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American politics changed profoundly over the week of June 12, 1979. The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Houston. At that meeting, a group of very conservative pastors completed their decades-long campaign to take control of the direction of the largest Protestant denomination in the country. One of the results of what its proponents called the “Conservative Resurgence” was that conservative Protestantism reasserted itself in the secular political sphere from which it had withdrawn after being seen as being on the wrong side of history during the Scopes Trial. Not accustomed to traveling by turnip truck, the Republican Party saw a golden opportunity and latched onto this huge bloc of newly activist voters.
(Relevant to our current situation, this same explosion of political power was energized by the SBC’s sudden conversion to a hard line against reproductive rights. In 1980, the annual meeting passed a resolution condemning legalized abortion, reversing a formal position that the convention had adopted. nine years earlier.)
By now, of course, the alliance between conservative Republicanism and conservative religion seems as immutable as the sunrise. Which makes this weekend’s revelations in the Washington Post all the more dangerous to what has become a crucial load-bearing beam in the conservative edifice constructed over the past five decades. Coupled with the devil’s bargain that religious voters struck with the previous president *, these new horrors give that edifice an increased resemblance to the House of Usher.
The findings of nearly 300 pages include shocking new details about specific abuse cases and shine a light on how denominational leaders for decades actively resisted calls for abuse prevention and reform. Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied to Southern Baptists over whether they could maintain a database of offenders to prevent more abuse when top leaders were secretly keeping a private list for years. The report — the first investigation of its kind in a massive Protestant denomination like the SBC — is expected to send shock waves throughout a conservative Christian community that has had intense internal battles over how to handle sex abuse. The 13 million-member denomination, along with other religious institutions in the United States, has struggled with declining membership for the past 15 years. Its leaders have long resisted comparisons between its sexual abuse crisis and that of the Catholic Church, saying the total number of abuse cases among Southern Baptists was small.
Oops. Not so much, no.
The report, compiled by an organization called Guidepost Solutions at the request of Southern Baptists, states that abuse survivors’ calls and emails were “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” by leaders who were more concerned with protecting the institution from liability than from protecting Southern Baptists from further abuse. “While stories of abuse were minimized, and survivors were ignored or even vilified, revelations came to light in recent years that some senior SBC leaders had protected or even supported alleged abusers, the report states.
The parallels between how the SBC and the Catholic Church worked to bury these scandals are specific and striking, although there is a certain chilly business-school efficiency in the SBC’s approach, whereas the Catholic cover-ups smelled vaguely of incense.
In an April 2007 email, the convention’s attorney sent Boto a memo explaining how a SBC database could be implemented consistent with SBC polity, saying “it would fit our polity and present ministries to help churches in this area of child abuse and sexual misconduct.” The report states that he recommended “immediate action to signal the Convention’s desire that the [executive committee] and the entities begin a more aggressive effort in this area. ” That same year, after a Southern Baptist pastor made a motion for a database, Boto rejected the idea. For a denomination designed to give more democratic power to its lay leaders or “messengers” who voted to commission the third-party investigation, the report shows how lay Southern Baptists allowed a few key leaders, including Boto and the convention’s longtime lawyer, James Guenther , to control the national institutional response to sex abuse for decades.
How this will affect the SBC’s political activism — and, therefore, conservative politics generally — is unclear. It is more than possible that religious conservatism has grown so entrenched in conservative politics that no scandal is bad enough to shake it loose. Certainly the revelations about Catholicism’s shameful history in this regard has not driven many of its senior clergy into silence, as the archbishop of San Francisco demonstrated in regards to Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the weekend. Rendering unto Caesar gets tougher for every day you spend as Caesar himself.
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