Southern Baptist scandal: It's no coincidence that anti-abortion churches protect sexual abusers

As with the Catholic church scandal, what ties sexual abuse to anti-choice activism is a belief in male supremacy

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 23, 2022 1:10PM (EDT)

A 7-foot tall statue (with a 17-foot tall cross) of evangelist Billy Graham graces the front entrance to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. (Getty Images)
A 7-foot tall statue (with a 17-foot tall cross) of evangelist Billy Graham graces the front entrance to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville. (Getty Images)

"Shocking." That's the word being bandied about in both news coverage and social media reactions to a nearly 300-page report released on Sunday that details both extensive sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and a thorough effort to cover it up by the denomination's leadership. As Christianity Today bluntly noted, the convention had "a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors," but "chose to protect the denomination from lawsuits" rather than the victims or potential future victims in the pews. Instead, protecting predators became the norm, and victims of abuse were frequently blamed. One victim, whose abuse started when she was 14, "was forced to apologize in front of the church," but forbidden to name the pastor who had forcibly impregnated her. 

The situation is, indeed, horrific. It's a minor miracle that this report even happened. Activists have been clamoring for it, but have faced a massive institutional resistance from the leadership of America's largest single Protestant denomination. One cannot help but marvel at the nerve of some Southern Baptist leaders who engaged in the coverup. SBC general counsel Augie Boto, for instance, responded to victims and their allies by accusing them of being part of "a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism." Boto even appeared as a character witness for a Nashville gymnastics coach who was convicted on charges of molesting a 10-year-old girl. 

RELATED: Southern Baptists and #MeToo: Advocates for church sex abuse victims push for reform

But for feminists, none of this is shocking in the slightest. It lacks the element of surprise that the word implies. Not just because this whole situation is a retread of the sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, right down to the pattern of reassigning predatory pastors to new churches where they can begin abusing a fresh group of unsuspecting congregants. Like the Catholic Church, the SBC is one of the most virulently anti-choice religious groups in the country. Opposition to reproductive rights and tolerance for sexual abuse go together like peanut butter and jelly. 

The common thread linking the two, of course, is male supremacy, or, to use an old-fashioned feminist term, patriarchy. As Laurie Penny writes in her new book "Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback," it's a culture that's "comfortable letting men get away with sexual violence but determined not to let women get away with consensual sex." Indeed, to say "comfortable" might be an understatement. Sexual violence and anti-choice ideology are rooted in the same tendency to see women (and often children) as objects to be used and discarded by men, who have no rights or autonomy of their own worth respecting. 

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I call it the "grab 'em by the pussy" ethos, named after the most memorable line in Donald Trump's infamous "Access Hollywood" tape, in which he bragged about routinely sexually assaulting women. Trump, of course, also appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who will likely be part of a majority vote to overturn Roe v. Wade sometime very soon. There's a tendency in the mainstream media to treat the religious right's support of Trump as being reluctant, as if they'd held their noses to back this compulsively promiscuous sexual predator, in exchange for these judicial appointments. In reality, polling shows that white evangelicals — many of them Southern Baptists — are by far Trump's most enthusiastic supporters. One of his earliest champions was Jerry Falwell Jr., who may be disgraced now but during the 2016 campaign was probably the most famous Southern Baptist figure in the country. There's nothing "transactional" about the relationship between Trump and evangelicals: It's true love. 

Let's stop pretending that the religious right's support of Donald Trump was reluctant. Evangelicals are the most enthusiastic fans of a compulsively promiscuous sexual predator: It's true love.

Of course, just as Liberty University was eventually forced to dump Falwell, Southern Baptists and the larger evangelical community must maintain the pretense of objecting to the sin of sexual abuse. Some, such as the female-led activists who pushed for this investigation, even mean it. But the enthusiasm for Trump, whose own bragging confession was backed by more than two dozen women attesting to his abusive ways, is part of this larger misogynist pattern. It's not just the tendency to look the other way when men commit sexual violence. It's about contempt toward women who dare to assert autonomy over their own bodies. Whether that means saying no to pregnancy or saying no to sex, in the eyes of a male-dominated church, the right to make the decision simply isn't hers. 

RELATED: Extreme anti-abortion rhetoric and "grab 'em by the p***y": The right's ugly fantasies about women

In Boto's diatribe accusing women who speak out against sexual violence of being in thrall to a "satanic scheme," he also argues that the women "are not to blame," because they are supposedly helpless in the clutches of the devil. (And clearly need strong male guidance to deliver them from Satan.) Adopting an attitude of pity or condescension toward women — who can't even make decisions on their own, the poor things — is a favorite tactic of anti-choicers who want to evade accusations that they want to prosecuted or imprison women who have abortions. For instance, many defenders of the new Texas abortion ban claim they have no desire to punish women for abortion, using language that frames women as overgrown children, easily swayed by emotion, who don't possess the maturity or intelligence to make their own decisions. 

This patronizing dismissal of women's intellectual capacities, however, is mostly a cover story for a deep hatred of women who think they have a right to self-determination. That becomes evident in this 288-page report on the SBC, which is full of stories from sexual abuse survivors who say that when they spoke out about their abuse, they were the ones attacked and demonized. And while proponents of abortion bans may swear up and down they have no intention of arresting women for abortions, as soon as they think they can get away with it, the cuffs come out

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There has been a lot of handwringing and promises of improvement from SBC leaders in response to this report. One would do well to be skeptical. After all, one of the top contenders to be the next SBC president is Tom Ascol, a right-wing preacher who has pledged to turn back the supposed "wokeness" plaguing the church. Ascol has described allegations of systemic sexual abuse within the church as a "nebulous" concept akin to believing in "the existence of an invisible leprechaun." Instead, he argues, the answer for sexual abuse "is found in the seventh commandment, 'You shall not commit adultery.'" Adultery is not even a criminal offense, let us note. 

Ascol is not quite so dismissive of the evils of abortion, of course. While sexual predators are just a flavor of adulterer in his book, a woman who gets an abortion has "contracted a murderer to murder," he says, and should should face homicide charges. Unlike adultery, homicide is very much a crime. On one hand, it's refreshing that Ascol doesn't even pretend, like so many anti-choicers do, that he doesn't want to prosecute the 800,000 or so people who get abortions every year. On the other hand, this demonstrates that the SBC is not likely to budge on its commitment to being a male supremacist organization. That likely also means more of the same refusal to take sexual abuse seriously, the same contempt for victims who speak out and the same focus on protecting men accused of abuse. One report, no matter how "shocked" we pretend to be, is not nearly enough to alter the misogynistic foundations the Southern Baptist Convention is built upon. 

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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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