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    Southern Baptist Church Abuse: From Anita Bryant to Today

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    The Houston Chronicle’s Feb 10, 2019, headline is unambiguous: “Abuse of Faith, 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.” Behind the headline are mug shots of some of the 220 Southern Baptist pastors, church workers and volunteers who were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, sex crimes.

    The paper reports that the sexual abuse victims included many adolescents and younger children as well: “Some victims as young as 3 were molested or raped inside pastors’ studies and Sunday school classrooms.”

    The Southern Baptist church’s mistreatment of others is not confined to the Houston Chronicle’s recent revelations. The Southern Baptist Church’s abuse of LGBTIQ people in its preaching, theology and political organizing began decades ago. The now notorious Anita Bryant launched her anti-gay “Save the Children” campaign from her local Southern Baptist church back in 1977.

    Bryant accused gay people not just of “recruitment” of children to “freshen their ranks” but also of child molestation—“outright seduction and molestation.” The Southern Baptist Convention praised Bryant’s “courageous stand against the evils inherent in homosexuality” to protect children from “devastating consequences.”

    Over forty years later, we learn that the real danger of seduction and molestation children faced came from Baptist church leaders themselves. And we know that LGBTIQ young people being forced to sit in pews and listen to ministers condemn who they are and whom they love has devastating consequences on them.

    In 2014, transgender youth Leelah Alcorn killed herself, in part, based on the callous treatment she experienced in her conservative Christian church community, according to the public suicide note she left. Alcorn recounted how “[I] go to church each week and feel like s–t because everyone there is against everything I live for.” Upon coming out to her mother, Alcorn said her mother replied, “God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong.” In her suicide note, Alcorn implored parents: “Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate themself. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

    With respect to sexual abuse, the Houston Chronicle reports that “[i]n 2008 Southern Baptist Convention leaders rejected reforms to curb sexual abuse.” Meanwhile, the church’s anti-gay attacks continued unabated. That year, the Southern Baptist Convention passed an explosive resolution “wholeheartedly” supporting backers of Proposition 8 in California, “encourag[ing] all Christian pastors in California and in every other state to speak strongly, prophetically, and redemptively concerning the sinful nature of homosexuality and the urgent need to protect biblical marriage.”

    All the while, the Convention’s leaders ignored urgent pleas to try to stop the “sinful”—indeed criminal—acts of some of its leaders. Former Pastor Hezekiah Stallworth, now serving “a 20-year sentence for aggravated assault of a child and indecency with a child” told the Houston Chronicle: “It doesn’t matter how much spirituality we have or that I have or any other minister has. But we are still human flesh. Flesh will do what flesh will do.”

    Ten years ago, former President Jimmy Carter decided after 60 years he had finally had enough with the Southern Baptist Convention. In his 2009 essay, “Losing My Religion for Equality,” Carter severed his ties with the Convention over its second-class treatment of women. The subtitle for his essay declared that: “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.”

    And now the Southern Baptist Convention, along with other conservative religious organizations, is engaged in a twisted campaign in the courts and legislatures to justify unlawful discrimination against LGBTIQ people and women under the guise of what they call “religious liberty.” In a recent legal brief pertaining to the matter, they state that not living “true” to one’s faith is “hypocritical and misleading” and “risks eternal consequences.” They quote a warning from the Old Testament God in the book of Ezekiel: “When … you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood.”

    Southern Baptist pastors, church workers and volunteers perpetrating sexual abuse against hundreds of people and the Convention’s perpetuating the abuse through their inaction is hypocritical and misleading. Abiding by laws that protect the public against discrimination is not. It seems that the Southern Baptists should pay more attention to the teachings they cite in their own legal brief. Indeed, the Houston Chronicle’s revelations and the church’s past and present anti-LGBTIQ actions lead us to wonder: Exactly what “religious liberty” does the Southern Baptist Convention seek to protect?

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.