Article by: Joe Carter
Do evangelicals condone sexual harassment and sexual assault?
Until recently I’d have considered such a question to be absurd. We evangelicals are, after all, committed to bringing justice to the weak and afflicted (Ps. 82:3). We are called to comfort the victims while seeking restorative justice for the assailants.
Of course this is not a universally held standard, especially when the powerful assailants are politicians. Credible claims of harassment and assault by politicians are sometimes overlooked or dismissed by some evangelicals so as not to harm the politician’s political opportunities (or the electability of their enabling spouse).
But for the most part, evangelicals have historically been the ones most opposed to lowering moral standards for politicians and to accepting their sexual indiscretions and crimes. We were the “values voters” who could be counted on to hold candidates to a higher standard and to defend their victims.
That’s no longer true. Recent events have shown that many evangelicals—especially prominent conservative defenders of family and public morality—side with the powerful oppressors over the vulnerable oppressed. Many have shown they are willing, even eager, to overlook admissions of sexual assault if it will lead to their preferred political outcome.
It’s Abuse, Not ‘Locker Room Banter’
Let’s be clear on what they are defending. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. When the harassment becomes physical it becomes sexual assault, which the U.S. Justice Department defines as any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Harassment can include activities such as a business owner walking in on female uderlings while they are naked and discussing in front of females employees which ones he’d like to have sex with (and asking other men in the room which ones they’d like to have sex with). Harrassment becomes assault when it includes forcible kissing, groping, or grabbing a person’s genitals without her consent.
Bragging about engaging in such behavior is equally loathsome, and a forced, perfunctory non-apology apology (“. . . I apologize if anyone was offended . . .”) is an inadequate response to such a candid, venal confession. Dismissing it as “locker room banter” is also a defective response, and offensive both to the millions of men who are disgusted by gleeful admissions of molestation and also to the women who suffer such indignities.
Sadly, that is the approach taken by many evangelicals, including some of America’s most notable pastors, educators, and organizational leaders. They attempt to square the circle by claiming that while they are personally opposed to sexual assault and boasting about committing it, they have no intention of holding the perpetrator accountable.
Some have publicly stated they find the incident to be “disgusting,” “degrading,” and “deplorable”—yet are nevertheless willing to reward the man who confessed to such behavior by giving him the most powerful job in the history of the world. Their justification is that withdrawing support could lead to negative, even disastrous, political consequences.
It would be easy to dimiss these men and women simply as moral cowards too concerned with holding on to their fading political influence. But I know some of them personally, and I think there is a different, though equally misguided, reason: They have temporarily abandoned following Christ to tag along behind Peter Singer.
The New Ethics of (Some) Evangelicals
While you may have never heard of Peter Singer, you live in an era influenced by his work. Singer is a bioethicist from Princeton University who has spent a lifetime justifying the unjustifiable. He is the founding father of the animal liberation movement, and he advocates ending “the present speciesist bias against taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals.” He is also a defender of killing the aged (if they have dementia), newborns (for almost any reason until age 2), necrophilia (assuming it’s consensual), and bestiality (also assuming it’s consensual). Until recently Singer was one of the most prominent advocates of preference utilitarianism, an approach to ethics that entails promoting and justifying actions as legitimate and ethical if they fulfill the preferences of the people involved. It’s a modern spin on the old idea of consequentialism, where sinful steps (such as providing amnesty for a sexual abuser) are deemed both moral and necessary to achieve a preferred end, such as electing a president who might nominate conservative Supreme Court justices. (Remember that Machiavelli never wrote, “The end justifies the means.” What he said was that when judging actions “we look to results,” a sentiment that abuse-enabling evangelicals seem to agree with.)
There is a key difference between Singer and these evangelical enablers, of course. While Singer justifies actions that would lead to the death of babies, these evangelicals are justifying their actions in order to save the lives of the unborn. Their intentions are noble and praiseworthy, even if their “look to the results” approach is amoral. They might even be excused for their ethical lapse in judgment if it didn’t have the detrimental effect of endorsing and expanding the acceptance of sexual assault.
In almost any other situation, an influential and powerful man who admitted to sexually harrassing and assaulting women would not be someone Christians would want to give even more power and influence. But too many evangelicals are justifying their own continued support of a self-professed assailant since it fulfills their own political preference (again, filling the empty seat on the Supreme Court). In doing so, they are legitimizing the culture of abuse against women.
These evangelicals are sending the message that to avoid a negative outcome, we must sometimes refuse to hold an assailant accountable. Using this same reasoning, a husband would be justified in telling his wife she must endure her boss’s groping since “she needs the job,” and a teenage girl may reasonably assume she has a moral obligation to allow her mom’s boyfriend to molest her since they can’t pay the rent without him. The evangelical enablers may reject the idea that this is what they are condoning, but it’s the signal they are sending to America by their actions. After all, if avoiding a negative outcome is reason enough at the national level to justify vindicating sexual assault and harrassment, how much more would it be applicable at the level of the individual?
These evangelicals, particular those in leadership roles, are also sending a clear message to current victims of sexual abuse: If defending you goes against our interest, we regrettably will not be able to take your side.
You Don’t Promote the Good By Condoning Evil
The implications of such reasoning are horrifying. How can any young college student trust she will be safe on campus when the staff, administrators, or even the university president shrugs away admissions of sexual assault by saying “We’re all sinners”? How can any woman trust a pastor will sympathize with her story of abuse when he is willing to allow powerful men to get away with similar acts? And how can anyone consider them knowledgeable about faithful Christian living when they have a lower standard of behavior and accountability than many modern pagans do?
This is neither a new phenomenon nor one limited to a subset of politically motivated Christians—it’s both universal and persistent. Since the time of Adam and Eve, each and every one of us has attempted to rationalize our sin (Gen. 3:12–13). Rarely do we do so because we’re seeking to do evil. Instead, we rationalize our sin because we’re seeking a good outcome. We are what you might call natural-born preference utilitarians.
We are also stubborn in holding on to our sin, especially when we think the consequences will vindicate our choices. When confronted with reasons why we should change our minds or behavior, we often makes excuses so we can continue to justify our actions. This is quite apparent in this current situation: Evangelicals aren’t dismissing sexual assault because they want to increase evil in the world, but because they believe by temporarily dismissing the harms done to women (while simultaneously harrumphing about how such things are inexcusable) they can increase the good. While well intended, this is more akin to the perverted ethical reasoning of Peter Singer that to the moral teachings of Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to choose to go down that wicked path. We can reject such utilitarian calculations because we can trust God is sovereign. We ought to abandon such preferential reasoning since we have been called to protect the vulnerable. We must not endorse a precedent of turning a blind eye to evil and abuse. The God who sees all will judge us harshly for taking the side of the wicked over the innocent (Ps. 82).
But more importantly, followers of Christ must abandon Singerian ethics and Machiavellian power politics because it brings dishonor to the name of Jesus. Bringing shame on our fellow Christians is regrettable; bringing shame on our holy God is inexcusable.
Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.