How Evangelical Theology Supports a Culture of Sexual Abuse

Most people scoffed when Bill Clinton famously proclaimed that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” when his relationship with Monica Lewinsky became public. Now, evangelist Franklin Graham is asserting that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh actually showed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford respect by not “finishing” what she alleges was an attempted rape in high school that left her traumatized for decades.

White evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump and his nominee, both of whom have faced multiple allegations of sexual assault. While we might expect that a religious tradition that calls for moral clarity and sexual purity would resoundingly criticize sexual harassment and assault, instead certain aspects of evangelical belief actually perpetuate the culture of abuse that justify and apologize for such crimes.

Within a certain framework familiar to evangelicals, these responses make sense. For many in the faith, only intercourse is actually considered sex—which means that oral sex is not sex, grinding a pelvis against a women’s body is not sex and holding a girl down with your hand on her mouth is not sex. While these actions exist in a morally gray area of evangelical thinking about sin, they are not the Big Sin, outside of heterosexual marriage, of “real” sex—intercourse.

Evangelical notions of salvation and forgiveness also weigh heavily in perpetuating a culture of abuse. In evangelical thinking, one needs only ask God for forgiveness to be forgiven—and while one should be genuinely sorry and have intentions never to commit a sin again, salvation and forgiveness do not require any kind of apology or reparation to wronged persons.

In other words, God will forgive even if the perpetrator never makes anything right with the victim. In that case, evangelicals can easily accept that, even if Brett Kavanaugh committed acts of sexual assault as a young man, if he asked God for forgiveness, all is forgiven—and there’s no need for further action.

This kind of theological forgiveness means perpetrators can move on without any accountability or concern for the people victimized by their actions. That, according to many of Kavanaugh’s defenders, he is a good man who has lived an upstanding life since such high school misdeeds is evidence enough that he is forgiven and has no need to account for, much less atone for, what he did—despite its ongoing effects on the life of Blasey Ford, and the survivors who have now joined her in alleging him of assault and even rape. The perfect example of this theology of forgiveness shows up in mega-church pastor Andy Savage’s apology to his parish after an incident of his own sexual misconduct became public earlier this year.

Twenty years ago, Savage drove a high school student home from church; along the way, he stopped and pressured her to perform oral sex. When she reported the incident, the pastor of the church allowed Savage to resign his youth minister position without public accountability—and so, Savage moved on in his career with no real consequences. The incident only became public when his victim, motivated by Matt Lauer’s removal from NBC, emailed him to ask if he remembered what he did. When Savage didn’t respond, the woman went public. When Savage addressed the issue on a Sunday morning in front of his church, her offered an apology to his victim and to the church, and the congregation stood and applauded him. 

In evangelical culture, women are also often pressured to forgive their abusers, furthering a cycle in which accountability evades men like Savage. Once someone has repented and been forgiven by God, no one should continue to hold something against him—and, in fact, the woman may herself be sinning by refusing to forgive.

Forgiveness, of course, means there’s no need for any kind of restitution, which helps explain why most of the concern we hear surrounding Brett Kavanaugh and other men accused of abuse and assault is about them—the damage to their careers, the tarnishing of their reputations, the stress they must be feeling. Where is evangelical concern for the years of suffering experienced by these women—the effects of abuse on their lives and the damage to their careers, reputations, families and psyches?

Those things are unimportant, because what happened is in the past and should be covered by forgiveness. Men should be able to move on as if nothing happened. Women should get over it. All is forgiven, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

Evangelical belief in women’s submission also reinforces a secondary status that gives men much greater authority and credibility than their accusers when they allege harassment, abuse and assault. When beloved women’s evangelical leader Beth Moore, who herself believes in women’s submission, dared to challenge evangelical sexism and support for Trump in light of his mistreatment of women, evangelicals turned on her. Complementarians claim to believe in women’s equal worth with men, but maintain that God has ordained gender roles that involve women’s submission—yet, when Southern Baptists passed a resolution opposing women in ordained ministry, part of their reasoning was that Eve was “first in the Edenic fall,” thereby sentencing all women to subordination because of her sin, her unreliability and her sexuality.

Evangelical leader Paige Patterson once told the story of a woman he sent back home to her abuser who, after she showed up at church battered and bruised, asked Patterson if he was happy now. He saw her husband was also at church, for the first time, and so he said he was happy—because now her husband had come to the community. A female evangelical leader once told me that she had counseled an abused woman to go back to her abuser, commenting that if he killed her, which she admitted would be sad, it would be okay—because this woman would go to heaven, and her faithful witness might convince her husband to be saved.

In evangelical thinking, the only thing that really matters is if someone is “saved.” Everything else can be sacrificed to this end—including and especially women.

This salvation comes with only saying the magic formula. It goes something like this: “I know I have sinned against God. I am truly sorry. I repent of my sinfulness and ask Your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus died for my sins and was resurrected from the dead. I ask Jesus to come into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Amen.” And then: Presto! Salvation. No accountability for past wrongs. No demand to make things right. No need for reparations. From there on out, over and over again, simply praying for forgiveness will take care of any sins one has committed, and the sinner will never actually have to deal with the consequences.

Of course, not all accountability is ordained. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, evangelical men who have harassed and assaulted women have lost positions of prominence: Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, resigned despite having denied allegations of years of sexual harassment and misconduct; Paige Patterson, though now making an offensive return to the pulpit, was fired as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when trustees learned that he had twice prevented women students from reporting sexual assault to the police, including telling a campus security guard to leave him alone with one student so he could “break her down” so she wouldn’t report.

Those who have not been part of the evangelical subculture often seem utterly confused by evangelical responses to sexual abuse and assault. But within particular evangelical frameworks, the ability to look past sexual aggression toward women makes perfectly good sense. A theology that subordinates women and embraces forgiveness without restitution or atonement fuels congregations eager to absolve abuse in order to uphold it.


Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.