Why Wouldn't a Christian University Take Sexual Assault Seriously?

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr testifies before the Senate Government Affairs Committee April 14. Starr said that he belie
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr testifies before the Senate Government Affairs Committee April 14. Starr said that he believed the independent counsel statute is unconstitutional, and should not be reauthorized by Congress. WM/SV/JDP

Baylor University is in turmoil right now. The president has been demoted. The football coach is suspended with termination likely. The largest Baptist university in the country has failed to take sexual assaults, especially by athletes, seriously, failing to investigate reports, blaming victims, and ignoring the problem, even when athletes have been convicted by the justice system.

Of course, big time college athletics brings in a lot of money. Baylor's not unique in disregarding patterns of sexual assault by athletes. Ticket sales and huge donations are at stake.

But Baylor claims to be a preeminent Christian university. How can an institution professing to embody Christian values discount sexual violence?

We could cynically point to hypocrisy. Certainly that's there. But I think the underlying belief system that allows a Christian university to overlook sexual violence is a kind of misogyny related to particular conservative Christian convictions about women, gender, and sexuality.

For many conservative Christians, Eve is a temptress, the cause of the Fall. A 1984 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolution opposing women in ministry, explained that Paul excludes women from ministry "to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall."

The correlation of women with sexual temptation has a long history in the church and has justified exclusion and mistreatment of women for centuries. Because women are such a sexual temptation to men, women have been cloistered, hidden behind veils, imprisoned in chastity belts, and, in more recent times, excluded from public ministry.

When women are sexual temptation itself, then men do not bear responsibility for their own sexual actions. The early church fathers made this case. Tertullian called Eve, and hence all women, the "gateway for the Devil." Origen likened women to animals in their lust. John Chrysostom called women a natural temptation.

Furthermore, the church's long history of misogyny relegated women to inferiority. Augustine wondered why women were created at all. Jerome thought women the root of all evil (For more on the history of women's subordination in the church, see Uta Ranke-Heineman. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church. Trans. Peter Heinegg. New York: Penguin, 1991).

Since the controversy among Southern Baptists in the 1980s, in which the role of women was a central feature, the SBC has affirmed women's spiritual equality, while assigning them subordinate status in church and home. In its statement on the family in "The Baptist Faith and Message," the SBC asserts, "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

Beginning in the late 19th century, some conservative Christian leaders espoused a "muscular Christianity" in response to the "feminization" of the church that has continued into the 21st century as a call to the prioritization of masculine values in Christianity. The movement is especially connected with sports as the utmost expression of masculinity.

Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes, "The feminization of society, mixed with confusing cultural signals, has led many boys and young men to be uncertain and unaware of their masculinity and proper role." He continues:

Unless afflicted by injury or illness, a boy should develop the physical maturity that, by stature and strength, marks recognizable manhood. Of course, men come in many sizes and demonstrate different levels of physical strength, but common to all men is a maturity, through which a man demonstrates his masculinity by movement, confidence, and strength. A man must be ready to put his physical strength on the line to protect his wife and children and to fulfill his God-assigned tasks.

The Danvers Statement affirmed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood notes concern for:

The widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity; the tragic effects of this confusion in unraveling the fabric of marriage woven by God out of the beautiful and diverse strands of manhood and womanhood; the increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism with accompanying distortions or neglect of the glad harmony portrayed in Scripture between the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives . . .

But for the writers of this statement, the problems of violence and abuse are the result of feminist egalitarianism rather than the misogyny of submission and second class citizenship.

So, why might a Christian university neglect to take sexual assault seriously? In the mix of our answers to this question should be a theological history of assigning women blame for sexual temptation and relegating women to subordinate status. While we might expect that Christian ethics would drive Christian leaders to address sexual violence openly, honestly, compassionately, and urgently, the ambiguous status of women in some conservative strands of Christianity also provides theological cover for minimizing the harm done to women.

While Baylor's regents have addressed the immediate problem of particular leaders who failed women on their campus, they, and other leaders at Christian universities, should also pay attention to the broader theological currents that subordinate women and reinforce an ideological context that fosters the devaluing, sexualizing, and harming of women.