The Mistake Christians Made in Defending Bill O’Reilly

By Katelyn Beaty
New York Times
May 2, 2017

Eric Metaxas at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in January.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis

Institutions plagued by sexual assault scandals tend to look alike: They are usually insular organizations that resist external checks and revolve around authoritative men.

This characterization fits Fox News, which recently fired its host Bill O’Reilly after sexual harassment allegations against him (and pressure from advertisers) mounted.

But it is also applies to the white evangelical Christian community. This group is not a monolith, but its social hierarchy often functions like the military, a university or private business. It’s not a coincidence that conservative evangelical leaders tend to resist taking harassment and assault claims seriously.

Eric Metaxas, a best-selling Christian author, tweeted after the firing that Mr. O’Reilly’s ouster was “tremendously sad” and that his show had been a “blessing to millions.” When people responding to his tweet noted that he was silent on the harassment itself, he wrote “Jesus loves Bill O’Reilly” and told his followers to pray for their enemies.

Many Christian leaders responded to Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault with a similar line of defense. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the country’s largest Christian college, said that “we’re all sinners” and that Mr. Trump had apologized. (In fact, Mr. Trump has said that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness and didn’t need to ask his wife for it either.) Mr. Falwell later claimed to have proof that the women accusing Mr. Trump of sexual harassment were lying.

David Brody, a correspondent with the Christian Broadcasting Network, excused Mr. Trump’s language at the time by saying, “We all sin every single day.” Jim Garlow, a prominent California pastor, refused to “cast any stones” at Mr. Trump, invoking Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. He then called Hillary Clinton a modern-day Herod who would kill all the unborn babies if elected.

Within the ranks of conservative church leadership, this default empathy for powerful men is coupled with tone deafness for victims. But the phenomenon is also a misapplication of the Christian teaching on forgiveness. Mr. Metaxas wrote a biography of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so he is surely familiar with his teaching on cheap grace — “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Cheap grace wrongly separates absolution of sin from acknowledgment of that sin. In Christian teaching, God forgives people before they confess wrongdoing. But among individuals, groups and nations, there can be no forgiveness when wrongdoing isn’t named.

In cases of sexual assault, cheap grace is doubly dangerous: It can allow a guilty party to continue his abuse while victims stay silent in fear of punishment.

In churches, a quick forgiveness for perpetrators often dovetails with strict standards of purity for women. From a young age, many Christian women are taught to dress modestly so as not to cause men to “stumble.” John Piper, a prominent pastor and theologian, has said that “a lot of Christian women are oblivious to the fact that they have some measure of responsibility” in managing men’s lust. The moralizing about dress and behavior can be a setup for victim-blaming wrapped in a spiritual veneer.

Perhaps churches have been slow to address sex crimes out of a belief that such offenses couldn’t happen among their own. It’s assumed that the culture of harassment at a place like Fox News would never come to infect a community serving God. This thinking is both naïve and theologically irresponsible: Christians, of all people, acknowledge the depths of human depravity.

In recent years, undeniable scandals at Bob Jones University, Sovereign Grace Church and Bill Gothard’s family ministry, among others, have awakened many conservative Christians to the reality of sexual assault in their own ranks. Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of the evangelist Billy Graham, is a law professor who runs Grace (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). While the organization focuses on child abuse, Mr. Tchividjian speaks regularly on sex crimes in general. He critiques Christian organizations that respond to abuse with “institutional self-protection,” often by couching self-protection as “protecting the name of Christ.”

If conservative Christians want to protect the faith — especially in a time when they fear loss of cultural power — they must show preferential care not for the powerful but for victims. They must be just as quick to extend empathy to women who have been harassed as they are to extend forgiveness to harassers.

This is the hard work that epitomizes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conception of “costly grace.” An application of costly grace would mean showing perpetrators that their actions have real consequences. It would also ensure that victims are heard and given tools for healing long before there is any talk of restoring their abusers.


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