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I wondered when the #MeToo movement was going to have an impact on religious institutions, and we may be seeing that happen with the Southern Baptist response to the scandal swirling around Paige Patterson.

The background to this is that, like many other denominations, the Southern Baptists are in decline. Their membership is graying and shrinking and young people are vanishing. This is not unrelated to the conservative takeover of the denomination in the 1970s, a successful push to centralize control and establish fundamentalism and inerrancy as core principles, that was largely engineered by Paige Patterson and another man, Paul Pressler (remember that name). As a result, the SBC has endorsed many retrograde ideas, like their infamous declaration that wives should “submit graciously” to their husbands’ orders.

The conservatives won the battle, but they’re losing the war. Ever since then, moderates, women and young people have been heading for the exits, correctly sensing that they’re second-class citizens in a church dominated by white male culture warriors.

That brings us to this month, when a recording surfaced of a sermon given by Patterson in 2000. In it, he says that wives in abusive marriages shouldn’t seek divorce, but should focus on praying for their husbands and strive to “be submissive in every way that you can”. He tells a story of a battered woman who asked his counsel, and he sent her home after urging her to pray harder. And then:

The woman returned to church with two black eyes from her violent husband. When Patterson saw her wounds, he told her that he was “very happy” because her pain had made her husband feel guilty enough to attend church for the first time. (source)

This brought about a firestorm of controversy, but it wasn’t the only issue. At around the same time, another Patterson sermon surfaced in which he joked about objectifying a 16-year-old girl, saying that making leering comments about women’s bodies is just “being biblical”.

Last but certainly not least, multiple men have filed a lawsuit against Paul Pressler, accusing him of groping, molesting and raping them when they were boys in a string of incidents going back decades. One of the plaintiffs is also suing Patterson, alleging that he knew about the molestation and helped cover it up.

The reaction to Patterson’s multiple scandals was fiercest from women, including a letter signed by thousands calling for him to relinquish all power as a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, it looked at first like the old boys’ club was moving in to protect him. Many SBC leaders clammed up. When a Ph.D student at Patterson’s seminary criticized him, he was fired from an on-campus job and lost a tuition break. And Patterson himself doubled down with a defiant statement in which he complains that he’s been subjected to “rigorous misrepresentation”.

But then, a surprise: last week, Patterson issued an apology. Here’s what he said:

I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity. We live in a world of hurt and sorrow, and the last thing that I need to do is add to anyone’s heartache. Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been.

I would also like to reiterate the simple truth that I utterly reject any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts. There is no excuse for anyone to use intemperate language or to attempt to injure another person.

I guess this is good to hear, although I don’t think anyone ever claimed that Paige Patterson endorses domestic violence. However, his apology didn’t answer the more important question, the one that started this debate: if a woman finds herself in a marriage where her partner is abusive, what should she do?

Should she call the police, get to a domestic violence shelter, seek a divorce, do whatever is necessary to stay safe? Or should she stay married to the abuser, pray harder and bear the abuse meekly, hoping that a miracle will eventually soften his heart?

Patterson’s failure to address this, combined with the strategically vague “anything that lacked clarity”, suggests that he doesn’t regret the content of his beliefs but just the specific wording he chose to express them. This is a common tactic among Christian apologists who find themselves embroiled in controversy. It’s the equivalent of, “My beliefs are true, but I shouldn’t have said them in a way that made you angry, I should have chosen a different wording so you’d have realized that I was right.”

If it’s necessary to say the obvious, religion isn’t a magic cure for violent spouses. Countless “good Christian” men have beaten or killed their wives and children. In fact, religion can even help abusers get away with their crimes, because it gives them a convenient way to “prove” their virtue. If a person is a regular churchgoer and puts on a show of piety, few people will believe they could be capable of such appalling acts (and more often than not, will blame the woman if she speaks out). The only solution to a violent relationship is to end it, and trying to placate a batterer is just an invitation to them to continue doing it.

This is a one-step-forward, one-step-back situation. The growing cultural power of women is such that even a former head of the Southern Baptists feels he has to apologize for grossly sexist remarks. On the other hand, he chose to apologize strategically, in a way that doesn’t force him to modify his actual beliefs. And I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t get away with it. While it’s undeniably a good sign that the most conservative Christians feel pressure, I’m guessing it will be a long time, if ever, before the influence of feminism forces meaningful change in the highest echelons.

Image credit: Pasquale Paolo Cardo, released under CC BY 2.0 license

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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