The Moral Bankruptcy of Evangelical Ethics, Part 4: Where Predators Hide

CW: discussion of predatory behavior including pedophilia, violence, and rape

The work of understanding the motives and intentions of predators is not as simple as merely “playing devil’s advocate” or “debating both sides.” It takes both the ability to recognize that a person’s behavior is reprehensible and the refusal to look away long enough to take action. Preventative, retributive, and protective intervention can make all the difference for victims of abuse. It is important to think about where predators hide so they can be found out and brought to justice before they hurt others.

Predators do not hide exclusively in evangelical Christian institutions, but they make for an excellent place to hide. The evangelical ethics system is a sham. I use the word “sham” because it is literally a mask, a cover, for the reality, which is that Christianity makes no real ethical claims at all, but pretends to do so. The foundations of good ethics, like empathy, consent, minimizing suffering, and fairly allocating resources, are in the gray areas of evangelical ethics. Rather, this “ethical system” manages to sidestep the responsibility for wrongdoing altogether.

The punishment for sin is hell, but Jesus died to cleanse sin, so whether you’re in the clear or not depends on what you believe. There are hundreds of denominations and thousands of churches with slightly different interpretations on this. Some people believe that all your actions are predetermined by god anyway, so any sin you commit is in his will from the beginning of time. Others believe that a sin can make you fall out of the grace of god. There’s a lot of disagreement about the small detail of whether justice will be faced in this life or the next one.

The bible isn’t clear about what to do when someone does something truly wrong. Every possible tactic is used to ensure obedience, but beyond obedience, evangelical ethics offer no comment. Sin is essentially disobedience to god, and so the definition equates all sins. A passing intrusive thought can be interpreted as a sin or a temptation from evil spirits, depending on what interpretation you take. Because there is such an emphasis on obedience, however, a child refusing to obey a parent is committing a sin, while a parent demanding obedience with the use of physical violence is not sinning. A woman refusing to obey her husband is worse than her husband demanding sexual gratification. This warps every level of decision-making, judging against rules instead of against conscience. It also leaves a wide, welcoming message to predators: easy prey with no accountability thrives here.

Trying to be a good Christian all the time makes you an arrogant asshole that everyone outside your little world sees right through. I was one of these Christians when I started attending college. It wouldn’t be long before I started learning that the world was bigger and more complex than I had been brought up to believe it was. I was terrified of committing sin in any way, constantly trying to control my thoughts and actions. I wasn’t trying to make sure I wasn’t hurting anyone, because that was not something I was taught to value. I was just dodging the wrath of god. I was trained to obey immediately and cheerfully whenever told to do something, and even now I struggle with making decisions about how to spend my time.

Christians who’ve given up altogether on being good at all are far worse. The weight of their sin gives them such guilt that they keep right on abusing innocent and vulnerable people out of despair at their depravity. In this way, the ethical system fails epically. Even if the rules were good (they’re not), following them is enforced for the vulnerable only. You can be cut off from community needs for being a “sinner” in the usual sense – that is, if you’re gay or trans – but shunning a leader is difficult to do. The powerful have no accountability. Instead, they are offered followings wherever they go. Evangelical Christians love charisma more than character.  

So it is that scandals have been breaking consistently for years, and Christian institutions have no ethical standard by which to hold their leaders accountable. Instead, they express bewilderment and confusion, and throw up their hands. Evangelical Christians have a bigger problem with gay and trans people than they do with pedophiles. Pedophiles are just family members who’ve been unfairly accused of crossing a fuzzy line anyway. Gay people, well. That’s a clear line to them. They’re not even considered family after coming out.

Start asking about why some lines are so clear and others are so fuzzy, and you won’t get concrete answers. The answers have long winding trails that mix actual lines from the bible and political propaganda. The church hasn’t kept a consistent stance on human rights issues like abortion, though I wouldn’t have known that from my limited sources of information, being born in the 90s to evangelical parents.

In the first three parts of this series, I explored how evangelical ethics emphasize obedience primarily, with the main demands being sexual purity and proselytization. However, “sexual purity” doesn’t have anything to say about safety surrounding sexual activities or teaching consent and understanding. It only refers to isolating the monogamous cishet institution of marriage as the only place where sex is acceptable. The first obvious problem here is that there is no argument against marital rape. The marriage contract is viewed as a ticket to a lifetime of consent, which is not how consent works – it can be withdrawn at any time.

At its root, obedience cannot coexist with consent. You cannot prioritize both. If you wanted to do something, you don’t need to be commanded. If you have a choice to say no, obedience is not being demanded. Purity culture creates obedient people, willing to ignore their own needs for what they are being told to do. Dangerously, it creates people who are vulnerable, naïve, immature, and ignorant about sex. Victims of sexual abuse in this culture often cannot even clearly identify what is happening, because the ethical system either blames them for participating in a sexual activity (regardless of consent), or, in the case of marital rape, demands they put up with it. I’ve been specifying evangelical ethics up until this point, but this definitely applies to Catholicism, too. That institution has been thoroughly proven to cover for the exact same abuses of power.

The most vulnerable among us are suffering the worst kinds of abuse at the hands of the powerful. Churches and all other institutions that follow evangelical Christian “ethics” are welcoming places for predators. I have explained at length how completely the so-called ethics it champions fail to address real issues. Instead, its many rules and demands to obey them are a mere sham. It hides a world where predators thrive.

Abuse matters, not because it offends a deity, but because it is the cause of great human suffering. In spending a 4-part series discussing the ethics I was taught, I hope I’ve illuminated the basic structure and problems with this set of values. I am writing about how evangelical ethics are morally bankrupt because I believe it is damaging to regard them as morally valid. Religion has long held a seat at the table of discussion over law and justice because it claims to weigh in on ethics. It’s important to stop giving religion the benefit of assumed ethical superiority. It only empowers those who would hide in its heavily shaded gray areas.