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Christian women are calling out sexual assault and coercion, too

The audience-captivating televangelists of the 1980s epitomized the excesses of that garish, greed-riddled decade by celebrating the gospel of financial prosperity and anointing titans of industry as godly icons worthy of worship. The attention and power often went to their heads. James Bakker, the mercurial, ever-smiling founder of the famous PTL (Praise the Lord) Club—and husband of forever-weeping and eyeliner-stained Tammy Faye—had a tryst with a church secretary from Long Island and then used funds from his extensive ministry as hush money. Jimmy Swaggart, the bombastic, eponymously named Louisiana Pentecostal preacher whose weekly show was once syndicated on TV and cable stations around the world—and who scathingly criticized Bakker as a “pretty-boy preacher”—was caught with a sex worker in a Louisiana motel room in 1988. He wept out an apology to his millions of forgiving viewers, then got caught again in 1991. “These TV preachers disregarded scruples—about money, sex or self-aggrandizement,” Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, wrote at NBC News at the time of Billy Graham’s death in February. “Their lack of accountability led them, all of them, into questionable behavior.”

This belief system teaches women that right and Biblical behavior requires them to be subservient to men.

In some circles it’s easy to chalk up these ’80s-era Christian sex scandals as relics from a decadent past, but the #metoo movement has caused sweeping reconsideration of the boys will be boys and leaders will be lechers shrug of not-so-distant times. Even members of various Protestant denominations have opened their eyes to the behaviors of their past and standing leadership.

After the #metoo hashtag burst onto the social media scene, toppling movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and others from their cush perches, Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy created the #churchtoo hashtag in the hopes of fostering a similar conversation in Christian circles. Both women come from churches where its members were indoctrinated into a view of human sexuality defined as “purity culture.” This belief system teaches women that right and Biblical behavior requires them to be subservient to men, to be meek, modest and self-sacrificing, and it ties a woman’s value within her community to her virginity and ability to bear children. Inside this framework, women—and even girls—sexually abused by male pastors and lay church leaders are reviled as temptresses who have led godly men by the hand into sin. When caught with their pants down, the men are most often forgiven. The women, shamed, are most often forgotten. 

Purity culture can be characterized by a pattern of sexual abuse, including child marriages, and remains vast and tenacious across the country. It is wrapped up in strict gender and sexual norms, domestic expectations, 1950s “traditional family” nostalgia, pro-abstinence campaigns, father-daughter dances, anti-abortion activism and anti-feminist screeds. Journalist Kathryn Joyce has written about sex abuse in Protestant Christian churches—“a culture where sex was only discussed in whispers, and where submission to authority was paramount”—for The New Republic and elsewhere and has suggested the number of individuals affected could rival the size and scope of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. As institutions like Bob Jones University systematically penalized victims who reported incidents or sought treatment, these stories have for the most part remained closeted in the subculture. 

Paasch and Joy’s hashtag, #churchtoo, caused an explosion of stories that shined light on formerly hidden sex scandals involving white evangelical and fundamentalist church leaders, causing observers and church members alike to ask, could U.S. Protestant churches have a moment of reckoning within their hallowed walls? 

So far, the answer appears to be mixed at best. Memphis megachurch pastor Andy Savage received a standing ovation after admitting he had a “sexual incident” with a teen in 1998 when Savage was a youth minister at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church outside Houston, Texas. Bill Hybels informed his Willow Creek congregation in October, 2017, that he intended to retire the following October. They didn’t know that Hybels had been the subject of inquiries into claims that he ran afoul of church teachings by engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation—including employees—allegedly spanning decades. As multiple charges of sexual allegations against him began to surface, the Willow Creek community stood by their man. 

On the surface, the Savage and Hybels sagas appear to repeat the pattern of the sex scandals of the 1980s that brought down televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and James Bakker. Swaggart lost his international, well, swagger, and Bakker was relegated to hawking survival kits and Christian conspiracy theories on late night cable TV. However, both still preach. Similarly, Ted Haggard, the former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, who fell from grace some twelve years ago following a sex scandal with a male escort, has since founded a new church. 

Both Savage and Hybels have resigned from their positions, and their future within the Christian publishing world remains uncertain. If evangelical church history is any indication, over time they can claim to be cleansed of their sin. Once reborn, they too can launch a new ministry. Repent, Resign, Repeat. 

Trump’s ratings point to the prevalence of misogyny and sexism within the wider sociopolitical culture.

That male leaders’ public repentance appears to carry more weight than the needs of their victims points to the evangelical subculture’s proclivity to elevate their male pastors to god-like status. Just as a male Christ represents the head of the heavenly Christian church, male pastors function as God’s chosen representatives of Christ here on earth. Within this context, speaking out against godly male leadership—or resisting advances—becomes tantamount to going against God’s will. Add to this corrosive and dangerous amalgam for women an interpretation of Genesis that uses Eve’s temptation of Adam to equate female identity with sin. Sagas such as the implosion of the Seattle-based Mars Hill church network, once headed by the hyper masculine, sex-obsessed Mark Driscoll, demonstrate how one can foster an abusive church system, informed by a toxic ideology, without engaging in actual sexual abuses. 

This understanding of ordained male dominance may help explain why a high majority of white evangelicals continue to support President Donald Trump despite the multiple sexual harassment and misconduct allegations he has faced. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly eight in ten white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance. As of March, he maintained support from about 60 percent of white evangelical women. Given that Trump still has the support of 39 percent of all Americans, one cannot dismiss his ongoing approval ratings as simply blind allegiance by white evangelicals. Rather, his ratings point to the prevalence of misogyny and sexism within the wider sociopolitical culture. 

Sex-shaming culture that keeps women silent may be more prevalent in conservative churches; however, one can find a kinder, gentler form of male privilege that favors the abuser over the abused in more seemingly progressive Christian settings. Church observers like Brad Sargent have documented a pattern of abuses against women in the U.S. “emergent church,” a kind of faith-without-the-megachurch-decadence movement. To date, these abuses remain largely unaddressed because those connected professionally to this network have chosen to align themselves with men in power instead of hearing the stories of those victimized. When medical and legal evidence surfaced that a self-appointed U.S. emergent church leader, Tony Jones, was abusing his now ex-wife, some immediately jumped to his defense. As I wrote for The Humanist at the time, bestselling authors Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber chose to stand behind him. Jones “has given both of them platforms, endorsements, and other accoutrements needed for one to become a bestselling author.”

Some progressive Christian leaders who market themselves as anti-Trump remain connected to the evangelical misogyny that elevated Trump to power. Jim Wallis, founder of the self-described social justice organization Sojourners, has distanced himself  from evangelicals who support Trump. Yet Sojourners continues to support the National Prayer Breakfast, which is run by the right-wing “Family” organization and counts among its participants  members of Trump’s inner circle, including Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Also, bestselling progressive icon and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Rob Bell, continues to downplay his connections to DeVos, who was an elder at his former church and donated funds to both his church and Bell’s personal ministry.

Even within mainline liberal churches that elevate women and LGBT clergy to leadership positions, one finds stories of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse performed by males in positions of power. So far, the response from institutions such as the Episcopal Church in the United States points to a culture that gives the illusion of providing a safe space. Those who have been sexually harassed, abused, and exploited in the church are encouraged to “share reflections” of their experience. Such storytelling may produce those warm fuzzy feelings that come about when well-heeled church liberals talk social justice. However, without any actual changes in the policy and culture at the institutional level, such abuses will undoubtedly continue. 

To date, almost all of the stories coming to light involve white individuals. People of color, and women of color in particular, continue to be silenced in this discussion. Structural racism and implicit bias infect white-dominated institutions of all stripes, including liberal mainline church denominations, which are overwhelmingly run by white male leaders at the local judicatory level. 

U.S. congregants may continue to leave Christianity, but they carry their prejudices with them. Sikivu Hutchinson, a writer and founding member of Black Skeptics Los Angeles, observed, “Institutionalized sexual harassment and erasure of the voices and the lived experiences of people of color and women of all ethnicities is something that is absolutely endemic” to the Skeptics community. 

In The Establishment, Trav Mamone, a bisexual gender queer atheist/humanist blogger and podcaster, points to the inability of both the church and the atheist/humanist community to address abuse in their midst.  

What would a theology of consent and autonomy look like?

Perhaps it’s another sign that people in general are inclined to protect their beloved leaders, regardless of religious affiliation. The only difference is that while the church uses God’s grace to cover up sexual misconduct, the atheist movement uses what sociology professor Marcello Truzzi referred to as “pseudo-skepticism”: denial instead of doubt, and discrediting instead of investigating.

As this storm of #metoo and #churchtoo stories continues to surge, journalist Amanda Marcotte asked in the latest issue of The Humanist: “When will women finally be accepted as equals?” She points to the growing body of sexual harassment stories as indicators that so far, the institutional response to both church and secular abuse of women remains SNAFU. Marcotte writes, “Women are all too often treated like shadow people who have to endure sexualized abuse at the hands of powerful men, and we’re all too often expected to be silent and grateful that men tolerate our presence at all.”

According to Paasch and Joy, they created #churchtoo as a “platform not only where survivors can out their abusers—yes, names and all—but also where Christians, ex-evangelicals, and agnostics alike can ask one another: How can we do better? What would a theology of consent and autonomy look like? How would we build a world in which that sort of church was not the exception?”

So far, Paasch and Joy have no answer. A quick review of both Christian and non-religious institutional staffing, conference lineups, and book publishing deals still identifies a hierarchical system dominated by white cisgender males. Women, people of color, and LGBT individuals may be afforded the occasional, tokenized turn in the spotlight for the illusion of diversity. But peel back the curtain and the funding streams undergirding Christian organizations, as well as the broader culture remain white cis male dominated. As always, follow the money and you will discover what an institution truly worships.