The Scandal Tearing Apart America’s Largest Protestant Denomination
A denominational leader’s claim that abused women should remain in their broken marriages is forcing Southern Baptists to pick sides.
Jonathan Merritt via THE ATLANTIC
- First came another quote from the same audio clip, in which Patterson is heard telling a story about a female congregant of his who confessed to being abused by her husband. Rather than report the incident to the authorities or help the woman escape, he sent her back to her spouse and asked her to pray “not out loud, but quietly.” The woman returned the next Sunday with two black eyes, a sight which Patterson said made him “very happy” because it made her husband feel guilty enough to attend church for the first time.
- Next came the release of Patterson’s defiant public statement in which he only conceded that his remarks were “probably unwise” before painting himself as a martyr who has been subjected to a campaign of “mischaracterization” fueled by “lies.”
- Then, a video recording from 2014 emerged in which Patterson resembles the ghost of Roy Moore, objectifying and sexualizing a 16-year-old girl in a sermon illustration.
- If that were not enough, a news story published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997 surfaced in which Patterson was asked about women and quipped, “I think everybody should own at least one.”
- Patterson offered an interview to the denomination’s publicity arm, Baptist Press, in hopes of doing some damage control. But he made things worse by confirming that he believes “non-injurious physical abuse which happens in so many marriages” might spur a woman to “pray [her husband] through this.” (Baptist Press later manipulated the quote to read “minor non-injurious abuse” claiming that it better aligned with Patterson’s intention.)
- Finally, The Washington Post published an article noting that Patterson has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit, which claims he knew about child-molestation accusations against a close friend of his, fellow Southern Baptist Paul Pressler, but chose to cover it up rather than report it.
A wave of such damning allegations and confirmed quotes would be enough to drag down almost any giant. In a #MeToo moment, it’s astounding that Patterson is still standing. But Southern Baptists are a loyal bunch. One wonders if Baptists’ loyalty to one of yesterday’s leaders is blinding them to the optics of his present involvement and the damage to their public witness should he remain in power.
On any given Sunday, there are more women than men who attend church. These women, in communities across America, may think twice before pulling into a Southern Baptist church’s parking lot. And what of the many social justice-minded Millennials? They may see the denomination’s lack of conviction of their belief that organized religion is irredeemably corrupt, giving them one more reason to saturate churches with their absence.
One can only imagine how the million of Southern Baptist women feel when their own denomination cannot seem to muster enough moral courage to offer a full-throated repudiation of domestic abuse. The denomination holds that God intends for wives to submit to their husbands and has not passed a resolution on domestic violence since 1979.
It’s somewhat easier to tolerate disagreement on matters like race when the majority of SBC churches are overwhelmingly white. But when every congregation is at least 50 percent female, domestic abuse hits closer to home. The Southern Baptist Convention simply cannot afford to stand by a leader who has exhibited a decades-long pattern of dangerous comments that appear to trivialize women’s suffering.
With their denominational meeting fast approaching, Southern Baptists now find themselves in a situation that is precarious, perilous, and frankly ironic. The man who three decades ago unified his denomination now seems poised and willing to divide it.
*This article originally referred to Wheaton College as Wheaton University. We regret the error.