Evangelicals REALLY don’t get it about sexual assault. Here are some examples. (Part 1)

Daily Kos [Berkeley, CA]

January 26, 2024

By Darrell Lucus

This is the first installment in a three-part story.

When the words “sexual assault” and “evangelical” are used in the same sentence, does the sexual assault scandal that has roiled the Southern Baptist Convention come to mind? In August 2022, the SBC announced it was under investigation by the Department of Justice; it was just the latest tumble in a years-long, but well-deserved and long overdue downfall.

In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News collaborated on “Abuse of Faith,” a sprawling six-part series that exposed a massive cover-up of sexual assault in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In response to outcry among Southern Baptist pastors, the Convention asked the investigative firm Guidepost Solutions to determine the extent of the cover-up.

Guidepost released its report in May 2022. It makes for horrifying reading. Though Guidepost was only tasked with investigating cases dating after the turn of the century, it ultimately uncovered incidents of child sexual abuse, sexual assault of adults, grooming, and improper responses to assault going back to the 1960s. The allegations of sexual assault were kept in a secret database at the SBC’s offices in Nashville—a database which grew to over 700 cases. 

Among those implicated were some of the most prominent leaders of the SBC—who also happen to be some of Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters.

In 2016, Trump was able to survive revelations about his treatment of women that would have finished just about anyone else’s political career—in no small part because of the religious right’s unstinting loyalty to him, even after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. Evangelical leaders told their followers that Trump’s nasty comments didn’t matter nearly as much as his promises to give them everything they wanted—and more—on policy. Above all else, they touted his promises to stack the courts with conservative judges.

Granted, we already know the nation’s so-called moral guardians made what can only be described as a Faustian deal with Trump. But could the prospect of rolling back abortion and marriage equality be so important to them that they were willing to condone this man?

A large part of the answer to that question can be found in the way a number of evangelical leaders respond to sexual assault in their own ranks. In recent years, we have heard stories of survivors turning to their churches or other faith communities for support, only to be greeted with indifference or even outright hostility. With leaders willing to take such a cavalier and unsupportive attitude toward their own flock, it should come as no surprise that many of them were willing to dismiss Trump’s depravities.

Let’s meet a few.


One of the worst offenders highlighted by the report is Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas—the third city in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Graham has long been one of the titans of the SBC; he served as the convention’s president from 2002 to 2003.

In 1989, soon after taking the reins at Prestonwood, then located in north Dallas, Graham learned that a youth minister named John Langworthy was abusing young boys. Graham was legally required to report allegations of abuse to the police; then as now, pastors are mandated reporters in Texas. However, Graham simply told Langworthy to leave town and never come back.

In 2010, abuse advocate Amy Smith discovered Langworthy had made his way to Clinton, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson. By this time, Langworthy was serving as youth minister at Morrison Heights Baptist Church, and as a choir teacher at Clinton High School. Prestonwood was Smith’s home church as a girl, and Langworthy had been her youth pastor; she’d been close friends with a number of Langworthy’s victims in the 1980s. Langworthy had even boarded with Smith’s family while he was at seminary; additionally, Smith’s father, Allen Jordan, had been a longtime deacon.

A year of prodding on social media paid off for Smith in 2011, when Langworthy confessed to molesting boys in both Mississippi and Texas. Watch coverage of Langworthy’s confession from Jackson ABC affiliate WAPT here.

Later that year, he was charged with molesting boys while he worked as a church intern in the 1980s. However, concerns about the language in Mississippi’s statute of limitations led prosecutors to cut a deal for a suspended sentence. Rather than the 50 years in prison he should have faced, Langworthy was sentenced to five years’ probation and a lifetime on Mississippi’s sex offender registry. He died in 2019.

Meanwhile, Smith was horrified to discover that her father not only played a role in Graham’s quiet removal of Langworthy in 1989, but he had gone as far as to warn the parents of at least one of Langworthy’s victims not to go to police. It proved to be the beginning of the end of her relationship with her parents. According to Smith, she and her parents haven’t spoken since 2012, and they actually demanded that their daughter apologize to Langworthy and Graham for exposing their misdeeds.

Even before the Guidepost report came out, Graham had already gained infamy for amplifying the Big Lie. In December 2020, when Trump went on a 46-minute rant claiming the election had been stolen from him, Graham merrily tweeted a link to a clip of the tirade. As of this writing, that tweet is still visible, even though it is beyond dispute that these lies directly caused the insurrection of Jan. 6.

When Russell Moore, the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm, saw this report, he hit the ceiling. In a blistering 2022 essay for Christianity Today, Moore claimed that the SBC’s misdeeds were a product of its focus on its “impulse for missions.” Time and again, Moore said, survivors were dismissed as “professional victims” who were being used as “a tool of the Devil to ‘distract’ from mission.” He and others who called for changes in how church leaders responded to sexual assault were frequently told that it could lead to churches pulling funding for the SBC’s Cooperative Program, which helps fund missionaries. Without such funding, missionaries could have potentially been forced out of the field. The implication was that if the SBC actually did something about sexual assault, “people wouldn’t hear the gospel and would go to hell.” Small wonder that Moore described the report as evidence not of a crisis, but an “apocalypse.”

I can’t imagine the rage being experienced right now by those who have survived church sexual abuse. I only know firsthand the rage of one who never expected to say anything but “we” when referring to the Southern Baptist Convention, and can never do so again. I only know firsthand the rage of one who loves the people who first told me about Jesus, but cannot believe that this is what they expected me to do, what they expected me to be. I only know firsthand the rage of one who wonders while reading what happened on the seventh floor of that Southern Baptist building, how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.

That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.

Reading Moore’s account of how sexual assault survivors could potentially be held responsible by the church for fewer saved souls is a reminder of the particularly degrading way sexual assault was handled at a longtime bastion of fundamentalism, Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. For many years, whenever students came forward with claims they had been assaulted, they were told that reporting it would be a waste of time. Why? Wait for it—doing so would “hurt the body of Christ,” since you could be held responsible for sending your abuser to hell.

Bob Jones draws most of its clientele from the independent Baptist churches that long considered elements of what’s considered to be the “mainstream” religious right to be too liberal for their tastes. And yet, if there’s any substantive difference between this mentality and the Southern Baptists’ apparent view that taking sexual assault seriously could detract from mission, it’s hard to see.

One would think that it would take some effort to get more backwards and degrading than this. But a number of prominent evangelical pastors may have done just that.


Take for example another titan of the evangelical world, John MacArthur.  In August 2002, MacArthur found it acceptable to use the pulpit of Grace Community Church, his megachurch in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, to publicly shame and excommunicate a domestic violence survivor for refusing to take her abusive husband back.

During a Sunday night service at GCC, MacArthur publicly upbraided one of his parishioners, Eileen Gray, for refusing to reconcile with her estranged husband, David. Eileen had filed for separation from David and taken out a restraining order against him after learning that he had violently beaten one of their sons under the guise of discipline.

Watching footage of Eileen’s shaming that Eileen shared with Christian journalist Julie Roys made me want to vomit. MacArthur claimed that Eileen’s refusal to go along with directives that she could not legally or morally obey made her “unwilling to repent,” and was evidence that she was giving David “no grace at all.” This woman was doing her most basic duty as a mother, and instead of lifting her up, her church was publicly knocking her down. Most of you know I’ve seen some pretty depraved behavior from fundies in my time, but this public shaming is part of some of the most depraved behavior I’ve seen from a fundie outfit.

As a condition of staying with another GCC family until the restraining order took effect, Eileen attended marriage counseling with GCC associate pastor Carey Hardy. At one of those sessions, Hardy suggested that Eileen take David back. Why? Wait for it—according to Hardy, if Eileen endured David’s abuse, she could actually set a good Christian example for her kids. Hardy did this even after David made a written confession to abusing his kids.

This sort of teaching has been standard operating procedure at GCC for a long time. John Street, head of counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary, a Christian educational institution long helmed by MacArthur, has long taught that women ought to endure abuse, comparing it to missionaries enduring persecution. That might explain why Eileen stayed with David despite enduring physical and emotional abuse for several years.

However, Eileen now realized that no mother with any kind of love for her kids could accept the kind of “advice” Hardy offered. Rather than do so, Eileen requested to be removed from GCC’s membership rolls in November 2001. Church elders rejected her request almost out of hand. Instead, they told her that there was no reason for her to remain apart from David—even though they had allowed David’s contract as a longtime Bible and music teacher to lapse. They also told her that she faced “a crossroads” as a Christian, as a wife, and as a mother—and she was potentially squandering a chance to “use your marriage to David to make you more like Christ.” They also threatened her with church discipline not once, but twice, if she didn’t take David back. Several GCC members also repeatedly pressured her to reconcile. On top of this, one of Hardy’s assistants helped David flout the restraining order.

It is inconceivable that MacArthur was unaware that David had confessed his abusive behavior. If he wasn’t aware, he should have made it his business to know. No matter how you slice it, his decision to publicly shame her and give her the left foot of fellowship amounts to a complete failure of leadership. This on top of fostering an environment in which members of his flock saw fit to browbeat and shame a domestic violence survivor. All of this adds to the near-mathematical certainty that other women at GCC had endured a similar ordeal—only to be too scared to come forward lest they endure similar treatment.

In 2003, Eileen learned that David had not only physically abused his kids, but sexually assaulted them as well. She filed a police report, and David was arrested the following February. Five days after David’s arrest, according to Roys, Hardy blasted out an email expressing full support for David, while smearing Eileen as a liar—in spite of the fact that David had confessed to the abuse in writing.

Gray was convicted of aggravated child molestation, corporal injury to a child, and child abuse in 2005 and sentenced to 21 years to life in prison. Soon afterward, GCC helped Gray set up a ministry inside the prison, Chains for Christ Ministry. Roys obtained screenshots of Gray’s former Facebook page showing what can charitably be described as “a very supportive relationship” between Gray and MacArthur; as late as 2012, a Chains for Christ newsletter contained a personal endorsement from MacArthur.

The response from MacArthur and his acolytes has, so far, amounted to shooting the messenger. Phil Johnson, a GCC elder who also helms MacArthur’s media ministry, Grace to You, sent an email dismissing those calling out MacArthur as “noisy, angry sideline critics who … do not need to be answered,” since they “are not genuinely interested in truth anyway.” However, in the same breath, Johnson claimed that there were “exculpatory facts” revealed in counseling sessions with both Grays. None of those supposed facts were disclosed at Gray’s trial, of course; Johnson claimed the elders felt compelled to keep them secret.

Gray was denied parole in March 2022, making it extremely likely that he will die in prison. If Johnson—and presumably MacArthur—are trying to convince us that Gray got the legal screwing of the century, one would think the likelihood of Gray dying in prison trumps any promise of confidentiality. If Johnson is trying to convince us that it doesn’t, one has to wonder—do these “exculpatory facts” even exist? Not likely.

MacArthur’s reputation was already in tatters after he beat the drum for churches to reopen to full capacity even as COVID-19 mushroomed, then covered up reports of a COVID outbreak at GCC even as Southern California hospitals were being stretched to their breaking point by the winter 2020 surge. Watch MSNBC’s coverage of the nightmare playing out in Southern California at the time here.

By the time MacArthur’s bullying of Eileen Gray had come to light, we knew that he had no qualms about showing gross disregard for others’ well-being. Now we know he’d done so more than two decades earlier.

If possible, though, there are some pastors who make Graham and MacArthur look like paragons of morality.

This is a three-part story. Look for Part 2 on Saturday, and Part 3 on Sunday.