As white evangelicals have been some of President Trump’s staunchest defenders, a handful of their leaders find themselves contending with a problem all too familiar to the commander in chief: a sex scandal.
“There’s a reckoning taking place across evangelicalism right now,” said Russell Moore, who leads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and compared recent events to those scandals of the 1980s. Moore said the #MeToo movement has ushered a “welcome development in American culture toward believing women who have been harmed. I also think there’s a growing — but not fast enough — realization in church life of the way that power can easily be abused in predatory ways, especially spiritual power.”
Most recently, Frank Page, president and chief executive of the SBC’s executive committee, announced his resignation because of an “inappropriate relationship.” Page did not divulge the details of his relationship on Tuesday, but in a statement he called it a “personal failing” that has “embarrassed my family, my Lord, myself, and the Kingdom.”
In his role, Page oversaw the nearly $200 million budget of the SBC’s cooperative program, which Southern Baptist churches contribute to and which funds the convention’s ministries. Page was among a group of evangelical leaders who last September met with and praised Trump in the Oval Office.
In another case, Bill Hybels, who co-founded Willow Creek, one of the nation’s largest churches, came under the spotlight last week after the Chicago Tribune published a series of allegations that he made suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss, invitations to a staff member to hotel rooms and had a consensual affair with a married woman. The woman who said she had an affair later retracted her allegations. Hybels denied all of the allegations in an interview with the Tribune.
The church conducted its own internal review, and an outside attorney who investigated the allegations told the Tribune his work led to no findings of misconduct by Hybels. In the Tribune’s report, other high-profile evangelical leaders, including John and Nancy Ortberg, suggested that the church’s internal review of the allegations was inadequate. But after Hybels responded to the allegations to his congregation, calling them “flat-out lies,” he received standing ovations.
Hybels, who was a spiritual adviser to then-President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said he will stick to his earlier plan to retire in October.
Some fear that women are still being discredited in a climate in which a high majority of white evangelicals support Trump despite the multiple sexual harassment and misconduct allegations he has faced. Nearly 8 in 10 white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance, compared with 39 percent of all Americans, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
“[Trump’s supporters] seem enthralled to his approach to life. They seem completely untroubled by the … women who accused Trump of harassment or assault,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “For some large number of white evangelical men, there seems to be an attitude toward women that’s disturbing and not biblical.”
Wehner says he fears the “circling of the wagons” approach toward protecting leaders instead of victims.
“A lot of people are going to think it’s laced with hypocrisy,” he said. “They say one thing and do another. And that the faith is not transformative, faith is just a proxy for political tribalism. It doesn’t transform lives in the way it should.”
Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary who studies megachurches, said he doesn’t believe that scandals take place in bigger churches more than they do in smaller ones, but that we hear about them more.
In a recent piece for the Gospel Coalition, evangelical author and speaker Andy Crouch wrote about the danger of evangelicals’ attraction to celebrity power.
Thumma noted how the recent allegations come on the heels of the death of evangelist Billy Graham, who would avoid being alone with any woman besides his spouse, a practice that became known as “the Billy Graham Rule,” which Vice President Pence reportedly follows and many high-profile evangelical leaders have adopted.
“Megachurch pastors have the temptation of being a celebrity of sorts and have an aura around them,” Thumma said.
Earlier this year, a woman said Andy Savage, a megachurch pastor in Memphis, sexually assaulted her 20 years ago, when she was a high school student and Savage was a youth pastor in Texas. After he addressed his congregation, apologized and asked for forgiveness, it applauded him. He has since resigned.
In another case, late last year, Paul Pressler, who helped lead a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was accused of sexually abusing a young man for several decades, starting when the alleged victim was 14. A pending lawsuit against Pressler, who is a former justice on the Texas 14th Circuit Court of Appeals and who served in the Texas legislature, also names Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, as defendants. Baptist News Global, an independent Baptist news outlet, reported that Southern Baptist leaders were mostly silent about the allegations.
Sex-abuse scandals in evangelical churches have been highlighted recently by Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to make allegations against sports physician Larry Nassar. Denhollander has since focused on speaking out about sexual-abuse allegations in Sovereign Grace Churches, a network of congregations mostly based across the United States. The network’s leadership team wrote in a blog post that her allegations “have profoundly damaged the reputations and gospel ministries of innocent pastors and churches.” Christianity Today magazine has called for an independent investigation of the group.
When the Catholic sex-abuse scandals emerged in the United States, part of the larger outcry was how the church hierarchy was involved in covering up cases. In evangelical circles, where churches are often nondenominational or loosely connected to each other, the lack of hierarchy can cause a different set of problems, said Heath Carter, a professor of history at Valparaiso University.
“In the evangelical world, the independence of evangelical leaders and … lack of authority structure mean they can go on for a while and then explode when they come to light,” Carter said.
Some high-profile evangelical leaders who have been accused of misconduct continue their work.
Ted Haggard, who was once a megachurch pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned in 2006 after a male prostitute said Haggard had paid him for sex. Haggard now leads a church in Colorado Springs.
In the 1980s, sexual and financial scandals involving televangelists Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Paul Crouch sent shock waves through the evangelical world. All three continued in smaller versions of their ministries.
Clarification: This story has been updated to include that one of the women who accused Hybels has recanted her account that she had an affair with him. It also includes the findings of the church’s internal and external investigation.