The declared beliefs and sacred beliefs of the rulers had no effect on their actual behavior.
They have dedicated their lives to a gospel that says every human being is created in the image of God. They have dedicated their lives to a creed that commands watching over the marginalized, the vulnerable. The last will be first. The meek will inherit the Earth.
And yet, when allegations of sexual abuse came to light, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention gave it all away. These men – and they all seem to have been men – must have listened to hundreds of hours of pious sermons, read hundreds of noble theological books, recited thousands of hours of prayer, and yet all these true teachings and good beliefs had no value. effect on their actual behavior.
Instead, according to an independently produced report released by the convention this week, these leaders covered up widespread abuse in their denominations and often intimidated and belittled victims. More than 400 people believed to be affiliated with the church, including some church leaders, have been accused of committing abuses.
A woman, Jennifer Lyell, said she was sexually abused while a student at a Southern Baptist seminary. In one article, the church’s communications arm gave the impression that it was confessing to a consensual affair. Paige Patterson, then principal of one seminary, told a student not to report a rape, according to the report, and later, at another seminary, “emailed her intention to meet another student who had reported an assault, with no other officials present, so he could “break it up”.
The declared beliefs and sacred beliefs of these rulers had no effect on their actual behavior, just as similar beliefs and beliefs had no effect on Catholic bishops who behaved in much the same way when learned of abuse years ago.
How can there be such a chasm between what people “believe” and what they do? Don’t our beliefs matter?
The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior begins with an act – the act of seeing the full humanity of others. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It is about seeing others with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in all their experience, suffering all their suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality begins with the quality of the attention we give to each other.
If you look at people with a detached, emotionless gaze, it doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, because you’ve morally disengaged. You perceived a person not as a full human being but as a thing, as a vague entity to which the rules of morality do not apply.
In 2007, a woman named Christa Brown had the courage to testify to Southern Baptist leaders that her youth pastor repeatedly sexually abused her when she was 16. She reported that a manager turned his back on her, literally refusing to look at her, refusing to see her. It’s the kind of dehumanization that creates the indifference that allows rape, abuse, and all the other horrible, dehumanizing acts down the road.
Character is not measured by a person’s beliefs but by the ability to see the full humanity of others. It’s not automatic. It is a slowly acquired skill. It’s about being able to focus on what’s going on in your own mind and simultaneously focus on what’s going on in another’s mind. It is about learning to carefully observe, absorb and resonate with the emotions of others.
It happens through years of shared experiences, decades of other-centered attention, engagement with the kind of literature that educates you on what can go on in other people’s heads. It’s spiritual training to get out of your own self-referential selfish thinking and get into the habit of asking what this moment is like for that other person.
As social scientists have shown in experiment after experiment, it is very easy to get people to dehumanize each other. You divide people into internal and external groups. You spread an unspoken ideology that says women are less important than men or black people are less important than white people. You use euphemistic language so that horrible acts can be summed up in sanitized jargon.
You tell a story of victimhood: We are under attack. They are there to get us. They are monsters. They deserve what they get. You tell a story of justice: We do the work of the Lord. Our mission is vital. Anyone who interferes is a beast.
You bureaucratize: you create a system of irresponsibility in which rules and procedures matter, not people. When you read the Southern Baptist report, you realize, once again, how much horror can be committed by dedicated public servants who focus on minimizing legal liability but not on honoring human beings.
Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen calls this “the erosion of empathy”. In his book “Moral Disengagement”, Albert Bandura detailed how Catholic leaders went to great lengths to not know what was going on. After this shameful warning, Southern Baptist leaders did something quite similar.
We live in a time awash with cruelty – not only with abuse scandals, but also with mass shootings, political barbarism and atrocities in Ukraine. To what extent will the act of hammering out the experience of the news these days lead to the erosion of empathy? Where will the forces of rehumanization come from? Apparently not from our religious elites.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.