From the Archives: Campus Rape in the 1930s

Do fundamentalist colleges encourage sexual assault?  It’s a terrible and difficult thing to talk about.  As we’ve seen in these pages, some alumni insist that fundamentalist schools force victims of sexual assault to blame themselves.  But we’ve also seen that sexual assault is not at all unique to religious schools.  As I continue the research for my new book about the history of evangelical colleges and universities, I’ve stumbled across a story that might shed light on these tricky questions.

Despot in Denver

Despot in Denver

The way we word the questions themselves is controversial: Are fundamentalist schools cults that pander to the lusts of authoritarian leaders?  Or do the strict sexual ethics of conservative evangelicalism help protect young women and men from predatory teachers and authority figures?

Critics of conservative evangelical colleges warn that that the pervasive “purity culture” of these schools leads directly to rape.  Bloggers such as Samantha Fields have accused fundamentalist colleges of blaming victims of sexual assault.  Journalists have blasted schools such as Patrick Henry College for fostering a rape-friendly environment.  Prominent evangelicals have suggested that the problem is not one of theology, but of an authoritarian institutional culture.  For example, Boz Tchividjian famously suggested that abuse can happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.”

I’ve stumbled across a story from the 1930s that might illuminate the longer history here.  In 1936, a high-powered panel of fundamentalist leaders convened to investigate Denver Bible Institute (now part of Colorado Christian University).  At the time, DBI was led by charismatic founder Clifton L. Fowler.  Fowler wanted to join the Evangelical Teacher Training Association, and to do so ETTA demanded that rumors be cleared up.

Unfortunately for Fowler, an extremely disturbing picture emerged.  Fowler, the investigators concluded, ran DBI like a sex-crazed despot.  Students and faculty were pressured to declare lifelong commitments to the schools.  Married faculty members were pushed into pledging “continence.”  (I’m not sure what was meant by “continence” in this context.  Any suggestions?)  Students were encouraged to separate from parents and home churches.  Community members felt pressure to offer Fowler detailed confessions of their sexual sins.  And, yes, Fowler apparently routinely engaged in sexual activities with male students.

From one perspective, this historical episode might seem to confirm the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalist schools.  For as long as there have been fundamentalist schools, we might conclude, leaders have felt free to engage in predatory sexual practices.  Community members felt constrained by their own admitted sexual sinfulness from criticizing the dictatorial leadership.

On the other hand, as Michael Hamilton argued in his excellent 1994 dissertation, Fowler did not have a free hand to do as he pleased.  The accusations against Fowler forced DBI out of decent fundamentalist company.  Local fundamentalist churches cut off DBI.  The Evangelical Teacher Training Association would not let DBI join.  Fowler, in other words, was restrained in his behavior because of the network of fundamentalist schools and churches in which he worked.

As usual, history does not offer any pat solutions.  But this episode does demonstrate the long lifespan of these questions at fundamentalist schools.  It shows that school founders have always been accused of sexual predation.  But it also shows that fundamentalist leaders and communities worked hard to police their own ranks.

In this case, at least, both national leaders and local community members refused to look the other way.

Does Fundamentalism Promote Sex Abuse?

Do conservative Protestant evangelicals have a problem with sex abuse? Does evangelicalism suffer from an overabundance of “Christian cesspools” of abuse?

I’ve been chastised for asking whether this is a specifically fundamentalist problem—that is, a problem of theology—or rather an institutional problem. That is, is it specifically fundamentalist theology and “purity culture” at fundamentalist schools that encourages rape and sexual assault? Or do we see the same sorts of systemic abuse in non-fundamentalist colleges and universities? At big football schools, for example, administrators protect rapists to protect the football program. Could “party culture” be just as conducive to rape and sexual assault as “purity culture?”

In an article about the sex-abuse travails at Bob Jones University, Boz Tchividjian says this is not a question of theology, but of “authoritarianism.” Tchividjian argues that church structures lend themselves to sex abuse, but that this sort of abuse could happen “in any culture, elevating leaders beyond accountability, leaving victims’ rights to their whim, and sidelining critics who challenge their rule.” Yet Tchividjian’s work has illuminated the gruesome world of sex abuse and rape in evangelical and fundamentalist institutions.

As Kathryn Joyce describes in a recent essay in American Prospect, Tchividjian’s anti-abuse group GRACE was called in to Bob Jones University in 2012 to investigate accusations of widespread institutional neglect of charges of rape and sex abuse. Tchividjian, grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and former law professor at Liberty University, has long campaigned for more transparency about sex abuse among evangelicals. In Joyce’s AP piece, Tchividjian made his case for the terrible evangelical record with sex abuse. “One study,” Joyce writes,

has found that 93 percent of admitted sex offenders describe themselves as religious. Offenders who report strong church ties abuse more often, with younger victims. That’s not because Christians are inherently more abusive, he said, but because they’re more vulnerable to those who are. Tchividjian repeated what one convicted sex abuser told clinical psychologist Anna Salter in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders: “Church people”—always looking to see the best in people, to welcome converts, to save sinful souls—are “easy to fool.”

“When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’

Tchividjian rattled off ways in which Christians’ openness can allow abuse to go unchecked: Perpetrators tend to use scripture to coerce, justify, and silence. If they’re clergy, they will exploit their positions; if they’re laypeople, they will take advantage of a church hungry for volunteers and rely on the trust given to members of a church family. “The reason why offenders get away with what they do is because we have too many cultures of silence,” Tchividjian said. “When something does surface, all too often the church leadership quiets it down. Because they’re concerned about reputation: ‘This could harm the name of Jesus, so let’s just take care of it internally.’

In case after case, Tchividjian and his colleagues unearthed terrible and terrifying stories of abuse and cover-ups. Of students like Katie Landry at Bob Jones University. When Landry reported her rape to Dean Jim Berg, Berg allegedly told her that there was a “sin in your life that caused your rape.”

Tchividjian says this is a question of organizational structure, not of theology. But his own work seems to make the case that fundamentalist culture seems particularly prone to this sort of victim-blaming. As in this story from BJU, it seems fundamentalist cover-ups have the ability to use theologically inflected language to cow victims into silence.

I’m certainly sensitive to charges of fundamentalist-bashing. Indeed, my first take on the recent spate of “exposes” of sex abuse at fundamentalist colleges was to wonder if this was just another attempt to dismiss dissenting colleges. But there does seem to be a connection between fundamentalism—both theology and culture—and this climate of sex-abuse cover-up. It might not generate higher numbers of abuse victims than other opaque institutions—ask anyone at Penn State, Florida State, or a host of other non-fundamentalist institutions—but it seems fair to say that fundamentalism has generated a sick culture of abuse.