The Southern Baptist Convention has spent much of the last year in turmoil. The organization — the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., claiming about 14.1 million members — is trying to reckon with a horrifying history of sexual assaults. People at the organization’s highest levels are accused of personally committing and abetting some of them.
With the veil of secrecy these men drew over themselves now cast aside, we can see that self-denial was merely a weapon they used to dominate their fellow Christians.
Change is coming slowly and painfully. Until last week, the denomination’s leadership had been at war with its constituent churches, which had demanded a full accounting of the abuse and what the leadership was doing to stamp it out. The convention’s chief executive officer, Ronnie Floyd, had sided with his powerful colleagues, who wanted to limit an investigation into the widespread misconduct that took place as Floyd and other conservatives ascended the ranks of the organization. But delegates (or “messengers”) from the member churches refused to let Floyd control the investigation, prompting him to resign last week.
Floyd’s resignation comes two years after the Houston Chronicle identified at least 700 victims who had accused some 380 church leaders and volunteers of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape, over two decades. “Many of the victims were adolescents who were molested, sent explicit photos or texts, exposed to pornography, photographed nude, or repeatedly raped by youth pastors,” the authors of the investigation wrote.
The Chronicle reported that more than 250 of the people who had been accused had been charged with sex crimes, with 220 offenders convicted or in plea deals at that time. Several who escaped prison had returned to the pulpit.
The revelations struck at the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention: For half a century, the leaders of the denomination were only those who believed in the most conservative version of Baptist theology — especially that same-sex relationships were sinful by definition and that women were unsuited to positions of authority that placed them over men.
To leaven this, the men in leadership presented themselves as self-denying ascetics who only asked as much of their congregants as they were willing to bear themselves. But the sexual abuse revelations show that many of these leaders were not merely hypocrites by their own strict standards — they committed offenses against the law and common decency.
And yet the leadership preached an intense legalism. It’s not enough to care for and love your partner; you must be married to them before you lose your virginity, they must be cisgender and of the opposite sex, in many churches neither of you can ever have been divorced except for infidelity or abandonment, and you must have as many children as you can. If your husband hits you, you must stay married and pray for him. If you are sexually harassed or molested by another Christian, you must forgive them. If you’re gay, you must remain celibate until it makes you straight. If you’re trans, you cannot transition. If your child comes out of the closet, the church must ostracize them.
These are, it hardly needs saying, difficult rules. Yet if some Christians fervently believe these rules to be the will of God — the way I used to — every time they don’t follow one, they feel the sting of the worthlessness all the more keenly. The great lie of these conservative teachers, and the lie that animates much of the rage their congregants and dissident leaders feel toward them, is that while Christianity is a hard road, it is one that the leaders and their followers walked together. With the veil of secrecy these men drew over themselves now cast aside, we can see that self-denial was merely a weapon they used to dominate their fellow Christians and acquire the power that would allow them to slake their lusts and greed.
Two of the most important figures in this story are Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson, who led the Southern Baptists’ “conservative resurgence” — the takeover of the denomination’s leadership by a faction of social conservatives — beginning in the 1970s. Patterson served as president of the convention from 1998 until 2000 and was president of two major Baptist seminaries; Pressler, a Republican operative and former director of the convention’s International Mission Board, was an appeals court judge in Texas.
Patterson and Pressler styled themselves modern-day Martin Luthers and saw their movement as “The Southern Baptist Reformation.” Under their leadership, one of the convention’s seminaries even commissioned stained-glass windows of them.
In 2017, both men were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by Gareld Duane Rollins, a former member of Pressler’s youth group. Rollins said that, beginning in 1979 when he was 14, Pressler had raped him repeatedly, telling him that “no one but God would understand,” and that Patterson’s negligence had made it possible for the abuse to continue for many years. As the Chronicle’s investigation snowballed the following year, two more men came forward to allege that Pressler had assaulted and harassed them. (Pressler has denied wrongdoing, as has Patterson.)
Meanwhile, other parishioners and employees came forward to complain about Patterson’s management and raise concerns about the quality of his teaching. Patterson had told battered wives to pray for their husbands; he had told congregants from the pulpit that a teenage boy making a lewd remark about a teenage girl was “being biblical.” When he was fired for mishandling sexual abuse claims, he allegedly took a confidential donor list and other financial documents from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to fundraise for his own nonprofit organization (Patterson disputes this).
Their willingness to reckon with clerical abuse by upending the entire authority structure of the denomination is an encouraging sign.
The convention’s executive committee initially rejected the calls from member churches for an independent inquiry about the extent to which Baptist leaders participated in — and mishandled accusations of — sexual abuse, but eventually hired a third-party investigator, Guidepost Solutions, to determine the extent of the rot. The old guard has fought them every step of the way, and the debate over whether investigators would be allowed to view communications between the committee and its lawyers was intense. Earlier this month, the committee relented. It voted to give investigators access to privileged files, precipitating Floyd’s departure.
Southern Baptists are probably not going to start blessing same-sex marriages anytime soon, but their willingness to reckon with clerical abuse by upending the entire authority structure of the denomination is an encouraging sign. Floyd was an outspoken conservative, and he was willing to run interference for church leadership even after the Chronicle reported that sexual predators were moving from church to church within his denomination. Now, at least, the stained-glass windows will be removed.
Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in New York. He is the creator, with film critic Alissa Wilkinson, of Young Adult Movie Ministry, a podcast about Christianity and movies, and his writing has been featured in The Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Talking Points Memo and Variety. In 2017 he was a political consultant for Comedy Central’s “The President Show.”