Are Evangelicals Having Their #MeToo Moment?
By Mark Ward Sr.
With 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. So, even though The Baptist Blogger is an unofficial organ, someone was bound to notice when it posted an explosive story. In the “evangelical #MeToo moment” that followed, Southern Baptist icon Paige Patterson, who a generation ago helped lead a conservative takeover of the denomination, was removed from the presidency of an SBC seminary. His offense? Decades of demeaning remarks about women.
In April, the Blogger unearthed a 2000 interview given to a Christian group by Paige Patterson, a revered SBC elder statesman and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the interview, Patterson recalled counseling a woman to pray for her abusive husband. Later, according to his account, the woman came back with two black eyes and said, “I hope you’re happy!” Patterson replied, “I’m very happy” because the husband, hearing his wife’s prayers, attended church the next day for the first time.
Legions of indignant Southern Baptists did, in fact, notice the Blogger story—and soon, so did the national press. Not only is the evangelical SBC the largest Protestant denomination; evangelical Protestantism is the single largest religious tradition in the United States[i] and, according to the Pew Research Forum, can claim the allegiance of one in four Americans.
Within days of the story breaking, more disturbing statements surfaced from Patterson’s past: a 2014 sermon in which he characterized a boy’s admiration of a teenage girl’s body as “being biblical”; a 2010 address in which he chided female seminarians about their appearance, saying “It shouldn’t be any wonder why some of you don’t get a second look”; and a 1997 article quotation in which, when asked about women’s ordination, he quipped about women in general, “I think everyone should own one.”
One poignant response to the controversy was an open “Letter to My Brothers” from bestselling evangelical author and ministry leader Beth Moore. A Southern Baptist, she detailed years of disrespect and objectification from male colleagues and how “I was the elephant in the room with a skirt on.” Other online statements and petitions were soon circulated by concerned Southern Baptists—women and men, laity and leaders—generating pressure which, a month after the revelations surfaced, prompted Patterson’s removal from his seminary post.
Discourse and Doctrine
For outsiders, the “alternate universe” of the evangelical subculture can be difficult to comprehend. How could this community, in the face of modern realities, cling so fervently to an ideology of “male headship” (that men are leaders of their homes) and “complementarianism” (that men and women are equal before God but divinely designed for different roles)? And how could the patent sexism of Patterson, a key figure in the “conservative resurgence” (aka “fundamentalist takeover”) of the SBC in the 1970s and 1980s, be accepted for decades?
An answer comes by setting aside the traditional Western view of individuals as bearers of meaning through language and instead seeing people as caught in the webs of meaning that language creates. Michel Foucault called these webs “discursive formations” and likened their analysis to “archaeology.”[ii] The analyst must excavate the historical genealogy of the discourse, as well as the communal epistemology that accepts the discourse as “knowledge” and thus invests it with power to dominate the community and marginalize other discourses.
The genealogy of evangelical gendering traces to a “household code” set forth in the New Testament. Wives must obey their husbands, children their fathers, and slaves their masters (Colossians 3:18-4:1, Ephesians 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7). This was the norm in Roman antiquity and early Christians adopted it to gain social acceptance. But according to evangelical epistemology, the Bible is divinely inspired and without error. Its admonitions are not bound to any historical moment but binding for all time.[iii]
At the macro level of the evangelical social system, this discursive formation is maintained by media celebrities who preach gender essentialism on some 3,000 religious radio stations, 10 national evangelical radio networks, and a dozen evangelical cable and satellite television networks—all programming now available on-demand via streaming media.[iv]
At the meso level, gender essentialism is the “knowledge” preached in Sunday sermons at some 200,000 local evangelical and conservative Protestant churches. These congregations powerfully illustrate the claims of critical feminist organization theory: that gendering is socially constructed, is an integral feature of organizational life, and is accomplished as men and women jointly “do gender.”[v]
At the micro level of private talk and action, the essentialist discourse of media celebrities and church pastors regulates the identity work of church members so that they conform to communal gender norms—in the same way that discourses by corporate leaders produce “appropriate” employees.[vi]
Finding Common Ground
Yet evangelicals are also impacted by the discourses in society at large. Thus, the reaction against Patterson evoked what commentators have called evangelicals’ own #MeToo moment. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Christian Right opposed feminism to defend biblical “inerrancy.” Today, however, studies find that evangelical families, though still committed to a rhetoric of male headship and complementarianism, are in everyday practice accommodating themselves to the expanded role of women in society.[vii]
While the New Testament household code retains authority, discourse among younger evangelicals favors the “mutual submission” found in the code’s preface, “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21). Thus, the day is disappearing when a Paige Patterson could sermonize with a smile and a wink about the abuse of women and the objectification of their bodies.
This #MeToo moment is unlikely to turn evangelicals into committed feminists. But if the two sides can get past the rhetoric, the moment may leave opposing culture warriors with more common ground than they might think. As Moore framed it in the language of evangelicalism, “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these [powerful] men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”
Moore’s summation suggests a possible path for productive civic discourse, brought on by our national #MeToo moment. When dialogue across the secular/religious divide is seen as a form of intercultural communication, mindfulness of the other’s cultural discourses can reduce uncertainty, manage anxiety, and perhaps enable even culture warriors to at least understand one another.[viii]
[iv] Mark Ward Sr., “Major Networks and Personalities,” in Mark Ward Sr. (ed.), The Electronic Church in the Digital Age: Cultural Impacts of Evangelical Mass Media, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 255-284.
[v] Karen L. Ashcraft, “Feminist Organizational Communication Studies: Engaging Gender in Public and Private,” in Steve May and Dennis K. Mumby (eds.), Engaging Organizational Communication Theory and Work: Multiple Perspectives (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), 141-170.
[viii] Mark Ward Sr., “Managing the Anxiety and Uncertainty of Religious Otherness: Interfaith Dialogue as a Problem of Intercultural Communication,” in D. S. Brown Jr. (ed.), A Communication Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue: Living between the Abrahamic Traditions (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013), 23-43.