Late on Friday afternoon (Aug. 12), leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention publicly acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating how Southern Baptists handled issues of clergy sexual abuse. SBC leaders pledged to cooperate.
But for Tony Perkins, a Southern Baptist who leads the conservative political activism group the Family Research Council (which now brands itself as a church for IRS purposes), this was too much. He thinks the inquiry isn’t about protecting people from sexual abuse but about winning elections. Already upset that the DOJ successfully sought a warrant to search for classified documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, Perkins is sure any investigation into the SBC is illegitimate.
“DJT on Monday — SBC on Friday — could the mid-term elections have anything to do with targeting the largest most politically active protestant denomination?” Perkins tweeted last Saturday.
For Perkins, the SBC’s importance can be defined based on its political activity. And he thinks they should be free from following the law. He added an ironic complaint in his tweets: “Where are those ‘voices heralding ‘separation of church & state!’” Perkins doesn’t actually believe in the separation of church and state, but he apparently thinks churches and denominations (and former presidents he supports) should get to break the law with impunity.
Perkins’s organization went even further in an online piece co-written by a couple of FRC staffers. The piece framed the DOJ move as a “Biden investigation” of the SBC and some sort of political payback by the president.
“The federal probe by a persistent church critic raised eyebrows, coming amidst a flurry of actions opponents say are intended to punish the president’s political enemies, including an unprecedented FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s home earlier in the week and the passage of a bill that critics contend will allow rogue IRS agents to target conservative Christian organizations,” the FRC piece claimed (apparently without researching what’s actually in the legislation).
The FRC quoted an unnamed “former Justice Department official” who “struggled to identify a federal statute that could be used to target a religious entity for such a capacious investigation” — which the FRC thought reflected poorly on the DOJ instead of their source. The former official added, without providing evidence, that the DOJ has “enormous hostility” toward the SBC. The FRC also quoted far-right Catholic activist Bill Donohue, who has long downplayed clergy sexual abuse in his own tradition, to criticize the DOJ for “harassing and intimidating” the SBC.
According to the FRC, the SBC wouldn’t be investigated because of covering up clergy sexual abuse but for its opposition to same-sex marriage. Yet, with no proof to justify the inference, the FRC instead concluded, “It is not known whether the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church’s embrace of natural marriage and gender identity affected either federal investigation.” (What is now known is the stupidity of that statement in what is purported to be a news article.)
While SBC leaders promised to cooperate with the DOJ, Perkins and the FRC weren’t alone in attacking the DOJ and even Biden, viewing the legitimate effort to protect people from sexual abuse primarily through the lens of politics. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we look at what’s known about the new DOJ investigation, how people are responding in divergent ways, and what these responses illuminate about how Christians are thinking about issues of politics and legal accountability.