Sexual Misconduct and the Southern Baptist Convention

Does sexual impropriety among the clergy undermine religions' credibility?

Posted Mar 11, 2019

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Now it’s the Southern Baptists

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, The Scarlet Letter, which is set in seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, Hester Prynne must stand in the town square to be publicly humiliated for having a child out of wedlock.  Badgered by the onlookers, she refuses to name her child’s father, who, it turns out, is Roger Dimmesdale, one of Boston’s most respected and inspiring clergymen. 

According to reporters from the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, a similar scene played out in a Southern Baptist church in Texas two decades ago, when a young member was required to stand in front of that congregation to ask forgiveness for her pregnancy while unmarried. Like Hester, this woman did not reveal the father of her child, who turned out to be the church’s pastor, who had become sexually involved with her when she was one of his teenage parishioners. 

This is one of about a dozen anecdotes of sexual misconduct and abuse reported in the lead article of a series on this topic, from among more than seven hundred documented incidents perpetrated by nearly four hundred ministers, youth pastors, Deacons, and other church leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over the last twenty years. The series discusses the repeated cover-ups, at every level of church leadership within the SBC. Perhaps most astonishing, the articles provide multiple examples of pastors, who were convicted of sexual crimes and served prison time but who, nonetheless, still returned to SBC pulpits subsequently.

Neither Hierarchy nor Celibacy

Since the revelations of priestly pedophiles in the Boston Globe at the beginning of this century, the overwhelming focus has been on sexual misconduct within the Roman Catholic Church and its endless cover-ups of that misconduct, which have persistently emerged around the world over the succeeding years.  Foes and friends of the Catholic Church have pointed to three features that may have contributed to these outcomes:  (1) the requirement of clerical celibacy, (2) the rigidity and power of the Church’s hierarchy, and (3) the restriction of priesthood to males only. 

These reports about the SBC would appear to constitute counter-evidence to the hypotheses about the first and second features and evidence for the third hypothesis.  First, the SBC does not require that their clergy be celibate.  Second, the SBC has what is perhaps the least powerful church hierarchy of any Christian denomination in America.  Southern Baptists have long championed the local control of churches.  It has been just this feature that many SBC leaders have pointed to for why so many sexually wayward clergy have been able to survive within the denomination.  With regard to the third feature, it is worth noting that the clergy of both churches are exclusively male.

CREDs versus CRUDs

My previous blog post discussed Jon Lanman and Michael Buhrmester’s empirical evidence for the important role that credibility enhancing displays (CREDs) play in the transmission of religions.  CREDs are actions that would be costly to agents, if they held beliefs that were contrary to those that they overtly affirm. Religious people who exhibit CREDs, including everything from conforming to costly religious taboos to submitting to martyrdom, provide comparatively convincing evidence that, at the very least, they avow their convictions honestly. 

Near the end of their paper, Lanman and Buhrmester raise an interesting question, which is directly relevant to the plethora of reported sexual misconduct by Catholic and (now) Southern Baptist clergy, concerning whether what they call “credibility undermining displays” (CRUDs) have a comparably deleterious effect on religious transmission. Lanman has carried out other empirical research that suggests, for example, that religious hypocrisy is a major consideration influencing the decisions of former believers to reject theism.  If so, then the reports of widespread sexual misconduct in these two churches may lead to increased disaffection among current participants in the coming years. 


Lanman, J. (2012). The importance of religious displays for belief acquisition and secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27, 49–65.

Lanman, J. A., & Buhrmester, M. D. (2016). Religious actions speak louder than words: Exposure to credibility-enhancing displays predicts theism. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 7(1), 3-16.