How Evangelicalism's racist roots and purity culture teachings catalyzed the Atlanta killings

Long described his victims as “temptations” he needed to “eliminate,” rhetoric that is common in purity culture

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 20, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On March 16, Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old white man, killed eight people during three separate spa shootings outside Atlanta. He cited "sexual addiction" as his defense, which started a sort of media tug-of-war about Long's motivations, especially after Atlanta Police reported that Long told them the killings weren't "racially motivated." 

However, seven of the gunman's eight victims were women; six were identified as Asian and at least four of those killed were of Korean descent. Their names were Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim and Yong A. Yue.

Despite the denials, the killings are a hate crime that exists at the intersection of misogyny, xenophobia and racism, and underpinning it is the toxicity of Evangelical purity culture. Long was a longtime member of Crabapple First Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Macon, and reportedly told police that he viewed the people who worked at the spas as "temptations" he needed to "eliminate," indicating that he set out with the intention of attacking Asian women whom he perceived to be sex workers. Police have given no indication that the victims were sex workers. 

Long's statement is reminiscent of how some Christian men excused the actions of the late apologist Ravi Zacharias who, as Christianity Today reported in an explosive 2020 expose, was credibly accused after his death in May of sexually abusing multiple massage therapists who worked at two day spas he co-owned in the Atlanta suburbs. Several of the women were immigrants, and it was late rrevealed that a different woman, who was also an immigrant, told investigators that "after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her." She called it rape. 

His posthumous fall from grace was a shock to many Evangelical Christians; his organization Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, was viewed by many as a successor to that of late evangelist Billy Graham, and former Vice President Mike Pence spoke at his funeral. 

But then came the excuses. 

Nick Stumbo, the founder of Pure Desire Ministries, a Christian organization that is dedicated to giving participants "freedom from unwanted sexual behavior" through group and individual counseling, wrote a blog post about sexual misconduct among Christian leaders following news of Zacharias' sexual abuse. 

"Here's a truth you might be missing: they aren't doing this on purpose," Stumbo said. "These leaders aren't trying to live a double life, not most of them anyway. Most of them are trying — desperately trying — to live a God-honoring life, do the ministry they have been called to do, and banish the 'deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent' conduct from their lives." 

He continued: "Their hearts cry out to do the right thing. Their soul longs for real freedom. But a deep rut of sexual dysfunction continues to trip them up and take them to places they never meant to go." 

To many Christian men like Stumbo, the women who spoke out against Zacharias weren't victims; they were anonymous stumbling blocks in a great man's life, obstacles to be bested. It's a line of thinking that is deeply rooted in Evangelical teaching and colored by the tradition's insidious sexism and racism — which were on full display through Christian right's overwhelming support of former President Donald Trump — all of which Long would have become well acquainted with during his time in the church. 

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Purity culture became a pop culture buzzword in the mid-2000s after several young pop stars — including the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato — donned purity rings. While most of these celebrities eventually took off their rings as they grew out of their totally wholesome Disney-approved images, as I've written about before, in my Evangelical church, purity wasn't something you could simply shed. 

If you were a woman, premartial sex would render you essentially worthless. There were a variety of metaphors that were used to illustrate this: Women who had sex were sticks of gum that, after being chewed by someone else, were rendered less flavorful for the next person who planned to take a bite. We were the roses with our petals torn off, a shattered perfume bottle, a damaged bicycle. "Nobody wants damaged goods," a youth leader once explained to me. 

And while inherent to all these metaphors was the implication that women were the inanimate objects that were acted upon, there's also the simultaneous belief that it is a woman's God-given mandate to prevent the men in her life from "stumbling" towards lust. 

We were given these lessons, too: Don't wear tight-fitting pants as they can cause a man to think impure thoughts. Depending on how you are naturally built, maybe you'll be told that you shouldn't even be wearing pants at all and are assigned to navigate adolescence in a series of dowdy skirts. Shirts should be cut no lower than the length of two horizontal two fingers below your collarbone. Body jewelry is frowned upon and make-up should be kept natural. 

"Only harlots wear liquid eyeliner," another youth pastor once told us. 

Women's status as stumbling blocks to purity — or even as intentional temptresses — is only amplified in Bible studies that are targeted at Evangelical men. "Every Man's Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time" is a best-selling series of books about Christian sexuality. 

"A red-blooded American male can't watch a major sporting event without being assaulted by commercials showing a bunch of half-naked women cavorting on some beach with some beer-soaked yahoos," one passage reads. "What's a man to do?" 

It continues: "To attain sexual purity as we define it, we must starve your eyes of the bowls of sexual gratification that comes from outside your marriage. When you starve your eyes and eliminate 'junk sex' from your life, you'll deeply crave 'real food' — your wife. And no wonder. She's the only thing in the cupboard and you're hungry!" 

Let's put aside, for now, the really problematic assertion that a healthy marriage is one in which you have sex with your partner just becase they're there and you have no other options in your sexual cupboard. The term "assaulted by commercials'' is interesting in that it plays into another common Christian narrative — that of spiritual battles. You put on the "armor of God," as written about in Ephesians, to engage in the fight between good and evil. 

In Christians' daily lives, temptation is something to be attacked head-on and vanquished. It's language that is frequently espoused from the pulpit, and language that also bears a striking resemblance to Long's statement to police in which he said he described his victims as temptations to be eliminated. 

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Evangelical purity culture is dangerous in that, despite promising the opposite, it positions women as dehumanized, sexual objects — a walking collection of body parts that can provoke temptation — and that it is their responsibility to keep men from straying.

This is especially true for women of color, who have long been exoticized through the church's particular brand of colonialist missionary work. 

The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek term euangelion meaning "gospel" or "good news," and per the New Testament book of Mark, Christians are commanded to "go into all the world and preach the good news." Growing up in the church, I vividly remember missionaries visiting for special services once they had returned to the States to set up old-school slideshows packed with photographs from their trips. They would talk about the work — handing out Bibles, leading church services, building houses of worship — they had done in these countries, which were often positioned as almost otherworldly. 

While, as the Atlantic reported, some Christian denominations are currently trying to pull back from the "white savior complex" style of mission work in favor offering genuine humanitarian aid or serving their own communities more intentionally, the International Mission Board, which is the Southern Baptist Convention's missionary society, still describes their work as "bring[ing] the good news to the helpless and the hopeless." 

While Long may assert that his crimes weren't "racially motivated," growing up in a the Southern Baptist church, he would have been familiar with this language — language that is reminiscent of what I heard from the pews in the '90s — that was meant to both encourage a sense of "otherness" and excuse attempts at domination, cultural and otherwise, of people of color, including those of Asian descent.   

Long isn't the only example of how the ugliness of the rhetoric behind that language, as well as the misogyny that underpins it, can dangerously collide in public and encourage violence. Donald Trump was  a thrice-married candidate that paid hush money to an adult entertainer and bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. His blatant racism only escalated during his term in office and his use of the phrases "Wuhan flu" and "China virus" directly contributed to the current rise in violence against Asian Americans. 

And he enjoyed overwhelming support from Evangelical Christians along the way. 

Some have left the church because of it. As Salon reported, Beth Moore, a major female Evangelical leader, announced earlier this month that, as a survivor of sexual assault, she "can no longer identify with Southern Baptists." Meanwhile, the #LeaveLOUD movement is gaining momentum among Black Christians who no longer see a home for themselves in white Evangelical spaces. In both instances, denominational leadership reportedly seems more keen to stomp out voices of dissent than do the work necessary to unravel generations of harmful teachings. 

On Friday morning, Crabapple First Baptist Church, Long's home church, released a statement about the killings. 

"We want to be clear that this extreme and wicked act is nothing less than rebellion against our Holy God and His Word," it said. "Aaron's actions are antithetical to everything that we believe and teach as a church. In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the actions of Aaron Long as well as his stated reasons for carrying out this wicked plan."

It continued: "No blame can be placed upon the victims. He alone is responsible for his evil actions and desires. The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible." 

The language used, the focus on sex, only continues the narrative that a man in the church has been raised to believe is the expected, natural order of his existence without acknowledging its roots. The culture that the church chooses to perpetuate tells a more complicated story specifically dealing with race. 

As the Washington Post reported, Long's church is part of a group in the Southern Baptist Convention called Founders Ministries that has pushed the convention in a more conservative direction in recent years. The group has described the labeling of "white fragility" as "racism" and called critical race theory "godless and materialistic ideologies."

And while there's no evidence currently online about the church's teachings about sexuality — following the killings, Crabapple First Baptist deleted their social media accounts, including photographs and videos of past sermons — Long's own dehumanizing language about his victims tells us enough. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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