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Southern Baptist Scandal Just the Latest Chapter in the Church’s History of Sexual Dysfunction

No surprises here

The recent release of that 300-page report of widespread sexual abuse and its cover-up by leaders and ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention (America’s largest Protestant denomination) is only a surprise to people who’ve been in denial about the millennia-long history of the relationship of religions to sexual obsession. Allegations of sexual abuse and this denomination’s handling of them in particular have been news for decades.

Of course, the anti-Catholic stand of these Baptists and most Evangelicals has kept them condemning the same thing in Roman Catholicism for a century. And widespread sexual abuse is a factor in Evangelicalism beyond this denomination.

But this is not about hypocrisy, which is actually not considered such a bad thing in right-wing religion. It’s about something inherent in its doctrinal structure.

As I wrote in the chapter “Not So Strange Bedfellows: Sexual Addiction* and Religious Addiction:

The existence of widespread sexual abuse by the clergy beyond the Catholic Church remains another societal secret. Though, as best we can tell, it occurs in similar proportions, it’s widely swept under the rug by denominations and local churches.

Religion’s addiction to controlling sexuality

The real history of religions throughout the world shows how its leaders and institutions have been concerned with controlling human sexuality through almost any means, especially when controlling that sexuality supports the culture’s political and economic powers. At the same time, history is replete with sexual harassment and abuse.

Obsession with sexual control is due to religions having been useful to political rulers to promote their power — kings, emperors, and politicians who funded the religious institutions and were often treated as exempt from the religious sexual prohibitions that were enforced on the commoners. Religious leaders and institutions relied on economic and political patronage and protection from governments just as the religious right-wing wants it to be today.

Sexual control of populations is vastly common to, but doesn’t have to be something inherent in, religion itself. There’s as much sexual abuse in non-religious corporations as in any denomination.

Healthy religion could be used to promote so much else, but that would mean giving up much institutional power. Instead, religious leaders would have to become comfortable with promoting freedom and personal choice.

Sex as a power play

But sexual obsession and control represent a familiar way religion has been used by its leaders, institutions, and allies to control the populace — adding eternal damnation, other condemnations, and threats to sanctify worldly power plays.

Sex has been good for stoking religion because it’s universal and, in Capitalism, it sells. Thus, at the same time it can be both promoted for profit and useful to raise guilt when it’s ever practiced.

For millennia, then, religious leaders have been preaching that their divines want all kinds of controls on human sexuality.

You’ve noticed that that kind of preaching has mostly failed, right? If you listen to controlling religious leaders who continue to repeat these failed tactics talk, they’re shouting today as much as ever, if not more, that sexual license — being out of (their) control — is worse today than ever.

Of course, this is combined with right-wing religious leaders’ claims that it’s those other religions or denominations that have the problem — proof that they have the Truth and those others don’t.

The Southern Baptist Convention, like the Roman Catholic Church, has shown that it can act like a major international bureaucracy that has institutionalized sexual addictions and covered them up with religion addiction.

And all through this, these institutions continue to act as if LGBTQ people or homosexuality is the societal problem. No… no, look over there!

That trope was debunked decades ago. The majority of members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, for example, are women. And reports of sexual abuse to SNAP have regularly come from Evangelicals.

The repression-obsession loop

The reality of right-wing religion’s sexual sickness is that repression leads to obsession. And sexual addiction* and dysfunction and their cover-up with sexual and religious righteousness are widespread cultural phenomena that our sexually sick culture doesn’t want to face.

“As long as we can pin addiction on dysfunctional families and make them the primary cause of sexual addiction,” Anne Wilson Schaef asks in Escape from Intimacy: Untangling the ‘Love’ Addictions: Sex, Romance, Relationships, “can we then hold onto the illusion of ‘normal,’ refuse to look at the role of our institutions (especially church and school), and avoid completely the role of addictive society?”

As I discuss in When Religion Is an Addiction, this relationship between sexual addiction and religious addiction has a long history as cross-addictions in the Church, back at least as far as influential Church Father St. Augustine whose own Confessions show that he’s a classic example of a sexual addict covering it up by becoming a religion addict.

Augustine’s theological cover-up concluded that original sin was actually passed down through the sex act he could never reconcile in his personal life. Hence the Church would become a place for sexual anorexia and bulimia.

Even more today, though, it’s multiplied by that economic sexualization of our culture through conservative corporate, “free market” consumerism. Sex, the ad industry still believes, sells. It’s portrayed as something everyone can “have” better if they buy, buy, and buy more.

Sex is sold as proof you’re a real man or woman. It proves you’re finally close to another human being.

Sex sells goods — and God

Everyone else has the stuff that ensures that they’re having the great sex you aren’t, you should fear. And if you aren’t compulsive about sex, you’re told there’s something wrong with you. Even some “science” colludes with the idea.

This is an ideal environment for religious institutions to recruit followers by convincing them that they’re guilty for having, or even thinking about, sex — or the wrong kind of sex.

This tried-and-true method for getting people to relieve their guilt would lose much of its power if society weren’t selling things this way. No wonder right-wing religion is in cahoots with big business and its consumerism.

Correcting the societally encouraged sexually dysfunctional thinking and resulting guilt would require institutional and personal healing and learning how sexuality can be holistic and healthy. It would require recognizing the variety of sexual orientations and expressions.

But the popular method is to try to relieve the guilt and shame with a cover-up — the religious addiction to the feeling of being righteous.

Enter anti-sex politics and right-wing Christianity with its fear of anything it can’t control. Hide in the high of feeling righteous and identifying with each righteous cause, cling to the righteous feelings of right-wing Christianity’s exclusivism, and you have crossed into religion addiction.

It’s easier than coming to terms with what one hates or fears about themself and rejecting the institutions that promote fear and hate. It’s easier than learning to find one’s healthy sexual self.

Instead, this righteousness high works, until the addicts fall off the wagon.


*  I know that there are also some therapists who want to deny the reality of sexual addiction and feel that it is misused as an excuse — sort of like, “the alcohol made me do it.” To me that is a matter of disagreement among specialists over therapeutical definitions of “addiction.”