A Baptist Sexuality Summit for the Ethically Challenged

About Frederick Clarkson

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission ERLC

When Russell Moore ascended to the presidency of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he claimed that he wanted to pull the public policy arm of the SBC back from the culture warring ways of his predecessor, Richard Land. The 42-year-old Moore said he believed that younger generations of evangelicals were put off by inflammatory rhetoric and political aggression on issues like marriage equality. But that public stance didn’t last long.

Moore soon faced sharp criticism from Christian Right figures such as American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who said, “Since one man’s ‘pullback’ is another’s ‘full-scale retreat,’ social conservatives have a right to raise questions about the new course Moore is setting for the SBC.” Fox News contributor Sandy Rios added, “Whether Russell Moore wants it to be a war or not, it is a war. .. Southern Baptists are going to suffer.”

Fischer and Rios weren’t alone in their outrage, and if the ERLC’s upcoming (April 21-23) Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality” is any indication, the difference between Moore and Land may be more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, Moore has selected two controversial figures, sociologist Mark Regnerus and Rev. Greg Belser (the Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi) to headline the summit.

Mark Regnerus 

Regnerus gained conservative celebrity status this past year, thanks to his 2012 study published in the Social Science Research journal, which claims that children of same-sex couples face severe disadvantages growing up. As Slate’s Nathaniel Frank explained, “The study catapulted him into conservative stardom, making him a credentialed mouthpiece for the claim that LGBTQ equality harms kids and can be blocked not because of anti-gay bias but out of noble concern for children and families.”

“Regnerus’ article made waves,” Frank continued, “because it appeared to buck the trend of three decades of research showing kids with gay parents fare just as well as others. There’s one problem: Regnerus’ research doesn’t show what he says it does. Not remotely. No research ever has.”

Numerous scholars and professional societies agreed, including the American Sociological Association, and the study has been completely and thoroughly debunked. But, as Cole Parke has reported here at Eyes Right, that hasn’t stopped the Religious Right both in the U.S. and abroad from using the patina of academic respectability and authority Regnerus brings to thwart the advance of LGTBQ civil and human rights.

As reported by the LA Times, “When he struck down Proposition 8, the California amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman, Judge Vaughn R. Walker of Federal District Court in San Francisco said he had heard ‘no reliable evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have any negative effects on society.’” This left the opponents of marriage equality in a quandary, and in desperate need for new evidence to bolster their failing legal arguments against marriage equality and adoption by same-sex couples.

In the wake of the Prop. 8 decision, opponents of marriage equality held a series of strategy meetings at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., in 2010. According to the New York Times, they “discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children … One result was the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant… .”

Among the meeting’s participants was Luis E. Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, a neo-conservative think tank based in New Jersey – and whose co-founders include Christian Right strategist and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, Robert P. George. After the Heritage Institute meetings, Witherspoon subsequently provided $695,000 to underwrite what became the Regnerus study, while the neo-conservative Bradley Foundation, where Robert P. George sits on the board of directors, also kicked-in $90,000.

But in addition to the debunking and criticism of the methodology and conclusions Regnerus’ study has faced among his peers and both the academic and scientific communities, it has also fallen on its face in court.

After hearing Regnerus testify and be cross-examined on the witness stand, Federal Judge Bernard A. Friedman struck down Michigan’s anti-marriage equality law in March, and called Regnerus’ study “entirely unbelievable,” and “not worthy of serious consideration.”  Judge Friedman further condemned the manufactured research and its right-wing sponsors, saying “[t]he funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged.”

Rev. Greg Belser

Conferees will also be treated to the expertise of Rev. Greg Belser, who is not only a panelist at the sex summit, but is also a member of the ERLC’s Leadership Council.

The Southern Baptist Convention, which currently claims 15.9 million members in 46,000 churches in the U.S., has acknowledged the problem of child sex abuse within member churches. Still, too many Baptist leaders—like their Catholic counterparts—have responded to the problem with denials, inattention, and cover-ups. Eyes Right recently reported that Belser is the personification of how poorly the Southern Baptist Convention has addressed issues of child sex abuse by clergy.

Jeff Langworthy, a minister at Belser’s church, was accused of molesting children at two Mississippi Baptist churches before he transferred to serve at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas – where additional allegations of child molestation apparently led Prestonwood leaders to quietly let Langworthy go without reporting the allegations to police (as was required by state law). Langworthy subsequently worked at Morrison Heights for 20 years, with no one the wiser about his past.

Persistent efforts by Amy Smith, an advocate with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), led Morrison Heights to conduct an internal investigation in 2011. Belser initially decided to keep Langworthy on staff, but later allowed him to resign and to make a highly limited confession to the congregation about his “sexual indiscretions with younger males” in Texas.

After Langworthy’s confession surfaced online, police launched an investigation.  As the Associated Baptist Press reported, “Six men came forward claiming they were sexually abused by Langworthy as children in the early 1980s.”  But Morrison Heights (and Rev. Belser) refused to turn over the findings of their internal investigation to police or prosecutors, apparently following the legal advice of Phillip Gunn, a Morrison Heights elder and a state representative.

But even with Belser’s and Morrison Heights’ protection, Langworthy eventually pleaded guilty to five felonies committed against children at the two Mississippi Baptist churches.

Marching Ever Forward

With the checkered and highly questionable pasts of both Regnerus and Belser, ERLC’s “Leadership Summit” on sexuality probably portends that the SBC–and its political action arm–will continue their investment in a corrupt past.


Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.