Sex Abuse and the Fundamentalist C-Word

The most depressing thing about the story might be its tragic predictability. The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram reported this week about the sexual assault and abuse of hundreds of victims by leaders of independent fundamental Baptist Churches. As I detailed in Fundamentalist U, these charges are not a sad quirk or an individual sin, but rather an inherent danger of fundamentalist institution-building.

sex abuse at fund indept

The dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions…

The charges are staggering. FWST reporters interviewed hundreds of victims and told their stories in detail. Time and time again, with no denominational authority to turn to, independent fundamental churches and schools relied on the utter authority of a single leader. In case after case, the obvious dangers of investing one human with so much power resulted in atrocious abuse. As one of the interviewees put it,

Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult.

Part of the cult-like structure of independent fundamental Baptist churches has always been its control of education, including independent colleges led by authoritarian leaders. As FWST reporters noticed,

The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few.

Those colleges, in turn, suffer from the same institutional problems that beset independent fundamental Baptist churches as a whole. In a word, without external checks on power and influence, colleges and churches risk descending into cults, with no guard against the rapacity of all-powerful leaders.

In Fundamentalist U, I argue that this structural problem is not an unfortunate exception, but rather the rule for interdenominational conservative-evangelical institutions. Certainly not all of them, but in many cases, institutions that embraced the fundamentalist side of the conservative-evangelical family tended to turn to authoritarian solutions to the inherent dilemma of authority in interdenominational evangelicalism. In the book, I use the twin cases of Bob Jones College and Denver Bible Institute in the 1930s to make my case.

Both schools turned to an authoritarian leader to settle the inherent dilemmas of early fundamentalism. What did it mean to be a “real” fundamentalist? No one could say for sure, so some colleges invested their leaders with ultimate power to define good and bad, real and fake.

At Bob Jones College, the dictatorial authority of the leader was not to be questioned. Due to the school’s success in attracting students and keeping faculty and alumni happy, the structure worked. It certainly had plenty of critics over the years—both internal and external—but BJU was able to retain its insularity and its authoritarian power structure.

At Clifton Fowler’s Denver Bible Institute, however, accusations of sexual abuse and theological malfeasance led to a hearing of sorts. The limits of that hearing help demonstrate the inherent structural problems of fundamentalist institution-building.

In short (check out chapter three of Fundamentalist U if you want the full story), Clifton Fowler was accused of a host of sins. He was charged with conducting sexual relationships with many of the young men under his charge. He was accused of prying into the sexual lives of many of his students and congregants and then using that intimate information to bully and blackmail his students. He was accused of innovating doctrines about sexual relationships, claiming that married men and women should not have sex with one another.

In 1936, Fowler attempted to clear his name. He appealed to national leaders of fundamentalist colleges, such as Oliver Buswell of Wheaton College. The response of that blue-ribbon fundamentalist commission tells us about the dangers of authority in fundamentalist institutions.

Instead of charging Fowler with the allegations, committee members agreed to keep the accusations quiet, in order not to besmirch the name of fundamentalism. As Buswell put it, he hoped to keep the whole scandal

a strictly private matter among Christian brethren.

It is difficult not to read the testimony as a clear warning bell about the kind of abuse rampant among “cult-like” fundamentalist institutions. As one DBI insider told Buswell’s commission,

All who enter within the confines of the school as students or casual visitors come under a peculiar ‘hypnotic’ spell.

In spite of collecting damning testimony from multiple victims and witnesses, the commission concluded in the end that it could not really do anything to stop Fowler’s predatory behavior. As Buswell concluded in a private letter in 1936,

we cannot commend this man or this work to the confidence of the Christian public.  I do not suppose there is anything more we could do, since we have been given no power to take action, and Fowler practically has his trustees in his pocket, I believe.

In other words, fundamentalist leaders concluded, every fundamentalist could create his own authority. As President Buswell explained, if the trustees of his school remained loyal to Fowler, there were no external levers of control or influence others could exert.

The kind of abuse allegedly perpetrated by Dave Hyles and other independent fundamental Baptist leaders certainly seems to fall into this category. Is it a crime? Yes, indeed. Is it the result of personal sin? I believe so. But those categories of individual blame and transgression don’t adequately explain the ways that the very structures of fundamentalist institutions support and encourage these kinds of abuse and assault.


Conservatives Are Right about America’s Schools (but So Are the Rest of Us)

As usual, I’m behind the times. I’m just now catching up with ed historian Jack Schneider’s work. Last summer, Prof. Schneider wrote a great essay in the Atlantic about the differences between real public schools and “public schools” in America’s culture-war imagination. It helps me understand why conservative pundits such as Rod Dreher are both right and wrong about the current state of American education.

school prayer

Will the real American school please stand up?

As Scheider argued convincingly, there really isn’t anything that we can usefully call a “system” about America’s public schools. As he put it,

The abstraction of “America’s schools” may be convenient for rousing the collective conscience, but it is not particularly useful for the purpose of understanding (or improving) American education. . . . What schools need in order to succeed depends significantly on the needs and concerns of the local community, and policy tends to reflect that. . . . Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.”

So when our favorite pundits warn us about the terrible dangers of America’s public schools, they can be convincing. For some conservative readers, for example, the Benedictophile reporting of American Conservative Rod Dreher can be terrifying.

Dreher has told true stories, after all, that might understandably frighten religious conservatives. For example, when it comes to new thinking about gender, some public schools have taken an aggressive role. As Dreher told the tale,

A few years ago, a friend of mine’s daughter, an Evangelical Christian, was in a public school in a Bible Belt town about the size of Brownsburg. The school’s administration had gone all-in on LGBT, particularly on transgender, and the school’s culture was celebratory to the point of militancy. The daughter — a sweet, small-town church kid — was constantly challenged by other students about her hateful religion. The simple fact that she was openly Christian put a target on her back in the culture of that school. . . . I know there are lots of conservatives who think this isn’t going to happen to their kids’ school. Listen to me: you’re wrong. This is a cultural revolution. The day is fast coming where what was once radical will be mainstream, and what was once mainstream will be radical. . . . If you can afford to take your kid out of public school, why aren’t you doing it? [Emphasis in original.]

To this non-conservative reporter, the power of Dreher’s story comes from its plausibility. Public schools really do tend to push a certain vision of sexuality and gender that might go against some conservative beliefs.

But here’s the kicker: As Prof. Schneider’s essay reminds us, it is only some public schools that might do such things. Leaping from one case—or even several cases—to a sweeping pronouncement about the nature of public education today is unwarranted.

And of all people, Dreher himself should be the first to agree. Because in the end, anyone from any side with any axe to grind can put together the same sort of blistering and accurate accusation. Looking at the terrible and heart-breaking record of sexual abuse in private Christian schools, for example—even Dreher’s preferred sort of “Classical” Christian schools—might lead fair-minded observers to conclude that private evangelical-Christian education is foundationally perverted by its penchant for hierarchy, patriarchy, and subjugation.

Indeed, we do not need to look far to see survivors who do just that, concluding, for instance,

 purity culture creates a toxic environment that enables abuse and assault.

Or further,

Predators are enabled by the inherent patriarchy that disbelieves female victims, on the purity culture that treats abuse as a sexual sin rather than a violent crime, and the zealous willingness to believe the abuser’s claims of repentance (to forgive is divine, after all).

Is it in the very nature of evangelical Christian schools to enable sexual abuse? The string of examples certainly seem to point in that direction. And we’ll be wise to heed the warnings. However, we’ll also be wise to remember Schneider’s words.

Though it might be useful for “rousing the collective conscience,” jumping to conclusions about America’s school systems is fundamentally flawed. There is no single public school system. There is no single, coherent evangelical system. The merits and terrors of each need to be understood as they really are, not as judgments on an entire way of life.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It may come as a surprise, but even during superbowl week, other stuff happened, too. Here are some ILYBYGTH-themed stories you might have missed:

Charters and choice: Yohuru Williams argues it’s not a choice at all, at The Progressive.

State of Trump’s Union analysis:

The mess in DC schools:

No surprise: gifted programs skewed, at Fordham Institute.Bart reading bible

How charter schools resegregate in Charlotte, from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Trump-fueled goons and white supremacist flyers on Texas campuses, at Texas Observer.

Was Bob Dylan best when he was a fundamentalist? A review at American Conservative.

Students and faculty protest Steve Bannon appearance at UChicago, at Why Evolution Is True.

Sex abuse and evangelical religion: Larry Nassar victim Rachel Denhollander talks about “institutional protectionism,” at CT.

What Unbroken Leaves Out

**SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read Unbroken or seen the recent movie, you might want to skip this. But it’s so interesting, you’ll be sorry.**

Unbroken?...or Un-Finished?

Unbroken?…or Un-Finished?

What is the takeaway message from the life of Louis Zamperini, subject of the new film Unbroken? The power of resilience? The unplumbed depths of human courage?

…or is it the healing power of Protestant fundamentalism?

In the pages of World Magazine, Cal Thomas asks an intriguing question: Why did the recent film leave out the central role played in Zamperini’s life by the fundamentalist revival of Billy Graham?

When protagonist Louis Zamperini returned home from his hellish ordeals at sea and in Japanese prison camps, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. As the original book by Laura Hillenbrand makes very clear, Zamperini overcame these demons through fundamentalist faith. After attending a 1949 revival by fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham, Zamperini turned his life around.

This conversion was not an incidental part of Zamperini’s story. Zamperini, we could say, gave America a powerful demonstration of the healing power of a particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism. But that is not the way celebrity director Angelina Jolie saw it. Thomas wants to know why Jolie left that part out. As Thomas puts it,

it is puzzling why Jolie, who directed the film, and the Coen brothers, who wrote it, left out the most important part of Zamperini’s story.

Not only is Zamperini’s conversion a central part of his life story, it reflects the power of a specifically fundamentalist religion. Some readers may be more familiar with Billy Graham’s later work, when Graham had begun to articulate a kinder, gentler evangelical faith. In the 1940s, however, at the time of Zamperini’s conversion, Graham’s crusades packed a firmly fundamentalist punch. Not just theologically, either, but politically.

In his 1940s campaigns, for instance, the message of conversion was wrapped in a conservative anti-communist package. At the blockbuster Rose Bowl campaign of 1950, for example, theologian Harold Ockenga introduced Graham’s sermon as “The Answer to Communist Aggression.”

And just as Billy Graham was helping Zamperini defeat his demons, Graham insisted on his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. Though later a split developed between the most conservative fundamentalists and Graham’s famous crusades, that split had not yet developed by 1949. At that time, Graham loudly proclaimed his loyalty to the fundamentalist message. In a 1949 letter to staunch fundamentalist leader Bob Jones Sr., for example, Graham called Jones the

model toward which we are patterning our lives. Your counsel means more to me than that of any individual in the nation.

During the late 1940s, Billy Graham remained a staunch fundamentalist partisan. The message that saved Zamperini was not just one of generic Christian healing, but one of specifically fundamentalist rigor. In this one famous case, at least, we can see the ways fundamentalism’s unyielding moral stance pulled a suffering soul out of a personal hell.

We can’t help but echo Cal Thomas’s question: Why didn’t Angelina Jolie include this part? Jolie no longer returns my calls, but I can’t help but think that she might have some aversion toward fundamentalism.

I’m no fundamentalist myself. American fundamentalism has its share of skeletons in its closets, as we’ve explored here at ILYBYGTH. It may be fair to accuse the latter-day followers of Bob Jones Sr., for example, of terrible misconduct. But if we really want to be fair, shouldn’t we also acknowledge the ways that fundamentalism has saved lives?

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.




Conservatives Blast the “Myth” of Rape Culture

Why do some conservative thinkers insist that anti-rape-culture activism is a fraud? That “rape culture” itself is a myth?

As we’ve seen in these pages, talk about rape culture is often tied to the atmosphere of colleges and universities. And it is understandably an incredibly sensitive subject. Even asking about the nature of rape culture can be seen as truckling to rapists and those who hope to explain rape away.

Full disclosure: I am one of those who thinks that denying this problem is part of the problem. I agree that colleges and universities need actively to confront cultures that encourage sexual assault. For too long, college administrators have winked at the “boys will be boys” attitudes that lie at the heart of rape culture. In these pages, I have asked whether this is worse at conservative Christian colleges. I have wondered if non-denominational Christian schools, “fundamentalist” schools such as Bob Jones University, Patrick Henry College, and Pensacola Christian College have a harder or easier time dealing with these issues. In those cases, I was accused of apologizing for sexual assault myself.

And watch: I won’t be surprised if I am accused of supporting rape culture for writing these words as well.

But I’m going to do it anyway. Because there’s a new question that stumps me. Why do some conservative intellectuals attack the very notion of rape culture? What is “conservative” about dismissing the existence of rape culture on college campuses?

Minding the Campus Blasts Rape-Culture Activism

Minding the Campus Blasts Rape-Culture Activism

This past week, we’ve seen Caroline Kitchens of the American Enterprise Institute denouncing the “hysteria” over rape culture in the pages of Time Magazine. Kitchens asserted that there is no rape culture. There is no culture, that is, in which rape is apologized for and excused. America as a whole loathes rape and despises rapists, Kitchens points out. “Rape culture” only exists in the imaginations of over privileged college students and their tame faculty. Colleges such as Boston University and Wellesley ban pop songs and harmless statues as an overblown response to such rape-culture myths, Kitchens writes.

Kitchens claims the support of the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN). She cites a recent RAINN letter to a White House Task Force. In order to help victims of sexual assault on college campuses, this RAINN letter asserts, administrators should understand that these are the acts of criminal individuals, not the result of a nebulous cultural trend.

It is rape-culture stereotypes themselves that absolve abusers of responsibility, Kitchens argues. “By blaming so-called rape culture,” she concludes, “we implicate all men in a social atrocity, trivialize the experiences of survivors, and deflect blame from the rapists truly responsible for sexual violence.”

Kitchens is not alone. In the pages of the conservative higher-ed watchdog Minding the Campus, KC Johnson has agreed recently that “rape culture” is a “delusion,” the product of overheated leftist imaginations. Johnson, a high-profile historian from Brooklyn College, worries that campuses from Dartmouth to Occidental to Duke suffer from an overabundance of intellectual cowardice and groupthink. “Fawning” media coverage has allowed for “transparently absurd allegations,” Johnson writes. Plus, harping on “rape culture,” Johnson argues, allows “activists to shift the narrative away from uncomfortable questions about due process and false accusations against innocent male students, and toward a cultural critique in which the facts of specific cases can be deemed irrelevant.” Finally, the blunt instrument of “rape-culture” accusations provides activists with “a weapon to advance a particular type of gender-based agenda.”

Such claims are intensely controversial. But before we examine the legitimacy of these arguments, we need to ask a more basic question: Why do conservative intellectuals make them? Now, I understand Johnson is no conservative himself. But it is telling that conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and Minding the Campus are the ones hosting these anti-rape-culture accusations.

Is there something “conservative” about disputing the existence of rape culture? Is “rape culture” a leftist ploy to assert (more) control over college campuses? To tighten the screws of the academic thought police? Or is something more profound at work? Do these conservative voices dispute the existence of rape culture in order to perpetuate traditional gender roles?


Can Christian Colleges Say the R-Word?

Do conservative Christians encourage rape?  It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it is a question these days at the center of discussions about conservatism, Christianity and higher education.  Most recently, blogger Samantha Field related the stories of students at Pensacola Christian College who had been punished by the school after suffering sexual assaults.  The accusations have attracted enough attention that PCC has felt obliged to make a public denial.  The school said it has been “harassed and victimized” by these accusations.  PCC, the school insisted, has always acted in accordance with the law.

This is not only an issue at Pensacola Christian College.  As journalist Kiera Feldman argued in a recent New Republic article, a similar culture of institutional arrogance prevails at Patrick Henry College.  And Bob Jones University has gone back and forth with its efforts to examine its own culture.  More broadly, Billy Graham’s grandson attracted attention a few months back for asking if evangelical Protestants had a worse record of dealing with sex abuse than did the Catholic Church.

These are difficult questions to ask.  For an earlier post about this issue, I’ve been called insensitive (fair, and I apologize again), ignorant (sometimes fair, sometimes unfair) and guilty of condoning or excusing cover-ups (utterly unfair).  What I asked was whether or not these accusations of institutional misconduct rely on stereotyped assumptions about conservative evangelical Protestants.  In other words, is there something specifically about the religion of these schools that is somehow to blame?  Or is it an institutional culture at these conservative schools that blames victims and excuses criminals?  Is there something about the Christian nature of these schools that promotes and excuses rape?  Or is this a question of institutional mismanagement?  Finally, we have to ask, is this whole thing somehow more aggravated at these schools than it is at secular or pluralist schools?

After reading more about these cases, it seems the attitude toward rape of school leaders really is wrapped up intimately with their institutional tradition, and maybe even with their theological tradition.  It seems this is more than just another case of fundamentalist-bashing.  In the past, I have defended young-earth creationists against accusations that they are guilty of criminal abuse.  I’ve chided secular journalists—with whom I’m generally sympathetic—for misrepresenting the claims of young earth creationists.  These cases from conservative colleges seemed to me, at first, to represent similar sorts of knee-jerk anti-fundamentalist stereotyping.  I didn’t try to cast doubt on the sincerity of the victims, to be clear, but I did ask whether the accusations against the schools unfairly tied belief in an inerrant Bible to cases of institutional misconduct.

I do not come from a conservative evangelical or fundamentalist background.  But for a living, I study conservative educational activism, especially the educational thinking of conservative Protestants in the United States.  I’m aware of the history of American fundamentalism, including the ways theology has been profoundly combined with hierarchical gender notions.  As I wrote in my 1920s book and as Margaret Bendroth argued in hers, in its early decades American fundamentalism relied on notions of male dominance and female submissiveness.

We know that all colleges these days are struggling with proper ways to handle sexual assault cases.  The charges against schools such as Patrick Henry College, Pensacola Christian College, and Bob Jones University suggest that the campus culture at these conservative schools makes that difficult task much harder.  It seems the fundamentalist culture of these schools has intensified the already brutal culture on many secular college campuses.

This does not mean that every fundamentalist condones sexual assault, of course.  This does not even mean that every student, faculty member, or administrator of these schools agrees with the overall school culture.  Nor can we even say with confidence that this culture is somehow a necessary outgrowth of the theology of the schools, rather than primarily a question of hierarchical, closed-off, inflexible administrative structure.  But it does seem that the dominant atmosphere of these schools needs to share blame in this aggravated culture of condoning and excusing sexual assault.

The best comparison, it seems to me, is the atrocious record of the Catholic Church with its recent sex-abuse scandals.  No one says that every Catholic—let alone every Catholic priest—is part of this scandal.  Nor do we even say with confidence that this is something caused directly by the theology of the Catholic Church.  And we can of course point out that far more non-Catholics committed sex abuse than did Catholic priests.  But such objections miss the point.  There was something profoundly wrong with the way the power structure of the church handled those cases.  It seems there’s a similar connection here between institutional structure and moral accountability.

Those few who might use these cases to suggest that Christianity as a whole is a rape-centered religion are just as wrong as they have ever been.  And we must remember that there is a wide variety in conservative evangelical colleges.  A culture that dominates at BJU, PHC, or PCC will be very different from the culture at other evangelical schools such as Wheaton.  But even remembering those important caveats, there is something deeply troubling with the institutional power structure in these fundamentalist schools.

What will colleges do to respond?  As I’ve argued elsewhere, these schools rely on their reputation as havens of religious orthodoxy in a secularized society.  As the first Bob Jones insisted when he founded Bob Jones College in the 1920s,

Fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children.

Today’s school leaders, no less than the founders, must be able to say confidently that students will be theologically and physically safe.  How can they reassure parents and future students that they have responded to these accusations?