuse that model concealed. Whether that will affect voting patterns remains to be seen, but it does seriously undermine the image of the patriarchal leader as a protector of women and children, an image on which Republicans relied. Beth Moore reacted to the report by saying: 'You have betrayed your women.'"

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