Divine Injustice

Church Sex Scandals Are Rooted in Theology

A unique report on the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University points to the theological roots of sexual abuse and scandals.

12.15.14 10:55 AM ET

At this point, there are so many sex scandals among conservative religious organizations, we’re no longer surprised by any of them. The latest revelation—that for decades, the evangelical Bob Jones University blamed victims of sexual assault and discouraged the prosecution of predators—should be shocking, but probably isn’t.

Yet, the recent report on BJU’s misconduct is different. Unusually for such a document, it makes a theological case against sexual abuse—but in so doing, it points to the deep roots of rape culture that may not be so easily uprooted.

The fact pattern is by now familiar—though a little different in the BJU case, which covers counseling for all reported sexual abuse, not just abuse perpetrated by members of the Bob Jones community. Of the 166 respondents to the BJU survey who reported sexual abuse, about half of the abuse took place before they came to the university; this particular report is more about counseling victims than prosecuting perpetrators. This is not another cover-up.

The university’s responses, though, were depressingly familiar. Only 7.6 percent of victims were encouraged by BJU staff to report their abuse to the police. Forty-seven percent were actively told not to do so and 55 percent said the university’s attitude toward abuse reports was “blaming and disparaging.” Women were invited to confess what they had done to entice the abuser—the wearing of revealing clothing, for example. And if their bodies “responded favorably,” then they, too, had sinned.

Indeed, even if their bodies hadn’t “responded favorably” to being raped or abused, abuse survivors were still regarded as “damaged goods,” according to the report, because virginity is prized above all, and any illicit sex—consensual or not—is sinful. That may be hard for non-religious people to wrap their heads around, but remember, if sex is bad and virginity is good, that’s true no matter the circumstances, no matter the presence or absence of consent.

Interestingly, the Bob Jones University report is, itself, a kind of religious document. Produced by an organization called GRACE, whose mission is “to empower the Christian community through education and training to recognize and respond to the sin of sexual abuse,” it is full of biblical citations and theological argument. For example, the report argues against victim-blaming by citing Matthew 5:28 (“Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”) and stating that “If a dress code encourages men to see women for their bodies—whether they dress modestly or not—then women become objects, and often, mere objects of lust.”

That is some good theological reasoning, and wouldn’t be out of place in any number of progressive religious contexts. What’s interesting is that Bob Jones University isn’t one of those. This is the same university that gained its fame (or infamy) for maintaining racially discriminatory admissions and housing policies into the 1990s; a lawsuit over them practically gave birth to the Christian Right as we know it today. And it has become a go-to stop for Republican politicians eager to shore up their Christian credentials.

It’s precisely that disjuncture that is the real problem. Let’s face it: Of course, a sexually repressive Christian university blamed immodest women for “enticing” rapists. That is what conservative organizations, religious and secular, have done for centuries.

And of course, a conservative Christian university counseled women not to report these crimes to the police—that, too, is common among fundamentalist religious communities (a practice the report again denies, with impressive citation to Scripture). Just last month, The New Yorker ran a scathing indictment of Hasidic communities in Brooklyn doing exactly the same thing. The only difference is that conservative Christians make reference to the epistle to the Corinthians, which discourages Christians from settling disputes in court, but Jews rely on the concept of mesirah, which forbids Jews to report one another to Christian authorities.

Ditto Bro Culture and rape culture at universities across the country: old-boys-clubs such as those which shielded Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, and systems of power and privilege that apparently shielded Bill Cosby.

In all these cases, there are, of course, the primary villains—the abusers themselves. But surrounding them are systems of privilege and patriarchy that subjugate women, cast doubt upon victims of abuse, and legitimize the idea that men are lustful beings who can’t help themselves when a woman reveals a bit of cleavage elbow. This fundamental conservative idea, that men are brutes so women better take care, is, itself, victim-blaming. Even its benign forms—the resurgence of modest dress norms in Jewish communities, for example—perpetuate this idea.

What’s unique about GRACE’s report is that it attempts to provide compelling theological bases for cultural transformation. But it surely has an uphill climb. In conservative Christian culture, the biblical injunction to “Wives, submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22, and several other sources) is alive and well. So too less-known chestnuts like 1 Timothy 2:9—“I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety.” As well as the very fundamental notions that women should be subservient to men, are less cognitively capable than men, and are valued for their “purity” more than men.

And then there are conservative teachings on rape. Until the 20th century, marital rape was widely regarded as an oxymoron, since women were property and men could do as they pleased with them. Nor are Bob Jones University’s teachings about non-virgins being “damaged goods” any kind of innovation. In the Bible, rapists had to pay the fathers of the women they had “violated” and then marry their victims (Deut. 22:29), for essentially the same reason.

Not to mention the core Christian idea that sexuality is, itself, a necessary evil, and something that must be repressed. Once all sexual activity is basically sinful, how do you draw the necessary lines between that which really is morally evil, i.e. nonconsensual sexual activity, and that which isn’t? No wonder women were grilled about whether they experienced pleasure while being assaulted. In the bizarre logic of sexual repression, they might be as guilty as their abusers.

These are not sidelines to conservative Christian doctrine, but centerpieces of it. To be sure, progressive Christians have long grappled with, and gotten over, the intensely sex-negative and body-negative elements of Christian tradition. But conservative Christians have tended to defend them.

There is a kind of transcendence in the GRACE report. By shaming a generation of counselors who were faithfully executing a misogynistic doctrine, Bob Jones University can maintain its fealty to its conception of biblical literalism while disclaiming these horrifying consequences of it. Perhaps this is healing; certainly, an indictment of patriarchy would not get very far in the direction of actually changing policies.

But one wonders if this will ever be enough. Male-run fundamentalist and conservative communities, religious or secular, have at their core a denigration of women that is not merely the result of a few bad apples. Rather, as Jesus himself said (Matthew 7:18), “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, nor can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” It is the roots that are rotten.