The ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis and us

Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.

And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.

From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:

“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”

A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.

This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?

I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.

What the Southern Baptist vote means

A few days ago, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to expel some local churches that had women as pastors. They kicked Rick Warren’s huge Saddleback Church, and they also kicked out a small church where as woman has been serving as pastor for three decades. If they’re suddenly kicking out a church where there’s been a woman as pastor for three decades, that makes it clear that this is not a situation where suddenly women are becoming Southern Baptist pastors. It’s the denomination that has changed its opinion.

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin, who writes an opinion column for Religion News Service, makes this observation:

“This is a war the right wing is waging: roll back women’s rights…. If you are looking for the symptoms of incipient fascism in this country, pay attention to the signs: the growth of antisemitism, a parallel growth of misogyny and a powerful growth of anti-LGBTQ hatred.” Salkin adds that this new rise of fascism doesn’t look like 1920s Germany so much as it looks like 1950s United States of America.. That was the decade, according to Salkin, of “women who did not work outside the home … queer folks in the closet … an America where Blacks were still in the back of the bus and where Jews and other ethnic and religious outsiders faced serious restrictions.”

I’m inclined to agree with him. The fascism of Trump, DeSantis, and others should not be compared to Nazi Germany. They are not trying to impose a new type of fascism on the U.S. Instead, they want to go back to a time when conservative White men were firmly in control of U.S. society. We don’t like to think of the 1950s as a time of fascism, but it was — not Nazi Germany fascism, but a distinctly American kind of fascism. Nor was it only Blacks, LGBTQ+ people, and women who were targets of this uniquely American fascism — Joe McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Affairs Committee also targeted White men whose politics happened to be anywhere to the left of the John Birch Society, destroying their careers and sometimes sending them to jail.

And this week’s Southern Baptist vote shows just one of the ways conservative White men (and the women who submit to love them) are trying to make 1950s U.S. fascism return. Get those doggone women out of the pulpit before they mention that Phoebe, a woman, was one of the leaders of the early Christian church — i.e., get rid of the women before they reveal that 1950s U.S. fascism was not rooted in Christianity at all, but instead springs entirely from the fevered imaginations of conservative White men who want to retain their ill-gotten power.

Denominational leaders shooting themselves in the foot

It was just over a year ago that my denomination was engulfed in conflict due to a denominational leader’s insensitive remarks. Looking back, I still feel embarrassed by that moment — not that anyone else in the world cares what my tiny denomination does, but still, no one likes having denominational stupidity on view for all the world to see.

With that in mind, and in a spirit of utter humility remembering all the other stupid things my denomination has done, it’s kind of a relief to read about another, much larger, denomination having its own moment of embarrassment. An article in Christianity Today (which I learned about from John Fea’s blog post) tells the story of Paige Patterson, one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and current president of an SBC seminary, and Paul Pressler, an SBC layperson. Back in the 1980s, Patterson and Pressler were the architects of the “Conservative Resurgence” within the SBC. Now Pressler faces allegations of sexual assault, and Patterson allegedly assisted in a cover up.

It’s an ugly story, almost as ugly as our own Unitarian Universalist Forrest Church episode. And before you say that this sort of thing implies that we should do away with organized religion, may I remind you of the sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby, so if we’re going to do away with organized religion we also need to do away with organized sports and the entertainment industry. And sadly this kind of argument does lead many religious progressives to claim that we should do away with all organized institutions, because (so goes the reasoning) human institutions are the locus of the problem. As if we can separate individual human begins from society. As if human society without any organized institutions would put an end to sexual assault. So let’s just stop those silly arguments, shall we?

Instead, this story about Paige Patterson and the SBC offers a chance to reflect on the fact that we human beings screw up regularly. Instead of being shocked when human beings screw up, it is wiser to accept regular screw-ups as a fact of life, to acknowledge that any one of us can (and probably will) screw up, and to make sure we build into our human institutions processes for dealing with screw-ups. I suppose it seems more glamorous to get all indignant when other people screw up, and flood social media with that indignation — but while maintaining and strengthening institutional processes is far less glamorous, I promise you it’s more likely to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.