American evangelicals: why are there so many of them?

Paige Patterson is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Fort Worth school whose website says it is one of the largest seminaries in the world. About 15 million people are part of Southern Baptist churches, the largest Protestant group in the United States. Patterson is slated to deliver the primary sermon — a high-profile honor — in June at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas.

Patterson issued a statement Sunday pushing back after a 2000 tape surfaced purporting to quote him saying that abused women should focus on praying and “be submissive in every way that you can” and not seek divorce. He is heard on an audiotape being interviewed in 2000 about what he recommends for women “who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husband says they should submit.”

“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson says. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.” Only on an occasion or two in his career, he says, when the level of abuse “was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough,” has he recommended a temporary separation and the seeking of help.

Patterson has huge stature in the Southern Baptist Convention because he was one of the leaders, starting in the late 1970s, of what his supporters would call “the conservative resurgence” (more liberal Protestants would call it the “fundamentalist takeover”). It was a planned political takeover of the Convention and its institutions by those who believe the Bible is totally free of error.

Patterson in the tape was being interviewed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical organization that promotes the idea that men and women have different traditional roles. Efforts to confirm that with the council late Sunday were not successful. Most conservatives were eager to condemn abuse but many also declined to directly name Patterson or address the issue of divorce.

Evangelical Christians have higher-than-average divorce rates in the United States, according to research by Baylor University, a prominent Baptist school. The Southern Baptist Convention has agonized in the past decade over how to respond to this. Entwined through that issue is gender equity, as women are not allowed to be pastors in SBC churches.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood tweeted a statement it adopted in March that said physical, sexual or emotional abuse is “not only a sin but is also a crime … that must not be tolerated in the Christian community. The church must offer tender concern and care for the abused and must help them to find hope and healing through the gospel. The church should do all it can to provide ongoing counseling and support for the abused.”

Patterson himself did not dispute the tape but said he was being “subjected to rigorous misrepresentation.” Patterson was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1990s. In his statement, he said that he has never been accused of abusing anyone, that he has counseled women “on more than one occasion” to leave abusive husbands, and that physical or sexual abuse of any kind should be reported “to the appropriate authorities.” He praised the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood statement and said it reflected his view.

“I have also said that I have never recommended or prescribed divorce. How could I as a minister of the Gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce,” he wrote.

So let us assume that most people believe abuse to be abhorrent. so why are there so many evangelicals, and how can they square their political views, not just with the bible and christian values, but with humanity, decency and loving kindness? How have we reached a point where they call the shots in the Republican world and support policies and attitudes that are anathema to Epicureans and, indeed, to all humane people? Apparently, enrollment at Southwest seminary has nose-dived in the past 20 years, which does offer hope that this evangelic “movement” has at least stopped growing. I have nothing but respect for true christians, but these people do not share that epithet.

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