(TW: Rampant sexism. Abuse of children and women.)
Hi, folks. I wanted to introduce y’all to Christian leader Bill Gothard. He’s got a folksy good-ole-boy crooked smile; he’s just the right age where an old white dude gets a lot of cachet in certain fundagelical circles, and he’s a rock star in the homeschooling/”purity culture” crowd that thinks the best way to deal with young women is to trample them so hard underfoot that they don’t even know they’re being victimized, then get ’em married off early enough that they’re burdened with babies before they know what’s hit ’em. Needless to say, he’s one of the Quiverfull assholes.
Various high-ranking Republicans think he’s just awesome, including Sarah “Does Anybody Know Where My Kids Are?” Palin and failed Presidential contender and gynotician Mike Huckabee. And unsurprisingly, the Duggar family adores him and considers him one of their idols. Millions of people around the world use his homeschooling method and consider him an authority figure over them, someone whose ideas are worth living and trusting.
Wow, that awful, awkward moment when your idol turns out to be a sexual predator.
Not only was Bill Gothard preying upon the women who worked around him, which I guess is their fault for owning vaginas and not locking themselves in their homes 24/7, but he was preying on underaged women at that, which.. ick, I can’t even try to joke about that. One of these unfortunate women describes what happened to her when she was only 16 years old:
Gretchen Swearingen, who goes by her middle name “Charlotte,” wrote on the website that Gothard requested she come work for him in 1992 at IBLP’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., when she was 16. During her time there, she said Gothard would play footsie with her and hold her hand. At one point, she said, he had coordinated a ride from the airport for them to be together. “That’s when he first put his hand between my legs and felt me all the way up,” she wrote.
When this young woman told her mother what had happened, her mother told her she had to be lying.
Think about that for a second.
Charlotte’s own mother, the woman who bore her and raised her, who should have been the first one to go to the wall for her child, thought more highly of Bill Gothard than she did of her own teenaged daughter. She believed the word of a man holding religious authority over her before believing her own daughter. So Charlotte was betrayed, first, by her employer and pastor, and secondly, by her very own mother. (Gosh, WWJD? From what I saw, the two reconciled eventually, but holy cow, that’s harsh.)
There’s a reason this devastating second betrayal could have possibly occurred, and it has to do with how Bill Gothard used and abused his borrowed authority.
We’ve also talked here before about Doug Phillips, who was another misogynistic, patriarchal Christian leader who was brought low by a sexual scandal involving him and one of his young female congregants. Same story, different day, really–Mr. Phillips advocated the same sort of revoltingly sexist “complementarianism” that fundagelicals have convinced themselves is real equality, and he preyed upon his young victim in the same exact way that Mr. Gothard preyed upon his own, starting with grooming her and her family like any pedophile would when she was just a child.
Though it might seem strange at first glance, it is not strange at all that Mr. Phillips actually flaunted his young conquest in public, and may well have even promised her he’d marry her one day and given her a promise ring to that effect; she wears the ring in a photo in that link and is not taking any pains to hide it, and the two were seen canoodling and holding hands on the street at a popular Christian movie festival. He even got caught having sex with this young woman in her family’s home, by her own family members, who strangely did not murder him for it. Think about how bulletproof he had to have felt to take advantage of his victim in a place where discovery was all but assured and in a culture where he’d been trumpeting to the very skies that the only appropriate penalty for adultery was death.
It’s easy to see why Mr. Phillips might be so brazen when one considers how he was using and taking advantage of his borrowed authority.
There are many, many more examples I could name, but we’ll go with Tony Alamo last. Back in the 1980s, he was famous for making super-tacky airbrushed, rhinestone-studded fringed denim jackets and whatnot. We didn’t know he was the leader of a huge Christian cult. We definitely didn’t know that he was busy using his cult members for slave labor to make those jackets, as well as diddling any underaged girl he could get his grubby mitts on. He’s now busy rotting in prison for the next, oh, 175 years for sex-trafficking little girls, but his church just got a bill for USD$525 million dollars to pay his various victims. They deserve every penny, and I’m glad they got some kind of justice from this “godly Christian man.”
His brazenness follows along the same lines as that of the other two predators I’ve outlined. One of his victims claims that Mr. Alamo fondled her while she visited him in prison with some other church folks, using the bodies of his followers to shield the abuse from prison security guards. Think about that for a second–about how incredibly rash that idea would be, about how beyond-stupid it is to try to molest a child while one is currently in prison, about how at that point the jig had been up for some time and people were already aware that he was a child molester (yet were for some reason bringing little girls to see him?). Think about how that little girl felt about her parents taking her to that prison. Think about how parents could ever bring their little girl into the presence of someone they know has been accused of child molestation and trafficking. (Parents, help a childfree sister out here–would you ever let your young children anywhere near someone accused of child rape? Am I being unreasonable here?) His church, by the way, is apparently trying to think up how they’re going to pay that bill. Considering they quite literally stood right there while he was molesting a little girl right in their arms’ reach, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the lot of them.
Mr. Alamo lived and breathed and moved through a world he’d created, a world he owned, a world he dominated, a world he expected to run just the way he’d told it to run, just like these other two predators did in the worlds they owned and dominated. And he was able to do it all because of borrowed authority.
Borrowed authority is what happens when a person lacks authority on his or her own to do something or command something, so that person leans on an external power source to get compliance from victims. You’ve probably heard of bully cops, who use their badges to abuse people and get away with crimes themselves, though it’s not always actual police officers doing it; you may remember youth pastor Matt Pitt, who used exactly this borrowed authority when he flashed his honorary badge at people to get his way. From that little prat who controls the school’s hallways as a monitor to that boorish American President, George W. Bush, who famously declared that he’s the “decider,” when an angry little child or child-at-heart is handed great power, the temptation to misuse it can be downright overwhelming.
And who offers more authority to borrow than the author and creator of the entire universe?
The Catholic Church understood the situation a long, long time ago: say you’re acting on behalf of a god, and you can pretty much get away with anything. They trace their Popes all the way back to Saint Peter, with the same exact historical justification that I’ve seen some genealogy nuts employ to trace their lineage all the way back to Adam and Eve. And of course Saint Peter, in most flavors of Christianity, was ordained by Jesus himself to lead the newly-minted religion’s followers. There’s a very clear line of authority there, and disagreeing with the successor of Saint Peter is obviously a very big problem. The Church wrestled with the concept of papal infallibility for a long time, and has only recently come up with what it thinks is a decent workaround (but IMO really isn’t helpful).
Protestants, who generally believe in a way less hierarchical church structure and who also generally believe that all Christians can talk to their god directly without needing a priest at all, might not have had that same line of authority from their god, but in the vacuum created by the absence of a Pope they came up with their own homegrown substitutes. Between all these heartless Skeksis trying to wield power and control other people’s fates, people suffered for a long time, but we’re not done with these power-mad zealots yet, not by a long shot. And we won’t be until we grow a little and learn how to spot someone misusing authority.
It seems like any fool who can make a claim that he or she is speaking for a divine entity can find an audience in our society. It just takes a lot of charisma and sounding totally confident in the con game being played. It’s a nice easy way to get people to pay attention and obey, and if you do it in the right church, nobody’s even going to question the demands if you couch them the right way.
I really cannot imagine a better setting or a more “right” church than what you find in fundagelical settings. Right-wing Christianity suffers from a number of shortcomings that make this borrowed-authority con easy:
* Critical thinking skills are denounced and viewed with great suspicion. There’s no way to judge what is and isn’t true or to assess the objective validity of any claim, so Christians end up believing whoever sounds the most certain of something or who can make the most impressive argument for something.
* A cult-like atmosphere that emphasizes obedience and compliance, especially among women and children, makes it easy to groom victims and keep them silent.
* Christians don’t tend to understand that being Christian doesn’t make someone a more moral person, even though it happens constantly around them. They are very trusting, as a consequence. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me six hundred and thirty times, we must be standing in a church.
* Inequality between genders, especially when coupled with rigid gender roles and a culture that shames women for non-compliance, leads to women not being believed if they do speak up about abuse. A rape-apologist culture doesn’t help at all; women who get preyed upon and abused are often made to feel, either implicitly or explicitly, that it was their fault somehow that they were victimized. They are often not believed, and sometimes even made to apologize to their church, family, and abuser for doing some imaginary thing that led to their own abuse.
* A culture of aggressive contempt for outsiders and encouragement of disdain for those who do not step to the same beat means that when someone inevitably gets victimized, there’s way too much shame involved to reveal that the group is actually not that holy or superior.
* The person borrowing the authority is considered second only to the believers’ god, and whatever that person says, goes. Disobedience becomes the cardinal sin, and speaking against that leader becomes the ultimate crime. A mother who hears that her daughter got molested will automatically assume the girl is lying; family members who walk in on their pastor banging their daughter or sister in the living room will somehow still idolize their pastor. Dissenters are punished and ostracized for non-compliance.
Remember in Real Genius when the bad guy’s onetime favorite, Kent, tries to pull that borrowed-authority stunt on his labmates and gets rebuffed by that same bad guy? One of the labmates says, “Well, I guess it goes from God, to Jerry, to you… to the cleaners. Right, Kent?” That might be what needs to happen: for us as a culture to collectively start viewing such attempts at borrowing authority as the attempts to control and dominate others that they are. But first we’ll need to reject the idea that the claim to authority is even valid.
It is no secret that I am a critic of right-wing fundagelical religion, and a big part of the reason I criticize it is because of how poorly it protects its more vulnerable members. Of course, one reason it even has vulnerable members is because fundagelicals don’t value all their members the same way. Oh, there’s a lot of preening and self-serving faux-concern over children and women, yes, but you know it’s fake concern and not real concern because the real people being protected are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. The second one of these “men of god” get caught doing exactly what they rail against others doing, suddenly they forget that they were just two seconds ago saying that the penalty for adultery is death (Doug Phillips, who was banging a teenaged girl at the same time he was issuing that declaration), or that the penalty for child abuse should be death (Doug Wilson, who pastors a church in Idaho where a sexual predator on his staff got caught preying upon children), or that adulterers in government office should be impeached (Newt Gingrich, who is on his third marriage to his most recent mistress that we know of, and who was cheating on one of his wives while demanding Bill Clinton’s impeachment).
The simple truth is that the person these predators care most about is themselves, and their rules and dictates are designed to keep themselves in power and vices, not further the kingdom of the god they claim is totally for realsies true and real and will judge everybody after death.
Alas, it’s just not a good time to be a con artist in religion. With the advent of the internet, victims are finding it easier and easier to find information they need and share their stories. There’s an entire website, Recovering Grace, devoted to the women who’ve survived Bill Gothard’s predations. Other support sites have sprung up around similarly abusive churches and leaders, including one fascinating blog I’ve linked here and before, Jen’s Gems, which mostly deals with Doug Phillips’ abuses and fall from grace.
And, too, the growing secularization of America means that young people are fleeing religion in record numbers, so these predators may well find their influence waning through simple numbers and attrition. It takes money to fund these churches, and even if they’re tax-free enterprises, someone’s got to pay the light bill and the mortgage (here’s a neat story about how a lot of churches are being foreclosed lately). If there just isn’t enough money flowing into the coffers, these leaders may well find themselves preaching to people perched on white plastic lawn chairs in the basement of the local community center, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to abuse of power, I wouldn’t reckon.
So there is hope. But first we’re going to have to reach that tipping point in America where we just aren’t willing to put up with con men and predators using churches to scam people and prey upon their children. We’re going to have to come face to face with the horrible truth: that being Christian doesn’t make someone a better person in and of itself. A church is not necessarily a safe haven just because it has a big ole Jesus cross on the door and a sign out front promising that all rocks go to heaven. And just because some nutbar is claiming that a god told him you need to listen to him, you don’t have to listen to him.
It’s about damned time we caught these Christian predators.
Next time, please join me as I explore Ross Douthat’s latest insufferable piece about how very, very sad he is that fundagelicals have pretty much lost the war on LGBT people. He’s briefly skidded across the surface of something I think needs a little more examining: the real reason I think he’s scared to death of the end of institutionalized bigotry. So we’ve got that going for us. I heart you all and want you to know you are the best, the ever-lovin’ best, blog community out there. Thank you for making it all worth doing.