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American politics changed dramatically during 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 leadership of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. 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resurgence” was that conservative Protestantism reasserted itself in the secular political sphere from which it had withdrawn after being seen as being on the wrong side of the story during the Scopes trial. Unaccustomed to traveling by truckload of turnips, the Republican Party saw a golden opportunity and clung to this huge block of newly militant voters.
(Relevant to our current situation, this same explosion of political power was energized by the sudden conversion of the SBC to a hard line against reproductive rights. In 1980, the annual meeting passed a resolution condemning legalized abortion, overturning a formal position that the convention had adopted nine years earlier.)
Right now, of course, the alliance between conservative republicanism and conservative religion seems as unchanging as the sunrise. What makes the revelations of this weekend in the Washington Post all the more dangerous for what has become a crucial load-bearing beam in the conservative edifice built over the past five decades. Coupled with the devil’s bargain that religious voters made with the previous president*, these new horrors give this building a heightened resemblance to Usher House.
The nearly 300-page findings include shocking new details about specific abuse cases and shine a light on how faith leaders have actively resisted calls for abuse prevention and reform for decades. Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied to Southern Baptists about whether they could maintain a database of offenders to prevent further abuse when top leaders secretly kept a private list for decades. years. The report – the first investigation of its kind in a massive Protestant denomination like the SBC – is expected to send shockwaves through a conservative Christian community that has had intense internal battles over how to handle sexual abuse. The 13 million-member denomination, along with other religious institutions in the United States, has struggled with declining membership numbers over the past 15 years. Its leaders have long resisted comparisons between its sexual abuse crisis and that of the Catholic Church, saying the overall number of abuse cases among Southern Baptists was low.
Whoops. Not so much, no.
The report, compiled by an organization called Guidepost Solutions at the request of Southern Baptists, states that calls and emails from abuse survivors were “to be met, time and time again, only with resistance, blocking and same outright hostility” by leaders who were more concerned with protecting the institution from accountability than with protecting Southern Baptists from further abuse. “While stories of abuse have been downplayed and survivors have been ignored or even vilified, revelations have come to light in recent years that some senior SBC leaders had shielded or even supported alleged abusers, the report states.
The parallels between the way the SBC and the Catholic Church worked to bury these scandals are specific and stark, though there is a certain cold business school efficiency in the SBC’s approach, while the cover-ups Catholics smelled faintly of incense.
In an April 2007 email, the convention attorney sent Boto a memo outlining how an SBC database could be implemented in accordance with SBC policy, stating that “it would be consistent with our policy and our current ministries to assist churches in this area of child abuse and sexual misconduct.” The report says it recommended “immediate action to signal the Convention’s desire that the [executive committee] and the entities are beginning a more aggressive effort in this area. That same year, after a Southern Baptist minister proposed 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 inquiry, the report shows how lay Baptists in the South empowered a few key leaders, including Boto and l longtime convention advocate, James Guenther, to control the national institutional response to sexual abuse for decades.
How this will affect the political activism of the SBC – and, therefore, conservative politics in general – is unclear. It is more than possible that religious conservatism has become so entrenched in conservative politics that no scandal is serious enough to shake it. Certainly, revelations about Catholicism’s shameful history in this regard have not silenced many of its senior clergy, as the Archbishop of San Francisco demonstrated about Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the weekend. Giving back to Caesar gets harder for each day you spend as Caesar himself.
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