Scott Terry Rides Again

As a blogger, I take pride in my ability to deliver quality coverage at no cost to my readers. It’s exciting, too. Who knows what I’ll find when I check the comments! Sometimes I find incisive commentary by another academic, or perhaps a brief message of support.

And sometimes there’s a white supremacist asking me for a lunch date.

In that particular post, I examined Scott Terry’s racist comments at CPAC and his affiliation to a xenophobic and highly patriarchal fringe movement called Christian reconstructionism. Terry is in the news again, thanks to his membership in the White Students Union (WSU) at Towson University. A caveat: the WSU is not officially affiliated with Towson, it is an informal organization, and until its members engage in active hate speech or hate crime the university can do little about its presence on campus. However, the WSU seems prepared to give the university that long-awaited excuse. In response to a series of reported crimes on and off campus, the WSU announced that its members would be patrolling campus on a nightly basis. Not to worry, people of Towson. Scott Terry and his compatriot, Matt Heimbach, are here to protect you–if you’re white. From the official statement:

“For those who are not Towson students it seems hard to fathom that every single day black predators prey upon the majority white Towson University student body.”

According to the most recent data available, 12, 082 of Towson’s 17, 988 undergraduate students are white. So yes, white students are by far the majority demographic on campus. But this indicates that the group is hardly under threat from a spate of unrelated crimes committed by members of a minority group. Nor is there any evidence that white students are being targeted specifically for their race, as the WSU implies in its statement. Racially motivated crimes are considered hate crimes, and federal data on hate crimes portrays an America quite different from the one imagined by Heimbach and Terry. There is ample evidence that nationally, whites are far more likely to criminally target blacks. If you expand the category to total rates of criminality, it is certainly true that black Americans, especially black men, are more likely than white Americans to face incarceration. However, the NAACP reports that black Americans are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white Americans, and when racial disparities in drug use and sentencing are considered, the statistics reveal an undeniable pattern of racial injustice.

Brief summary? As a class, white Towson students aren’t in danger from roaming black criminals. This is a mythology created and perpetuated by white supremacists. Obviously, this isn’t news to those of us familiar with reality. It’s most certainly not news if you happen to be black. I’m repeating it here because  it’s evidently necessary, and because I am white, which means I am not exhausted from fighting institutionalized racial oppression on a daily basis and therefore have the emotional energy to remind my fellow whites to check their damn privilege.

Moving on. The WSU goes on to add sexism to this potent brew of ignorance:

“The virtue of white Christian womanhood is under attack at Towson University by degenerate criminals seeking to rob our women of their God given innocence.”


Breeding the master race.

The statement goes on to reveal that female WSU members will be required to undergo self defense training, and will be escorted to and from class by their male peers. If this emphasis on the innocence and virtue of white women sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. Possibly in history class.

This white girl says no thanks, even to this bit of generosity from the men of the WSU:

“White Southern men have long been called to defend their communities when law enforcement and the State seem unwilling to protect our people.”

As a native of Appalachia, a survivor of domestic violence (perpetuated by my white Southern father) and an abusive relationship (with a white boyfriend), you’ll excuse me if I’m somewhat dubious about the innate chivalry of white Southern men. It is, in fact, a fantasy. This is particularly true for black women in the South, subject to centuries of rape and abuse by white from the antebellum period onward. There is a reason bell hooks speaks of a killing rage in response to white supremacy.

It is a matter of time before these patrols escalate into blatant hate crime. For that reason, I urge Towson students to be vigilant on behalf of minorities on campus. Use this situation as an opportunity to educate yourself about white privilege, hate crime, and other facets of institutionalized racial oppression in the US. And it is my sincere hope that this is the last time Scott Terry appears in the news.


Call for stories

I’ve started working on a story featuring Americans who left the organized church after being raised in conservative Evangelical or fundamentalist homes. The idea is to provide depth to statistics that reveal that despite the best efforts of the Moral Majority generation, America is now the least religious that it ever has been at any point in its history. Christian authors have attempted to address the trend; Unchristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons is, in my opinion, the first project by Christian authors that reflects a thorough attempt to understand it. Unchristian is an excellent book. However, I believe there’s a need for ex-Christian answers to the questions being raised by those still in the church. For those of who left, but aren’t willing to subscribe to the Richard Dawkins School of Secularism, the search for a replacement community is complicated, and has broader implications for America’s sociopolitical reality.

At some point I’d like to turn these stories into a book, but for now, I’m working on a long-form article. If you’d like me to include your story, please send a brief introduction to the following email:

Religious Abuse: 101

I don’t necessarily consider it my responsibility to educate religious people on what seems, to me, to be an issue of respect. But this post is born of exhaustion; a deep, soul-wearying fatigue. I am exhausted by people who demand respect for their beliefs, then trample on mine. I am exhausted by the stubborn ignorance behind prayers for my healing. So I’m going to confront that ignorance, for my sake and for the sake of the many survivors of religious trauma that I count among my friends. Christians, consider this a basic guide to interactions with survivors of religious abuse.

For the purposes of this post, ‘religious abuse’ refers to any abusive behavior committed within a religious context. Survivors may have been abused psychologically, physically or sexually by religious parents, clergy, or fellow Christians. In this context, abusers often turn to religion to justify their behavior. Abusive fathers and husbands may use a literal interpretation of gender roles to bolster their domestic authority. Survivors may have been victimized specifically due to gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. Abusive behavior can also be pervasive: entire congregations can contribute to the creation of a toxic culture that marginalizes survivors. It is abusive to tell an individual with a disability that they are disabled due to lack of faith. It is abusive to tell a woman she cannot leave her abusive partner, or that she somehow brought the abuse upon herself. It is abusive to shun someone due to sexual orientation, or pressure them into ‘ex-gay therapy.’ Legalism is abusive. As a result, survivors can be re-traumatized by a variety of behaviors or verbal statements. This is a rough guide, and I welcome input from others.

1.) Do not try to convert survivors of abuse.

There is no way that anyone in the Western world has survived to adulthood without hearing what Evangelicals like to call ‘the message of salvation.’ Survivors of religious trauma are especially familiar with it. We used to believe it, remember. However, many survivors have been so traumatized by organized religion that it is healthiest for them to leave it entirely. Some may return eventually; others will not. This is none of your business, and neither is the condition of their soul. A prayer for salvation implies moral judgement, and that’s not what a survivor needs to hear. Keep it to yourself.

2.) Don’t ask us to go to church with you.

Related to my first point. Church has not been a safe place for survivors of religious abuse. We don’t have a reason to want to return to church. We are not going to be magically healed by stepping foot in your church building. Your pastor is not going to repair years of trauma in an hour. Similarly, don’t tell survivors that you hope they return to church someday. You’re asking them to return to the site of their trauma. This is inappropriate.

3.) Don’t ask for our ‘testimony.’

I’ve had Christians demand that I tell them my ‘testimony.’ This demand is totally inappropriate. I don’t owe you my story. It’s mine to tell if I feel led to do so. Survivors of religious abuse have experienced trauma. When we relate our stories, we relive that trauma. It’s an emotionally draining experience and you do not have the right to expect us to perform for you on command. We’re more likely to talk if we feel we’re in a safe environment.

4.) Don’t say: ‘Not all Christians are like that.’

It’s factually accurate, but avoids acknowledging that the organized church is responsible for a number of social ills. You may not be homophobic, but in the evangelical and fundamentalist worlds, homophobia is the cause celebré. You may support gender equality, but again, gender equality isn’t yet the norm in these subcultures. Those of us who have been raised in these subcultures are much more likely to have encountered homophobia, sexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression. It’s true that dialogue is only possible when we set stereotypes aside, but it’s equally true that survivors need to heal. During that healing process, we’re going to be naturally wary of Christians. It’s self-centered to interpret this wariness as a personal attack. It has nothing to do with you.

5.) Don’t suggest other denominations.

Church is church. We’ll go back if we choose. If the United Methodist Church has changed your life then I am pleased for you but it does not mean that it is going to be a good experience for me. Christianity may have been a healing experience for you, but for survivors of abuse, it has been the opposite. Respect that. Stop trying to make Christianity happen for us. It’s a personal decision.

6.) Don’t say: ‘Jesus still loves you.’

Loves me despite what, exactly? This implies survivors are damaged goods and it’s especially painful to those whose abuse has been sexual. Again, we know the doctrine. We know Jesus is supposed to love us unconditionally. But many of us have also heard that we are intrinsically depraved, or that our sexuality is an abomination. Women, for example, who have been told to submit, repeatedly, at the expense of their independent identities are likely to interpret this in a negative way: that Jesus loves them despite their independence. Keep this sentiment to yourself, please.

7.) Don’t suggest therapy.

This really applies to survivors of all sorts. You likely don’t know what steps a survivor has taken to recover from trauma. Therapy can be a positive influence, but too often, people respond to evidence of a survivor’s trauma with this recommendation and nothing else. If you have reason to believe a survivor is in danger from self-harm, that’s an obvious exception. But survivors of abuse need to make this decision on their own initiative, and survivors of religious abuse may have experienced significant personal harm from religious counselors and therapists.

8.) Don’t say: ‘I love the sinner, but hate the sin.’

Or maybe do, because there’s no faster way to let me know that you’re not going to respect my identity, and I’d rather not waste time on someone who’s prepared to demean me.

9.) Don’t say: ‘If you’d really been saved, you wouldn’t have left the church.’

This specifically applies to survivors who left Christianity. The circumstances of their departure are none of your business. Equally, you have no business casting judgement on the validity of their prior beliefs. Unless you are psychic, and you are probably not psychic, do not say this. For a survivor who’s left the church, the decision to leave is motivated by trauma, and that merits your respect. Unless you’ve experienced this, you don’t have the right to comment on how you think you would have handled it. (Many of us leave due to trauma and intellectual disagreement, but that’s another blog post.)

10.) Never, ever criticize a survivor for being angry.

Are you offended that a survivor criticized the church? That’s unfortunate–for you. Sit down, stop being offended, and listen. Do you think a survivor is too angry about her abuse? Unless she’s personally threatening you, it’s time once again to get over yourself and listen. Discern the source of that anger. I cannot emphasize this enough: at no point do you ever possess the right to tell a marginalized person how to react to her marginalization. I don’t care if my experiences make you uncomfortable. That’s on you, not on me. And unless you’ve been abused, you have no right to lecture abuse survivors. As a Christian (and this is especially true if you are a white straight Christian) you belong to the ruling class. You are politically powerful. You are valued. Your voice is heard. If you are threatened by an ex-Christian expressing her rationale for being an ex-Christian, the problem is not the ex-Christian. If you feel attacked when a survivor of religious abuse points out failures in the church, the problem is not the survivor of abuse. Take a break and look in the mirror. When you dismiss our anger at abuse, you dismiss the validity of our experiences and that is itself an abusive deed. This isn’t about you.

Obviously, these points can be adapted, and apply best to religious abuse that occurs in conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist homes, churches and schools. I’m writing from this perspective because it’s the one I know, and I don’t believe I have the moral authority to speak for anyone else. Feel free to repost as needed.

The (Flawed) Case for Marrying Young

In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior argues in defense of young marriage. Prior, whose religious bias is evident throughout the piece, cites research from wedding website Knot Yet to bolster her argument; of especial interest to her are statistics that portray unmarried twenty-somethings as more likely to drink and suffer from depression. Unlike Prior, I intend to state my bias upfront: I am an unmarried twenty-five year old woman, I drink in moderation, and I have depression, though not, as Prior implies, due to my unmarried status, unless I’ve been suffering from a lack of husband for the past thirteen years. Her argument, tinged as it is by her adherence to conservative Evangelicalism, is deeply flawed and contributes little real insight into the statistics on marriage in the Western world.

As a feminist, obviously I consider the topic of marriage to be deeply relevant to gender equality. It is my belief that later marriage encourages, rather than hinders gender equality, I believe it also contributes to healthier, more sustainable relationships. I am ambivalent on the institution of marriage itself as I don’t think that marriage is necessarily an indication of a stable relationship. But for the purposes of countering Prior’s argument, I’m going to stick solely to available research on marriage trends. And those trends directly counter Prior’s assertions. According to longitudinal research produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the length of a marriage directly correlated to the age: 81% college graduates aged 26 and older stayed married for 20 years, in contrast to 65% of a younger, but comparably educated, cohort. Research produced in the UK reveals similar trends. Young marrieds were by far the likeliest to end their relationships in divorce. Age, then, actually correlates to more successful marriages,  which is presumably the outcome Prior most desires to see.

In her piece, Prior also cites the work of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist whose work on sexuality has been largely discredited by peers in his field. His now-infamous study on gay parenting became the subject of an internal audit by Social Science Research after colleagues revealed flaws in his work. If Prior is aware of these flaws, it isn’t evident in her piece, and her credibility as an academic is seriously damaged by her reference to Regnerus’ work on this topic. When her previous publications are considered (Prior is also against the use of hormonal birth control), we see the religious right’s utopia in miniature: a totally heterosexual world in which women are married young, and pregnant. Not particularly conducive to the higher education of women, or to the broader cause of gender equality.

There are additional flaws in Prior’s argument; it remains unclear if Knot Yet controlled for factors like addiction and mental illness in its survey. Given that it is not a peer-reviewed resource, I find it unlikely that they considered this in their work. We’re left, then, with a series of assertions that are directly contradicted by available academic work on the subject. As the religious right continues its campaign to control women’s lives, the publication of such a piece by the Atlantic isn’t just ill-conceived, it’s dangerous.

Links of Interest, and Further Discussions on Abuse

This week, Rachel Held Evans is hosting a series on sex abuse in the Evangelical church. The first two entries in her series are available now. A trigger warning applies to all entries. In addition, a week-long series on spiritual abuse (again, this may or may not include sexual abuse by clergy) is also ongoing.

I’ve documented my own experiences with spiritual abuse fairly extensively, on this blog and for outlets like My story is, I think, fairly typical for women raised in conservative Evangelical churches, particularly those exposed to domestic violence. Even as a child I understood that this male-dominated system did not recognize the authority of my experiences and so I kept silent for many years. Later, as a college student, I saw this system at its worst. Cedarville University cared so little for the subject of abuse that it neglected to comply with Title IX legislation on rape reporting policies. As far as students knew, no policy existed. If it did exist, the university did not publicize it. And so again, many of us endured in silence, convinced justice would remain out of our reach.

It’s difficult to fight when you believe your efforts are predestined to fail. It is an exhausting thing to oppose the hierarchy that dominates Christian churches and schools in the United States. It is especially draining when it is all you know, and opposing it means risking your status in the only community you’ve ever really known. And it seems impossible, too, to translate this experience to the secular world. What place is there for those of us who need to criticize the church for its failures if we wish to avoid a different sort of a fundamentalism, manifest in the rigidity of secularists like Richard Dawkins? I have one foot in the church still, and another in the secular world, and I can tell you that neither listens very well.

It is my hope that the stories that emerge from the series I’ve linked to in this post will challenge members of both communities and result in a radically healthier dialogue. Religious women who experience abuse are often doubly ostracized, first by their communities, and second by a world that characterizes their sincerely held beliefs as archaic, or even attributes abuse to those beliefs. As the backlash to Zerlina Maxwell demonstrates, the failure to respond adequately to abuse is not restricted to the church. I believe we can combine discussions, and unite across cultural divides to oppose rape culture at church, at home, at school, on the Internet. In fact, I believe that’s the only way we’ll ever successfully defeat rape culture.

I look forward to the rest of this week’s entries.

Scott Terry: Christian Reconstructionism and CPAC

On March 15th, CPAC attendee Scott Terry inadvertently drew media attention to a passionate but little understand faction of Protestant Christianity: Christian reconstructionism, also called theonomy. Terry, who, according to his personal Facebook, ‘ would love to be a prolific writer in defense of the rural and agrarian traditions of Anglo-Saxon Americans,’ attended a panel on diversity run by black Republicans. At this panel, Terry asked a panellist if he supported the ‘separate but equal’ approach to racial relations and objected to the panel’s negativity on slavery.. The panellist attempted to redirect the conversation to reconciliation, and referenced a letter written by Frederick Douglass extending forgiveness to his former owner. But according to Terry, Douglass had nothing to forgive: his owner had, after all, provided him with food and shelter. On his website, Terry further argues that slavery ought not be framed as ‘free labor’ and then lauds the business expertise of the South’s slave-owning class.

These arguments strongly resemble Douglas Wilson’s writings on Southern history and slavery. I’ve deconstructed those writings in previous entries on this blog and so would redirect readers to those entries rather than repeat my criticisms verbatim. To summarize, briefly, my objections to Wilson’s stance, and the stance articulated by Terry: I believe that slavery is intrinsically evil because it represents the ownership of one human by another, and therefore implies the inferiority of one class to another. Strange how these Biblical literalists become cultural relativists when confronted with the issue of race.

Wilson, a Christian reconstructionist, favors the application of Biblical law to contemporary issues. This doesn’t necessarily entail stonings, but on the subject of slavery, the rhetoric is pulled directly from the Old Testament. As a political movement, Christian reconstructionism has its primary origins in the writings of R.J. Rushdoony, who rejected the separation of church and state. Christian reconstructionism and Dominionism are distinct but related: both encourage Christians to reclaim and subsequently transform secular government. Like Rushdoony, Wilson is a Calvinist. This means a strong emphasis on predestination and membership in the elect.

Other than their adherence to Old Testament law on slavery, Christian reconstructionists don’t make obvious partners with Southern white supremacists. But closer examination reveals a common rhetorical narrative: an emphasis on saga and story-telling. The ‘About’ page of Scott Terry’s website is an excerpt from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ Douglas Wilson, a prolific author, is a classicist by education and his writings on Christian life, particularly those concerned with gender and sexuality, invoke an idealized history defined by chivalry and benevolent patriarchy. The Chalcedon Foundation, founded by R.J. Rushdoony, sells Dominionist fantasy novels in its online store. In this, it resembles other fringe Calvinist movements, like Vision Forum.

Why this emphasis on chivalrous saga? I believe that their common reliance on the doctrine of predestination, and the related, shared belief that they belong to the elect, here supports a particularly malicious manifestation of American exceptionalism. It is certainly a fringe belief, but it still retains cultural relevance. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a consistent intensification of white power movements. Wilson has founded a school and college, and his books have earned him a following among conservative Evangelicals. Similarly, Vision Forum and the Chalcedon Foundation have a following among Christian homeschoolers and the Dominionist approach to political participation continues to gain support among right-wing  factions. And there are famous adherents: Ron Paul has ties to Christian reconstructionism, and Michelle Bachmann has repeated sentiments similar to Terry’s on the institution of slavery.

Scott Terry’s views are not derived from a mainstream movement. But the fringe he represents is vocal, and merits a strong response from progressive Evangelicals disturbed by Christian reconstructionism’s relationship to Dominionism and white power movements.

The Church’s Abuse Mythology

As the Evangelical blogosphere processes the fallout from scandals at Sovereign Grace Ministries, various mission boards and Christian colleges and universities, fresh details about Baptist minister Jack Schaap’s sexual relationship with a teenage girl at a megachurch in Indiana reinforce the urgency of this conversation about abuse. It also reveals, starkly, the inadequacy of the church’s response to abuse, and the degree to which that response has been influenced by patriarchal doctrine. That doctrine, combined with a common lack of external accountability, render it difficult, if not practically impossible, for survivors to seek justice.

Next week, Rachel Held Evans will begin a week-long series on sexual abuse in the church. That series coincides with a related synchroblog event focused on spiritual abuse, which may or may not include sexual abuse.

The only value contained in Tim Challies’ infamous blog post on the Sovereign Grace scandal is its usefulness as an example of how not to respond to abuse.Based on that post, and on discussions I’ve had with clergy and fellow survivors of abuse, I believe that the following myths are the most pervasive and significant obstacles to the ability to carry out a constructive and honest discussion of abuse in the church:

1.) It’s slanderous to make an accusation of abuse or discuss failures in ministry leadership. 

Cover ups happen. Whether due to malice or gross incompetence, the leaders of Christian ministries and schools have consistently demonstrated a common inability to adequately anticipate and respond to abuse. It is not a violation of Biblical standards to hold fellow Christians accountable to secular legal standards. Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s. If your priority is victim protection, you have an ethical responsibility to encourage abusers to turn themselves in. If they don’t, go to the police. An incidence of abuse isn’t a reflection on your ministry; it’s a reflection of the human condition. When you frame abuse accusations as gossip, you silence victims and create an unsustainable culture of silence in your ministry.

2.) The victim bears some responsibility for abuse, or owes her attacker forgiveness. 

Jack Schaap did not get ‘seduced’ by a 16 year old girl. Contrary to the beliefs of ABWE’s leadership, a  fourteen year old victim of pedophila is not guilty of adultery. And despite the tactics taken at Sovereign Grace, no abuse victim owes her abuser forgiveness, nor is she at fault if she does not wish to attend church or school with him. The responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser. The victim’s clothes are irrelevant. Her sex life is irrelevant. His spiritual life is irrelevant. The victim is not to be put on trial.

3.) Abuse doesn’t happen in churches, on the mission field, or at Christian colleges.

Christians commit abuse. They commit abuse every day. It happens in Christian homes. It happens at church. It happens at school and at college. It can be difficult to believe that a beloved local minister or professor could be guilty of sexual abuse, but statistics consistently demonstrate that false accusations are rare. The stigma associated with sexual abuse makes it extraordinarily difficult for victims to come forward about the crime. If someone has defied this stigma in order to publicly identify a trusted figure as an abuser, chances are good that the claim is legitimate. Your default reaction should be to believe the victim. Victims need emotional support from their communities. The process of reporting abuse is traumatic because it demands that victims relive the experience repeatedly for the benefit of the police, and possibly for a court. Respect the courage it took to report the abuse.

The underlying theme is empathy. In a patriarchal system, women and men abused by other men are the Other. They are consistently excluded from leadership. In a conversation with me this week, my former pastor identified this specific trend as a major contributing factor to the mishandling of sexual abuse in churches and ministries. That leads me to the final myth.

4.) Patriarchy can prevent abuse. 

Patriarchy preserves male power. Advocates argue that it protects women, but reality contradicts this argument. Patriarchy protects male abusers. Its emphasis on female submission facilitates the silencing of female victims, and its homophobia completely denies even the possibility of same-sex abuse. Even the soft patriarchy advocated by men like Tim Challies (in comparison to the version practiced by Douglas Wilson, or the adherents of Vision Forum) relies on the passivity of women. It is a total rejection of this passivity to report abuse; it therefore threatens the structural integrity of patriarchy. The answer to abuse is gender equality. Women’s voices must be heard and their perspectives respected. The sexism inherent in homophobia must be openly acknowledged and challenged. And we must commence an open discussion of the church’s failures on gender and sexuality.

These conversations are a necessary step toward creating a safer, healthier American church. This abuse mythology isn’t restricted to the church, but it becomes even more difficult for victims to resist when it is validated by the patriarchal misappropriation of Christian doctrine.The goal of any discussion about abuse should the protection of victims and the prevention of further incidents. The end of abuse mythology means the end of Christian patriarchy.

Zerlina Maxwell is right, and other thoughts on men and boundaries.

If, like me, you avoid Fox News like it’s the audiovisual equivalent of a plague rat, you probably missed Zerlina Maxwell’s March 6th appearance on Hannity. Maxwell, a Democratic strategist who openly discusses her experiences as a rape survivor, used the appearance to publicly challenge a narrative popularized by gun rights proponents. According to this narrative, guns are the only reliable defence against rape. This narrative attempts to characterize gun rights as a feminist issue, yet it places the onus of responsibility on women rather than on perpetrators of sexual violence. As Maxwell articulately explained, it’s hardly a feminist position. It locates rape as an inexplicable act of violence, rather than as the inevitable consequence of social attitudes on gender.

The backlash to her comments indicates the state of race and gender politics in our national discourse. Since her appearance, Maxwell has received numerous rape and death threats that often reference her race (she is African-American). Gun rights advocates have further characterized her as an aloof elitist (or, alternatively, as an idiot) who places anti-gun ideology ahead of gender equality.  Both accusations reflect the belief that she is guilty of a reductionist perspective.

But here’s the catch: Zerlina Maxwell never claimed that we can end rape by teaching men not to rape. She stated that we’re having the wrong conversation. And the backlash to her remarks is proof of that need. Maxwell’s statements do not universally portray men as sexual predators. She implied rather the opposite: that men are willing to learn about the consequences of sexism, and can work with women to establish healthy sexual boundaries. She bravely spoke about her own experiences to demonstrate a truth supported by statistics: that rape victims are rarely attacked by strangers.

Zerlina Maxwell repeated what many of us already know. Danger does not hide in the bushes and wait to strike. It demands sex until you give in. It insists that it knows what you really want. It stands in the pulpit and offers counsel; it waits for you to pass out. It’s a Nice Guy, a clergyman, the love of your life. It wants the best for you, really, but you can be such a bitch sometimes and if you didn’t drink quite so much you wouldn’t be so easy.

For most of us, that’s rape. The stories I’ve featured on this blog, the stories represented by projects like this one, demonstrate the immediate need for a national conversation on gender roles. If a woman can’t appear on TV and discuss her rape without receiving rape threats in response, the problem isn’t her lack of gun. The problem is that men are making rape threats. That’s a social problem, and it won’t be solved by a bullet. It’s simply too prevalent. It is what we feminists mean when we speak of ‘rape culture.’

We want to educate men not because we are sexist, but because we believe men also suffer when society expects a masculinity that celebrates and encourages sexual aggression. We believe that men are capable of showing respect to their female partners, and that they can fully participate in a dialogue about consent and healthy sexual boundaries. In a world so devastated by sexual violence, this belief often requires extreme faith. I applaud Zerlina Maxwell for the courage she displayed on Hannity, and the courage she displays now as she is threatened with further trauma and abuse.

Evangelicalism’s Gender Trouble

Note: This is Part 2 of a series on sex abuse in American Protestant denominations.

Abuse scandals, as they are articulated by survivors, reflect certain commonalities that bear further examination. These cover ups rely on silence, enforced on subjects by religious leadership. The agency of survivors is not acknowledged or encouraged. In fact, they aren’t really considered ‘survivors’ or even victims by ministry leaders. When sexual activity is elevated to the level of a sacred act, sexual abuse is located on a spectrum of spiritual offenses: it is a sin as well as a violation of secular law. This is not necessarily unique. Theft, assault and battery, murder–no Protestant would deny that these simultaneously function as sins and crimes. So why, then, do ministries like Sovereign Grace and ABWE cover up sexual abuse?

First, it’s important to understand that in the United States, Protestant denominations are not ruled by anything that resembles Catholicism’s canon law or Islamic sharia. For that reason, church discipline in Protestant churches as I’ve witnessed it is a more organic affair, and is typically decided by how an individual congregation’s leadership team interprets Scripture on a specific issue. There are therefore distinctions in the ways church discipline is decided and applied, even within the same denominations. Nevertheless, in most churches, church discipline does not function as an alternative to secular law.

These abuse cover ups are really notable, then, for the gender politics they reveal. The leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries is entirely male. At ABWE, the president and twenty of its twenty-two board members are male. My alma mater, Cedarville University, boasts forty trustees and trustees emeriti total; of that number, five are female. The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), which boasts strong ties to both ABWE and (despite its 2006 decision to officially sever ties) to the leadership of Cedarville University, is governed by the all-male Council of Eighteen. Less information is available about the leadership of New Tribes Mission, but according to victim accounts, sexual abuse was perpetrated by men on minor girls, and the leadership of the mission board also appears predominately male.

This means that in each of the cover ups I covered in my previous post, the campaign of silence has been initiated and enforced by a demographic disproportionately less likely to personally experience sexual abuse. This, again, is not surprising; it should shock no one that a socially privileged group participates in the active marginalization of another, less privileged group. But in these conservative ministries, the belief that women are doctrinally obligated to submit to male authorities validates this marginalization. If women are obligated to submit, then their voices, their agency, is intrinsically inferior to male agency. And men who are victimized by other men are not exempt from this. The homophobia rampant in conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism is influenced by the belief that same-sex relationships are ‘unnatural.’ Men abused by other men, whether gay or straight, have been forcibly located in the submissive role assigned to women.

Women must submit, but the basis for this submission extends beyond a literalist interpretation of the Bible: they are also considered dangerous. The purity culture so beloved by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists sexualizes women by identifying them as the gatekeepers of sexual behavior. Simultaneously, it characterizes men as sexual aggressors, engaged in a constant battle for their sexual purity. Immodest women are ‘stumbling blocks’ or human obstacles to a man’s ability to practice holy behavior. The responsibility for sexual purity is therefore placed almost entirely on women. If a woman rejects this role, whether by engaging in consensual sex or by speaking openly about sexual abuse, she upsets a binary that sustains the male leadership of the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist communities.

The result? Cover ups. Silence. A preference for internal solutions–church discipline–over external legal action. Until these conservative ministries challenge their toxic gender politics, there will be no true justice for abuse survivors. They are victimized twice, first by their abusers and again by a culture that expects their silence.

Sovereign Grace Ministries and Evangelicalism’s Abuse Problem

This is Part One of a series on sex abuse in American Protestantism.

Today, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans published her perspective on the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed Saving Grace Ministries. Sovereign Grace Ministries, which represents over 80 churches,  wields some influence in the Evangelical world primarily through Covenant Life Church. Until it severed ties with Sovereign Grace in December 2012, Covenant Life Church functioned as Sovereign Grace’s flagship church. According to a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County, Maryland, Sovereign Grace faces accusations that its leadership deliberately and consistently concealed incidents of child molestation at Covenant Life and other congregations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Victims are male and female. Perpetrators, all male, range from church members to the co-founder of the denomination. In addition to this lawsuit, a former church member has just been indicted on charges that he abused four boys.

A website founded by former members of Covenant Life Church and other Sovereign Grace congregations provides detailed insight into the nature of the abuse perpetrated by church members and leaders (trigger warning for graphic depictions of sexual assault). A common, disturbing theme emerges from these stories:  the belief, as articulated by church leadership, that sexual abuse perpetrated by church members on other church members ought to be investigated by the church. The solution? For perpetrators, repentance; for victims, forgiveness. The denomination did not acknowledge the authority of secular jurisprudence. Members of Sovereign Grace congregations were instead considered subjects of a different, but higher, law. As one mother reported, the denomination’s leadership defined rape primarily as a sin, not a crime.

In my series on Cedarville University I reported, briefly, that one of its trustees, Michael Loftis, had resigned from the presidency of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) after his failure to investigate sexual abuse by missionary doctor Donn Ketcham. Doctrinally, ABWE and Sovereign Grace Ministries are distinct. ABWE is a Baptist organization. Sovereign Grace defines itself as Reformed and charismatic. Nevertheless, there are notable similarities between the abuse scandals that plague both ministries. Donn Ketcham’s abuse became known to the leadership of ABWE in 1989; ABWE expelled him from his ministry in Bangladesh and forced his fourteen year old victim to confess to the sin of adultery. ABWE leaders did not report Ketcham to secular authorities. Instead, he confessed to his sending church, and returned to Michigan, where he continued to practice medicine.

In 2002, after Loftis assumed the presidency, several more victims approached him directly to report abuse by Ketcham. Loftis promised counselling and an internal investigation. Neither occurred. In 2011, victims frustrated by ABWE’s inaction went public and demanded the promised investigation. Only then did ABWE report Ketcham to Michigan’s Medical Board.

Yes: Ketcham’s pedophilia had been known to ABWE since 1989. Loftis himself had known about the abuse for nearly ten years before he permitted ABWE to investigate the claims and report Ketcham to the authorities. During that period of time Loftis had joined Cedarville University’s Board of Trustees. The same university awarded Ketcham an honorary doctorate and sold his sermons in the campus store.

Like Sovereign Grace, ABWE’s response to sexual abuse within its ranks revealed a preference for church discipline and the belief that theological solutions, like the abuser’s professed repentance, could suffice to resolve abuse cases. These patterns aren’t limited to either Sovereign Grace or ABWE. Similar problems have been reported at a New Tribes Mission boarding school in Senegal. Like at ABWE and Sovereign Grace, New Tribes Mission leadership knew of but did not report cases of sexual abuse. And at Cedarville University, which bestowed an honorary doctorate on a known pedophile and still permits Michael Loftis to serve as a trustee, alumni have revealed that the school has never complied with Title IX regulations on the reporting of rape and sexual assault. Specifically, the university never established an official reporting policy for these cases. According to anecdotal cases, student victims who choose to report abuse despite the lack of an official policy on the subject are expected to file complaints with Campus Safety. As with most universities, Cedarville’s Campus Safety officers are university employees. At Cedarville, this means officers are often students, and all must adhere to the university’s doctrinal statement, which effectively renders them members of a parachurch organization. Once again, sexual abuse victims find themselves subject primarily to religious authority.

In her piece on Sovereign Grace, Held Evans states that the cover up is evidence of the evangelical world’s broader failure to appropriately handle sexual abuse and references a piece by conservative blogger Tim Challies that called on Christians to refrain from passing judgement on Sovereign Grace’s leadership. She is quite correct to criticize Challies for his language: Challies repeatedly refers to the abuse claims as ‘allegations,’ which inherently questions the validity of those claims. Challies never calls for transparency. He does not acknowledge the difficulties faced by abuse victims who choose to report their assaults, nor does he profess empathy for the trauma endured by these victims. Consequently, his post implies a refusal to believe the validity of their claims. In this, he is complicit in sustaining a pernicious culture of silence that prohibits the church from pursuing a victim-centered approach to sexual abuse.

His response is typical. Donn Ketcham’s victims report encountering similar attitudes, as do victims of abuse at New Tribes Mission. I have personally witnessed the same attitude among members of the Cedarville University community. When the open discussion of abuse is routinely decried as divisive gossip, which reinforces this culture of silence and creates a hostile environment for victims seeking support.

In my next post, I’ll explore the sexual attitudes that contribute to these harmful attitudes.