Trigger/content warning: This post deals with Donald Trump’s descriptions of how he has sexually assaulted and harassed women, as well as with the responses of several prominent male evangelicals who are downplaying his remarks.
C. S. Lewis’ children’s novel The Magician’s Nephew tells of the earliest days of Narnia, a magical place made most famous by his earlier classic,The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There is a term in The Magician’s Nephew which I have never seen used at any other time by anyone – until this presidential campaign.
The word? Deplorable.
The instant I heard it on the news several weeks ago, my memory rushed back to The Magician’s Nephew, to the chapter “The Deplorable Word.” Lewis never tells us what this magical word is, but it is imbued with horrifying power in the city-state of Charn. The Deplorable Word (which was not itself the word deplorable) was the nuclear option; uttering this word killed every living thing in Charn, vaporizing each without a trace – except for the one who spoke it.
We’ve heard a deplorable word used again and again in recent days by certain prominent evangelical Christian voices. These voices, mostly male, have dismissed Donald Trump’s boasting of his behavior toward women, actions that can only be described as serial sexual assault and harassment.
The deplorable word these men have used is but. Sometimes, the but is unspoken by them, yet still clearly intended.
Minimizing Sexual Assault
A pattern has developed in how these men use this deplorable word, whether they say it explicitly or not:
- It starts with a Prominent Male Evangelical (hereafter abbreviated as PME), who is asked to comment on Trump’s sexual remarks as recorded by shows like Access Hollywood or The Howard Stern Show.
- Said PME then condemns Trump’s comments and describes them with adjectives like “offensive” and “disgusting.”
- PME then says but, or at least obviously implies it.
- PME proceeds to minimize Trump’s remarks and even his behavior.
- Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, calls Trump’s comments “crude.” He continues, “But the godless progressive agenda … likewise cannot be defended” (italics mine). I strongly disagree with his characterization of progressive values. But even setting that aside, it sounds like Graham believes personal character is not of any greater value than policy positions.
- Robert Jeffress, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, says, “I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday School teacher. But that’s not what this election is about” (italics mine). Sounds like Jeffress would fear for his child’s well-being around Trump, but would be cool with making him the most powerful man on the planet.
- Tom Pauken, former head of the Texas state GOP, says, “The messenger may be a real problem, but the message resonates with most Americans” (italics mine). Sounds like Pauken is saying never mind what Trump says he does to women in private; focus on what Trump says he’ll do for the country.
- Ralph Reed, chair of Trump’s evangelical advisory group, says Trump’s boasting is “offensive,” but “ranks low on [evangelicals’] hierarchy of concerns,” which includes “the Iran nuclear deal.” Sounds to me like Reed is saying we should be much more concerned with American policy toward Iran than with the scourges of sexual assault and harassment, which violate thousands of women daily in our country.
- Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, the largest faith-based college in the country, says Trump’s comments were “completely out of order” and “reprehensible,” but “with $20 trillion in debt, we’re right on the edge of the abyss and … I don’t think the American people want this country to go down the toilet because Donald Trump made some dumb comments on a videotape 11 years ago.” Sounds like Falwell is saying it’s okay to have a president who admits he enjoys sexually attacking women as long as he keeps the national debt from growing.
- James Dobson, longtime leader of Focus on the Family, says that Trump’s comments “were deplorable.” (Hey, there’s that word again!) But, he goes on to say, “There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn.” Sounds like Dobson is saying that as long as Trump says the right things about what he’ll do in the future, we can overlook what he’s said that he’s done in the past.
One exception to this pattern comes from Pat Robertson, original leader of the old Christian Coalition and himself a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988. (He placed second in the Iowa caucuses and actually won in Washington, Alaska, and Hawai’i before dropping out.) Robertson skips any condemnation of Trump and any concept of but, going straight to minimizing: “A guy does something 11 years ago … he’s trying to look like he’s macho.”
It sounds like Robertson is saying that Trump is just exaggerating, that all the specific details that he gives are just his way of trying to impress then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush and others.
And really, each of these PMEs is not only minimizing the horrible nature of what Trump said. Like Robertson, they are also denying that Trump did anything inappropriate other than say some raunchy things. Not a single one of them addresses Trump’s self-confessed behavior. They don’t even acknowledge it happened. Each one only refers to Trump’s words as being offensive, not his treatment of women.
Jeffress makes this explicit. Last week, he told NPR’s Michel Martin, “The key word there is … allegation.” He goes on to say, “I think everybody has to come to their conclusion” as to whether Trump really did the things he said he did.
Of course, if these PMEs also condemned Trump’s behavior, it would make their support for him untenable. But they’ve invested too much in Trump’s candidacy to turn back now.
As more and more women – now more than a dozen – come forward and report how Trump either sexually assaulted or harassed them, these PMEs look more and more ridiculous. Their version of Jesus is looking more and more ridiculous as well, and it’s their own fault.
The PME who looks the most ridiculous is the most prominent of them all, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for Vice President of the United States. Referring to Trump, Pence says, “What he has made clear is that was talk, regrettable talk on his part, but that there were no actions and that he categorically denied these latest unsubstantiated allegations” (italics mine). Pence goes on to strongly imply that every one of the women coming forward to say Trump assaulted or harassed them is speaking “slander and lies.” The whole smear campaign is being orchestrated, he says, by “the Clinton political machine and being propagated in the media to distract from the real issues affecting the American people.”
Pence “absolutely” believes Trump, that every single bit of his bragging over all these years, about forcibly having his way with women, was for entertainment purposes only.
Retriggering Survivor Traumas
Not that we should need all of these women coming forward to actually take Trump at his word! Research demonstrates that accusations of sexual assault are true 92 to 95 percent of the time. False reporting of sexual assault does not happen any more frequently than false reporting for other crimes. And keep in mind that only 1 out of every 3 sexual assaults is actually reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that 1 in 5 American women are raped in their lifetimes; of the other 4 out of 5, 44% percent will be the victims of another form of sexual violence. That means over 23 million American women alive today either have been raped or will be. Nearly 53 million others have, or will be, violated in some other sexual way.
By minimizing the harm of Trump’s remarks and denying his self-confessed behavior even happened, these PMEs are triggering the traumatic memories and emotions of millions of sexual violence survivors. Katelyn Beaty, author and editor at large for the influential Christianity Today magazine, calls this effect the “re-traumatizing” of survivors. That means it is causing them to relive their experiences again and again in a way similar to soldiers who suffer from battlefield-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
No wonder several prominent female evangelicals have spoken out forcefully. For instance:
- Beth Moore, a highly popular speaker and author, tweeted, “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal.” She followed up by tweeting, “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.” Moore made clear later that her comments weren’t meant to indicate support for any candidate.
- Kay Warren, an author and mental health advocate who co-founded Saddleback Church with her husband Rick, tweeted, “As a victim of sexual assault, I tell you firsthand of devastation wreaked on women&girls by predatory men&boys who think women ‘like it.’”
- Katelyn Beaty summed up the feelings of many evangelical women. She wrote in the Washington Post, “We were angry after Trump minimized his words as ‘locker room talk.’ But we were just as angry watching Christian leaders describe the statements as merely ‘inappropriate’ and ‘low on [evangelicals’] hierarchy of their concerns. It’s actually hard to know which stung worse: Trump’s words or our leaders’ defense of him.”
For PMEs to imply that the sexual violation of more than 76 million American girls and women is less important than Iran, immigration, terrorism, jobs, Supreme Court justices, and even the sanctity of life is a prime example of male Christian privilege. Most of these PMEs have probably never experienced sexual assault personally, statistically speaking. Nor have most of them likely ever worried about being sexually assaulted. It is much easier, then, for them to shrug off violence against women and girls as being less important than so many other matters.
For the record, I believe that violence against women and girls is not any less important than any other issue facing our country.
Feeding a Rape Culture in Evangelicalism
More than just an example of male Christian privilege, the way these PMEs have minimized sexual violence is an example of rape culture. If you’ve never heard of that, here’s a simple definition. Rape culture is a social environment in which rape and sexual assault are common, trivialized, and frequently blamed on the victim. Rape culture becomes the fertile soil from which more violence against women grows and spreads. And for those who’ve previously been victimized, it re-traumatizes them.
If these PMEs are any indication, given their prominence and influence, it is a safe bet that rape culture is alive and well in American evangelicalism. One place it has most definitely reared its ugly head is on Christian college campuses. As of this past April, no fewer than 17 faith-based schools were under investigation by the federal government for violations of Title IX civil rights law, which mandates the protection of survivors of gender-based violence. These schools include the Baptist Judson University near Chicago, named for famed missionary Adoniram Judson, and the Lutheran Valparaiso and Wittenberg Universities. Five more schools had their investigations recently settled, including the Baptist Cedarville University in Ohio. Other schools like the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College have had their problems protecting assault survivors become national headlines.
And then there is Baylor University, one of the most prestigious Protestant colleges in the country. Several women have filed Title IX complaints with the federal government, saying the school protected its own reputation and its highly successful football program over the needs of assault survivors. The scandal led to the resignation of school president Kenneth Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) and the dismissal of head football coach Art Briles. As of just a couple of days ago, October 18, Baylor became the latest American university to become the subject of a Title IX federal investigation.
There is likely not a single Christian college in the country where sexual violence against women does not happen. If it can happen at any of the above schools, it can happen anywhere.
And violence against women and girls at Christian colleges or in Christian churches does not happen in a vacuum. Evangelical rape culture gives encouragement to rapists and potential rapists in Christian circles. It tells them that:
- Powerful and influential people will believe them instead of their victims.
- What they’re doing isn’t that big a deal, it’s just being “macho.”
- If they can just escape detection long enough, other Christians will say that it happened so long ago that everyone just needs to forgive and move on.
To the Prominent Male Evangelicals who have strengthened evangelical rape culture: I don’t think you purposely mean to make life more dangerous for women and girls, nor are you intentionally trying to re-traumatize survivors of sexual violence. But make no mistake, that is exactly the effect of what you are doing. Stop it. Ask forgiveness from God and the millions of survivors you have wronged. And resolve to not allow yourself to be distracted from real issues like violence against women and girls by the golden calf of political power.