What the Rest of Us Can Learn From the Southern Baptist Sex Abuse Scandal

Patheos [Englewood CO]

June 5, 2022

By John Beckett

Until now I haven’t said anything about the report on sexual abuse and its coverup in the Southern Baptist Convention. (If you don’t follow religion news, or if all your attention has been on the mass shootings, here’s a summary from the Associated Press.)

I haven’t said anything because I didn’t have anything to say that would be of interest to readers of this blog that wasn’t just a repetition of what others have already said. And while I’m not opposed to schadenfreude, I’m a little reluctant to go there in this case. Not because I have any love for the SBC (I don’t) but because the Pagan, polytheist, and witchcraft communities’ hands aren’t clean either. This isn’t a Baptist problem or a Catholic problem, it’s a human problem exacerbated by religion.

An old proverb says “a wise person learns from their mistakes – a very wise person learns from other peoples’ mistakes.” The rest of us need to learn from the Southern Baptists’ mistakes.

There is no substitute for personal virtue and integrity

At the end of the day, it always comes down to this: do people do the right things or do they do the wrong things? Do they keep their oaths and promises no matter what or do they abandon them when things get difficult?

Do they use their power to serve others or to exploit others?

Southern Baptists have an elaborate tradition of rule-based morality. Pagans have something better: consent culture. We recognize that sex is good and that everyone is entitled to it, but we’re only entitled to sex with others when they consent to it, freely and enthusiastically. And we understand – or at least, we should understand – that if the power differential between individuals is too great, then consent is not possible. Sex between teachers and students is always wrong.

It falls on each and every one of us to understand the virtue of consent and to fully embody it in our lives.

But personal virtue and integrity aren’t enough

Most people will do the right things most of the time. But some won’t – and not all of them are “bad people.” Most are simply flawed humans who occasionally do things that harm others. And so we also need systems that support people, make it easier for them to make good and virtuous choices, and make it harder for them to exploit others. Personal integrity is necessary but not sufficient.

If you read the Southern Baptist criticisms of Critical Race Theory and you take them at face value (whether you should take them at face value is another question, but for now let’s do) this is the problem. Critical Race Theory says that racism is a structural problem that requires structural solutions. Baptist leaders say racism is the result of people doing racist things and if individuals will do better things will be fine. They deny there are structural problems and they say that individuals who aren’t actively harming People of Color have no responsibility to change anything.

This is not surprising. Southern Baptists teach a hyperindividualistic theology. They emphasize personal salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus. They use their political power to try to force other people to live by their morality and to oppose any attempt to create collective solutions to societal problems.

Thus they spent decades refusing to take collective action to stop sexual abuse in their denomination. They didn’t think it was the denomination’s problem. People just needed to stop doing bad things.

And the real world is never that simple.

There is no substitute for accountability

Even people who are disinclined to do the right thing (whether from their general disposition or because it’s hard) are likely to do the right thing if they know they’re going to be held accountable. This can be as simple as making your goals public, knowing that sooner or later someone is going to ask you “how’s it going?” You will naturally want to be able to talk about the progress you’re making, instead of “I haven’t done a thing all month.”

For a denomination that thinks their God cares a lot about who you love and whether you masturbate, the thought of having to answer to that God doesn’t seem to mean much to many Southern Baptists. Perhaps they should worship the Morrigan instead.

Knowing that you will eventually have to answer to someone – even if it’s just the court of public opinion – provides plenty of incentive to do the right things and to not do the wrong things.

But accountability isn’t enough

The problem is that accountability places responsibility for one flawed human in the hands of another flawed human. It improves the odds (as anyone who’s ever had to answer to a boss or a parent – or to a child – knows first-hand) but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

The hierarchical Roman Catholic Church had a 2000 year old system of accountability in place. But those in charge were more concerned with keeping things quiet than with stopping the abuse, and so it continued for decades. The congregationalist Southern Baptists did the same thing.

The problem is that most people think they won’t be held accountable. They think everything will remain a secret. They think their power or their money or their charisma will keep them from facing any consequences.

The problem is that most times, they’re right. Until they aren’t.

Nothing stays secret forever. But by then the damage is done.

There is no substitute for institutional oversight

The more layers of accountability that are in place, the greater the odds that someone will see something, say something, and do something. So institutions set up policies and procedures to improve the chances that things will be done right, and that if they aren’t, it will be obvious.

In the wake of the Enron financial scandal, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It strengthens the financial review of publicly traded companies. I remember having to change numerous processes in my paying job because of “SOx.” Twenty years later, I still have to produce quarterly reports which have to be reviewed and approved by senior executives, to insure the areas where I have financial responsibility are being handled appropriately. Those reports are audited by public accounting firms, which certify that we’re operating within the guidelines.

Does it insure that nothing goes wrong? No. But it does mean that when something does go wrong, it gets caught more quickly.

In a religious setting, this is about processes and procedures, keeping consistent records and reviewing them periodically. It’s background checks for workers (both lay and clergy) and clear financial reporting.

And it’s a clear process for registering complaints, assurances that they’ll be fully investigated, and evidence that action will be taken based on the investigations.

But institutional oversight isn’t enough

My father used to say “locks don’t stop thieves – locks keep honest people honest.” Institutional oversight makes it less likely that good but flawed humans will do the wrong thing, and if they do, it makes it more likely they’ll be caught before too much damage is done.

But a professional thief can break into any house or steal any car. Good screening can keep abusive people out of our religious groups and good oversight can help minimize their impact, but they can’t prevent every abuser from getting an opportunity to abuse someone.

Ultimately, institutions are only as good as the people in them.

At the end of the day, it’s not about perfection. It’s about making things better: more safe, more secure, more respectful.

Never let the impossibility of perfection stop you from making things better.

What the rest of us can do

With all that, what can we do? Especially those of us who don’t have the institutional resources that the Baptists and the Catholics have?

Minimize power differentials. The weak cannot abuse the strong – abuse always happens because of a power differential (if you think you know a case where a weak person abused a strong person, you need to expand your definition of power). Some power differentials will always exist – teachers will always have more power than students. But where we can eliminate or minimize power differentials based on age, gender, race, orientation, or other elements of identity, we will minimize the opportunities for abuse.

Teach and promote consent culture. This is an advantage Pagans and other religious liberals have over Baptists, Catholics, and other religious conservatives. There is no “one right way” when it comes to sex and sexual relations. What’s important is that everyone gives their clear, unambiguous, and enthusiastic consent. It’s not just “no means no.” It’s that anything other than an enthusiastic “yes” means “no.”

I highly recommend reading Pagan Consent Culture – Building Communities of Empathy and Autonomy edited by Christine Hoff Kraemer and Yvonne Aburrow. I have a chapter in it, but I get no royalties or other financial benefits from sales. I just get the satisfaction of knowing that people who read it are learning something really, really important.

Insist on transparency. Don’t think a movement of anti-institutionalist solitaries is immune from abuse. Any time people come together, there’s the opportunity for one of them to take advantage of another, sexually, financially, or otherwise.

Always ask questions. Where does the money come from, and where does it go? Why do I need to meet you here? What are you doing with that person who, if not technically underage, is clearly young and impressionable?

There is a place for secrets and for oath-bound material, especially in mystery traditions. But if any group or any individual holds the promise of secrets to keep you in an exploitative situation, don’t just walk away, run away.

Insist on policies and processes. If someone comes to me at my paying job with a complaint of sexual harassment, I know what I’m required to do: listen carefully and compassionately, take good notes, and report it to HR. If I don’t do this I can be fired, and likely will be. The requirement at my UU church is similar.

If people know what to do and know that they’ll be held accountable if they don’t do them, they’re more likely to do the right things.

Policies and processes can’t prevent the first incident. They absolutely can prevent a second incident.

Never forget that values are more important than the institution. This is the most disappointing thing about both the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist scandals: people in positions of responsibility put protecting the reputation of their church ahead of caring for victims and stopping predators.

And in the end, they did even more damage to the reputation of their church. Now both denominations are known not just as a place where bad things happened, but where supposedly spiritual leaders covered them up.