[Content Note: Rape culture including narratives and apologia, alleged sex crimes, Christian Supremacy.]
In Wheaton, Illinois, which has the distinction of being the town with the most churches per capita in the US, a professor at Wheaton College, a Protestant institution whose graduates include conservative luminaries such as Billy Graham and Dennis Hastert, has been charged with "possessing images and videos containing child pornography, according to a statement released Thursday by the DuPage County State's Attorney's Office." The 60-year-old man, who's been a faculty member at Wheaton since 2006, was a professor of Christian Education.
Much hay will be made of a Wheaton College professor of Christian Education being charged with possessing child pornography, and understandably so, given the sanctimonious moralizing that emanates from much of American Christianity about liberals and atheists and feminists and gays being responsible for the moral decay that causes Good Christians to do Bad Things. Until the Devil himself makes himself known, we're always a handy substitute.
The evident hypocrisy is not really the most important part of this story, and all the others like it, though.
It is it not impossible, though it would be unusual, if a 60-year-old male educator, whose background is in "educational psychology...with an emphasis on child development," had never raised any flags throughout the entirety of his career before arriving close to his retirement at a new institution.
Wheaton College has said only (so far) that "an administrative leave is in process," but has made no statement about reviewing its hiring process, whether the professor was subject to a thorough criminal and professional background check as part of the hiring process, or whether they were aware of any accusations made previously against their employee.
In any case, the professor was almost certainly afforded, as part of his employment, the usual enablement inevitably provided by conservative Christian organizations which operate on the presumption that anyone who self-identifies as Christian must be a good person. (The flipside of the equation being, of course, that anyone who fails to self-identify as Christian is automatically suspect for a total lack of morality.)
When I was about seven or eight, I sort of obliquely come into contact with the idea that there are people who like to lure children away to hurt them. I didn't really understand what that meant, but I knew it was bad, and I knew, somehow even at that young age, that it was somehow my responsibility to prevent myself from falling into the grips of a predator. The rape culture does start its indoctrination early.
A friend and I were walking home from school one afternoon and saw a man beckoning us to his car. We ran home and told our parents, who called the police, and much drama ensued before it was determined the man was the Reverend K. who was at the school to pick up his wife, our music teacher, and he'd just been waving to us.
All the adults around us made sure we knew we had done the right thing (including Reverend K.), even as they had a hearty laugh about the irony that we'd fingered a reverend! Of all people! For years, this story has been told in my family with "and it was the Revered K.!" as a punchline, the laugh being dependent on the widely shared agreement that it is a positively ridiculous notion that a "man of God" would hurt a child.
That's a very dangerous attitude to hold.
And yet even after multiple Catholic Church scandals, hundreds of local incidents around the country involving ministers and youth leaders and scout masters, and various incidents within the Republican "Moral Values" Party, the equivalence is still drawn by most American Christians between "Christian" and "good person," despite the central story of their religion being a redemptive sacrifice rendered necessary because humans are flawed.
The thing about sexual predators is that they're very good at insinuating themselves into environments with lots of potential victims by whom they will be trusted. For pedophiles, the nature of most mainstream American Christianity, with all its logically flawed but intractably calculated "Christian axiomatically = good" equations, creates a practical heaven on earth for them—a space in which they can move freely, grooming their unwitting targets right in front of their parents' noses, more trusted and less scrutinized than they would be in any other part of society.
They know that "I'm a Christian" is the secret passcode to unlimited trust around children—or, in some cases, to keep harbor while engaging in the child pornography trade. And that makes religious organizations a safe haven for precisely the wrong people.
This is especially problematic in a country where reportedly one-third of the population say they are born again, because born-agains have a different attitude about "sin" than, say, traditional guilt-ridden Catholics or Lutherans, or even your average atheist. There's a sense of accumulation among all the latter—the feeling that life is a continuing thread, and bad behavior may be past, but hasn't disappeared.
Believers in souls might suggest that each sin leaves an indelible mark; absolution may wash the soul clean, but its shape is forever changed by the dings and dents of living a mortal, and hence imperfect, life. Non-believers might say that your mistakes stay with you, even after you have made amends, and leave a mark on your psyche, in your memory, on a strand of time.
Whatever the language, the principle is the same—our flaws are a part of us, and it's usually considered a good thing. You've learned. Built character. But born-agains start with a "clean slate" somewhere in life, and many of them mistakenly use the "rebirth" as an excuse to ignore all opportunity to learn from their past mistakes, often denying them completely. When I fuck up, the only concern is fixing it. My slate ain't been clean in 37 years; I'm not especially worried about a new chalk mark. But the born-agains intend to keep those slates clean. They carry around their erasers, fastidiously erasing any sign of a mark on their shining slates and bemoaning the states of ours, messy as they are. The only good slate is a clean slate.
They don't just see you and I and everyone else as a sinner, a criminal, separate from themselves; they see themselves in two pieces—the sinner, the criminal, the dead self that was bad, now gone through being born again, replaced with the new self who is good, and God-full, and gifted with the ability to avoid the same pitfalls that the old self knew so well.
And they see other born-again people the same way. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt.
That's just not a practical or sensible option in a world all too full of people who want to use exactly that kind of blind faith as cloak to mask their life-fucking predation.
A lot of born-again Christians are great fans of this Charles Spurgeon quote: "When a man is his own ruler, he has all the responsibility of what he does—but when he implicitly obeys Christ's command, he is not responsible for the result of his actions—that rests with Him who gave the command."
They love it for the same reason it sends chills down my spine: It can't be wrong if God is telling me to do it.
I have an old friend who is a born-again conservative Christian, which is totally incompatible with the person she used to be (and still is). She cherry-picks doctrine in familiar ways—ignoring the admonishments to submit to her husband or revile same-sex relationships—but sometimes she finds it difficult justifying what she wants to do when it is simply irreconcilable with her ostensible beliefs. She has referenced that Spurgeon quote when contemplating a breach of her beliefs, and says: "Well, if God really didn't want me to do it, He'd stop me!"
And thus does anything become the Lord's will, if He doesn't intervene to stop you.
The absence of a no becomes a yes.
Unearned trust, safe havens, God's inferred consent, and clean slates: It is an enticing mix for predators, and a toxic mix for the rest of us.
And it all comes back to the bad math that calculates professed faith to be proof of goodness.
[H/T to Pam. A similar version of this post was published in April 2009.]