The telephone calls began in the early 1980s, including one from a liberal Baptist with a five-star track record in American politics and media. I was the religion-beat reporter at The Charlotte News at the time, the long-gone afternoon paper that operated alongside The Charlotte Observer.
The big news in American religion back then was the conservative revolt in the giant Southern Baptist Convention, which began in the late 1970s and took six-plus years to run its course, in terms of changes in national SBC boards and agencies. The leaders of this revolt were Texas Judge Paul Pressler and the Rev. Paige Patterson.
Readers may have heard of Patterson, since he has made a bit of news in recent weeks. You think? To catch up, see this post from yesterday: "Watching Southern Baptist dominoes: Whither the Paige Patterson files on 2003 rape report?"
The calls in the early 1980s, however, were about Pressler. They focused on rumors -- not public documents and events that could lead to coverage -- that Pressler had been accused of sexual abuse by a young man in the Presbyterian church where the future judge was a youth leader, before he became a Southern Baptist.
The rumors continued, leading to fierce debates about the importance of out-of-court settlements and other complications linked to Pressler's past. Now, the Pressler story is one elite-media headline away from competing with the Patterson drama, as Southern Baptists wrestle with sins in the past and their leadership going into the future.
Yes, that's was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
To see the larger context, consider this passage from a Ross Douthat column -- "The Baptist Apocalypse" -- in The New York Times. Yes, there is a hint of a Donald Trump angle here, but this story is actually much bigger than that.
Late last year I wrote an essay speculating about the possibility of an “evangelical crisis” in this era, driven by the gap between the older and strongly pro-Trump constituency in evangelical churches and those evangelicals, often younger, who either voted for the president reluctantly or rejected his brand of politics outright. But I didn’t anticipate that the crisis would take a specific sex-and-power form -- that the Trump presidency and the #MeToo era between them would make the treatment of women the place where evangelical divisions were laid bare.
I probably should have; with the Patterson scandal, that seems to be what’s happening. As the veteran religion reporter Terry Mattingly writes, “the big story behind the story of Patterson’s fall is a high-stakes showdown between two generations of Southern Baptist leaders.” Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices against Patterson have been -- generally -- associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional Republican Party, more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential to the Baptist future and intent on proving that a traditional theology of sex need not lead to sexism.
Whereas Patterson’s defenders represent -- again, to generalize -- the more pro-Trump old guard in the Baptist world, with a strong inclination toward various forms of chauvinism and Christian nationalism.
True, that. Patterson's exit is a truly stunning development.
Now try to imagine the impact of that, when paired with the potential of national coverage of continuing accusations against Pressler -- the other half of the dynamic duo that guided the winning side in the great SBC civil war over "biblical inerrancy" four decades ago.
To see the latest -- combining the rumors of the early '80s with legal maneuvers today -- see the following information in an April 13 report in The Houston Chronicle that received very little national attention. Here's the overture:
The list of men accusing a former Texas state judge and leading figure of the Southern Baptist Convention of sexual misconduct continues to grow.
In separate court affidavits filed this month, two men say Paul Pressler molested or solicited them for sex in a pair of incidents that span nearly 40 years. Those accusations were filed as part of a lawsuit filed last year by another man who says he was regularly raped by Pressler.
Pressler’s newest accusers are another former member of a church youth group and a lawyer who worked for Pressler’s former law firm until 2017.
Toby Twining, 59, now a New York musician, was a teenager in 1977 when he says Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at River Oaks Country Club, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. At that time, Pressler was a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston; he was ousted from that position in 1978 after church officials received information about “an alleged incident,” according to a letter introduced into the court file.
There are new angles to this, of course. Meanwhile, what about those rumors that I heard in the early 1980s? The ones linked to his youth ministry work at Bethel, an independent Presbyterian congregation?
Some of those disputes were, apparently, handled in papers signed behind closed doors.
Documents recently made public show that in 2004, Pressler agreed to pay $450,000 to another former youth group member for physical assault. That man, Duane Rollins, filed a new suit last year in which he demands more than $1 million for decades of alleged rapes that a psychiatrist recently confirmed had been suppressed from Rollins’ memory. Rollins also claims the trauma pushed him to the drugs and alcohol that resulted in multiple prison sentences.
Yes, "repressed memories" have proven to be faulty, in the past.
Pressler has denied the allegations. The lawsuit alleges that Paige Patterson and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary knew about the situation and actively covered it up.
If the Pressler allegations are true, then the Southern Baptist Convention has to reckon with the fact that the two chief architects of the Conservative Resurgence are a misogynist and a closeted predatory gay man.
This does not, of course, discredit the ideas behind the Conservative Resurgence, nor does it impugn the integrity of the countless theologically conservative Southern Baptist men and women who worked to bring it about and to defend it. But it does raise painful questions -- questions that will have to be confronted. All the theological and moral truths Southern Baptist conservatism stands for are not negated by the monumental personal failures of the most important conservative leaders, but the ability of those teachings to be received authoritatively by the hearts and the minds of Southern Baptist Christians may well be compromised.
So dig into this podcast. And stay tuned.
PHOTOS: Stained glass windows in chapel at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Top: Paul and Nancy Pressler. Bottom: Paige and Dorothy Patterson. Photos posted at Baptist News Global, care of Don Young Glass Studio.