The number of conversations about sexual violence in conservative Christian communities has been expanding as the #MeToo movement has grown in prominence. But some evangelical leaders’ responses to the allegations facing federal judge Brett M. Kavanaugh have reminded women who are concerned about the issue that many conservative Christians are not completely ready to put alleged victims at the center of their conversations on sexual assault.
Several high-profile Christian conservatives have rallied behind President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee after a woman stepped forward with an accusation of a sexual assault in the 1980s. Some have shown their support for Kavanaugh, a conservative Catholic. Others have said that they simply do not believe Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical psychology professor who said a drunken, teenage Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed before groping her, grinding his body against hers and attempting to remove her clothes.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson launched his political career after sharing his conservative religious convictions at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. At Friday’s Values Voter Summit, The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported that the former Sunday school teacher drew applause for sharing that the only woman he has had sex with is his wife, and then defended Kavanaugh by calling the allegations against him “desperate” attacks from the left.
Franklin Graham, one of Trump’s most high-profile evangelical advisers, said the possibility that Kavanaugh may have committed sexual assault as a teenager is “not relevant” to his desire to serve on the highest court in the land.
“It’s just a shame that a person like Judge Kavanaugh who has a stellar record — that somebody can bring something up that he did as a teenager close to 40 years ago,” Graham told the Christian Broadcast Network on Tuesday. “That’s not relevant.”
“There wasn’t a crime committed,” Graham added. “He just flat-out says that’s not true. Regardless if it was true, these are two teenagers and she said no and he respected that so I don’t know what the issue is.”
One of the reasons conservative Christians continue to support Kavanaugh is because judges like him are why many white evangelicals got behind Trump, a thrice-married, infrequent churchgoer known more for interviews about his sex life than his deeply held religious convictions, in the first place.
“If Republicans were to fail to defend and confirm such an obviously and eminently qualified and decent nominee, then it will be very difficult to motivate and energize faith-based and conservative voters in November,” Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told the New York Times.
But what has been difficult for other prominent evangelicals, particularly those who focus on women’s issues, is how little attention their leaders have given the women and men in their church who have been harmed by sexual assault.
Prominent Christian author Rachel Held Evans took to Twitter to address a sexual ethic that she said turns a blind eye to illegal activity when committed by straight heterosexual young men.
Sandi Villarreal, a former rape crisis advocate while at a Southern Baptist university, told the Fix that some evangelical leaders reject stories such as Ford’s because they disrupt their entire worldview about gender.
“These men tend to brush off the youthful ‘indiscretions’ — of boys,” Villareal said, “Young women, on the other hand, are held responsible for causing boys to stumble or tempting them into sin by the way they dress, how and whether they flirt, really, by virtue of being a woman.”
“The evangelical reaction to Kavanaugh and dismissal of Ford is right on course for evangelicals,” said Hannah Paasch, a 28-year-old social worker who writes about sexual violence within faith communities. She said part of the motivation behind evangelical leaders’ defense of Kavanaugh is about protecting their political and judicial power.
And Emily Joy, a 27-year-old poet and yoga instructor who helped Paasch start the hashtag #ChurchToo in 2017 to elevate the stories of victims of sexual assault in evangelical communities, told the Fix that she wasn’t surprised to see so many evangelical leaders ignore Ford’s allegations.
“They’ve already proved they’re willing to do it over and over again,” she said of evangelical leaders' willingness to believe the accused. “It’s sad, but this is what we’ve been saying, and it’s evidence that sexism, misogyny and sexual violence and dysfunction are a feature, not a bug, of American evangelicalism.”
The fallout from the allegations against Kavanaugh have implications beyond the Supreme Court for evangelicalism. Regardless of what happens with Kavanaugh, leaders and parishioners are finding themselves asking whether the church seeks to become a safe place for victims sharing their experiences with sexual assault, or another institution in a society that too often silences the voices of women while elevating men who further advance their own agenda.