Friday, October 31, 2008

Religion may also be a mask

The Associated Baptist Press recently posed the question of whether there should be a religious “test” for public office.

Suzii Paynter, director of the public policy & moral concerns arm of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, gave a “yes” sort of answer, stating that religious convictions can reveal “valuable insights into a candidate’s character….”

“When people reach a certain level -- whether in politics, business or any other powerful enterprise -- there’s always a temptation to see themselves as above the rules that apply to others,” she noted, apparently concluding that a religious “grounding” might improve their “public ethic.”

I pondered Suzii’s comments. If we could understand how people like Suzii Paynter think, perhaps we could figure out how to persuade Baptist leaders to actually take action against clergy sex abuse.

Remember Suzii “Because-there-are-no-bishops” Paynter?

That was her lame excuse for why Baptists can’t take action against clergy predators in the same way that other faith groups do: “Because there are no bishops.”

A religious leader who thinks “because there are no bishops” is a valid excuse for nonaction on reported clergy child molesters is a religious leader who has lost a moral compass.

But that doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.

Oh sure, there are some monsters in Baptist churches and there are some Baptist leaders so drunk on their own power that they’re utterly corrupt. But I don’t think Suzii falls into those categories; she falls into the category of good people who do nothing.

The good people who do nothing are a much bigger crowd than the flat-out corrupt people. That’s why I’d like to understand how people like Suzii really think.

How do they convince themselves to believe the “we are powerless” propaganda that’s spewed forth from their religious institution?

How do they rationalize that it’s okay for Baptist leaders to look away when confronted with clergy child molestation?

How do they come to meekly accept a twisted “autonomy” dogma so radicalized that it trumps the protection of kids?

How do they look at themselves in the mirror when they use “because there are no bishops” as code for “not our problem”?

Help me understand. How do good people choose to do nothing?

I figure Suzii really believes all the propaganda and public relations spin of the organization she’s a part of -- the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

I figure she really believes that such words -- “because there are no bishops” -- can somehow excuse the reality of a powerful religious organization that leaves clergy child molesters in their pulpits without warning people in the pews.

I figure she’s a loyal foot-soldier for higher Baptist power-brokers and bureaucrats. She trusts in their leadership. And maybe she hopes to become a higher leader herself.

However she may rationalize this travesty, I figure she’s probably a good person.

It is not bad people who are primarily responsible for allowing the evil of Baptist clergy sex abuse to persist. It is good people.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

So that’s why I found myself pondering Suzii’s words. Obviously she places value on political candidates’ statements about religious conviction. But has she forgotten that the power of “religion” can be used for bad as well as good? Those of us who have experienced the horror of clergy abuse and cover-ups know this reality all too well.

Words of religion can be a mask. They can become a cloak that leaders wear as a costume to conceal their true character and intentions.

And when Suzii talks about “powerful enterprises,” I wonder whether she realizes that religious organizations are also powerful enterprises in which leaders often lose their way and “see themselves as above the rules that apply to others.”

Ordinary decent people would expect a denomination’s religious leaders to take responsible action when confronted with clergy abuse reports. It’s a sort of “rule.” It’s an obligation of leadership. It’s a “rule” that’s now been recognized in other major faith groups.

But so far, Baptist leaders are saying this “rule” doesn’t apply to them. Why? “Because there are no bishops.”

In pondering Suzii’s apparent ease with this religious rationalization, I was reminded of something columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in the Orlando Sentinel exactly two years ago. She was talking about the “good German phenomenon” and the devastation that is wrought “when good men look away.”

Parker pointed out how “religion” has so often been used to rationalize a blind-eyed view to horror, and she brought up the history of white Christians’ non-responsiveness to racism and race-based terrorism. “Southern white Christians abdicated their moral responsibility,” she said, “and demonstrated their cowardice and complicity by allowing Klansmen to hijack their religion and terrorize blacks in the name of their Jesus.”

I think the same dreadful “look away” phenomenon helps to explain Baptist leaders’ blind-eyed nonresponsiveness to clergy sex abuse. Leaders like Suzii Paynter -- and many more -- have abdicated their moral responsibility and have cowardly twisted their religion to rationalize a do-nothing response to preacher-predators who molest, rape, and terrorize kids.

When good people like Suzii Paynter stop with the make-believe of “because there are no bishops,” then maybe Baptists will begin to move beyond the haunted hinterlands in their journey toward clergy accountability.


Anonymous said...


I believe that the people in the pews just don't get it. I didn't get it for many years. I had not come to terms with my own abuse; for years I could not even entertain the thought that any pastor/deacon/church leader I knew could be anything but perfect. If I looked at their imperfection, then I would have to remember what very religious, church-leading parents did to me.

I have said for a long time that I don't trust rah-rah Christians. Whether you are a leader in a church or a political candidate, if you have to tell me how good you are and how much you do to further the cause of Christ, I usually don't believe you or trust you.

I guess churches are full of good people. But good doesn't always cut it.

J. Davidson said...

Cognitive dissonance and Confirmation Bias. These are two factors I attribute to why some of these folks act the way they do.

Leon Festinger first coined “Cognitive Dissonance”. He had observed a cult (1956) in which members gave up their homes, incomes, and jobs to work for the cult. This cult believed in messages from outer space that predicted the day the world would end by a flood. As cult members and firm believers, they believed they would be saved by flying saucers at the appointed time. As they gathered and waited to be taken by flying saucers at the specified time, the end-of-the-world came and went. No flood and no flying saucer! Rather than believing they were foolish after all that personal and emotional investment – they decided their beliefs had actually saved the world from the flood and they became firmer in their beliefs after the failure of the prophecy. The moral – the more you invest (income, job, home, time, effort, etc.) the stronger your need to justify your position. If we invest $5.00 in a raffle ticket, we justify losing with “I’ll get them next time”. If you invest everything you have, it requires an almost unreasoning belief and unusual attitude to support and justify that investment.

Christa Brown said...

"Cognitive dissonance and Confirmation Bias"

Thanks for the insight, J. Davidson. I think these normal psychological phenomena are a big part of the reason why it will never, ever, ever work for Baptist leaders to keep telling clergy abuse victims that they have to go back to the church of the perpetrator to report him. People at the church are too psychologically, emotionally and spiritually invested in believing in the goodness of their pastor. Often, they've built their lives in the church and raised their families in it. They are incapable of objectively considering a clergy abuse report about their own pastor. And of course, usually, the person trying to report abuse is cut off at the knees by the ministerial staff before he or she can even imagine getting information before the congregation. Ministerial staff are even MORE invested.

Not only is it a system that fails to afford any responsible oversight for prevention purposes, but it's also just flat-out cruel for this denomination to keep telling clergy abuse victims that the way to report abuse is to go back to the den of the wolf who savaged them. Most of the time, they know better than to even try, and for the ones who do, they almost invariably wind up being horribly rewounded and retraumatized.

J. Davidson said...

I would also say that some of them are operating under False Consensus Bias as well.