Previewing the Next Anti-Marriage Equality Manifesto

Top leaders of the Christian Right plan to issue a fresh manifesto against marriage equality in March.  It may be the defining document for the anti-marriage equality forces in the run up to the legal show down at the Supreme Court this summer (not to mention the 2016 presidential elections). It is certainly an advance in the evolving alliance between conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals—and a remarkable expression of their fears about the survival of Christendom as they see it.

David Gibson of Religion News Service, who received an advance copy of the manifesto, reports that it “reads like a declaration of war,” and that it claims “that a faithful Christian witness cannot accommodate itself to same-sex marriage.”  What’s more, “it suggests that believers who accept gay marriage are no longer fully Christian.”

The manifesto, entitled The Two Shall Become One Flesh:  Reclaiming Marriage, has been signed by several dozen Christian Right leaders so far, and will be published in the March issue of the neoconservative magazine First Things, which provided copies to selected reporters.

“If the truth about marriage can be displaced by social and political pressure operating through the law, other truths can be set aside as well,” the signers of the manifesto warn.  This, they assert, can lead “to the coercion and persecution of those who refuse to acknowledge the state’s redefinition of marriage… ”

Evangelical signers of the statement reportedly include megachurch pastor Rick Warren; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University; Mark Galli, editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today; and Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Catholic signers include Robert P. George, chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage;  longtime NBC News “Vatican analyst,” George Weigel; and prominent anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher.

Some of these leaders have been threatening civil disobedience over abortion, marriage equality, and religious liberty since at least the publication of the 2009 Manhattan Declaration.  In the Declaration, the culture-warring leaders of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and of conservative evangelicalism threatened massive civil disobedience if they didn’t get their way.

Just before the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Hobby Lobby v. Burwell in 2014, Rick Warren told a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) gathering that the fight for religious liberty might bring persecution.  He warned that this may require personal sacrifices.  “And,” he declared, invoking Martin Luther King, Jr., “[this] may take some pastors going to jail. I’m in. I willingly said it, I’m in.”

Megachurch pastor David Platt of Alabama added, “I hear Pastor Rick say, ‘I’m in,’ and I’m with you. And I want to raise up an army, an entire body of members that says, ‘I’m in,’ who are in regardless of what happens in this case.”

While Warren and Platt claimed that they were willing to go to jail for their notions of religious freedom, SBC official Russell Moore said, “I’m doing everything we can to keep out us out of jail, but there is one thing worse than going to jail.  And that is staying out of jail and sacrificing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But for all the big talk over the years, the published quotes from The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage suggests a group of leaders on the eve of a major battle they are about to lose—trying to rally themselves and their followers for the rest of the war.

They remind themselves of their professed “obligation to speak the truth in love,” and express regret for “injustices against those who experience same-sex attraction.”  But their words also drip with scorn for those who do not share their views. Compared with divorce and cohabitation, they claim that “so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat” to the institution of marriage.  They complain that it is “a parody of marriage” that not only “distorts the Gospel” but “threatens the common good.”

They also complain that “those who refuse to conform are regarded as irrational bigots.”

Perhaps they doth protest too much.

In any case, this group insists that any accommodation of marriage equality violates their religious freedom—for which they have repeatedly indicated that they are willing to fight. How far they are willing to go remains to be seen.

Old Time Revisionism—Southern Baptists Seek to Redefine Separation of Church and State

A conference at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, DC a few months ago provided a platform to launch a trial balloon for revising the Christian Right’s contentious and often bizarre approach to separation of church and state. Russell Moore, head of the powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told participant at AEI’s first Evangelical Leadership Summit that they need to “reclaim” the phrase “separation of church and state,” a term he admitted that “we long ago tossed overboard.”

This is a development worth exploring in some detail.

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The Baptist Press reported that Moore declared that separation of church and state “does not mean secularization.” Rather, “It means that the state is limited and does not have lordship over the conscience …” It’s a variation on the old Manichean framing, pitting religion vs. the secular—as if they were mutually exclusive ideas.

Historically, the separation of church and state has been considered to be a necessary prerequisite for the true meaning of religious liberty. The Framers of the Constitution recognized that creating a new nation would require finding a way for people of all faiths (as well as those with no faith) to live in peace and be treated as equals. (Given the history of religious warfare, bigotry, and persecution, that was a tall order, and we are clearly still working on it.)

The secular state does not mean a place where there are no religious people, nor is it opposed to religion generally or to any particular religion, and it is certainly not seeking “lordship” over anyone’s consciences. Rather, the secular state is intended to be neutral in matters of religion—allowing every citizen the freedom to choose for themselves what they will or will not believe in.

And this is where Moore’s argument gets even more slippery.

Moore’s SBC, in alliance with the Roman Catholic bishops, and bodies of conservative evangelicalism, are seeking to craft zones of exemption from reasonable public policies, as we saw in the Hobby Lobby case, and in the introduction of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (crafted in part by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF) in the states, which seek to limit the scope of LGBTQ civil rights, especially marriage equality.

Historically, religious liberty (or religious freedom) and separation of church and state are about the guarantee of the right of individual conscience, against the excesses of both the state and powerful religious institutions.

Thus it is important to note that what the SBC and the wider Christian Right has “tossed overboard”, is actually the traditional Baptist understanding of the term. Before it departed in the wake of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination, the SBC was a member of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Today, the Joint Committee represents 15 Baptist entities in Washington, DC (which takes no position on marriage equality) and summarizes the traditional Baptist view:

“Baptists have valued religious freedom and separation of church and state because they suffered the hard lessons of history. From jail cells in England to stockades in Massachusetts Bay to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution — the heartache and bloodshed caused by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.”

“[R]eligious liberty,” the Joint Committee concludes, “is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other. Separation has been good for both church and state.”

Interestingly, Moore also took a more nuanced view of Islam than some of his co-belligerents on the Christian Right, while simultaneously suggesting that the common enemy is actually secular government, which he sees as a religion unto itself.

Moore says that conservative evangelicals, for example, do not have to agree with Islam to oppose local governmental efforts to zone “a mosque out of existence.” But they should do so in order to oppose the “power to the mayor and the city council to hand down theological edicts.” If city government can zone one group out of town “on the basis of what they believe,” Moore insists, “[it] will in the fullness of time drive us all out.”

These are the types of clever arguments that are going to continue to be the stuff of politics for the foreseeable future. But they are a contemporary twist on the same hoary old casting of secular government as the anti-religious devil out to squash all religious expression and to drive institutions from the public square.

One-time Southern Baptist televangelist Pat Robertson claimed in 1993 that the “radical left … kept us in submission because they have talked about the separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

Of course, SBC Baptists have not been alone in making outlandish claims. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), a conservative Catholic, recently distinguished himself by claiming “the words ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the U.S. Constitution, but it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. That’s where it very, very comfortably sat, not in ours.”  Santorum and his ilk are correct that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution, but the principle certainly is. The U.S. Supreme Court has found it to be a useful and authoritative shorthand phrase to describe the Constitution’s approach to religion and government.

History is Powerful

The battle for the story of religion in America has been a vastly under-appreciated aspect of the so-called culture wars. But Brent Walker of the Joint Committee, for one, has taken on the man who is arguably the leading culture warrior of Christian historical revisionism, David Barton. He notably debunked Barton’s claim that when Thomas Jefferson used the phrase “separation of church and state” in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, Jefferson meant that there is a “one directional wall”—to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from capturing the government.

Walker wrote that “there is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that” Jefferson thought of the wall of separation between church and state as being “one directional.” In any case, Walker wrote, “most scholars would argue that he was more concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa.”

Russell Moore, nevertheless, sounded decidedly Bartonesque when earlier this year he argued “…that the state has no business in recreating marriage.” He failed to acknowledge that same-sex marriage is sacred in other religious traditions, while urging the federal government to enforce his particular notion of religious marriage, “by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.”

But he then raised one of the wild bogeyman of the debate about marriage equality—that the government would compel a church to marry someone against their will.

“If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let’s obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block.”

It is easy for Moore and his ilk to suggest that Christian martyrs should go to prison out of principle—for something that has never happened and that no has argued should.  But there are a lot of religious and non-religious Americans who are fighting every day for the rights of all, and not just their favorite brands—including a lot of Baptists and, as Jefferson once put it, “Infidels of every Denomination,” and even Moore’s much derided secularists.

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Southern Baptist Leader Takes Religious Liberty Arguments to the Absurd

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

There is much we can learn about the state of the Christian Right from Russell Moore, the point man on public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Like other Christian Right leaders, Moore continues to rely on historical revisionism, bogus science, dubious claims of religious persecution, and hints darkly of tyrannical governmental violence to come. But his arguments in favor of discrimination quickly drift into outright absurdity.

Moore, who is celebrating the first anniversary of his presidency of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said during a recent interview that a key influence on his thinking about religious liberty—as it relates to marriage equality–is his mom, who happens to be a cake decorator.

Before we discuss this, it is worth recalling that Moore, as we reported here at Eyes Right, recently distinguished himself by featuring two controversial and ethically compromised figures at a SBC “summit” on the Gospel and sexuality: Mark Regnerus, who is best known for his thoroughly debunked study on same-sex parenting (a study bankrolled by Christian Right interests opposed to gay parenting–a fact he attempted to conceal); and Greg Belser, who has been deeply implicated in the cover-up of a notorious child sex scandal among Baptist clergy. The two appeared on a panel on homosexuality at the Summit along with Baptist pastor J.D. Greear, who sparked a storm on social media when he compared opposing marriage equality in the church to opposing slavery in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. Moore is planning an entire conference on homosexuality slated for October 2014.

Currently, Moore is miffed about what he regards as “elitist disdain” for the consciences of people in the cake business. “I am the son of a mother who was a cake decorator, worked for weddings,” Moore told his interviewer, Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas City, MO. “Sometimes you have people who bake wedding cakes [who say]: ‘Here is our wedding cake. Come have the wedding cake. You come in, and you do not need to say what this wedding is for.”

“My mother used to sit down with the couple and would say: ‘We are going to make a groom’s cake that is indicative of his interests and what he is doing. We are going to make a wedding cake that seeks to tell the story of this wedding,'” Moore said.

Wedding photographers, he claims, “do the same thing.”

“They are coming in and saying, ‘You stand here and you stand there, because we are wanting to tell the story of this wedding,'” Moore continued. “So, [for] those people who say, ‘My conscience is implicated in this,’ the Scripture tells us that to sin against conscience is to sin against God.”

While there is considerable controversy over vendors of cakes, flowers, and wedding photography who seek exemptions from public accommodation laws requiring businesses not to discriminate against their customers (including same-sex couples), the arguments in favor of such “religious exemptions” are becoming what can only be described as “odd,” as Moore’s interview shows.

Moore and attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom (one of the primary right-wing legal groups pushing for religious liberty laws in state legislatures) argue that these services are forms of expression protected by the First Amendment. They also argue that compelling vendors to provide services which they willingly provide to others, but refuse to provide to LGBTQ couples, is a violation of their religious freedom.

These arguments from the Right closely echo similar arguments made in the past for identical exemptions from anti-discrimination laws on the basis of race, gender, and religion. During the civil rights movement just a few short decades ago, many on the Right sought to use similar arguments to gain exemptions from public accommodation laws affecting service at restaurants, rental housing, and employment discrimination.

But as happened a few decades ago, the courts (if not the state legislatures), have so far ruled that allowing people to claim “religious liberty” as a justification for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation clearly violates the law.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in August 2013, that Elane Photography had violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act when they refused to shoot the commitment ceremony of a same-sex couple. In its ruling, the court said:

“The purpose of the NMHRA [New Mexico Human Rights Act] is to ensure that businesses offering services to the general public do not discriminate against protected classes of people, and the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment permits such regulation by state. Businesses that choose to be public accommodations must comply with the NMHRA, although such businesses retain their First Amendment rights to express their religious or political beliefs. They may, for example, post a disclaimer on their website or in their studio advertising that they oppose same-sex marriage but that they comply with applicable anti-discrimination laws.”

On April 7th, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the case, essentially upholding the ruling of the lower court.

“When you come into the marketplace,” Moore said while speaking of the Elane Photography case, “it is the price of citizenship to give up that conscience and those convictions.”

Taking Up the Sword

But in his interview, Moore went further than the decoration of cakes. He engaged in a form of soft-spoken anti-government demagoguery that is becoming increasingly common on the Right. Issues are hyperbolized, invoking violent imagery as part of a distinct otherization of government.

“Christian ministries are going to become increasingly under assault,” Moore claimed in his explanation of business owners being required to comply with the law protecting the rights of others. In support of his prediction, he engaged in wildly revisionist history, asserting that Roman Catholic Cardinal Sean O’Malley, of Boston, and his three fellow Massachusetts Bishops were “compelled” to shut down Catholic Charities in the state because of marriage equality. But the actual facts of the story do not support his conclusion.

The agency had been a state contractor for providing adoption services in the city and had in fact, placed 13 children with gay couples, according to a report in the Boston Globe. But after deciding not to provide those services to same-sex couples any longer, O’Malley opted to shut down Catholic Charities rather than continue to comply with the law recognizing the rights of same sex couples to adopt–which it had been in compliance with since the law was passed in 1989. This case has been frequently distorted and cited as an example of government persecution of Christians for their faith, with right-wing activists and media continually claiming that somehow government had forced Catholic Charities to close down—instead of the simple truth that they chose to close their doors.

“Does the government, with the power of the sword,” Moore asked, “have the right to force someone whose conscience says that he should not bake this cake, to bake the cake?” That is the question. We will be hearing more such questions.

Moore is correct in this one assertion, the debate over the meaning of religious freedom is certainly going to continue nationwide. Just this year, after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a religious exemption bill passed by her state’s legislature, the Mississippi Legislature passed its own version of the bill which was quickly (and with much less public attention and condemnation than Arizona) signed into law by the governor. Similar proposals have been made in several other states. And while the times and circumstances are different, what we are seeing may be the beginnings of the kind of “mass resistance” that marked the era of the African American civil rights movement. How massive this resistance will be remains, of course, to be seen. 

A Baptist Sexuality Summit for the Ethically Challenged

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.


When the “Family Values” Agenda Includes Child Sex Abuse

The exposure of widespread sex abuse by Roman Catholic clergy—and of the subsequent cover-ups by church leaders—has rocked the Catholic church for more than a decade. Less well known, though closely analogous, is the issue of widespread abuse within Protestant evangelical churches.  Such stories raise doubt that the evangelical/Catholic alliance that defines the contemporary Christian Right is, in any legitimate sense, a defender of “family values.”

Boz Tchividjian rattled the evangelical world in 2013, when he declared that the problem of child sex abuse in evangelicalism is “worse” than the problem in the Roman Catholic Church. The grandson of Billy Graham, a former child sex crimes prosecutor for the state of Florida, and now a law professor at Liberty University, Tchividjian has both the public profile to hold an audience, and the professional experience to back up his assertions.

Tchividjian is not the only prominent evangelical speaking out. “Catholic and Baptist leaders have more similarities than differences on the child-abuse front,” wrote Robert Parnham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Both have harmed church members and the Christian witness by not swiftly addressing predatory clergy and designing reliable protective systems.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), 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. Indeed, Rev. Peter Lumpkins of Georgia called for the SBC’s governing body to adopt “a zero-tolerance policy toward the sexual abuse of children in churches,” but now thinks church officials are ignoring his 2013 resolution.

As just one example, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), SBC’s public policy arm, is holding an April “summit” in Nashville on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Yet the program fails to include anything about child sex abuse. “From broken marriages to pornography to homosexuality, sexual confusion and sexual brokenness has ravaged our culture and can deteriorate the integrity of our churches,” the published program declares.  It assures prospective conferees that they can “discover” how their “church and local congregations can be a beacon of hope, clarity, and restoration as the gospel is brought to bear on human sexuality.”

Greg Belser

Rev. Greg Belser

Adding insult to injury, Rev. Greg Belser, a man who epitomizes the problem in the SBC, is not only a member of the ERLC’s “leadership council,” but also a panelist at the sex summit.  The Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, Belser also happens to be at the center of a major, ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal.  In other words, the ERLC—the SBC body with delegated responsibility for addressing sex abuse within churches—features as a leader someone who himself is deeply entangled in a cover-up of abuse.

John Langworthy

Former-minister John Langworthy

Christa Brown, a leading advocate for reform in the SBC, contemplated the wider issue last year by drawing upon a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True evil lies not in the depraved act of the one, but in the silence of the many.” Indeed, the “silence of the many” helped facilitate the criminal career of John Langworthy, a youth music minister at Belser’s Morrison Heights church and a serial child molester. When allegations surfaced that Langworthy may have molested at least one boy, leaders at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas (one of the largest in the SBC), including the Senior Pastor (and future SBC President) Jack Graham, took the allegations seriously enough to fire Langworthy in 1989. Yet they did not report him to the police, although state law at the time required it.

Amy Smith, an advocate with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), tried for more than two years to alert Morrison Heights Baptist Church leaders and Mississippi officials about Langworthy before Morrison Heights (the church where Langworthy had worked for two decades) finally conducted 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—acts Langworthy described as “ungodly.” After Langworthy’s statement, Belser claimed that church officials had made “a biblical response” in the matter.

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 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.

That was in 2011.

Jack Graham

Prestonwood Senior Pastor Jack Graham

Langworthy went on to plead guilty to five felonies committed against boys at two Mississippi Baptist churches prior to his time at Prestonwood and Morrison Heights. Thanks to a plea deal, he did no time. Meanwhile, Gunn was elected Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 2012 (the first Republican since Reconstruction) and was also elected Trustee of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Graham, who served two terms as President of the SBC in 2003 and 2004, remains the Senior Pastor at Prestonwood and is fending off questions about his role in the Langworthy affair. Belser remains Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights.

Christa Brown, writing at StopBaptistPredators, suggests that SBC leaders have not created mechanisms for disciplining those who “cover-up for the unspeakable crimes of their colleagues,” either because they are afraid or because they just don’t care. She also observes that there is no denominational process for assessing clergy abuse reports, keeping records of ministerial abuses, or providing a way to inform congregations about accused ministers.

“One of the best ways to protect children in the future,” Brown concludes, “is to hear the voices of those who are attempting to tell about abuse in the past. Those voices almost always carry ugly, hard truths – truths about not only the preacher-predators but also about the many others who turned a blind eye or who were complicit in covering up for clergy child molestations.”

The “silence of the many” certainly includes those who, while claiming to uphold “family values,” remain unusually quiet in the face of crimes against children.  Even more egregious is that such abuse is occurring in the care of the churches they claim best represent these values. The story of this silence may well be the one for which they are most remembered.

Over the next year, PRA will be continuing to report on cover-up attempts within both Protestant and Catholic churches.