Another evangelical abuse scandal: It's a big reason why they worship Trump

Megachurch pastor and MAGA backer admits to "inappropriate" conduct with underage girl. To the right, no big deal

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 18, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump and Pastor Robert Morris at a roundtable with faith leaders, law enforcement officials, and small business owners at Gateway Church Dallas Campus in Dallas, Texas, on June 11, 2020. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and Pastor Robert Morris at a roundtable with faith leaders, law enforcement officials, and small business owners at Gateway Church Dallas Campus in Dallas, Texas, on June 11, 2020. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Another week, and another prominent Christian right pastor gets outed for alleged or apparent sexual abuse. Robert Morris, the founder of Gateway Church in the Dallas suburbs, was accused last week by a woman who says he first molested her when she was 12 years old. The abuse continued for the next five years, she said, until she finally asked adults for help. At the time, Morris was a married man in his mid to late 20s. 

Morris responded to the allegations with a statement admitting to "inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady," with no mention of her age. In another entirely predictable development, it appears that church leaders knew about Morris' conduct all along, but kept it to themselves after concluding there were "no other moral failures." The victim says she considered suing Morris or the church in 2005, but backed off when Morris' lawyer accused her of being "flirtatious." 

We've heard variations of this story over and over again, but this particular scandal is important for two reasons. First of all, Morris is not some backwoods fire-and-brimstone preacher, but the leader of one of the largest and most influential megachurches in the country. Gateway's services draw 25,000 people a week, making it the ninth-largest church in the country, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. On YouTube alone, Gateway has nearly half a million subscribers, and the church is especially famous for its worship music, which was streamed over 300 million times last year. 

Secondly, there's the connection to Donald Trump. Morris served on Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board during the 2016 campaign and has been a relentless MAGA cheerleader ever since. He has been repeatedly accused by tax experts of violating the law that prohibits churches from endorsing political candidates. Gateway hosted Trump during the 2020 campaign, where Morris explicitly offered thanks to God "for this administration." 

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Despite all this, we can expect the Beltway punditry to keep on pretending that white evangelicals' unrelenting support for Trump is mysterious or hypocritical, given that he's a chronic adulterer who, according to a New York jury, has committed sexual assault. Evangelicals have declared themselves the avatars of sexual morality for so long that many folks in the chattering class just can't accept that it was never actually true. As ex-evangelical therapist Jeremiah Gibson told Salon earlier this year, sex has never really been the issue with evangelicals. It's more about "the performance of gender" and maintaining a rigid gender hierarchy. While right-wing Christians talk a lot about "purity," that expectation only applies to women. Men, as the history of Christianity in America makes clear, largely get to do what they want, confident that the church will usually look the other way — even when the behavior is criminal or blatantly predatory. 

If anything, being a sexual predator can bolster a man's reputation with evangelicals, who may be suspicious of men who adhere too closely to the stated values of chastity and purity.

If anything, being a sexual predator can bolster a man's reputation with evangelicals, according to sociologist Samuel L. Perry, author of "Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants." As he told Politico in May, evangelicals can be suspicious of men who adhere too closely to the stated values of chastity and purity. In fact, Perry said, evangelical churches teach that "God gave men tremendous sexual appetites because he wanted them to be leaders and initiators and people who take charge." If that will to dominate sometimes leads to molesting a 12-year-old, well, that's just "a risk of those appetites" they so admire. Blame for that kind of sexual abuse tends to be shifted to the victims, who may find themselves — as the woman in this case says she did — accused of tempting those poor, vulnerable men with their uncontrollable desires. 

The problem with expecting women — or in so many cases, underage girls — to bear the responsibility for maintaining "purity" is that it directly conflicts with another mandate placed on women in evangelical circles: total submission. Women were placed on earth by God, according to this theology, primarily if not exclusively to serve men — and that isn't just about cooking, cleaning and saying "yes, sir" a lot. There's tremendous pressure, as "tradwife" content makes clear, on women to be "smoking hot," to use a surprisingly common evangelical term. It's a lose-lose situation: Women are supposed to make themselves attractive and compliant, but if a man abuses or assaults her, that's her fault for not uttering the otherwise forbidden word "no." Furthermore, if she did say no but failed to fight him off, after a lifetime of being told that it's sinful "pride" to stand up for yourself, then that's her fault too.

To deal with this contradiction, evangelicals — well, they don't deal with it. They put their fingers in their ears and yell "WOKE MOB" until the people pointing out their hypocrisy get bored and go away. Last year, that was starkly obvious in the response to "Shiny Happy People," a documentary about the infamous Duggar family and their larger religious community, which has severe problems with sexual abuse. The film offered explicit evidence about how the evangelical insistence on female submission creates a perfect environment for such abuses, but Christian influencers and leaders insisted that these were isolated incidents rather than an indictment of their entire philosophy of gender. 

We can already see the same pattern playing out again in response to the Gateway scandal. Christian therapist and former Gateway employee Bob Hamp spoke out on Twitter, arguing that "[l]arger system dynamics are at play that both foster and protect ongoing predatory behavior" and calling on believers not to use the word "forgiveness" to sweep that larger conversation under the rug. But that appears to be exactly what is happening. Morris is stepping down, but his church claims this was a planned retirement, not the result of this scandal. In his statement, he claims that the victim and her family "graciously forgave" him in 1989. The church claims that its internal concerns were settled with a "two-year restoration process" led by religious counselors. The accuser, however, phrases it differently, writing that "we forgive because we are called to biblically forgive" but adding that her "father never ever gave his blessing on Robert returning to ministry." 

As Hamp wrote on Twitter, "While the church is trying to deal with the issue of 'sexual sin' it has only one category for it," meaning that it equates garden-variety fornication (i.e., sex outside marriage) with sexual abuse. When men indulge in such since, as Perry noted, the church treats that as a minor-league sin at worst. Evangelicals often admire it, overtly or otherwise, as evidence of a "man's man" who "goes after what he wants." Morris will benefit from the same allowance that Trump has repeatedly gotten for his predatory and violent sexual proclivities. It seems that the evangelical world pretty much agrees with Trump, who once told CNN that, "fortunately," men have long been allowed to get away with sexual assault.

"Or unfortunately for her," he added. 

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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Christian Right Christianity Commentary Donald Trump Evangelicals Gender Robert Morris Sexism Sexual Abuse