Last month, the Southern Baptist Convention released an investigation report describing how the organization’s leaders have been systematically covering up reports of sexual abuse by ministers for at least two decades. The news about the report barely had time to register in our tiny collective attention spans before it was buried by headlines about the massacre in Uvalde. But I am still thinking about the Southern Baptist scandal, somewhere in a corner of my mind, behind the to-do lists, the daily fears, and the grinding exhaustion of living in a country that has lost the political will to protect our most vulnerable. I’ve been letting the story steep in my memories of growing up Baptist.
I attended a Baptist school for six years, from fifth grade through my sophomore year in high school. The school included a day care, an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school, which, at that time, were all housed in the same three-story building in Central Austin. A person could do all her growing up in those halls; some of my classmates did just that. We went to chapel every day. We had the normal English, Math, Science and Social Studies classes, and in addition we took Bible classes broken into Old Testament and New Testament. We learned to recite the Old Testament kings in order in a classroom that the Old Testament teacher festooned with a banner made from that kind of ’80s printer paper that printed out in one continuous loop with perforated edges, declaring the message: THY WORD IS TRUTH. This was before email and text messaging, but I remember feeling like the words were yelling at me in all-caps.
This is not, to be clear, an essay in which I reveal that I was sexually abused by a Baptist minister. I was not. The school was not a good fit for me — turns out, neither was Christianity. I got a decent education anyway.
Some people were probably capable of attending that school without feeling haunted by religion. For me, the question of faith permeated everything; I breathed it in like chalk dust billowing from two erasers clapped together. I wanted to be a part of it, but something about my school’s version of Christianity felt exclusive. My parents were Christians too; my mother taught women’s Bible studies and Sunday school. I asked her once why she wasn’t a minister, and she told me the Southern Baptists didn’t ordain women. At home, my parents emphasized kindness. At school, I learned that we were to be judged by our beliefs: the invisible fact of having accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into our hearts as our personal savior would get us into Heaven. This was hard for me. I wasn’t good at believing in things I couldn’t poke at. My natural tendency to debate was fine at home, where my parents were proud of dressing me in a bright red QUESTION EVERYTHING onesie when I was two. At school, my skepticism was less welcome. Exhibit A: THY WORD IS TRUTH in bold black font, over and over, on a continuous loop around the air above our heads in Bible class.
The tenets of our religion were discussed in every possible context. A history teacher explained why he believed that Jesus really came back to life after three days in a tomb. In health class, we learned that memorizing Bible verses would protect us from sex and drugs. Even geometry employed Christian metaphor. I think God was a circle, man was a point, and life was a line, but I am not sure; math has never been my strength. While the core beliefs of our religion were an official part of the curriculum, I remember a second layer of instruction, a lot of which had to do with gender: an elementary school teacher who, despite being in charge of all the students in our classroom, revealed that her husband made all the decisions at home because he was the man and, therefore, the head of the family. The parents who wouldn’t let their daughter play at my house because my mother and father had different last names. The pre-algebra teacher who let me nap during quizzes because, as she put it, “math is just harder for girls.”
In junior high, my friends and I read a novel about angels and demons literally battling over the souls of unsuspecting human beings. In terms of genre, Frank E. Peretti’s This Present Darkness and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness, were Christian horror/suspense novels, but we approached them as realism. The phrase ‘spiritual warfare’ came up often at school, and it was not a metaphor. This Present Darkness took its title from Ephesians 6:12. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This was a pervasive belief in our school culture, this unseen war for our mortal souls.
I got curious recently about This Present Darkness. I remembered tearing through the book, but I couldn’t remember the basic plot. So I looked it up on Wikipedia (because life is too short to reread everything), and I learned that This Present Darkness is about a new age group, The Universal Consciousness Society, that tries to take over a small, fictional college town called — with intriguing similarity to my hometown — Ashton. The Society carries out its demonic agenda through such suspect activities as (cover your children’s eyes!) meditation. But when a local pastor discovers the evil plot, the demon-possessed Society arranges to have him falsely accused of rape. Meanwhile, a journalist who is investigating the Society gets too close to the satanic truth and is accused of molesting his daughter. Falsely accused, of course.
Now, I was an outspoken feminist from an early age. In ninth grade, I rejoiced when Ann Richards successfully ran for governor against a man who achieved national notoriety for comparing rape to bad weather (“If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it”). I was a feminist when I read This Present Darkness, and yet I did not notice this recurring motif of righteous men being falsely accused of sexual abuse. I did not find it odd or remarkable, as a plot device. Of course, it’s only a novel. But we now know, thanks to the investigation report, that not long after my friends and I tore through This Present Darkness, the Southern Baptist Convention launched a documented campaign of stonewalling victims of abuse in order to protect the church from liability, a goal in service of which “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy — even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.” The investigation report only goes back to 2000. But the gaslighting campaign has deeper roots.
This is what the patriarchy means to me: it is a series of stories that support the primacy of the male gender, traceable back to the original myth of God as a man. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a question of which stories get told, and which stories are believed. The more versions we hear of the story in which a righteous man is falsely accused, the more likely we are to believe it in any new formulation. The opposite also holds true: if we only know one version of the story about a female accuser, it is very hard to convince listeners that a rendition of that story with a different set of facts can be equally true. If you don’t believe me, ask Amber Heard, the subject of another news story that helped to drown out the Baptist scandal.
I had a conversation with another friend about the patriarchy recently. This friend is a lawyer, like me. We were talking about a poem that I wrote about rape. As professionals, this friend and I are both experts in identifying the elements of sexual assault and sexual harassment. But, we agreed, in our personal lives we often feel less sure of ourselves. She has read the legal definition of rape dozens of times, trying to determine whether it applied to any of her experiences. I can relate. Legal definitions are a basic element of fairness in a civilized society; no one would argue that we shouldn’t have them. But this is the patriarchy too: how it gets inside your head, makes you question whether what happened to you is really such a big deal if it doesn’t meet the elements of a statute in the Penal Code.
I know this essay is not likely to convince any new believers that the patriarchy exists. That’s okay —as a recovering Baptist, I’m not really here to proselytize. But if I can’t prove the existence of something invisible, I can describe how I came to believe in it. At various times, people (usually men) have accused me of being too fixated on gender. In the past, I have believed that they might be right, that I might be too sensitive. As a lawyer, I have questioned whether my own experiences met the definition of sexual assault. But I also began to question why the law treats victims of sexual crimes differently than other victims, why allegations of sexual abuse are treated with more skepticism than other types of allegations. I started to hate it when clients used the phrase, “he said, she said.” As a natural skeptic, I started to wonder why some stories seemed more worthy of automatic acceptance than others. I started to tell my own stories. When I started to realize that I was being told the same old stories, the stories that we’ve been told time and time again, in all-caps, are THE TRUTH, I became convinced that new stories are the antidote.
There is power in recognizing that patriarchal stories are doing exactly what they are designed to do. I’ve never been a fan of blind faith, but my belief in the patriarchy is not blind. I’ve poked at it. I’ve questioned it, and others (usually men) have questioned my belief, a gift for which I am truly grateful, because it has forced me to explain myself.
From where I sit here and now, thinking about the lessons I absorbed in Baptist school, in a state where it is easier for a young man to buy a killing machine than it is for a woman of any age to terminate her pregnancy, I feel more and more convinced that the patriarchy is real. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness . . .”