Patterson, who favors a cowboy hat and displays in his office big-game trophies from his hunting expeditions, is seen as a savvy political strategist who ruled through a combination of fear, folksy humor and a laserlike focus on protecting the idea of an inerrant Bible.
That reign plunged to a dramatic end last month when he was fired from his job as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for allegedly lying about and mishandling complaints of student rape.
Patterson’s steep fall, which came after thousands of conservative women petitioned for his removal, has left Southern Baptists in shock as they prepare to gather in Dallas on Tuesday for the convention’s annual meeting.
Until a few weeks ago, he had been an icon in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, credited with keeping the movement from sliding into liberalism, in part by codifying traditional gender roles for men and women that included a ban on women in the pulpit.
The consolidation of conservative power between the late 1970s and early ’90s, known by its Southern Baptist supporters as “the Conservative Resurgence” and its critics as the “Conservative Takeover,” is the denomination’s defining event of the past
half-century, and Patterson is, perhaps more than anyone, its architect.
Now what he built has come under scrutiny.
“Symbols are powerful. . . . And Paige Patterson embodies the resurgence in a way that [others] don’t,” said Nathan Finn, provost and dean of North Greenville University, a Southern Baptist institution in South Carolina. “If he turns out not to be a good guy, what does that mean for the movement? That’s the angst.”
A strong rightward shift
Patterson, who has declined interview requests, came to Southern Baptist leadership naturally.
Son of a major convention power broker in Texas, long the most powerful state in the movement, Patterson was a prolific preacher before he was 20. He was the equivalent of a “Baptist crown prince,” said Richard Land, a longtime Southern Baptist leader who considers Patterson one of his best friends.
So Patterson knew how to make things happen in the late 1970s and ’80s when he and others on the far right grew increasingly worried about the convention becoming more moderate on the key question of the Bible’s inerrancy, including on the place of women and the family.
Patterson and a Texas judge named Paul Pressler — who now faces a state lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a man in his Bible study, which he denies — met in a New Orleans cafe to sketch out a plan to get conservatives into all the leadership positions in Southern Baptist institutions, according to historians of religion.
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 — which covers the Dallas area — 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.”
By the time it was over, Patterson and other leaders “got the spoils of war” and were able to transform Southern Baptist institutions to their specifications from the inside, said Boston University religion sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who has written extensively about the convention.
Land and others note that the effort was focused on protecting inerrancy, which argues that the Bible was without error when it was created. But it was also informed deeply by the rising American feminist movement and increased debate about abortion.
In the early years, a core issue was the role of women, in churches and in the workplace. Until the 1980s, Southern Baptist women were still being ordained, although there were just a relative handful of female pastors. Polls into the 1970s also showed the vast majority of Southern Baptist pastors supported some access to abortion. That, too, changed with the takeover.
Patterson and his wife, Dorothy, were like the king and queen of what the movement came to call “biblical manhood and womanhood.” Dorothy Patterson wrote books about femininity and the proper Christian woman.
“He loves and delights my soul, He protects and possesses my body, He teaches and edifies my spirit, He praises and challenges my mind. . . . He is friend and counselor, husband and lover, pastor and teacher, inspiration and ideal,” she wrote of her husband in the 1976 book “The Sensuous Woman Reborn.”
Although she had a doctorate like her husband, Dorothy Patterson at the seminaries went not by “Dr.” but by “Mrs. Patterson,” students who worked with her said.
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.
That’s when the conservatives went for some big-ticket items.
In 1998, the year Patterson became president of the entire convention, the movement passed a historic measure on the family that called for a husband “to love his wife as Christ loved the church” and to lead his family and for his wife to “submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
In an interview, Land said the measure was a response to what was seen as a breakdown in the American family, but the idea of female submission sparked heavy criticism in the larger culture.
In addition to Paige Patterson’s royal Baptist heritage, he had a quality whose power Americans in 2018 can recognize: He was an elite who was able to come across like a common man. His supporters describe him as a “teddy bear” and a practical jokester.
“That resonated with those small church pastors and evangelists who felt the academics were looking down on them,” Finn said “He was very sensitive to the charge that conservatives were dummies.”
The slide begins
For much of the next 20 years, Patterson reaped the benefits of the takeover. He served as president of the convention from 1998 to 2000 and has led two of the movement’s six key seminaries — first Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, N.C., from 1992 to 2003 and then, until last month, Southwestern, in Fort Worth.
And it was in those positions where the seeds of his downfall were planted. This year, recorded comments surfaced of Patterson saying he counseled 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.
Then this spring came the case of a former Southeastern student named Megan Lively, who was 24 in 2003 when she says she was assaulted by a man she had been dating. She told The Washington Post that 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. Trustee Board Chairman Kevin Ueckert, in a June 1 statement, alleged that a Southwestern female student reported to Patterson that she had been raped, and police were called. “But in connection with that allegation,” Ueckert wrote, Patterson emailed campus security — Ueckert said trustees saw that email — and “discussed meeting with the student alone so that he could ‘break her down.’ ”
On June 4, Patterson’s attorney, Shelby Sharpe, released what he called a “character defense” that he said he compiled without any input from Patterson, just “as a person, not as his lawyer.” That document cited leaked friendly letters between the 2003 woman and Patterson in the months after the alleged rape, which Sharpe said disproved the idea that there was a rape and that Patterson mishandled it. Sharpe also said Patterson hasn’t been given access to the 2003 documents used to accuse him and hasn’t been able to defend himself. In the 2015 case, Sharpe said Southwestern trustees had seen the “break her down” email before — when rather than fire him they demoted him to president emeritus, with full benefits. He also said that the student had “given several different accounts of her story” and that Patterson “preferred there be no police presence so the young woman would not feel intimidated.”
In the weeks since these cases surfaced, many other women have described less dramatic experiences over the years as conservative women began to question the treatment of women in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Debra Smith came to Southwestern in her late-30s to become a hospice chaplain — the same year Patterson became president there, in 2003.
As a divorcée, she found she couldn’t date much because “it was known among men studying there, if you were involved with a divorced woman, it would be detrimental to their career,” she said.
Her professors — mostly men — were supportive and tried to find workarounds to the growing restrictions on women. For instance, since women weren’t allowed to practice baptizing on campus, a professor took them to a church off site to practice, she said.
But Smith, now 53, lost confidence in her goal of spiritual ministry and instead became a legal assistant.
Smith said she has “no ax to grind.” She blames herself for what she calls her inability to “get past” what she saw as on-campus sexism. “Recent events have stirred up that bitterness.”
Melissa Medley was there from 2010 to 2014 for her undergraduate studies in missions work when, she says, she was groped by her favorite professor. She went to a chaplain, who reported it to Patterson.
Patterson called and was “cordial,” and told her “corny jokes” before addressing the allegation, Medley said.
“The first thing he said was, making sure I understood the severity of what I was saying. I said yes,” said Medley, now pursuing a counseling master’s at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. “He said: ‘Do you have witnesses? Do you have proof?’ ”
She said that Patterson told her he would treat it as a “he said-she said” until he spoke to the professor — who denied everything. That was the end of the process, she said.
“That crushed me, because I knew nothing would be done,” she said.
Medley said she is not angry and, in fact, she “loves” the Southern Baptist Convention and is proud to be part of it. However, “Southern Baptists aren’t taught how to handle these situations. . . . We’ve got things we need to change.”
Ueckert, the board chairman at Southwestern, said last week that he didn’t know of the allegation. The professor denied it in an email to The Post.
The church around Paige Patterson also changed.
The Southern Baptist Convention has remained in many ways the conservative movement he solidified. But institutional religion in America began its inexorable decline, and a generational rift opened up among evangelicals about everything from same-sex marriage to the presidency of Donald Trump.
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.
“Make no mistake. God is at work. . . . Research awakenings, revivals & reformation. They’re never not messy. Wind blows stuff,” tweeted popular Bible teacher and writer Beth Moore, who attends a Southern Baptist church, the day before Patterson was fired. Her tweet was shared nearly 6,000 times.
Moore stirred evangelicals last month when she published an essay describing how for decades she worked to “show constant pronounced deference” to male leaders.
Then came fall 2016, and the image of conservative evangelicals supporting Trump during his “Access Hollywood” scandal.
“I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men,” Moore wrote. “It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.”
To some, Patterson’s slide had been coming for a decade or more. Younger Southern Baptist leaders saw him as an embarrassment with his cowboy gear, big-game trophies and what they perceived as his anachronistic comments. They winced at his 2008 testimony in the case of a female theology professor who had sued Southwestern for gender discrimination when she did not receive tenure. A federal judge threw out the case, citing the seminary’s right to religious freedom, but not before Patterson declared that the Bible indicates societies ruled by women are “wicked.” Or the way he brought the 1950s to the 2000s in his seminaries with female employees being told not to wear pants.
In that way, the next generation of Southern Baptist leaders had been waiting for Patterson to exit the national stage.
Yet it’s unclear what in the end will change. Unlike Patterson’s generation, younger leaders don’t hesitate to speak out strongly against abuse and overt sexism. But what does that mean for their views of the place of women in society and in the church?
In an unprecedented public call by conservative evangelical women, thousands of Southern Baptist women signed a petition in May calling for Patterson to be removed from leadership and for the convention to address the mistreatment of women.
But many Patterson supporters believe something more than respect is being sought. John Schultz, a Georgia mission coordinator who received two master’s degrees from Southwestern, said Patterson’s fall is clearly orchestrated by progressives in the denomination who want to challenge the conservative status quo. The timing just before the annual meeting is suspicious, he said.
“To me it’s quite obvious,” he said. “This is about the Bible being inerrant. Then if you can argue that the Bible has errors, then it opens doors up for all sorts of things that have been nontraditional.”