Like many others, I lamented this week after reading the report from Guidepost Solutions concluding their independent investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention’s response to sexual abuse. The report uncovered new allegations of sexual abuse and sexual abuse cover-up from respected pastors within the SBC, severe mishandling of abuse claims within the Executive Committee of the SBC, and a pattern of intimidation of sexual abuse victims. The findings are truly horrific, and all Christians should lament and learn from these tragic institutional and personal failures. What has been reported should never be tolerated in any institution, much less one that names the name of Christ.
Interpretations of this report and its consequences are widespread, and I do not wish to add my own at this time other than to point out that repentance, restitution, and change must be pursued going forward. I’m more interested in an answer to one question: How could this happen? How does an institution that prides itself on biblical ethics fail so miserably to live by those same biblical ethics?
Admittedly, the answer to this question is complex. There are numerous causes—small compromises, hidden moral failures, and regrettable individual decisions—that led to this tragic moment. I agree with others who have noted the lack of accountability and transparency within SBC institutions. I resonate with Rachel Denhollander when she points to men in power who view women either as dangers to be avoided or as means to sexual fulfillment rather than as dignified image-bearers of God and co-heirs of the promises of Christ. Southern Baptists must humbly get to work in changing theological deficiencies and institutional culture.
But I couldn’t help but notice another culprit hiding behind the lies and deceit: the ideology of pragmatism. Pragmatism gained prominence as a philosophy toward the end of the 19th century through the writings of such thinkers as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. These intellectuals evaluated words, thoughts, and ideas, not based on truthfulness, but on practical usefulness. The pragmatist is not concerned with truth, justice, and beauty, but instead evaluates all things based on one criterion: What practical difference would it make? If a particular action leads to positive practical results, then the end justifies the means. According to pragmatism, we assess value by measuring outcomes.
The Guidepost report contained an email from Augie Boto, who served as long-time general counsel to the Executive Committee and who kept a secret database of 703 accused abusers, in which he called the attempts to uncover sexual abuse within the SBC “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” Do you hear the pragmatism? Boto was essentially arguing that covering up sexual abuse was necessary to keep the SBC focused on the higher task of evangelism. The end of reaching people for Christ justifies the means of shutting up survivors of sexual abuse and allowing hundreds of accused abusers to remain in churches with access to more victims.
Pragmatism is inherently relativistic, meaning that it denies universal truth. The pragmatist does not bother with questions like, “What is the right thing for me to do in this situation?” or “Should I tell the truth?” because he is instead concerned with questions like, “What will result from this or that action? Will it benefit me? Will it lead to my happiness? Will it help us accomplish our goal?”
Pragmatism is not unique to the Southern Baptist Convention; it’s everywhere. It may even be the dominant American philosophy. You don’t have to study William James to be a pragmatist; it seems to be in the water. Decades ago, political conservatives argued that character was required for public officeholders, but it seems for many that changed when the morally reprehensible candidates represented our side. We’ve got to win, or the other side will. The end justifies the means.
Just today, I was sent a link to an article about a pastor in Bradenton, Florida, who is using $100,000 holographic technology to beam himself to nine different campuses at one time so that he can “make it much more personal” during his sermons. How does he justify using this technology? “We’ll do whatever we can to actually reach and impact as many people as we can, and, in this case, try a new technology like this.”
In other words, the goal of reaching more people cancels out any concerns about the rightness of the means used. We are pragmatists. We get results. As long as we’re achieving bigger churches with bigger budgets, the wisdom of evaluating our methods to ensure conformity to the ways of Jesus is unnecessary.
Over half-a-century ago, C.S. Lewis saw similar relativistic cultural trends and warned of detrimental consequences: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” When we refuse to be guided by truth and righteousness and exchange these eternal ideals for “what works,” we make men without chests. The SBC abuse scandal has shown us what happens when the largest evangelical denomination in the world hands the keys of leadership to men without chests.