Why is it so difficult for some people to just admit that sexual assault is bad?
President Donald Trump’s evangelical base seems to have a particularly hard time with this. Amid allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford several decades ago, it has become clear that prominent evangelical leaders will do whatever it takes to trivialize such an incident in the name of political and patriarchal power.
Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, said publicly that whether or not Kavanaugh is a rapist is “irrelevant” to the nomination because “they were teenagers” and it shouldn’t be held against him.
This is not the first time the younger Graham has publicly endorsed and defended someone accused of or found guilty of sexual assault. His endorsement and defense of Alabama Republican Roy Moore, a man accused of sexual misconduct by several women, solidifies a pattern of Graham endorsing public officials who move forward his political agendas.
Graham’s notion that someone’s age mitigates sexual assault or that the trauma of an assault has a time limit reflects the double standard that evangelical churches operate with: Teenagers (and all unmarried women, really) shouldn’t be having sex, and if they do, they deserve whatever harm or stigma comes their way.
Graham’s own denomination created “True Love Waits,” an abstinence-only Christian education platform that promotes sexual purity outside of marriage, yet he has no purity notions when it comes to the candidates he supports.
“In scripture, women are either unbelieved truth tellers or have completely unrecorded perspectives in narratives that are full of sexual violence perpetrated by men.”
The church loves to talk about sexual purity, but cannot take responsibility for sexual assault within its community. This double standard only serves to reinforce patriarchal power by protecting men as impulsive beings just doing whatever comes naturally to them while characterizing the women they victimize as beguiling, lustful sinners.
This is not new, and the Bible has plenty of stories, including the resurrection of Jesus himself, where a woman’s perspective is called in “idle tale.” In scripture, women are either unbelieved truth tellers or have completely unrecorded perspectives in narratives that are full of sexual violence perpetrated by men.
It isn’t surprising, then, that Christians like Graham and the religious right would have a problem decrying sexual violence when the men they worship in scripture either perpetrate violence, disregard it or cover it up (all of which King David himself does ― so much for a man after God’s own heart). If Christians do not look to Jesus and his treatment, inclusion and defense of women, they will always land in patriarchy devoid of women’s voices and perspectives.
This is rape culture in action: silencing women to protect and empower men. It is birthed in many Christian churches and spaces and has made its way to politics as evangelicals make their allegiances to problematic men.
“Men in power are protected, women are accused of falsehood and promiscuity. Grace and mercy are given to men while suspicion and questions are assigned to women.”
Since the allegation against Kavanaugh, other prominent leaders, including Trump, have responded with predictably dismissive and problematic statements that both uphold this patriarchy and purity culture. Trump tweeted that if the attack “was as bad as [Blasey] says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities.” He sets up a strongman argument in a patriarchal culture implying that severity and quickness to report are correlated while reinforcing the victim-blaming and shaming that prevents women from coming forward to begin with.
The pattern is clear in politics and in the church: Men in power are protected, women are disbelieved and accused of falsehood and promiscuity. Grace and mercy are given to men while suspicion and questions are assigned to women, who are statistically and overwhelmingly honest in their reporting of sexual assault.
For a community so set on inviting and talking about good news, the church continues to create contexts where there is little to no good news for survivors of sexual trauma. The church would rather blame the “world” or the “culture” of hypersexualization, pornography, media, or rap music rather than blaming the real problem: men who rape and churches that protect them.
For people intent on being the “light of the world,” it is true that the church, through patriarchy, spreads their dark and problematic ideologies through endorsing politicians accused of sexual assault as long they carry their agendas.
At the end of the day, the church can’t be a safe place for women if it cannot put its politics aside long enough to see the impact of endorsing such men. It must take claims of sexual assault seriously, dismantle gaslighting structures and practices in their congregations and promote (when making political endorsements) candidates whose practices and crimes do not communicate to women that they are disposable objects.
The evangelical movement must develop a default posture of believing women. It cannot consistently and unabashedly endorse, protect and elevate sexual abusers ― and thus sexual abuse in its own ranks. If evangelicals will protect politicians they do not know, they will almost certainly protect those men in power in their midst.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.