How secrets unmade a Southern Baptist candidate

A contender for the Southern Baptist Convention presidency falls due to weaponized secrets--and the secret-sharer finds himself on the receiving end of a divulged confidence.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

The more I learn about the Tom Buck situation, the more puzzle pieces I add to my table. Recently, I wrote about his newly-exploded scandal. If you missed it, right before his wife’s voluntarily-published story of redemption after spousal abuse, someone leaked an earlier (and much more alarming) draft to various news sites. Tom Buck went on a red-hot attack against the leaker while ignoring what that earlier account said about his actual abuse of his wife.

Now, I’m learning a lot more about Tom Buck. And he comes off worse and worse with each new puzzle piece on the table. One thing’s becoming clear: in the land of hypocrisy, secrets are currency. And the game SBC leaders are playing is decidedly pay-to-win.

Jesus sure changes people: Tom Buck edition

One theme of my writing centers around an unfortunate truth about Christianity: fervent belief in Jesus absolutely does not change Christians or make them into better people. That’s because the roadmap Christianity offers believers, the path it prescribes from Point Sinful Wretchedness to Point Joy and Moral Purity, is broken. The route does not lead to the destination the map says it does.

Real improvement to character happens after extensive reflection, acceptance of responsibility, and work to change long-established habits. Often, it requires a professional who is trained and educated to guide clients along the real roadmap’s route. And that real route requires no gods at all, nor beliefs in any imaginary beings.

What happens instead with Christians is very different. They may try very hard to be better people, sure. But they will suffer huge and often deal-breaking lapses. All Christians will fail to reach their roadmap’s prescribed destination unless they get there through some other, real-world means. However, some of them pretend they use their religion’s roadmap, and that it has led them to the destination.

This group, we call hypocrites. And Tom Buck is very much a hypocrite.

He portrays himself as a humble servant of Christ. In actuality, he schemes and connives behind the scenes to help his faction achieve dominance in the new looming schism of his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). When his antics come to light, he uses a classic abuse strategy called DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender).

Absolutely nothing is sacred to him–not even the secrets of his congregation and friends.

Authoritarian systems are built around the principles of power

The SBC is an authoritarian denomination. It is also a broken system, meaning it cannot fulfill its own stated goals. It has been subverted. Now, it serves the interests of those who hold power in it.

As such, the SBC is built around the principles of power. At each level, power flows from one central leader to that person’s chosen sub-leaders. Followers might be content to remain followers of their main leader, sure. But they, too, tend to jockey for power in their own little sub-groups. Imagine the church leader who plays favorites–and how candidates for coveted positions earn their place. Or the long-time members who guard “their” church pews with military ferocity. For that matter, I’ve heard countless stories of church committee leaders who rule with an iron fist.

It all happens because authoritarian groups are built around power. For those rare members who do not crave or seek any power, they inevitably find themselves steamrolled by those who do. In a lot of ways, that classic “umbrella diagram” actually describes the flow of power in the smallest sub-group of a church: the family.

This diagram was well-liked by Pentecostals back in my day.

As above, so below; this power flow happens similarly at all levels.

Generally speaking, the people in SBC church pews don’t even realize this is happening. They likely even participate in these power grabs, but they rationalize what they’re doing. They’re unable even to ask the right questions about what’s happening. They certainly can’t imagine it happening everywhere across their denomination. In particular, they’re trained to believe that at each level of leadership, Jesus had a big hand in getting those people into their roles.

How broken authoritarian systems assign power

However, authoritarian group leaders in broken systems cannot afford to appoint sub-leaders based on ability and aptitude. Very few leaders at any level, particularly the highest, achieve their ranks on that basis. Competent leadership would quickly identify the grievous problems within the group–and maybe even seek to eliminate them. They might even start steering the group toward meeting its own stated goals at last! The horror!

(We saw that happening to an extent with Russell Moore. The SBC’s leaders appointed him as the leader of their Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission [ERLC]. The appointment represented an over-correction to a previous leader’s scandals. Very quickly, they realized their error and began to scheme up ways to force him out of the role. Eventually, he quit before he got fired.)

No, authoritarian leaders in broken systems need sub-leaders who will protect them and help them achieve their own private goals. These sub-leaders need to be okay with the system not ever meeting its own stated goals. Most of all, sub-leaders must play ball. So leaders end up granting power to friends, family, and other proven associates.

This entire network of cronies props itself up. It guards its own power.

Hypocrisy and secrets in the broken system

Now, let’s take these two strands–hypocrisy and how broken systems operate–and weave them together to understand the SBC.

This denomination contains people who cannot achieve the ideals of their religion using its own–and the only approved–roadmap. They constantly fail to reach Point Joy and Moral Purity. Of course, they cannot question the roadmap itself, much less reject it.

In such cases, hypocrisy becomes an inevitable outcome. It becomes part of the broken system itself. Because it cannot be defeated using the group’s own roadmap, it becomes what a previous boss of mine once called a gravity issue. That’s a problem everyone simply works around and accepts without even wondering.

Those who fail to meet their group’s ideal often feel terrible about it. Naturally, they want to talk about it. To share their struggles. And so, many do exactly that.

Their confidants become the holders of reputation-destroying secrets.

And these secrets become, in turn, the currency of power brokers within their broken system.

How Tom Buck sought power

Recently, I wrote about Tom Buck’s recent scandal. If you missed it, his wife published an essay on G3 on April 7th. G3 is a very Calvinist-leaning group that seeks to train pastors in their ideology and methods. Tom Buck, a pastor from a tiny town in Texas, contributes to the site and offers seminars in preaching through it.

In her essay, Jennifer Buck described her husband’s horrifying anger problems and subsequent emotional abuse of her. This abuse escalated to the physical. At that point, he realized that his behavior would soon end the marriage. With a lot of help, he very slowly learned to inch a bit closer toward human decency. Now years later, Jennifer Buck describes his slow–and incomplete–progress as a real live redemptive miracle from Jesus himself.

At the same time, Tom Buck was stumping hard for his pal Tom Ascol. They’re both members of what I call the Old Guard, a faction within the SBC. This faction seeks to steer the SBC into ever-more-conservative waters. This summer, Ascol wants to become the SBC’s next president. Over the past couple of years, faction warfare has been heating up big time. So, both the Old Guard and their enemy faction, the Pretend Progressives, have been busy.

In a lot of ways, both factions present this squabble as representing the future of the SBC itself. They might even be right.

Then, just before Jennifer Buck’s essay saw daylight, someone leaked an earlier version of it from three years ago. This version described Tom Buck’s behavior in much more alarming terms.

However, its timing wasn’t accidental.

Willy Rice, the surprising Pretend Progressive candidate, had secrets too

Not long ago, we met Willy Rice. This summer, he was to be the Pretend Progressive candidate. At the time, I was surprised by his nomination. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. This faction’s previous candidate and winner, Ed Litton, was also a relative unknown. Like most candidates for the SBC presidency, Rice’s main qualification appeared to be the fact that he pastored a big church.

However, Willy Rice had a big secret.

More precisely, a deacon of his, Jeff Ford, had the secret. Rice merely guarded it.

Back in 2005, when Ford had been a teacher, he’d sexually groomed a student there. Though their affair began when she turned 18, she remained a student. Because of her status as a student, she should have been off-limits. He avoided criminal charges, but it was still a serious scandal.

Guess who Ford’s pastor was at the time?

Tom Buck.

According to a Baptist News article, he even got involved in the scandal. First, he took Ford to the police station to confess. Then, he allowed Ford and his wife to stay in his home for a while.

And now, guess who Jeff Ford’s current pastor is? Who ordained him as a deacon?

Willy Rice.

Soon enough, Tom Buck connected the dots. Or had them connected for him.

I wonder how long Tom Buck struggled with the secrets he knew about Jeff Ford before using them to attack his faction’s newest enemy #1. One minute? Two? Less?

The secrets spill out

According to that Baptist News article (relink), Tom Buck placed a discreet call to Willy Rice. Though we don’t know exactly what the men discussed, it seems clear that Buck expected Rice to bow out of the presidential race right then and there.

However, Rice balked at that idea. At the time of his nomination, he phrased his candidacy in terms of Jesus having commanded him to run:

I approach this opportunity with fear and trembling and yet a confident resolve that God is directing my steps. I view this as an opportunity to obey God and serve His people.

Christian Post, 3/3/22

Despite this humble phrasing, the rest of his statement reveals that he jumped at the chance to run–and definitely desired the role.

So, when Tom Buck called to share the secrets he held about Jeff Ford, Willy Rice didn’t immediately fold.

And remember, at this point, nobody else knows Tom Buck did this.

Damage control for a threatened leak of secrets

Instead, Rice released a video statement.

In it, he said he’d removed Jeff Ford from his deacon position. Then, he stressed that Jeff Ford had had “a genuine conversion to Christ” as a result of his scandal. This Christianese means he’d only been a half-assed Christian up to that point, but now he’s really and truly a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. For good measure, Rice stressed that Ford had been a really good boy ever since that “genuine conversion.” And coincidentally, he mentioned that Ford had never gotten involved in any children’s or students’ ministries.

So, Rice definitely knew about Ford’s past all this time. But it took a phone call from what Rice describes as an “unnamed pastor” to convince him that maybe, just maybe he had made the wrong call about ordaining Ford as a deacon.

Next in his video, Rice conceded that making Ford a deacon just might have been a teeny bit of a bad decision. After all, last year the SBC passed a formal resolution that bars sex abusers from holding leadership positions in any SBC-affiliated churches. From now on, Rice promised, his church leaders would not do anything like that again.

And with this statement, Rice clearly super-hoped that he could remain in the SBC presidential race.

Secrets won, this time

However, on April 8th Willy Rice dropped out of the race. At the time, he cited his reason as “watching people I love in a church I love done immeasurable harm simply because my name was being considered for this office.”

I saw his tweets. Of note, Rice never mentioned the fact that he had, in fact, ordained a deacon with a known past of sex abuse. Nope. It was all about concern for people he loves enduring immeasurable harm just cuz of his candidacy.

So, Tom Buck had won. His weaponization of Jeff Ford’s secrets had successfully driven out an enemy faction’s candidate. Bret Barber seems to have taken his place for the Pretend Progressives. He’s regarded as a stronger candidate anyway. Thus, this victory might be short-lived.

Of course, Buck’s faction’s enemies soon learned he’d done it. Those secrets didn’t stay hidden for long. And they sure perceived that discreet phone call as a politically-motivated attack. He might piously proclaim whatever he liked about the matter, but the perception was definitely there. Afterward, Buck and his wife both alluded to behind-the-scenes counterattacks.

Oh, but Tom Buck had more secrets of his own–secrets other people held and were ready to use against him in turn.

The abuse story and its own secrets

On April 7, Jennifer Buck’s essay about spousal abuse and reconciliation went live.

Officially, Jennifer Buck had hoped her G3 article would communicate “God’s ability to bring about repentance, restoration and reconciliation” in cases of spousal abuse.

As I mentioned, though, she had written an earlier and more alarming version of her recently-published G3 essay. It would have been published pseudonymously. That earlier version never got published, but it was supposed to have gone live right around 2018, during the time when Paige Patterson was losing his job at an SBC seminary over his mishandling of sex-abuse and assault reports on campus. Apparently, it denounced the entire #MeToo movement and “cancel culture,” and she positioned spousal abuse as something besides an automatic dealbreaker for evangelical marriages.

Right around the time that Willy Rice put out his video statement, a still-anonymous source emailed that earlier draft to Baptist Press. Not long afterward, an anonymous Twitter account gave dark hints about Tom Buck’s abusive behavior toward his wife.

Then, on April 12, another anonymous person, this time going by “Walt Lisly,” tweeted inside knowledge of the “unnamed pastor” who’d called Willy Rice. The account accurately blamed Tom Buck for the call. Then, its owner gave a lot of details about the kind things Buck had done for Jeff Ford in the wake of his scandal.

Walt Lisly turned out to be Liza Ford, Jeff Ford’s wife. But she’s unlikely to have been the one who had Jennifer Buck’s unpublished earlier essay. In a statement issued yesterday on Tom Buck’s church site, its unnamed authors blame Karen Swallow Prior. She’s an author and professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The statement claims that Prior was the only person who ever saw that rough draft.

Of course, Tom Buck’s faction seized this name with both hands and are currently attacking her hard.

Quick blame for revealed secrets

On her own Twitter, Prior has remained radio-silent about the accusation.

Baptist Press doesn’t think she leaked the rough draft. For whatever it’s worth, I kinda agree. Her Twitter page reveals someone who largely tries to stay the heck out of internal SBC squabbles. Maybe I just didn’t read back far enough, but my doomscrolling didn’t turn up any attacks on anybody, much less anybody in the Old Guard. Really, she seems nice, especially by SBC standards.

In the world of evangelical secrets, though, it’s very unlikely that literally only this one person ever saw the rough draft. Unless the Bucks have some kind of proof that only Prior could possibly have had access to the specific file, like a watermarked screenshot or some kind of embedded data about the electronic file, it’s way more likely that someone else simply got ahold of it.

Were I in the Bucks’ position, I would be thinking now about housekeepers, personal assistants, people on church staff or family members who had access to any computers Jennifer Buck used for writing, even other proofreaders or beta-readers she asked for help. It’s very rare for someone to craft something of that scale (she intended it to eventually become a book, according to that church statement) without pulling in extra help. Heck, maybe someone on Prior’s end did it. As I said last time we talked about this topic, it’s probably someone Jennifer Buck sees as a friend, and likely someone who sees themself as generally loyal to the Bucks and the Old Guard, but then they got worried about Buck’s overreach, scheming, and hypocrisy.

And Tom Buck’s counterattacks in all cases have always been swift and vicious–and focused not on addressing his own behavior, but on attacking those who revealed his secrets. To him, as to all the power-jockeys in broken systems, disloyalty to him is the biggest and most unforgivable sin. In his own opinion, whatever he does pales in comparison.

Rise by trading secrets, fall that way too

I mean, I thought bearing false witness was a sin in the Christ-o-sphere. But this sure wouldn’t be the very first time evangelicals have figured out ways to rationalize their own hypocrisy. It wouldn’t even be the first time it’s happened in the past year the past six months with the Old Guard.

(Please, though, don’t imagine I’m a Pretend Progressive fan. They’re just nicer to sex-abuse survivors and accept critical race theory as a useful and valid scholarly framework for understanding systemic racism. In reality, they have made no moves whatsoever to dismantle the broken system itself that has allowed sex abuse to flourish in the SBC.)

To me, it just sounds like Tom Buck is upset now that his own secrets have been weaponized against him. But to borrow another Bible phrase, those who weaponize secrets may find themselves falling the same way. He is nowhere near important enough in the evangelical crony network for his peers to play ball by protecting him to the hilt. And I doubt he’ll damage Tom Ascol’s chances overmuch either way. Evangelicals are well-versed in spinning their leaders’ hypocrisy as squarely the fault of the people who raised awareness of it.

DARVO tactics mean never having to admit responsibility for one’s own shortcomings. So far, I’ve not seen any contrition out of Tom Buck. I don’t expect to. Hopefully, SBC-lings will understand what’s going on here. He is an outgrowth of their broken system–one that anybody with understanding of that system expects to encounter, and one that cannot be anticipated, contained, or stopped using the tribe’s own roadmap.

NEXT UP: Why the Old Guard is screaming for Ed Litton to resign–but didn’t make a peep when his predecessor, J.D. Greear, did something that’s objectively way worse than sermon plagiarism.

Endnote

The truest part of that statement on Tom Buck’s church site (relink) might just be this bit, toward the end of it:

We have no desire to entangle ourselves in a public battle with the SBC.

Oh yeah. Not a public battle. But a private one? Sure, yes, absolutely! I suppose that’s always understood.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...