Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Baptist-land: Mapping the terrain (part 1)

This is an edited version of the speech I delivered at the annual SNAP convention in Washington D.C. on August 8, 2009. Most members of the audience were clergy abuse survivors and supporters who were raised in the Catholic faith.

Baptist-land: Mapping the terrain

So what’s the story with Baptists?

Where do we stand in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination?

The short answer: Baptists are about a decade behind the Catholics, maybe more.

Someone once said that Baptists are “the lasteth with the leasteth.” That’s sure true on how they handle clergy sex abuse.

A few numbers to give you some sense of the scale of things:
Southern Baptists are the second-largest religious body in the United States – second only to Catholics. They’re twice as big as the next largest Protestant group – the Methodists. I tend to talk mostly about the Southern Baptists because I was raised Southern Baptist and because they’re by far the biggest. But there are actually about 25 more kinds of Baptists, and if you count all of them, Baptists are about 4 times as big as any other Protestant group.

Baptists are spread all over the country, but in the South is where they absolutely dominate. There are huge parts of the South where Baptists are 25 to 50 percent of the population, and there are some areas where Baptists are MORE than 50 percent. That gives them a whole lot of power and influence in the South.

Averaged across the whole of the country, about 1 in 6 Americans identify themselves as being Baptist.

What this means is that a whole lot of kids are at risk in this faith group.

Population-wise, Baptist-land is about the size of Canada.

And it’s a wide-open, lawless land. Baptist-land is sort of like the Wild West about 150 years ago.

These are the Badlands. The canyons are deep. The land is parched. Marauders run free. And there aren’t any sheriffs in Baptist-land. Each and every little church is a law unto itself.

That’s what makes Baptist-land different from Catholic-land. Each and every church – nearly 45,000 of them among Southern Baptists alone – is a law unto itself. At least that’s what Baptists say.

It’s what they call their “congregationalist polity.” Each and every church is on its own. There’s no heirarchy. There’s no supervisory authority. There’s no chain of command.

Some of you who have spent so many years watching how little most Catholic bishops do may see some humor in this. You know what Baptist leaders say for why they can’t do anything about clergy sex abuse in their churches?

“Because we have no bishops.”

That's what they say. That’s their reason for why they can’t do anything.

“Because we have no bishops.”

They wring their hands. They talk about how powerless they are -- "powerless" -- this denomination that takes in $10 billion a year. But they can’t do anything about ministers who are reported for abusing kids. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”

They can’t remove them from ministry, they say. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”

They can’t even keep records on men who are reported for abuse. Why? “Because we have no bishops.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. BULL -- right? But the thing is, it works -- for them. It stinks. But it works.

It gives them this great First Amendment freedom of religion argument. They get to structure their religion however they want – they say that’s the way the Bible tells them it’s supposed to be – and then they structure it as a buck-stops-nowhere organization – and the law can’t touch them. Everyone except the perp himself and possibly the little local church is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment... or so Baptist leaders say... and so far... what they say has worked.

There’s no oversight mechanism and no supervisory authority.

As a Baptist historian once pointed out, when things go wrong, there is no one who has the power to intervene. That’s how the whole system is set up. “When something goes wrong… there is no there out there.”

If you’re an old Star Trek fan, it’s kind of like the Romulan spaceship with its cloaking device. Baptists are a denomination only when they want to be. When something goes wrong, the denomination disappears. “There is no there out there.”

As a practical matter, what that means is that everyone just stands silent while an accused minister saddles up his horse and heads on down the road. Then he shows up at some other church in Baptist-land. No one assigned him there. He was just allowed to go there.

But of course, for kids, it doesn’t make much difference. Whether a minister is “assigned” or “allowed,” the kids are still just as molested, just as raped, and just as wounded.

But that’s how it is in Baptist-land. Predators can wander from town to town, church to church – they wander at will – they roam freely. Whenever the territory gets a little hot – whenever someone starts to suspect or if someone starts talking – then they just move on. And for miles and miles of that Wild West Baptist-land, they won’t encounter anyone who’s gonna stop them.

You could end the statute of limitations in every state in the country. You could get windows legislation in every state – which is extremely important. But even if THAT happened, you would STILL not have very many lawsuits against Baptist organizations, and you would STILL not have very many lawsuits that would gather much media attention.

It’s why Baptist leaders don’t worry much about the efforts to reform statutes of limitation. They’ve got this HUGE other wall of protection. And so far, no one has gotten past that wall.

Now I personally believe that, sooner or later, that wall WILL come tumbling down. But remember... these are the Badlands. It may take a very long time to bring the law out here to the Baptist Badlands. Because the way it works now, it’s almost impossible to ever find a hand on the gun. That’s how their religion works.

The bullets are blazing, but there’s no hand on the gun. It’s as though there’s a bunch of rifles stuck up there in the rocks above the canyons, and those rifles are triggered to fire when a kid trips a wire, but no one ever has to take responsibility for putting the rifles there to start with. It’s as though the rifles got there all on their own.

A lot of Baptist leaders know about a lot of those rifles up in those canyons. They know. But the thing is – the way their religion is structured, they don’t ever have to take ownership of knowing. So those Baptist boys are just yuk-yukking it up, playin’ dominoes and swiggin’ back some Texas tea, and they’re laughin’ at all those fools out there tryin’ to figure out who put the rifles in the rocks.

In my own case, 18 Baptist leaders in 4 different states all knew about my molester. At least one of them knew about it ever since I was a kid. But they all just yuk-yukked it up and did nothing and the man kept right on as a children’s minister. Those leaders got certified letters. Another minister swore to his knowledge of the abuse. Nothing happened. Eighteen of them. And every one of them was able to say “I’ve got no authority. We don’t have that kind of structure. Not my problem.”

It’s like this whole wide Baptist-land is infested with rattlesnakes. But nobody actually “assigns” any particular rattlesnake to be at a particular canyon. “We have no bishops” in Baptist-land. Nobody assigns anybody. The rattlesnakes are just “called by God” to be there in that particular canyon at that time – at that particular church.

And if one of the other preachers in the church – a deacon or pastor – starts to hear the sound of the rattle, they don’t have any obligation to look too closely or to figure out whether that rattle is really attached to a snake. So they just tell the minister to slither on down the road. They don’t assign him to go elsewhere. They just turn their backs and allow him to go elsewhere.

After all . . . if God called him to go to some other canyon, then that’s God’s business.

There’s no structure that says it’s anyone else’s business. “We have no bishops.”

But we sure got plenty of rattlesnakes.


john said...

Well done! Are you planning to print this? It would be the very message that neds to be "left laying around" in so many churches.
I just cannot but believe that your efforts and those of others will eventually bring the SBC to the bar of accountability.

Michelle said...

Whenever I'm confronted with the arrogance you describe it just sort of...I got this huge, huge collection of books from an AME pastor who hit hard times and sold his stuff at an estate sale. I was going through the bulk of them when I read your book.

I sold two of this man's books on the day I read most of your book. "The Blessings of Brokenness" by Charles Stanley and "I and Thou" by Buber. The contrast of the two hit me so hard in the midst of your story with your info on Stanley that I just sat there laughing hysterically, holding the orders in my hand, unsure if it was even ethical to send Stanley's book out with what you wrote. I don't understand how thinking people can have such philosophies/actions side by side. There is no cogency.

TexasPastor said...

Thank you, Christa, for the courageous work that you do for all of us who have been victims of Baptist predators. I must admit that the stench emanating from the SBC's cauldron of arrogance, money and power continues to amaze me. In the end all that they engage in is a struggle for control. Further, the sad fact of the matter is that this is not a battle for the control of entities or agencies. It is indeed a battle for the control over people. I firmly believe that any denomination whose leadership is so intent on subjugating and suppressing the will and voice of its congregants is ultimately destined for marginalization at best, and destruction at worst (or is that best). Please accept my thanks for all that you do.

Christa Brown said...

For those wondering about Michelle's comment and about what former SBC president Charles Stanley has to do with any of this, here are two links:
"Clergy child molesters should not be kept secret: Are we clear?"

SNAP letter to Dr. Charles Stanley, FBC-Atlanta

Always good to hear from you, TexasPastor. About "the SBC's cauldron of arrogance"... I wish you could have heard the loud group gasp in the conference room when I spoke of how the prior Southern Baptist president said we were "nothing more than opportunistic persons." This was an audience of about 250 and it was an audience for whom not much is very surprising on this subject. They've seen A LOT in the Catholic context. But even as jaded as this audience was, the hatefulness of a high-level religious leader saying such a thing - and saying it publicly to the press - was still something shocking. What it shows, of course, is that high-level Baptist leaders haven't even yet seen the need to squelch their own arrogance, not even simply for the sake of appearances.

Michelle said...

I seem to be relatively immune to what happened to me compared with how I react when I hear of people I love getting hurt.

There was a "Charles Stanley" involved in my case and with others involving friends. He's a rising star. I know what his wife did and what he did and I want to... ****low growl**** for putting sadness in little girls' eyes. It makes my blood boil and I have to sit down and catch my breath before I can think straight. It infuriates me beyond words. In a less than healthy perseveration I watched him coolly talk about how "Acts has brought me closer to Jesus" in a public announcement.

Hypocrite. How dare your Stanley and my Stanley talk about Jesus while guarding Gilmore? That's the worst part of it for me. One of my dear friends described Jesus as "hero." For me, Jesus is a rapist. They're ruining the beauty of Christianity for myself and so many others.

Christa Brown said...

Your words remind me of something Gandhi said: "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.... I consider western Christianity, in its practical working, a negation of Christ's Christianity."

Incidentally... I think that experience you describe of being sorta numb to your own hurt but hyper-attuned to the hurt of others is very common for sex-abuse survivors.

Phyllis Gregory said...

Michelle, I have had those same feelings -- I could always hurt with someone else for what they had suffered. I could never hurt for myself. I could/can cry and cry for hurting animals or even more for friends who's animals had died, but I could never hurt for my own pain of loss. My father finally died last night. So far I feel nothing. I hope that will change.

Also, thank you for your openness and complete honesty concerning those things you do feel.

Christa Brown said...

I am sorry for your loss -- and for ALL of your losses -- for all that was stolen from you, for all that cannot be made right, for all the confusion you were and are left to deal with, for all the feelings and non-feelings that went with it. My heart and thoughts are with you. Wishing you a measure of peace. Christa

Michelle said...


I'm sorry this is such a hard time for you. One of my friends is going through the same kind of thing right now--her father is an awful, awful man like yours was. Her feelings are all muted. I don't know what to say or do for either of you, but my heart is with you. I'll be coming back October 5 (I leave this week).

Michelle said...


The reason I'm so open is because I'm on the autistic spectrum. Sometimes I'm a complete idiot in what I say, I've no filter. Sometimes I'm VERY inappropriate. (It can be quite funny. I went to the church at a younger age than most and told them exactly what I thought about things, with no reservations. Of course I didn't mean it like they took it, but they sure deserved everything I said to them.) I'm glad my filter-less tongue is doing some good at last!