Continuing to embrace the fact that most traffic coming to my blog right now is driven by a scandal in the news, let’s get some new headlines out of the way first:
I’m not going to sum up the scandal yet again (if you really need to know, I quoted a great sum-up by one of thew writers at the Wonkette a couple days ago.)
Among the stories linked above, there is an official statement from the some leaders of Liberty University which claims that until last week there was absolutely no way to know that the former president of the University (and son of the scam evangelist who founded it as part of his multi-decade pro-racial segregation campaign) had been doing anything possible illegal or questionable with university funds, et cetera.
This is a blatant lie. If nothing else, because both major news organizations and dozens of bloggers like myself have been reporting on this issue for nearly three years. And one of the stories all of us covered in the last year was as a result of dozens of current and former employees of the university going to various Christian news sites to report the shenanigans. One former board member was widely quoted as saying they were no longer running a religious university, because Falwell Jr had turned it into a hedge fund that used student fees to finance his personal real estate deals.
And after that story broke, Falwell, Jr called the FBI to try to get the Feds to arrest all those employees… not for spreading false information, but for violating their non-disclosure agreements by revealing information they were supposed to keep secret.
Side note: I still have no idea why he thought calling the FBI of all people was the thing to do, but there you have it.
In other words, he essentially admitted that at least some of the allegations were turn.
That bit alone was months ago, not last week.
And again, the other news stories were published in the last few years. And at least when the mainstream news organizations were first publishing the stories, various board members and other officials of the university were contacted for comment.
Cynical people will say that “Of course they knew! But they are in on the deals, too!”
Most of the evidence is that, know, Falwell wasn’t spreading any of the money to anyone but his own family and apparently the young men who were schtupping Mrs Falwell.
No, it’s more complicated than that. And it is related to the structural forces in evangelical institutions (and probably other religious institutions, but let’s stick to what I know of personally) which enable abusers and turn the victims of abusers into villains.
First, most evangelicals believe that god is in control of the world. Which contradicts their equally sincerely held belief that satan causes all sorts of bad things to happen in the world, but such contradictions don’t bother them. Anyway, because god controls the world, then any person who is in charge of anything has been placed there by god. And god had to have a reason, even when it seems the person is completely unfit for the position. Therefore, if you question the actions of the leader, you are saying that god made a mistake putting him there. So the first line of defense when any wrongdoing of a leader is brought to light is to remind you that god works in mysterious ways, and eventually it will all turn out to be part of god’s plan.
Second, there is a section of the New Testament which is sometimes referred to as the Ministry of Correction, which details a process by which the faithful are to approach another member of the congregation/et cetera, when that person appears to have gone astray. And the first step in this process is to keep the problem private, do not share any concerns or issues with anyone outside the community. You are supposed to talk to the person directly, admit that you know that everyone including yourself sins from time to time, explain why you think what they are doing is wrong, invite them to pray with you about it, and trust in god to open their eyes.
You are only supposed to go to another person (and it is supposed to be someone who knows the person who you think has done something wrong, is a member of the same faith community, and preferably has some connection to the incident) if this conversation doesn’t lead to change and if, after you have spent time praying about it, you still think what they did was wrong. And you only take it to the entire church if none of that leads to changes and if the second person you brought into it agrees.
This process is easily subverted by a leader who doesn’t care whether what he is doing is right with god. He can pretend to take your concerns seriously, and then while you’re praying privately about it, start a whisper campaign undermining your credibility. That whole thing about everyone sin from time to time is practically inviting someone to claim some good ol’ what-about-ism—the leader may have made an unwise financial decision, but what about that time you did thus-and-so, hmmm? The Ministry of Correction is completely ineffective if any member of the leadership are acting in bad faith.
So even when you don’t have a legal non-disclosure agreement hanging over your head, if you grew up in these kind of churches, and you sincerely think that what the person is doing is wrong, your first instinct isn’t to save documents and emails and when you have enough to establish a case that the president of the university is diverting school funds to finance is luxurious millionaire lifestyle, turn said evidence over to the Department of Revenue or another agency that can investigate it, instead you go tell the grifter that you think he might be sinning and you ask him politely to think about not doing it any more.
This also how pastors who sexually abuse parishioners manage to abuse people again and again without consequence. The pastor or an ally goes to many members of the congregation, each time pretending that this person is the only one he’s talking to, and talk about their concerns about young Billy who seems to be light in the loafers, or whatever. Which is also how you end up with high ranking officials of a church telling reporters with a straight face that 11-year-old altar boys lead priests into sin, so it’s really the priest who is a victim, not the child.
I know that may seem like a big leap, but it is the same system. The default reaction from those around Falwell would have been to first assume that whatever the accusation is, it can’t be true, because god wouldn’t have allowed him to become president if he were that kind of man. And if any portion are true, it may not be quite what it seems because go works in mysterious ways. And if more of it turns out to be true, well, obviously the problem isn’t Falwell, but people around him who led him astray.
So Mrs Falwell is castigated as having a sexual addiction (and she joins in on the self-castigation!). The former pool boy, and various students who have begun to come forward are all characterized as tools of temptation that trapped poor, innocent Falwell (who was only trying to help them) into an impossible situation, and so forth.
Because the respected leaders can’t possibly be in the wrong, otherwise god wouldn’t have let them become leaders. It must be nice to be the benefactor of such blatant circular reasoning.
Note: Part of this post’s title comes from the hymn, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” by Charles Wesley, #416 in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal.