IT’S A SIN
The Real Christian Preacher Sex Scandal Is How Many There Are
Another week, another bumper crop of Christian sex scandals. And it’s not going to stop any time soon.
Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.
Just this week, for example, we learned of lay pastor David Reynolds, who in addition to “discern[ing] the will of Christ through study, mutual exhortation and prayer,” to quote his former(?) church’s website, allegedly had a habit of exchanging child pornography on the Internet—with irresistible social media screennames “sweetoothcandy3,” “Ethanluvsts,” and “Luvsomecandy.”
(By the way, little details like that are themselves the “candy” of tracking religious sex-hypocrites; somehow, they always do something tawdry, ludicrous, or pathetic.)
Creepily, Reynolds also had several non-pornographic pictures of church members, including one 13-year-old girl who then identified several others in the photos.
The church, Cornerstone Bible Fellowship in Sherwood, Arkansas, did not respond to a request for comment. Like many evangelical churches, it appoints members, rather than professional clergy, to be pastors and leaders.
We also learned this week that Jon Petersen, the long-serving president of World Ambassadors, Ltd., which proselytizes to international students on American college campuses, had embezzled nearly all of the organization’s funds between 2010 and 2014 (nearly half a million dollars) to “pay for a sex addiction.” We don’t know exactly what that means; Petersen, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, pleaded guilty on Monday to failing to disclose the “income” on his personal tax statement.
And then the news from Northern Ireland that a 35-year old priest was caught chatting up young (but legal) men on Grindr, dick pics and all. He is apparently being sent to the Vatican-run center in Venturini Convent, where priests with same-sex tendencies “are sent to reflect.”
Together with, you know, other gay priests. What could go wrong?
Perhaps the Irish priest will meet 44-year-old Antonello Tropea, who in December was also discovered on Grindr—but in his case, luring underage boys to have sex in the rectory of his church. Classy.
We obviously have become inured to these scandals. Perverted priests, philandering pastors—yesterday’s news. Covering this issue eight months ago, I listed 17 recent Christian sex scandals, and that was without doing any research outside of Google.
Yet, as I said at the time, our blasé attitude toward clerical sexual philandering minimizes the serious harms it causes: primarily to the victims, but also to sexual and gender minorities who are persecuted in public precisely because these conservative Christians are wrestling with their own demons in private.
And that is the point that’s usually missed when the mainstream media covers religious “hypocrites” or “perverts” or whatever. It’s also missed when anti-LGBT and anti-women religious conservatives are described as “haters” or “bigots.” They’re not haters—they’re fear-ers, and the people they’re most afraid of are themselves.
There is a direct line from the religious hysteria over trans people in bathrooms to religious people hysterical over their own wayward libidos. It’s well known that the most homophobic people are also the most aroused by homosexual stimuli—this has been established in a variety of studies, some measuring arousal with ingenious devices attached to the “straight” men’s penises. Psychologically, this is what Freud called “reaction formation”—essentially, projecting your psychological baggage onto someone else.
But conservative Christianity is institutionalized reaction formation. Socially, culturally, and theologically, it drums in the message that sex is bad, that you are bad for wanting it, and that people who say they want it are even worse than you. This is not true for liberal Christians (or Jews or Muslims); but it is true for almost all conservative Christians (or Jews or Muslims).
That’s why, when yet another pastor falls from grace—with boys, girls, women, men, it almost doesn’t matter—it’s not seen as a refutation of Christian doctrine, but a confirmation of it. See, none of us is above sin. That proves that all of us are sinners and are only hope is the grace of God.
I encountered this firsthand about a year ago, when I visited several megachurches as part of a research project. Many liberals get distracted by the cheesy music, expensive production values, and political posturing. But I was much more alarmed on the deeply disturbing message being conveyed in all those major-key Christian rock songs.
The psychology being conveyed in these songs, sermons, and doctrines was different from what most non-conservative-Christians understand. Most of us, I think, are aware that we have morally good and morally bad impulses all the time. Not even morally—sometimes we want that extra cookie, and sometimes we’re good about keeping our cholesterol down. It’s human nature.
Again and again, in evangelical contexts, I heard a different story. The part that wants the cookie, or the sex, is you—fallen you, evil you, sinful you. The part that says “no, don’t do that” isn’t your superego, or a memory of your childhood—but Jesus. (Sometimes the Holy Spirit, but whatever.)
Think about that for a moment. All the indulgent, selfish, lustful thoughts you have—that’s you (or, in some versions, Satan seducing you). The altruistic, ethical thoughts? That’s not you at all, but the voice of God telling “you” to do better.
It’s bad enough that “lust” is regarded as just another animal appetite, instead of a possible way of connecting with other human beings to generate connection, love, and joy. But even worse is that lusting is all you do. “Amazing Grace / how sweet the sound / that saved / a wretch like me.” You are the wretch.
Well, if we think of ourselves as wretches, then it’s easy to act like wretches. That’s why these pastors aren’t being caught at the LGBT community center attending Judith Butler reading groups. It’s why they’re sending dick pics on Grindr, why they’re acting unethically with congregants or young adults, why they’re lying and conniving. That’s what sexual expression is for them—the gutter.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with sending dick pics on Grindr, of course—it’s only the gutter in their way of seeing the world.)
This is also why the majority of these offenders are conservative, not progressive. To be sure, there are also liberal philanderers and liberal sexual offenders—my own Jewish Renewal community is still reeling from one of them, a serial offender named Marc Gafni who has since resurfaced as Whole Foods founder John Mackey’s personal guru.
But in general, religious conservatives have it exactly backwards. The sexual liberals of the world aren’t more sinful when it comes to sexuality. Because they’re healthier, they sin less—and by “sin” I mean actually harming other people, rather than inserting tab A elsewhere than slot B. Once sex isn’t some demon to be repressed, but is simply part of the human experience, a capacity that can be used wisely or unwisely—well, then it’s just not that big of a deal anymore.
Humans being as we are, repressive sexual mores aren’t going away any time soon. Our big primate brains often feel guilty about stuff, and sense a gap between ideal and real. None of us can live up to our own expectations. And so some of us will continue to mythologize that failing, create entire philosophies to account for it.
Every time a priest or pastor fails, the conservative Christian myth of human nature is reinforced. Thus the conditions ripen for the next shameful offense.