The Evangelical Sex-Abuse Moment

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American Evangelicals, a catch-all term for conservative, low-church Protestants, are currently reeling from multiple, simultaneous sexual-abuse scandals—leading to a sense of pain, embarrassment, and anger familiar to Catholics. 

Like with our own recent scandals, Evangelicals are realizing that those they trusted with their faith, their tithes, and their families have failed them to a degree that would have been unthinkable before the revelations.  

On June 5, The Washington Post published a leaked letter from Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (who has since resigned from his position), to J.D. Greear, the president of the SBC, describing the culture of abuse and subsequent cover-ups within the denomination.

Moore said the SBC’s executive committee stonewalled, covered-up crimes, intimidated victims, and even altered a victim’s testimony to make sexual assault appear to be a consensual affair. 

Simply speaking to the press or, in your case, reading off the names of churches already identified in the Houston Chronicle reporting by Rob Downen—not in your case as indictment, but merely as warranting an examination—resulted in backroom and hallway   threats of retribution and intimidation. These included possible attempts to “censure” you to investigations and defunding, and all the rest. You and I both heard, in closed door meetings, sexual abuse survivors spoken of in terms of “Potiphar’s wife” and other spurious biblical analogies. The conversations in these closed door meetings were far worse than anything Southern Baptists knew—or the outside world could report. And, as you know, this comes on the heels of a track-record of the Executive Committee staff and others referring to victims as “crazy” and, at least in one case, as worse than the sexual predators themselves.

The reference to the Houston Chronicle was due to their massive report chronicling sex abuse and cover-ups over decades within the SBC. Since that report, the church has been struggling to respond without fracturing, as major figures, such as evangelist Beth Moore, have publicly distanced themselves from the denomination.

But this is hardly the only major sex-abuse story rocking the Evangelical world. Ravi Zacharias, an evangelist often regarded as this generation’s Billy Graham, was revealed this year to have been a serial abuser of women. Multiple massage therapists came forward to say that at massage businesses he owned, as well as others around the world, Zacharias would demand sex with employees, using his position and spiritual clout to manipulate them. 

Then there was Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., who parted ways with the college (which is now suing him) after he and his wife admitted to various sexual improprieties, including Mrs. Falwell having sex with a 20-year-old “pool boy” while Jerry watched. The young man said this turned into a regular occurrence over years. And as this Politico report documents, this was only the tip of the iceberg on the middle-aged couple’s twisted sexual lives on campus. 

Then there was the head pastor, Carl Lentz, of the New York City campus of Hillsong, a church whose songs make up the greatest-hits list of recent “praise-and-worship” offerings. Lentz was already dealing with revelations of an earlier affair, but now, allegations of sexual abuse have surfaced as well, as was posted on Medium by a former employee. She says, “During the years I spent serving them, I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse.”

Even the Evangelical family behind the reality show 19 Kids and Counting, the Duggars, are in the headlines, as their son Josh was recently arrested for being part of a ring allegedly disseminating child-sex-abuse images. The Duggars had been very politically active in Evangelical circles, with Josh himself at one time being the executive director of the Family Research Council’s policy arm. 

For those keeping count, that’s the Evangelical world’s largest denomination, most respected evangelist, biggest university, and the sources of their most popular music and reality television all currently reeling from grave sexual abuse and cover-up allegations. 

Our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ are just beginning to unpack what it means to have their leaders fail them to this degree and to realize how many of those they held up as heroes were actually living twisted, evil lives. 

Just like with the Catholic sex-abuse scandals, enemies of conservative Christianity in general can hardly hide their excitement at this Evangelical sex-abuse moment. Just as they used real crimes and cover-ups to show that our Faith and beliefs are not worth holding, the same is being done in this moment with Evangelicals. 

Headlines to this effect have flooded news sites as this has all unfolded: 

Salon: “How the religious right’s purity culture enables predatory behavior”

Religion Dispatches: “Inside the Evangelical Beliefs and Practices that Facilitate Abuse in Families like the Duggars’”

New York Times: “Atlanta Suspect’s Fixation on Sex Is Familiar Thorn for Evangelicals”

NBC: “Southern Baptist Convention report on sex abuse shines a light on evangelical culture”

Religion News: “Is the evangelical view of sex at the root of our sex scandals?”

Marie Clare: “To End Sexual Abuse in Churches, Dismantle Purity Culture”

The common theme in articles like these is that “purity culture” is to blame for the abuse and the cover-ups. The last article in the above list quotes an activist against purity culture who describes the phrase by saying, “It only allows for mandatory abstinence or sex within a heterosexual marriage—or else…Or else God will be mad; or else no one will want to marry you; or else you’ll get pregnant and put yourself at risk of going to hell.”

While Catholics may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief that it’s not our Church garnering the negative headlines this time, we should be clear from the description above: what is being condemned here are the orthodox, Christian views on sexuality, not anything particular to Evangelicals. 

Like with our own scandals, we should join with the victims, the media, those in our local parishes, and anyone else of goodwill to root out abusers, hold leaders responsible for any cover-ups, and change structures and processes that make abuse easier and accountability harder. But as we do that, we cannot pretend the sexual ethics described clearly in Scripture, Tradition, and natural law are the culprit. 

The culprit is, and always has been, evil. It’s an unsatisfying answer to our secular progressive neighbors because they would rather see humanity as being capable of growing out of our historical state as a murdering, abusing, stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, power-hungry mess. But the whole point of the Christian faith is that humanity cannot progress out of this state in this life, and we need goodness (God Himself) to instead initiate all movement in that direction. 

We can make some progress individually and culturally, but not enough to where murder rates drop to zero, sexual abuse disappears, and police can be abolished. And this progress is often elusive because as we solve one issue (say, slavery) another always sneaks up behind us (say, abortion). We cannot stand on the shoulders of our forefathers like we can with science and technology. Each child born must fight the moral battle between good and evil anew. 

The problem of sexual abuse is real and huge, and it should be tackled head on, applying the best solutions we can come up with. But it does not exist because of repressing sexual desires until they explode. If this were true, you wouldn’t see the rampant abuse in Hollywood by Harvey Weinstein or on Wall Street by Jeffrey Epstein or on college campuses across the nation, where “purity culture” is hardly the guide. Erasing all rules other than consent, which from my reading of their recommendations seems to be the idea, would lead to a chaos worse than any experienced in the Catholic or Southern Baptist churches. 

The solution is indeed to seek sexual purity, in action and in thought. This is because sexual abuse, like any sin, starts as a thought or a desire, and if it’s not stopped there by a vigilant conscience and will, it snowballs into actions, then habits, then characters, then destinies (to paraphrase Emerson). This is why God was so clear in the Ten Commandments that we should not just avoid taking our neighbor’s goods or spouse, but we should avoid even envying them. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:28, “whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

So, the culprit here is not “purity culture,” just like it wasn’t priestly celibacy or an all-male Catholic leadership. It is sin, the real systemic problem plaguing the world. Because just like the Kingdom of Heaven starts as a mustard seed within us and grows, so does the enemy’s kingdom if we allow it. 

Zacharias, Duggar, Lentz, Falwell, and McCarrick all allowed their corrupted desires to build in their hearts until they overflowed into the evils now hitting the headlines. Encouraging less vigilance and sexual purity surely isn’t the answer. As Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

[Photo Credits: Ravi Zacharias (Ravi Zacharias Facebook page), Jerry Falwell, Jr (Public Domain), and Carl Lentz (Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images)]

By

David Larson is an editor and/or writer for a number of publications and has a masters in theological studies from Spring Hill College. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

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