How the Southern Baptist Sex Abuse Revelations are Rooted in the Denomination's RacismHistorians in the News
tags: racism, sex abuse, evangelicals, Baptists, Southern Baptist Convention
Audrey Clare Farley is the author of the forthcoming book The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt.
“Apocalypse.” “A reality far more evil and systematic than I imagined it could be.” “The scale of malfeasance is truly shocking.” “The largest crisis of institutional religion in the United States.” “Bombshell.”
These are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the recent revelations that the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC—America’s largest Protestant denomination and a predominantly white one—is not only chock full of sexual abusers, but its leaders have systematically engaged in efforts to cover up these abuses, disparage the victims, and obstruct even modest efforts at reform.
The nearly 300-page report provided by the investigation firm Guidepost Solutions is breathtaking. Based on an eight-month probe solicited by the SBC, it reveals that the organization’s top leaders maintained a secret database of more than 700 abusers, all while telling rank-and-file members of the Southern Baptist flock that such an endeavor was unreasonable and impossible. The investigative report tells of one former SBC vice president who was credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old, a former president who dragged his feet on reporting child sex abuse allegations out of “heartfelt concern” for the accused, and another former president who failed to report several allegations of abuse against young boys. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s no wonder that much of the rhetoric emerging from the aforementioned quarters invokes the apocalypse. Yet there is still this pressing feeling that, for all the hyperbole running through the commentary, the core of this scandal is still very much under wraps. Stones have been left unturned, under which the real wormy rot at the center of the SBC continues to fester. What has been excluded from the conversation that has unfolded over the last week? The very thing that’s largely been missing from the broader industrial complex of criticism of white evangelicalism: a clear sense of the racist logic that underwrites patriarchal abuse within white evangelical communities.
With some exceptions, when popular white memoirists narrate stories of how they have found refuge after escaping from the evangelical community’s purity culture (which is rightly understood as the cornerstone of rape culture), they do so without either acknowledging or meaningfully addressing how that culture principally exists to justify white racial violence. Academics tell how complementarianism—the doctrine of “separate but equal” applied to men and women—has roots in secular Victorian gender conventions, but not in eugenics. White critics frame the SBC’s racism as analogous to its misogyny, rather than constitutive of it. And if they do acknowledge that racism enables a culture of abuse, they typically leave to the imagination how it does so.
Unless and until more white evangelicals and their same-colored critics come to grips with how institutional racism gives rise to sexual abuse scandals like the present one, no one can credibly claim that some new era is upon us; both whites and people of color will continue to be victimized within and beyond white evangelical spaces.