Leader’s Disgrace Deals Heavy Blow to Southern Baptists

The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on May 30 fired its long-time President, Paige Patterson, for allegedly lying about and mishandling complaints of student rape.  Patterson for decades has been one of the most powerful leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest American Protestant denomination and a giant force in American evangelicalism. Beginning in the 1970s, Patterson was the leading architect of the takeover of the SBC by hardline religious conservatives. The Washington Post’s description:

“The takeover, which lasted over a decade, was no holds barred, with Patterson keeping files on ideological opponents and cultivating spies in seminaries, according to historical accounts. A 1991 profile in D Magazine…said Patterson had been ‘likened to the Rev. Jim Jones and Joe McCarthy’ by his critics in the denomination. ‘He’s been reviled as a power-mad fundamentalist on a witch hunt for heretics.’ ” (See also Southern Baptist seminary drops bombshell: Why Paige Patterson was fired and Why Southern Baptists can’t shake their racist past)

Patterson’s conservatives left no doubt about their primary concern: they were disturbed by the rising tide of the feminist movement and increased debate about abortion.  Their chief goal was to keep women in their subordinate place and out of the pulpit. Patterson made the Biblical words calling on a wife to “submit to the servant leadership of her husband” the chief a chief element in Baptist theology.

“By the mid-1990s the seminaries and state conventions were largely purged of moderates and liberals. Many women who were studying to be pastors or who taught classes that included male students were forced out or left.”

But a darker side of Patterson’s stand emerged this year when recorded comments surfaced of his counseling abused women to remain with their husbands and making remarks seen as objectifying a teenage girl and criticizing the physical appearance of female seminary students.

Events became more ominous when a former student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary stated that in 2003, when Patterson headed the school, she had reported to him that she had been assaulted by a man she had been dating, and  Patterson encouraged her not to report the incident to the police and to forgive her alleged assailant.

A few days later, Southwestern trustees cited a second incident in 2015. A Southwestern female student had reported to Patterson that she had been raped, and police were called. But Patterson allegedly emailed campus security and “discussed meeting with the student alone so that he could break her down.”

The allegations prompted thousands of conservative women SBC members to petition for Patterson’s removal. Faced with the damning evidence, the Board of Trustees acted.

The Washington Post’s headline on the article detailing Patterson’s demise summed up the irony: “How women led to the dramatic rise and fall of Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson.”

My initial response to the revelations about Patterson and his forced retirement was posted in a comment on one of the Washington Post stories:

“Does any half way intelligent human being fail to see the twisted, perverted thinking that underlies the outlook of Southern Baptist clerics? The only difference regarding Patterson is that his perversion became too obvious to ignore. He got caught red handed. The rest of them still fervently believe the crud about wives having to obey their husbands. In the 21st Century, Southern Baptists believe women are no better than chattel. To understand the rot that pervades the hearts and minds of Southern Baptist pastors, you need only to remember two things: 1. Their predecessors fervently believed that Jesus ordained slavery as a positive good. The Convention was founded to preach that gospel. 2. The next generation fervently believed that segregation was perfectly legitimate and helped maintain it for 100 years.

Why anybody would believe that the current crop of medieval-minded misogynist yahoos are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ escapes me.”

On re-reading it, I hesitated to post it on this blog, feeling that maybe it was a little extreme. But then I read more about the beliefs and practices of Patterson and his conservative Southern Baptists cohorts. And I got 21 thumbs-up on my “extreme” comment from other readers.  Big deal, huh? Well, the average number of approvals on any article is decidedly in single digits. And I would say that 5 is the usual highest. Twenty-one is earth shattering. And there were a much higher number of double-digit approvals for other commenters than are normal.

In short, the Patterson conservatives’ conquest of the Southern Baptist Convention has left it more isolated than ever from mainstream America. From the Post article:

  • Data released June 1 by the movement shows membership falling for the 11th straight year, to 15 million — down 1.3 million since 2006.
  • Baptisms — a core marker of the faith — were fewer in 2017 by 26 percent compared with a decade ago, according to an internal survey published by LifeWay Christian Resources, the research arm of the denomination.
  • Enrollment at Southwestern is down by almost half since Patterson arrived there.

Seems hypocrisy and a distortion of Jesus’ message can only get you so far.

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