The Southern Baptist Horror

How many bad apples must we pluck before we recognize that the orchard is diseased?

Illustration of a rotting wooden cross—the specific cross used in the Southern Baptist Convention logo
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: David French is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter The Third Rail. French is also a senior editor at The Dispatch.

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Yesterday, at 4 p.m. eastern time, the Southern Baptist Convention released a comprehensive, independent report of its executive committee’s response to decades of sex-abuse allegations. The SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, by far. It is the nation’s most powerful and influential evangelical denomination, by far. Its 14 million members help define the culture and ethos of American evangelicalism.

Last June delegates, called “messengers,” to the SBC’s annual convention responded to proliferating reports of inadequate or corrupt responses to sex-abuse allegations by voting overwhelmingly to commission an external review of their own leaders. The executive committee hired a firm called Guidepost to conduct the investigation.

The report is a calamity. My friend Russell Moore, a former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called it an “apocalypse.” The report says that “for almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists” contacted its executive committee “to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff.”

And what was the reaction they received? A select group of executive-committee leaders “largely controlled” the committee’s response to abuse reports, and they “were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.” According to Guidepost, this meant that survivors and others who reported abuse “were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its policy regarding church autonomy—even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

Even worse, at the same time that senior leaders refused to take action, they compiled a private list of “accused ministers” in Baptist churches. There is no evidence that they shared this list “or took any action to ensure that the accused ministers were no longer in positions of power at SBC churches.” Eventually this list included a total of 703 abusers, “with 409 believed to be SBC affiliated at some point in time.”

Executive-committee leaders also “turned against” survivors and others reporting abuse. The report states that survivors of abuse at the hands of SBC clergy, employees, and volunteers were denigrated as “opportunistic,” having a “hidden agenda of lawsuits,” wanting to “burn things to the ground,” and acting as a “professional victim.”

Not only did senior Baptist leaders ignore abuse and disparage those who reported abuse, but a shocking number were implicated in misconduct themselves, including several of the most powerful and influential men in modern Baptist history. For example, one former SBC president, Steve Gaines, “delayed reporting a staff minister’s prior sexual abuse of a child,” the report found. Another former SBC president, Jack Graham, “allegedly allowed an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 without reporting the abuse to police,” Guidepost wrote. The same accused abuser “was charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011.”

The list just keeps going. Paige Patterson, a former SBC president and former president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (one of the denomination’s most important schools), was fired by the seminary after he told a student not to report a rape and after he “emailed his intention to meet with another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could ‘break her down.’”

In 2018, executive-committee President and CEO Frank Page resigned after he admitted to what he called a “consensual affair” with an adult woman. “At the time,” Guidepost reported, the executive committee “conducted no further investigation to verify the accuracy of Dr. Page’s disclosure or to determine if his conduct carried over into the workplace.”

Another SBC giant, former Vice President Paul Pressler—one of the architects of the so-called conservative resurgence that remade the modern SBC—is now a defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by a man who alleges that Pressler began abusing him when he was 14 years old. Two other men have “submitted separate affidavits in the case also accusing Judge Pressler of sexual misconduct.” (Pressler, who declined to speak to Guidepost, has denied any wrongdoing.)

During the investigation, an SBC pastor and his wife “came forward to report that SBC President Johnny Hunt (2008–2010) had sexually assaulted the wife on July 25, 2010.” Guidepost included the allegation in the report because the allegation was corroborated by multiple witnesses, and because investigators “did not find Dr. Hunt’s statements related to the sexual assault allegation to be credible.” (Hunt posted a statement on Twitter denying the abuse allegation.)

Page after grim page reveals crushing scandal after crushing scandal. One abuse survivor, a woman named Christa Brown, said that an executive-committee member turned his back to her when she addressed the committee in 2007. Another member allegedly chortled at her. Brown described the emotional impact of the moment:

I ask you to try to imagine what it’s like to speak about something so painful to a room in which men disrespect you in such a way. And I hope that you will also try to imagine the long-lasting impact this had on me—to speak about this horrific trauma of having my pastor repeatedly rape me as a child, only to have religious leaders behave in this way and to have not a single other person who thought it mattered enough to speak up. The sharp edge of such incivility has never worn off.

I remember when the Catholic abuse scandals started lighting up the media. Those reports were similarly hard to read, and while I’m not a Catholic, I had a hard time believing that the evangelical Church was any different. I’d seen multiple scandals during my own time in church, and my own wife, Nancy, was abused by a vacation-Bible-school teacher when she was only 12. The decentralization of American Protestantism has meant that it’s hard to grasp the scale of the crisis. But this much we know—abuse is occurring across the length and breadth of the evangelical Church.

Last year, Nancy and I detailed a horrific scandal at one of the largest Christian camps in America, Kanakuk Kamps, where leaders ignored red flag after red flag (including multiple reports of nudity with young boys) and promoted a young counselor to the position of camp director. The director, a man named Pete Newman, was a superpredator, and when he was finally caught and convicted, the camp bought the silence of victims, bullied their families, and even to this day threatens those who have exposed its horrific negligence. (In 2010, Newman pleaded guilty to seven counts of sex crimes, and was sentenced to two life terms in prison.)

Also last year, the evangelical world learned that the late Ravi Zacharias, one of its most beloved and influential apologists, or defenders of the faith, was a serial sexual predator. Even worse, whistleblowers inside the organization he ran described a ministry culture that protected Zacharias from accountability and retaliated against employees who raised justified concerns.

In February, Christianity Today obtained a copy of an internal Ravi Zacharias International Ministry report (also prepared by Guidepost) that described the ministry’s extraordinary efforts to both protect Zacharias and punish one of his accusers. As Christianity Today’s Daniell Silliman reported, the ministry “spent nearly $1 million to defend its founder and namesake against allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017 and then lied about it.” That money helped fund a lawsuit against one of Zacharias’s victims, a woman named Lori Anne Thompson.

And we can’t forget the series of scandals that have rocked Liberty University, one of the largest Christian universities in the world. Its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., resigned in disgrace after a string of scandals, including claims of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct. Moreover, a comprehensive ProPublica report detailed how the university “discourages and dismisses students’ reports of sexual assault,” and 12 students filed a federal lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the university promoted “a tacit but widely observed policy that condoned sexual violence, especially by male student athletes.”

Earlier this month Liberty entered into a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs, announced a series of multimillion-dollar security upgrades on campus, and stated that it was “strengthening” its Title IX department’s “policies and procedures.”

I highlight reports of abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, in one of its largest Christian camps, in one of its largest Christian universities, and in its most prominent apologetics ministry because it is past time to recognize that the culture of American evangelicalism is broken at a fundamental level. How many times must evangelicals watch powerful institutions promote and protect sexual predators before we acknowledge the obvious crisis?

Still too many Christians are in denial. Most churches are scandal-free, they’ll say. Most pastors are men of integrity, they’ll argue. But how many bad apples must we pluck before we recognize that the orchard is diseased?

Evangelicals have no problem pointing out the failures of secular America. When Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed and #MeToo ripped through Hollywood, evangelicals could clearly see the systemic, cultural rot that enabled exploitation and abuse. But now a different version of that same rot is destroying our own house.

The majority of American evangelicals (and evangelical pastors) aren’t guilty of the abuse exposed in the Guidepost report—or of the abuse exposed in multiple other places at multiple other times—but we are all responsible for repairing our culture. On June 14, Baptist messengers will gather in Anaheim, California, for their annual convention. It will be their responsibility to take decisive steps to reform their Church.

But the responsibility does not rest with Baptists alone. Christians have created a culture that all too often celebrates male power at the expense of female dignity. Our churches frequently follow charismatic leaders even when they wave red flags in our face. And when other churches fail and other leaders fall, we shake our heads and say, “Thank God we’re not like them.”

Reform isn’t just a matter of prudence. Christians believe in a God who burns with anger when his people abuse and neglect the most vulnerable among us. Jesus once said it would be better for a millstone to be tied around a man’s neck and for him to be “thrown into the sea” than for him to cause a child to stumble.

No one knows this better than Baptists. Few denominations understand the power of character better than the Southern Baptist Church. In fact, in 1998 the Church passed a resolution on the importance of moral character in public officials that echoes beyond politicians.

I’m haunted by one clause in particular. It says: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” Millions of Americans don’t believe in God’s judgment, but Christians do, and while we are grateful that God is merciful, we should tremble with the knowledge that he is also just, and his justice can be terrible indeed.