“I knew it was rotten, but it’s astonishing and infuriating. This is a denomination that is through and through about power. It is misappropriated power. It does not in any way reflect the Jesus I see in the scriptures. I am so gutted.”
That’s what Jennifer Lyell, a survivor who was an executive at the Southern Baptist Convention and whose story of sexual abuse at a Southern Baptist seminary is detailed in a devastating 288-page report by Guidepost Solutions, told The Washington Post.
The report concludes that for almost two decades, the men who ran the SBC’s executive committee, which oversees the day-to-day operations of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, lied, engaged in cover-ups, sided with those who were credibly accused of abuse, and vilified victims of abuse. Past presidents of the convention and a former vice president allegedly protected and supported accused abusers. A Southern Baptist pastor who had been a senior vice president of the SBC’s missions arm was credibly accused of assaulting a woman, the report finds. The trail of horrors goes on and on.
Survivors of abuse “made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press … only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC,” according to the report.
August Boto, the general counsel and later interim president of the executive committee, referred to the efforts by abuse survivors as a “satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” In an internal email, Boto wrote about the work of Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander, two survivors of sexual abuse who have become advocates for victims: “This is the devil being temporarily successful.”
Christianity Today reports that Brown, who was sexually abused by her pastor at 16, said that “her ‘countless encounters with Baptist leaders’ who shunned and disbelieved her ‘left a legacy of hate’ and communicated ‘you are a creature void of any value—you don’t matter.’ As a result, she said, instead of her faith providing solace, her faith has become ‘neurologically networked with a nightmare.’ She referred to it as ‘soul murder.’”
According to the report, in 2019 Ronnie Floyd, the head of the executive committee who also served as SBC president and was on President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, told other convention leaders in an email that he had received “some calls” from “key SBC pastors and leaders” expressing “growing concern about all the emphasis on the sexual abuse crisis.” He then stated: “Our priority cannot be the latest cultural crisis.” The focus of the SBC “must be seen as the constant voice of and for the Great Commission and the constant call to Acts 1:8 [‘But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.’] and Matthew 28:19–20 [‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’].”
Russell Moore, who almost alone among those in the SBC leadership ranks acted with integrity—and who was targeted by the executive committee because he stood in solidarity with the victims of sexual abuse—called the report “the Southern Baptist Apocalypse.” The investigation, he wrote, “uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be.” (Moore, whom I wrote about in these pages, left the SBC last year.)
In reading the report, the first thought I had was for the survivors of sexual abuse—deep admiration for their courage in coming forward and deep sympathy for the pain they have had to endure, for the trauma of abuse that has changed their lives, and for the double trauma of not being believed but rather defamed.
The word trauma doesn’t begin to describe just how much harm sexual abuse inflicts on the innocent, usually including feelings of shame and guilt; self-harm and depression; flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In some cases, healing can occur over time. Survivors can make meaning of their lives. Those who are fortunate enough to find support—who receive professional care, who find people who believe them and are willing to walk the journey with them, to help them to process what they’ve gone through—can find ways to keep their lives from being defined by the abuse, even if they have been changed by it. But many of those who aren’t fortunate enough to receive support find their lives permanently shattered by the abuse. And the SBC’s executive committee, the report concluded, had denied survivors the support they needed.
For abuse to happen under any circumstances is gut-wrenching; when it happens in a church setting, and is perpetrated by people who are viewed as spiritual leaders, who are entrusted with the care and formation of the young, it’s that much worse. And when those in positions of leadership not only fail to step in to help victims of abuse, but actually attack them, it becomes even more wicked and grievous. Brown’s haunting phrase—soul murder—is what happened within the SBC, and it’s only the latest in a string of recent scandals that have rocked the evangelical world.
The other thing that makes the SBC scandal so twisted and ugly is how leaders of the denomination used the Bible and spiritual language as weapons against the innocent victims, as when Boto invoked Satan to discredit the survivors. That is yet another level of depravity.
And it should be a cautionary tale. The members of the SBC executive committee didn’t emerge ex nihilo; they emerged instead from a culture that they claim mirrors Christianity but that in fact deforms it in significant ways. The men who come out of this culture see themselves as vanguards of doctrinal purity, protectors of the Church from the twin evils of liberalism and secularism. They are ever on the prowl, quick to identify those who disagree with them as heretics, inclined to view winsomeness as weakness. Many of these individuals have traditionally been champions of “family values”; speaking out against sexual sin seems to occupy an unusually large space in their minds and imaginations. So does a barely disguised contempt for women and an embrace of “militant masculinity,” in the words of Calvin University’s Kristin Du Mez. These individuals decided that the enemy was people such as the estimable and popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, who also left the SBC.
As Russell Moore (no relation) put it in this withering paragraph:
Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate how much damage these new revelations—these necessary and long-overdue revelations—are doing to the Christian witness. No atheist, no secularists or materialists, could inflict nearly as much damage to the Christian faith as these leaders within the Christian Church have done.
Many of those who appear in the report are misogynistic, judgmental, unforgiving, arrogant, and certain of their own righteousness. They are the martyrs and heroes of their self-created narratives. They represent much of the worst of religion and none of the best. And they have exercised enormous power.
This needs to be said too: Those attitudes are not confined to the SBC. We have seen them in other denominations and the wider evangelical world. This mindset isn’t everywhere within evangelicalism, of course; there are countless evangelicals, including those within conservative denominations, who are ministers of reconciliation and a healing presence in our lives. And even where the harsh attitudes I have described exist, they certainly don’t always lead to sexual abuse or cover-ups. But nothing good ever comes from them. A lot of self-reflection needs to occur among evangelicals to understand how the gracelessness and captiousness that characterizes far too much of the evangelical subculture came to be.
The report on sexual abuse shows how men in SBC leadership—they were all men—chose to try to protect their denomination by hiding abuse and then attempting to destroy the victims of abuse. There has been human wreckage in their wake. In the process, they have also left their denomination in ruin, inflicting terrible injury on the reputation of Christianity.
There are several biblical verses that one could apply to this sordid tale—about justice, about righteous anger, about judging evil. They all apply. But so does one that can be found in the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John: Jesus wept.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 24, 2022.
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