A report, posted online Sunday, revealed the extent of sexual assaults that were silently passed over within the Southern Baptist Convention. Enough to weaken this American religious group, numbering 13 million, that the Republican Party has been actively seeking to support since the 2000s.
This is a list that will cause a stir in the United States. It is believed to contain about 700 names of members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – the largest and most influential evangelical Christian group in the country – whose chiefs suspected sexual abuse for years.
The existence of such a list, which has long been denied by SBC critics, is one of the main revelations of an explosive report published on Sunday, May 22nd. A document detailing, in more than 300 pages, the serial sexual assaults within this group and the way in which the hierarchy has ignored, and even stifled, testimonies and complaints since the beginning of the 2000s.
“It’s no longer a crisis, it’s the end of the world”
The decision to release the list, likely on Thursday, May 26, is the first sign that Southern Baptist Convention officials are not only taking the report’s findings seriously, but are also dealing with the reality of the scale of the scandal.
It is worth noting that the report, which was commissioned in 2021 by independent investigators, goes into the smallest detail without excluding anyone. It even implicates a former head of SBC, accused of sexual assault.
“It’s much worse than I expected,” admitted Ed Lytton, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “It’s no longer a crisis, it’s the end of the world. The whole system is in question,” wrote Russell Moore, a preacher who left SBC last year.
In fact, the report is not satisfied with listing the tragic toll of sexual abuse cases, whether against minors or against women. At this point, investigators basically confirm what was revealed in 2019 by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express News.
“Also worrisome is the description of efforts that have been made for more than twenty years by senior officials to minimize the voice of victims and protect the institution at all costs from any risk of prosecution,” summarizes Andrew Lewis, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati who specializes in the political engagement of religious groups. .
August Bhutto, the influential former CEO of SBC who is often cited in the report, in an email likened the victims’ efforts to draw attention to their plight to a “diabolical plot to distract us from our mission of evangelism.”
“This report is horrifying to read. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on SBC for good,” Booz Chivedjian, a lawyer representing victims of sexual assault, replied in an interview with The New York Times.
The Reference Institution in the American Protestant World
It is difficult for an observer outside the United States to understand how the premise of ending the Southern Baptist Convention could be, in and of itself, an earthquake, not only religious, but also cultural and political in the United States.
In fact, it’s not just a new sex scandal afflicting a religious group, as was the case with the Catholic Church in North America in the early 2000s.
With nearly 13 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention represents mainstream Protestantism, the majority branch of Christianity in the United States. Summarizes Tobias Kramer, who specializes in the relations between religion and politics at Oxford Divinity School.
A special and influential place in an America that remains deeply religious, making these evangelicals a species the political world has long courted. Their role in the political arena has only grown. Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton claimed affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
But since the early 2000s, it has become inappropriate for a moderate or liberal politician to announce his membership in SBC. These religious people now wear the colors of “ultra-conservative white Christian missionaries,” as Tobias Kramer asserts.
It’s not a homogeneous group either, and the milder elements mean it can seem less extreme than the bloodiest small evangelical churches. But even the less right-wing factions cling to family values — on issues of abortion and same-sex marriage — that cannot be reconciled with the Democratic Party.
A shift to the right has allowed SBC to become “the kingmakers of the Republican Party for a long time. John McCain, Mitt Romney and even George W. Bush have actively sought their support by giving them pledges,” explains Tobias Kramer.
More moderate or more Trumpian?
In other words, whoever controls the SSC has a say in the Republican Party’s agenda. This is why the sex scandal rocking this institution “will have political and social consequences at the national level,” assures Andrew Lewis.
This revelation comes, in fact, at a turning point in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. “It is an institution in crisis and in the midst of an intense five-year power struggle,” explains Andrew Lewis.
SBC is no longer just a little piece of heaven for the white American who blindly follows what his fiancé tells him. “There is a dual movement at work: On the one hand, there is demographic change associated with the rapid secularization of the white working population, which means that a large portion of the under-30s in SBC are now ethnic minorities,” notes Tobias Kremer.
On the other hand, more and more members are leaving this group because they feel that the leadership has become too political and not religious enough. At the same time, the Oxford expert notes that “most newcomers call themselves missionaries because they associate this movement with Donald Trump, whom they support.” Thus, these new flocks tip the scales towards greater politicization of the Basel Convention.
In the face of these changes, two major factions are trying to impose their vision for the future of the Basel Convention Secretariat. Moderates, who argue that we must take into account demographic changes and temper our wines on issues such as immigration or women’s place in the organization, confront ultra-conservatives, who want to remain as dogmatic as possible.
It turns out that “ultra-conservatives were most opposed to investigations into sex scandals,” notes Andrew Lewis.
For this specialist, the publication of the report constitutes a serious setback for this extremist faction. The more moderate parties could take advantage of it very quickly, with elections scheduled for the renewal of the Executive Committee this summer.
The Republican Party can then want to please them by being more open about certain topics such as immigration, or the rights of the LGBT community.
But this is just a scenario. The other is that “this scandal is accelerating the exodus of SBC members and undermining the impact the organization could have in the political world,” extrapolated Tobias Kramer. And in this case, you will remain with the Republican Party only as an ideological compass that the only candidate to secure the party’s nomination without courting evangelicals: Donald Trump, this crisis could make Republicans more “Trambo” than they already are.