In the last two weeks, Donald Trump won indisputable victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, putting him on track to be the Republican nominee for president. Those following the religious angle note that evangelical support for Trump remains strong, raising the question of whether anything can separate him from his conservative base.
But another, less-publicized story sheds light on this relationship while also offering a stark lesson in the limits of democracy and what happens when we’re blind to those limits.
At the close of last year, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which represents the largest swath of evangelicals in the United States, quietly settled a civil sexual assault case against Paul Pressler. Pressler, 93, is a former Texas state judge and once SBC vice president and Executive Committee member. He was also a leading architect of the conservative movement that claimed control of the convention in the 1980s. Pressler’s deep ties to Texas Republicans, and use of SBC infrastructure to gain power has earned him praise as a political genius. While criminal charges have not been filed, the SBC Executive Committee, which is tasked with conducting the business of the convention including the allocation of millions of dollars in funding to various SBC entities, was named in the suit. According to court documents, SBC leaders reportedly knew of Pressler’s abuse (including against minors) and overlooked it for the sake of political expediency.
It is not a coincidence that the SBC is dealing with the fallout of enabling an alleged sexual predator at the exact same time many evangelicals are backing one for president. Despite an assumption of separation, church and state politics often run in tandem. In fact, the seeds of both independent churches and democratic states first emerged in Reformation Europe when, coupled with the rise of humanist thought, Protestantism reshaped the religious and civil landscape simultaneously. Power shifted away from Roman centralization to national—and eventually, denominational—churches based on voluntary affiliation.
In many ways, the American church, and evangelicalism in particular, are direct descendents of this shift. Despite their traditionalist cultural bent, evangelicals have very modern sensibilities when it comes to church governance–at least when compared to classically hierarchical denominations. Southern Baptist polity, for example, is radically decentralized, with each local church ruling itself. It is not even accurate to call it a denomination. It’s a “convention”—a loose confederation of churches that come together for particular purposes. In the SBC ethos, state and regional level organizations are separate from the national organization in much the same way state legislatures are separate from the federal government. Despite boasting nearly 13.2 million members in affiliated churches, the SBC legally only exists as an institution two days a year, when thousands of representatives or “messengers” from around the country convene in a larger-than-life business meeting to file reports, work on committees, draft resolutions, and vote on leaders—who have broad appointment power.
And yet, this democratic vision belies the truth. In reality, the SBC is a behemoth network of interlacing institutions: book publishers, colleges, seminaries, conferences, a missions agency, a disaster relief organization, and a political lobbying group. These entities, along with the powerful Executive Committee, “act for the Convention ad interim in all matters not otherwise provided for” (SBC By-law 18.E.(1)).
The result is a populist vibe that obscures the powerful role the leaders of these mid-level institutions play. Pressler’s conservative movement regained control by leveraging appointments of committee chairs and entity heads. By capturing the positions that actually make decisions, new leadership was able to—among other things—appoint theological conservatives to seminaries; revise the SBC’s statement of faith to include strict parameters on gender roles and biblical interpretations; and chart a broader conservative socio-political agenda.(Despite the success of Pressler’s “conservative resurgence,” the struggle to control the SBC continues to this day with increasingly conservative factions vying for precedence.)
These dynamics within the SBC reflect our contemporary experience of civil government in deeply unsettling ways. Both rest on a belief in the agency and power of the individual, but both are actually governed by those in the middle. Certain decisions may be made on the convention floor or at the voting booth, but real power lies with those who decide what options we actually have. It lies with those who run the party, sit in congressional seats, offer endorsements, fund campaigns, regulate state primaries, and make the political calculus about who will be presented to voters in November. After all, how can voters’ voices actually be heard if the nomination is wrapped up within the first week of the primaries?
Or consider this counterfactual: How would January 6, 2021, have played out differently if more congressional members had supported Trump and those who stormed the Capitol? What would have happened if there had been a few more Josh Hawleys and Kevin McCarthy hadn’t made that phone call? Did Vice President Mike Pence actually stand between the United States and a constitutional crisis? The gut-wrenching answer is that yes, he did.
We talk a lot about complicity these days—about who is responsible for the state of society. Too often, our calculus assumes a great deal of individual agency. This, in turn, leads us to flatten moral responsibility, to democratize guilt and redistribute it widely. In fact, this leveling is part of what fuels online call-out culture wherein anyone with the slightest link to a given situation can be made responsible for the whole of it.
When it comes to elections, this guilt by association also means that we often deem individual voters directly responsible for the actions of the candidate they vote for. But this understanding misses the fact that complicity correlates to power and privilege. Because our systems were not designed to distribute power equally among the citizenry, responsibility is not equal either. The individual voter may be the last chance to stop a predator, but she should never be asked to do this in the first place.
The people most responsible for the crises in our churches and in our nation are leaders who have the ability to resist evil yet choose not to. Too often, these mid-level players hide in the weeds of bureaucracy, abdicating their duty. They take the privileges of governance and fail at its most basic responsibilities. They see a sexual predator and decide to take a chance.
Worse still, when the members do muster enough collective power to resist evil—as SBC messengers did in 2022 when they overwhelmingly voted to investigate the Executive Committee’s mishandling of abuse and establish an accountability structure—this mid-tier is safely ensconced in systems that make it almost impossible to implement change. Today, despite a third-party report that detailed how SBC leaders actively covered up abuse to avoid legal liability, advocates for reform consider the process indefinitely stalled.
There’s no need for fraud if you can use the system to get what you want.
In this way, the Presslers and Trumps of the world are not the only—or even the greatest—threat to democracy. The greatest threat are those who see the Presslers and Trumps as politically expedient, who gamble on corrupt men for the sake of their own ambitions. Continental reformer John Calvin, whose writings on the relationship between church and state influenced the development of our modern categories, understood the role mid-tier leaders play in resisting corruption. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes that individual citizens do not necessarily have the responsibility or authority to resist corrupt rulers. Instead, he names civil magistrates—those immediately adjacent to corrupt men—as directly responsible:
to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors of God’s ordinance (Institutes, IV:XX:31).
Nefarious perfidy. That about sums it up. Leaders who do not stop evil fail those they lead and are unworthy of our trust.
If you don’t like your choices this coming November, ask yourself who delivered those choices to you. Who put you in the position of having to choose between a sexual predator and your convictions on public policy? Who had the power to stop evil but instead enabled it? These questions do not make the answers easier, nor do they absolve us of the responsibility to weigh the power we do have and use it for good. But they might help us understand that our neighbors who vote differently are not the most immediate threat to democracy. The greatest threat to this sacred trust are those who presume upon us all—who happily risk our relationships, churches, and country–for their own mediocre political ambitions.