Opinion | When the right ignores their sexual scandals


Let me share with you one of the worst and most important recent news that you have probably never heard of. Late last month, the Southern Baptist Convention settled a sexual abuse lawsuit filed against a man named Paul Pressler for an undisclosed sum. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 and alleged that Pressler had raped a man named Duane Rollins for decades, and that the rapes began when Rollins was just 14 years old.

The story would be pretty terrible if Pressler was just a run-of-the-mill predator. But although relatively unknown outside evangelical circles, he is one of the most important American religious figures of the 20th century. He and his friend Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, are two of the key architects of the so-called conservative resurgence within the SBC

The Conservative Revival was a movement conceived in the 1960s and initiated in the 1970s that sought to wrest control of the SBC from more theologically liberal and moderate voices. It was a notable success. While many established denominations were liberalizing, the SBC lurched to the right and exploded in growth, eventually becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

Pressler and Patterson were heroes within the movement. Patterson led Baptist seminaries and became president of the convention. Pressler is a former Texas state judge and former president of the National Policy Council, a powerful conservative Christian activist organization.

Both men are now disgraced. In 2018, the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Patterson fired after discovering that he had seriously mishandled rape allegations, including writing in an email that he wanted to meet alone with a woman who had reported being raped”break” – at Southwestern and at another Baptist seminary.

Pressler’s story is even worse. Evidence that people were aware of the allegations against them goes back decades. To give just two examples, in 1989, failed an FBI background check after President George HW Bush appointed him to head the Office of Government Ethics. And in 2004, the First Baptist Church of Houston accusations investigated that Pressler had groped and undressed a college student, deemed his behavior “morally and spiritually inappropriate” and warned him but took no further action.

Pressler’s story is in some ways eerily similar to that of Harvey Weinstein. They were both powerful men so brazen about their misconduct that it was an open secret in their respective worlds. However, they were also so powerful that an army of enablers gathered around them, protecting them from the consequences of their actions. A single person can be a predator, but it takes a village to protect him from exposure and punishment.

In the end, it took Rollins’ lawsuit to expose Pressler’s actions. (Pressler, now 93, has not admitted his guilt.) The demand sparked an extensive investigation about SBC sexual misconduct by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News. The report of him, called “abuse of faith”, documented hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in the SBC and led the denomination to commission a independent investigation of his handling of the abuse.

There is not room in a single column to recount all the research findings. But the conclusion is clear: For decades, survivors of sexual abuse “were ignored, disbelieved, or faced with the constant refrain that the SBC could not take any action because of its policy regarding church autonomy, even if that meant that convicted abusers continued in ministry. without prior notice or warning to your current church or congregation.”

All of these events are quite terrible and it is important to write about them even if we can only bear witness to the injustice. But the coverage, or lack thereof, of Pressler’s downfall also helps explain why we are so polarized as a nation.

The American right exists in a news environment that reports loudly and in granular detail about misconduct on the left or in left-wing institutions. When Weinstein fell, and that fall sparked the cascade of revelations that created the #MeToo moment, the right was encroach with comment about the episode’s biggest lessons, including scathing indictments of a Hollywood culture that allowed so much abuse for so long.

Much of this commentary was good and necessary. Hollywood deserved the accusation. But right-wing coverage also fits a cherished conservative narrative: that liberal sexual values ​​like those of Hollywood invariably lead to abuse. In Christian America, they were more ammunition for the sense of a righteous us facing off against an evil them.

But stories like Pressler’s greatly complicate this narrative. If both defenders and enemies of the sexual revolution have their Harvey Weinsteins (that is, if both progressive and conservative institutions can allow abuse), then all that partisan moral clarity begins to disappear. We are all left with the disturbing and humiliating reality that whatever our ideology or theology may be, it does not make us good people. The supposedly virtuous we commits the same sins as the supposedly villainous we.

How does a typical conservative activist face this reality? Acting as if it didn’t exist. Shortly after Pressler’s deal was announced, I searched for statements, comments or articles from conservative stalwarts who cover leftist misconduct so zealously. The silence was deafening. If you receive your information primarily from right-wing sources, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen this news at all.

I remember the minimum right coverage of Fox News’ historic defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, the largest known media defamation settlement of all times. I constantly encounter conservatives who might know the chapter and verse of any second-tier scandal in the “liberal media,” but to this day they have no idea that the right-wing favorite news outlet spread some of the lies. most expensive in history.

This is not the kind of selective ignorance in which news consumers choose or pretend not to know something they know well. Rather, it looks more like cultivated ignorance, in which media outlets, influencers, and their audiences tacitly agree not to share facts that might complicate their partisan narratives.

Of course, the dynamic is even worse when stories of conservative abuse and misconduct appear in the mainstream media. Conservative supporters can simply shout “Media bias!” and they depend on their followers to disconnect from everything. For those followers, a scandal isn’t real until people they trust say it’s real.

But the truth—the whole truth—is indispensable. I tell Pressler’s story here both to honor the courage of the men who confronted Pressler and to perhaps contribute to a necessary conversation in at least some quarters of Christian America. When our own institutional and individual sins are so egregious, humble repentance and reform should replace our partisan anger.

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