Is this a Reckoning?
The SBC abuse investigation and the chances of genuine reform.
This was the question posed to me by Melissa Harris-Perry on WNYC’s The Takeaway today with respect to the release of the Guidepost Solutions investigation into abuse in the SBC. I paused for a moment.
This is exactly the right question to ask.
Are we seeing a genuine “reckoning”?
Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called it “the Southern Baptist apocalypse”:
“…how many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced, while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could. That’s more than a crisis. It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”
The problem is, this isn’t the first “reckoning” the SBC has faced over the issue of sexual abuse.
Which raises the question:
How many “reckonings” can one have before we acknowledge that there is, in fact, no real reckoning to be had?
It’s tempting to locate the first “reckoning” in 2016. More particularly, in October 2016, with the release of the Access Hollywood tape. All eyes were on white evangelicals. Surely, people thought, footage of Donald Trump boasting on camera of assaulting women would be a bridge too far for his evangelical supporters, for “family values” Christians, the “Moral Majority.” That’s certainly what Beth Moore thought. As a sexual abuse survivor and beloved Bible study teacher, Moore spoke boldly to her fellow evangelicals, pressing evangelical pastors on how they could think that support for an abuser wasn’t a big deal.
Moore’s voice may have been prophetic, but as is the case for most prophets, her words were not welcomed by her own community. The response was swift and brutal. Messages poured in from women complaining about her tweets, saying they’d never read another Beth Moore Bible study. Attendance at her events fell off. Her ministry lost millions of dollars. Evangelical leaders asked her to recant. She was bewildered: “Have I lost my mind?” she wondered. What for her seemed like a moment of reckoning was for others a blip, or worse, a reason to double down. The battle lines were being drawn. Trump was in, and Beth Moore was out. Acknowledging that reality, Moore eventually left the SBC.
She has, it seems, few regrets. Her response to the Guidepost Solutions report did not mince words:
We could look, too, to the case of Russell Moore. For all his apocalyptic rhetoric, Moore’s previous attempt (inspired in part by Denhollander’s witness) to reckon with sexual abuse and its mishandling from inside the SBC resulted in his being bullied out the door. (Observers note that he has yet to fully interrogate his own complicity in propping up the belief systems and structures that brought us to this point.)
Will this time be different?
From my vantage point, it’s doubtful.
Granted, my own vantage point gives me an up-close look at the backlash we’re already seeing. The day before the release of the Guidepost report, I retweeted a thread by prominent survivor Jennifer Lyell, quoting her own jarring words. (Take a moment to read her whole thread):
That retweet brought out a barrage of trolls mocking and disparaging me and accusing me of slandering all the good people in the SBC, destroying the church, and being a tool of the devil.
Jen’s poignant response:
I shared my skepticism about the potential for change in last week’s newsletter. Meanwhile, Jen still has received no apology from any of those who slandered her or stood by as others did.
Soon after, I noted how powerful men used language like “brother in Christ” to perpetuate abusive systems.
Here, too, the pushback was fierce. William Wolfe, a former Trump staffer and current PhD student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attempted to discredit my scholarship and advocacy on abuse by suggesting that, as a scholar of gender indirectly influenced by the work of Foucault, I am thus “gladly associated with child rapists” and he was therefore not going to take seriously anything I say related to abuse. (To be fair, I cannot recall him ever taking anything I say seriously on any topic.) What is important to note here isn’t the absurdity of Wolfe’s claims, but rather the silence of the “respectable” SBC types, including his own professors, in the face of such behavior. It is the genteel silence of “respectable” men that allows malicious words like this to go unchecked, and this is precisely how toxic cultures persist. And how abuse goes unchecked, for decades.
More significantly, this week we also saw two of the three candidates for president of the SBC post tweets downplaying the investigation’s findings or attempting to discredit them:
I watched, too, as leaders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood had very little to say on the abuse investigation, despite being closely affiliated with the SBC. Instead, both Denny Burk and Colin Smothers retweeted an article questioning the legitimacy of the report and its recommendations and suggesting that the recommendations “essentially represent a progressive takeover of the SBC:”
In light of all of this, I confess that it’s hard not to become cynical. Very little seems likely to change.
I do, however, want to highlight some thoughtful responses from within conservative evangelical spaces. All of these threads are worth reading and reflecting on:
In the end, however, I keep looking not just for thoughtfulness, but also for evidence of change—of people who were part of the problem acknowledging their complicity and resolving to make amends and change their ways. The sort of change Mike Leake recounted in a thread last week.
This is the kind of shift that will be necessary, individually and institutionally. Otherwise, any talk of reckoning is empty.
If there is any chance of genuine reform, it will take the determination and persistence of many courageous individuals. Would-be reformers should expect to be resisted and bullied. Just ask Beth Moore and Russell Moore. More importantly, read survivors’ harrowing accounts.
Yet it was survivors’ courage and remarkable resilience in the face of devastating resistance that brought us to this place that demands genuine reckoning. Allies, too, have a critical role to play. It was only the actions of determined messengers who cleared the way for this investigation, making sure that it would be independent, that privilege would be waved, and that it would be made public.
What happens in Anaheim will be critical, but only as a first step. I still can’t say that I’m optimistic, but for countless survivors, and for the SBC itself, the stakes are so high that it’s worth the fight. If survivors could persevere against all odds and in the face of such cruelty and disparagement for so long, those who care about truth and justice owe them the same.
For more on the SBC abuse investigation and links to theology and the Conservative Resurgence, visit Diana Butler Bass’s Substack newsletter.