Note to readers: This article includes content related to sexual abuse and violence against women.
The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention has found yet another way to retraumatize survivors of clergy abuse and accentuate the convention’s long history of misogyny.
In June, the SBC in session instructed the new convention president to name a task force to conduct an investigation of the Executive Committee’s alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims and report back to the full convention. The convention also asked Executive Committee members to waive attorney-client privilege so what they say in the investigation can be part of the essential transparency needed for the investigation’s success. In its recent meeting, however, members of the Executive Committee argued that waiving confidentiality would put the committee at risk and that their fiduciary responsibility to the committee outweighed the will of the convention.
Anyone surprised by this has not been watching Southern Baptists for the past 40 years. The mishandling of clergy abuse and now the refusal to engage in a fully transparent investigation are a logical follow-on to the intertwined assertion of power and misogyny that emerged in the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that began in 1979.
From the beginning, the takeover was as much, if not more, about the control of women as it was about biblical inerrancy or theological fidelity. By the 1970s, women were making significant gains in the SBC, as they were in other societal arenas. The numbers of women attending seminary had risen, with many of these women professing a call to ordained ministry. The women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement had begun to offer considerable challenges to gender and sexuality norms, and the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision had offered women greater control of their bodies.
Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown argued that a central characteristic of all fundamentalisms is the need to control women, the “other” within. Anthropologist Ellen Rosenberg specifically noted that with the advances of the Civil Rights Movement and white men’s loss of social power over Black people, women became an easy and accessible target for control among Southern Baptists.
Central to that control — beyond exclusion of women from pastoral ministry and subordination of women in the home and church — was sexuality. Very purposefully, as SBC leadership tied itself to the Republican Party, conservative leaders identified abortion as a wedge issue that could sway voter support to Republican candidates. Chipping away at abortion access also offered a way to re-establish greater control over women’s bodies and hence women’s economic prospects, freedom and autonomy.
The rhetoric of submission propounded by fundamentalist Southern Baptist leaders also gave individual men (husbands) complete control over their wives’ bodies. While these leaders may have cautioned men to love their wives as Christ loved the church, they also told abused women to stay with violent men in hopes that God would change them. One of these leaders once told me that she sent an abused wife back to her cruel and dangerous husband. “If she dies,” she told me, “that’s OK because she’ll go home to be with Jesus.”
“While these leaders may have cautioned men to love their wives as Christ loved the church, they also told abused women to stay with violent men in hopes that God would change them.”
The gender norms of patriarchy also demand heterosexuality to buttress men’s control of women. By controlling women’s sexuality, both physically and psychologically, men can preserve patriarchal dominance, but, to control women’s sexuality, heterosexuality must be maintained as the only acceptable expression of sexuality. So we see the SBC’s long history, even pre-dating the fundamentalist takeover, of condemning homosexuality.
Many Southern Baptists embraced the abusive process of conversion or reparative therapy (therapy to change someone’s sexual identity from queer to straight) and argued queer people could just pray the gay away. The possibility that people could be happy and loved by God within queer relationships posed a threat to patriarchal dominance by challenging gender norms and toppling gender hierarchies. Only a reinforced commitment to compulsory heterosexuality and its attendant gender hierarchies could prop up men’s dominance.
In 1993, Southern Baptists launched “True Love Waits,” a campaign to promote abstinence and one of the most influential projects in the purity movement. This movement placed most of the responsibility for sexual purity on women, who were to be under their fathers’ authority, modest and obsessively protective of their sexual purity, which was their most valuable quality.
Purity culture rarely mentions sexual violence or consent because of the assumption that controlling men’s sexual urges is women’s responsibility. If women are pure and completely asexual, men will not be overcome by their sexual urges. If men are overcome by their sexual urges, then women must have done something to invite it.
Alongside purity culture, a revival of muscular Christianity among conservatives also has emphasized traditional masculinity — physical strength, authority, potency, virility and dominance. Contemporary condemnations of our “feminized” culture and calls for renewed valuing of “manliness” grow from and reinforce gender binaries that define women as subordinate and men as dominant.
Is it any wonder the SBC Executive Committee hasn’t taken allegations of sexual abuse seriously? Steeped in purity culture, patriarchy and evangelical bro culture, Southern Baptist leaders, including women who have also internalized these norms, simply do not believe sexual abuse to be the pervasive problem that it is.
They especially do not see their own actions as contributing to the sexual violence perpetrated against women, children and LGBTQ people within Southern Baptist life.
“The continuum of sexual violence points out the ways less-extreme forms contribute to the culture of sexual violence.”
The continuum of sexual violence recognizes that sexual violence comes in many forms that come from and give rise to a culture of sexual violence that both relies on sexual violence to maintain it and sees sexual violence as inherent and inevitable.
Most people will recognize sexual violence in its extreme forms — incest, sexual assault, rape. The continuum of sexual violence points out the ways less-extreme forms contribute to the culture of sexual violence — obscene gestures, catcalling, ogling, standing too close, unwanted touching, sexual innuendos, obscene emails, dirty jokes, comments about bodies, brushing up against, unwanted texts and phone calls.
When people, especially people with institutional power, like the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, don’t take sexual violence seriously, they are committing a further act of sexual violence through their arrogance, negligence, disregard and exercise of power. They are complicit with the original acts of abuse, and they are enacting new traumas on survivors.
An investigation of the Executive Committee’s mishandling of abuse allegations won’t solve the problem for Southern Baptists. Its roots are much deeper, in history, theology, patriarchy and power.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
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