America’s largest Protestant and second-largest Christian denomination is being roiled by a sexual abuse scandal that casts a harsh light on one of the most politically powerful religious groups in the country as well as renewing a focus on its racist past.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a collection of loosely affiliated member churches, boasting just under 15 million members, and is dominated by white members, who are usually deeply socially conservative. The convention has often been a powerful tool for rightwing organizing in recent years, especially on issues around abortion.
But the SBC is now so mired in scandal that one recent former top official said it faced a “Southern Baptist apocalypse”.
The issue at hand is the release by the SBC of a 205-page document naming hundreds of Baptist leaders and members accused or found guilty of sexual abuse of children. The list, which includes 700 entries on cases between 2000 and 2019, was released after a bombshell third-party investigation by Guidepost Solutions said the convention’s leaders in its executive committee failed the public and its community by mishandling sexual abuse cases and mistreating victims and survivors.
SBC leaders Rolland Slade and Willie McLaurin issued a statement saying the list “reminds us of the devastation and destruction brought about by sexual abuse. Our prayer is that the survivors of these heinous acts find hope and healing, and that churches will utilize this list proactively to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.”
The initial report was released after a seven-month investigation that revealed 380 leaders and volunteers in the SBC have faced public accusations of sexual abuse. It said that the SBC’s general counsel and spokesman had kept their own private list of abusive ministers and that leaders of SBC’s executive committee had focused for decades on trying to protect the SBC from liability for abuse in local churches.
“In service of this goal, 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 polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation,” investigators wrote.
Among those named was Johnny Hunt, a Georgia-based pastor and former SBC president, who has been accused of sexually assaulting another pastor’s wife during a beach vacation in 2010.
Hunt, who resigned last month as senior vice-president of evangelism and leadership at SBC’s domestic missions agency, has denied he assaulted the woman but admitted on social media to a “personal sin” and called it “a brief, but improper encounter”.
Others named were a former SBC vice-president who was credibly accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old; a former president who delayed reporting child sexual abuse allegations out of “heartfelt concern” for the accused; and another who failed to report allegations of abuse against young boys.
But the publication of the report and the subsequent list of names has led to pushback within the organization – despite the horrific details contained within it. “I am terrified that we are breaching our longstanding position of being a voluntary association of independent churches, when we start telling churches that they should do this or do that to protect children or women,” said Joe Knott, a North Carolina attorney and longtime committee member.
But some say that the report about decades of sexual abuse cover-up, is an opportunity for the SBC to look more closely at its roots in white evangelicalism, including how it was founded in 1845 to protect the institution of slavery.
A study of that inception, White Evangelical Racism, published last year, studied the roots of the SBC in the south. According to author Anthea Butler, the SBC used scripture to deny the vote to emancipated Blacks during Reconstruction and to later side with racist segregationists. In more recent times the SBC has also taken flak for debating critical race theory, an academic discipline that studies institutional racism in US laws and society.
“The two biggest crises in the SBC are sex abuse and debates over critical race theory, and the two are very much related,” said Sara Moslener, director of the After Purity Project at Central Michigan University. “So much of white racial identity is about obscuring the reality of the racist history of United States and to obscure the issue of sexual assault in evangelical churches.”
For both to be revealed, Moslener says, would be to undermine the status quo in the SBC, theologically and nationally, for white evangelicalism. “Since the report came out, people have been talking about it as an ‘apocalypse’, but an apocalypse can mean both destruction and reveal.”
An article in the New Republic published this month went further, suggesting that the SBC crusade against “critical race theory”, while obscuring sexual abuse within its own ranks, “is further suggestive that racial terror is still very much at work within the organization”.
In 2019, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, moved to resolve that “critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture – not as transcendent ideological frameworks”. The convention further resolved that “the gospel of Jesus Christ alone grants the power to change people and society”.
That statement on race caused several Black pastors to break with the SBC and triggered high-level meetings about whether the Black evangelical church has a place in the convention whose leadership had in some cases come out in support of Donald Trump.
According to Pew Research, Black evangelicals made up about 14% of all African American Christians, while 85% of Americans who identify as Southern Baptist are white.
In a subsequent statement, SBC presidents said they recognized the “reality of racism on both the personal and systemic or structural level” but still see critical race theory as incompatible with Baptist teaching.
The SBC has been tracking right since the 1970s when a backlash to desegregation – Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” – was hitched on an anti-abortion sentiment to which the convention had previously been relatively neutral. That effectively led to the rise of the religious right in the US – a phenomenon that still has huge repercussions today especially as America looks set to lose federally guaranteed abortion rights.
“It just so happened that abortion was the new issue and the one that worked very effectively to create a voting bloc that was so powerful that a white southern evangelical president Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan because white evangelicals came to see Reagan as reflecting their values more than one of their own,” said Moslener.
Carter ultimately left the Baptist church over its refusal to ordain women but the issue cemented the relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican party.
Even if the SBC deals with its sexual assault problem, Moslener says, and comes out to say we honor women and will give them equal roles of authority, “Even if they did that, and we see places where evangelical feminism is emerging from the shadows, they still haven’t dealt with the legacy of racism in the church. They’re still only getting to a piece of it.”
… we have a small favour to ask. Tens of millions have placed their trust in the Guardian’s fearless journalism since we started publishing 200 years ago, turning to us in moments of crisis, uncertainty, solidarity and hope. More than 1.5 million supporters, from 180 countries, now power us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.
Unlike many others, the Guardian has no shareholders and no billionaire owner. Just the determination and passion to deliver high-impact global reporting, always free from commercial or political influence. Reporting like this is vital for democracy, for fairness and to demand better from the powerful.
And we provide all this for free, for everyone to read. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of the global events shaping our world, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action. Millions can benefit from open access to quality, truthful news, regardless of their ability to pay for it.