The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why is the right ignoring the Southern Baptist abuse scandal?

Attendees pray together during the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2021 in Nashville. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

There are few things that members of the American right emphasize more often about themselves than their deep commitment to protecting children — particularly when it comes to the threat of sexual abuse. In recent months, they’ve shown how intense that commitment is by labeling just about anyone who supports equality for LGBTQ people as “groomers” who are preparing children to be sexually abused.

So when news broke this past weekend of a blockbuster report about sexual abuse (including of children) and a coverup within the Southern Baptist Convention, the GOP and conservative movement rose up in outrage. Republican politicians such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis demanded further investigation, QAnon adherents turned their focus to this conspiracy, and conservative media couldn’t stop talking about the story.

Actually, none of that happened. QAnon and its allies in politics seem uninterested. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and her QAnon-curious friends in Congress have not tweeted about it. Neither Tucker Carlson nor Laura Ingraham nor Sean Hannity brought it up on their Fox News shows the next evening.

I’ve been unable to find any signs that Abbott or DeSantis has addressed the SBC revelations. They claim to be terribly concerned that teachers or parents who are too gay-friendly might be harming children — Abbott ordered state officials to investigate parents and doctors of trans children as potential abusers — but faced with actual evidence of horrific sexual abuse that played out over decades, they seem unconcerned.

Now why might that be?

The Southern Baptist Convention story came to public attention in 2019 with an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News that revealed widespread sexual abuse committed by church officials in the United States’ largest Protestant denomination. (The SBC represents more than 47,000 churches and 14 million congregants.)

Michael Gerson: The report on Southern Baptist abuses is a portrait of brutal misogyny

After those revelations, the SBC contracted with outside investigators to examine the problem; their stinging report is now public. It documents that “child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff” were reported again and again by victims, who were met with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” from the organization’s leadership. Rather than rooting out abusers, SBC leaders attempted to discredit and intimidate victims.

If it sounds a lot like the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, that’s no accident: Both are deeply conservative institutions committed to maintaining patriarchy where leaders demonstrated that protecting the institution itself was more important to them than stopping the horrific crimes happening within it.

You’d think the QAnon conspiracists would be all over these stories. After all, here we have an actual conspiracy to cover up actual sexual abuse, with actual victims.

But they aren’t, and the reasons aren’t hard to discern. First, the very fact that abuse within the Catholic Church and the SBC actually happened is what makes it uninteresting to conspiracy theorists, who derive empowerment from the idea that they’ve uncovered secret knowledge the rest of the world is unaware of. Only they know the truth; their eyes have been opened while everyone else is blind. But when real journalists uncover stories of real abuse, it isn’t compelling.

Second and more important, since QAnon is a right-wing conspiracy theory, it has to locate the perpetrators of its fantasy crimes on the left: Democratic politicians, Jewish financiers and Hollywood liberals. Its adherents just aren’t interested in abuse committed by a Catholic priest or Baptist minister, because — news flash — they don’t care about children per se, only imaginary children being murdered and eaten by imaginary satanic liberals.

In a slightly less deranged form, the same is true of figures such as DeSantis and Abbott. They’ll rush to sign laws to stop the “grooming” of children by a gay teacher mentioning that she’s married to a woman. But if genuine abuse is happening in churches all over their states? That’s not a good thing, but they don’t think it’s their job to do anything about it. No outraged news conferences, no fulminating on Fox and no bills rushed through Republican legislatures.

They, too, are not particularly concerned about “grooming” or abuse per se; the allegations are weapons to wield against their political enemies. Think about it this way: If the longest serving Democratic speaker of the House, who left office just 15 years ago, was an admitted child molester and convicted felon, how often do you think Republicans would invoke his name to attack Democrats? Every day? A dozen times a day? At least. Yet when was the last time you heard anyone mention Dennis Hastert?

The SBC’s internal politics are extremely complicated, with plenty of conflict between conservatives and ultraconservatives. So it remains to be seen what kind of reforms it will undertake to stop sexual abuse in its ranks.

But we can say for sure that those within the American political right won’t pay much attention. As far as they’re concerned, imaginary abuse committed by the left is a much bigger concern.