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The Hidden Cost Of Religious Hypocrisy

Roy Moore and Christian complicity
Baptist church

Hi readers, I’m still without my laptop, and borrowing one for a short time from my son. The Apple store called back to say that they were able to rescue my data from the MacBook Air and put it onto the external hard drive I brought in, but the Apple iOS (High Sierra) update was so damaging that they’re going to have to erase the entire hard drive and reinstall the operating system.

Here’s my urgent advice to you: do not update to High Sierra at this time unless you absolutely have to, and if you do update, make sure to back everything up on an external hard drive before you start the installation process.

Here’s the truth, though: I’m using a Chromebook right now, and I so miss the Apple experience that I just can’t quit Apple, no matter what.

Anyway, I tell you this to explain why posting is light today. I should have my Precious back in hand by day’s end, in which case regular posting and comments-approving will resume.

I’m standing and clapping for Bethany S. Mandel’s op-ed in The New York Times today.  If you don’t know her name or her work, she’s a politically and socially conservative Orthodox Jew. As an adult, she was received into Orthodox Judaism by Rabbi Barry Freundel … who, it came out later, was secretly videotaping women as they undressed and entered into the ritual mikvah bath. Mandel was one of those caught on the dirty rabbi’s camera. He’s now in jail. Excerpts from her column:

It’s hard to describe the depth of my feeling of betrayal. As a convert, I wasn’t just another student of Rabbi Freundel. My faith and practice — my Judaism — was shaped by his words, deeds and thought. For those of us victimized by trusted religious leaders, every day is a struggle to disentangle our negative associations of beautiful rituals from the ugly abusers who taught us about their meaning.

An Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Freundel was fixated on the minutiae of Jewish law. He drilled his converts in the proper blessings to say over a banana or a pretzel, and the order in which they should be recited should we happen to eat both at the same meal. This kind of knowledge was the bedrock of my conversion experience. But how could I continue to make myself care about such details when it became clear that the man who taught them to me valued knowing the blessing for a specific food group over behaving like a decent human being?

Despite having grown up as a Jew (my father was Jewish, but according to Orthodox law only the children of Jewish mothers are Jewish), there were many aspects of observant Jewish life that were new to me until the year I spent converting. The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life, and thus, to Rabbi Freundel. I have not been to services in years because the tunes sung on Shabbat remind me so much of him.

Mandel talks about how she was lucky in one sense: the evidence of what Rabbi Freundel did to her was rock-solid, because captured on videotape. The women who say Roy Moore sexually assaulted them when they were 14 and 15, respectively, have only their word against his. Never mind that Beverly Young Nelson, the most recent accuser, has Moore’s signature in her high school yearbook, and his handwriting under it identifying the now-defunct restaurant where she was a 15-year-old waitress. Roy Moore denies knowing her, and denies knowing the restaurant, and Moore’s wife denies the restaurant existed, though newspapers from those days show that it was there. A number of people now say that yes, Roy Moore, as a DA in his 30s, was known for chasing barely-legal girls. But without the kind of evidence that convicted the man who violated Bethany Mandel and the other women at synagogue, there will always be people who claim that we can never really know what happened, so let’s not jump to any conclusions about Roy Moore, despite the mounting circumstantial evidence that he did what his accusers say he did.

Mandel recognizes that it’s hard for people within a religious community who feel besieged to come to grips with what one of their own has done, because it stands to hurt the image and the standing of the entire community. More:

For these believers, losing Mr. Moore means losing an outspoken voice for traditional Christian values. He rose to prominence in the evangelical world for giving up his bench as a judge not once, but twice, for placing his religious beliefs ahead of his judicial duties. Last month The Washington Post reported on a poem Mr. Moore recited at a rally at a Baptist Church: “You think that God’s not angry that this land is a moral slum? How much longer will it be before his judgment comes?”

His defenders argue that not voting for Mr. Moore, and therefore losing a Republican Senate seat and possibly control of the Senate, could lead to worse outcomes for Christians than simply holding their noses and electing him to office.

They could not be more mistaken. The damage that will be done to the Republican brand and those Christians who watch their religious leaders stand by Mr. Moore will be irreversible. If he wins, the Republicans may have a reliably conservative vote in the Senate, but one thing is guaranteed: Religious leaders who defend him risk their flock being infected with the same disenchantment I was after the arrest of my rabbi.

Religious leaders often fret that such creeping faithlessness puts society at risk more than any political ideology. As a prominent evangelical put it in a 2006 Washington Times column: “Our peace and happiness as well as our prosperity depend not on any political party or any great leader, but rather upon our return as a nation to faith in Almighty God.”

It’s a lovely message, but one that’s too often discredited by its messengers. The man who wrote that column? Roy Moore.

Read the whole thing. Send it to every religious believer you know, liberal or conservative.

I know you all must be tired of hearing this from me, but you’re going to hear it again, because its importance cannot be overstated. The disenchantment Mandel writes about is a real thing. It happened to me with the Catholic Church, and I wasn’t even abused. I wrote about the abuse scandal for four years, and was immersed in stories much worse than what happened to Bethany Mandel. Some of those people who were actually victimized by priests and then by the Catholic system remained Catholic. Those were men and women who had more faith than I did. I reached the point in which I could no longer believe, any more than a man whose back is broken can stand up and walk.

There’s no need to go back through that process here on this blog post, though I should mention the breaking point was discovering that a sleazy charmer of Father Christopher Clay, a priest who was not supposed to be in ministry until the formal sex abuse claims against him were resolved, had been lying, and weaseling his way into my family’s good graces — and that the pastor of the parish we had been attending knew all about his past, but put him to work in the parish anyway, and — get this — kept this information hidden from his bishop! Both the lying priest and the deceptive parish pastor were known for being staunch conservatives. I trusted them because even though I should have known better, given all the things I had seen, I thought I was incapable of being fooled.

But I was the fool. After that, the dam broke. I found it impossible to trust the institutional Catholic Church. As most of you readers know, I ended up converting to Orthodoxy, but the disenchantment was so profound that I find it difficult to trust religious authority, even as I recognize the validity of that authority. This is a burden I bring into every relationship I have with a priest. It’s not a burden they deserve, but losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing that ever happened to me, and I cannot put myself in the position to go through that again.

Right after I was outed as a convert to Orthodoxy back in 2006, I wrote a long piece for my blog explaining what had happened, and why.

You’ll see if you read toward the end that I do not let myself off the hook for responsibility for the catastrophe that befell me. In that piece, I talk about how my own spiritual pride and idolization of the institutional Catholic Church set me up for a very big fall. And I talk about how my inability to master my own anger at the injustice the Church visited upon abuse victims and their families led to my own undoing. I still believe that’s true, and when I am asked about it these days in public appearances, I stress my own culpability, not the Catholic Church’s. That’s not because I blame myself alone for what happened to me, but because at this point, I feel it urgently necessary to encourage all believers, whatever their church, not to make the same mistakes I made. Corruption in the church is not only a Catholic thing. Indeed, as I say in that piece, when we entered the Orthodox Church, a Russian at our parish told me that there are far too many instances of corruption in the Orthodox Church for any Orthodox to look down on Catholics. It is our responsibility as believers to prepare ourselves spiritually for a time of testing. It might never come, but we have to be ready for it. If you are spiritually complacent, you will not make it through that time of testing — or, worse, if you make it, it might only be because you committed yourself to self-deception, and even to trashing the reputations of those who pointed out the corruption.

That’s why I’m writing this today, in light of Mandel’s column, and the Roy Moore situation.

I remember back when I uncovered the deception at the Fort Worth parish one of the laymen who was attending there was furious at me. He told me that he was on the parish council, and that they had known about the accusations against Father Clay — and decided to keep them from the congregation. That was a devastating piece of information to learn. So it wasn’t just the pastor and Father Clay lying to everybody else. If this man was telling the truth — and I didn’t try to verify it back then; I just wanted out of that den of deception — it was the inner circle of parish leadership.

I bring this up because it speaks directly to a problem that Bethany Mandel cites: the unwillingness of religious communities to behave with moral responsibility in the face of serious failures by religious leadership. Mandel writes:

A significant number of friends, relatives and religious leaders have never once mentioned the case to me, despite my role as its most public victim. Orthodox Jews already face an uphill battle in the modern world, they say, and drawing attention to these sordid stories makes that hill that much steeper. These people also prefer not acknowledging what happened to me and so many other women because it’s more comfortable to pretend it never happened.

I too once felt that way. I preferred not to see the abuses in the community I had voluntarily joined as an adult because witnessing my community’s willful blindness to those abuses could send me over the edge. Being the victim of a sexual crime stripped me of that luxury.

I had a similar experience with the Catholic abuse scandal. Again, though I was not myself ever the victim of sexual abuse, I came to identify so strongly with those individuals and family who were that the willful indifference of ordinary Catholics to what had been done and was being done sent me over the edge. Too many Catholics in the pew preferred to turn away from the hideous truth, and undertook a number of strategies to keep from facing it. It wasn’t that they wanted anything bad to happen to kids and their families, but that they acted as if holding clerical wrongdoers responsible for what they had done — both abusers and those in the hierarchy that enabled them — would bring the entire system down, and therefore accountability had to be avoided.

Let me shout this from the rooftops: this is not just a Catholic thing; it’s a human thing. 

There is not a single human institution that is free from this temptation, because humans are sinners. Only today, in fact, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein, are some liberals starting to say that the left ought to deal with the legacy of Bill Clinton. Back in the 1990s, liberals closed ranks around him, in part because they believed his Republican accusers were so wicked that Clinton had to be defended no matter what. The epitome of this was the national political reporter Nina Burleigh, who told the Washington Post, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

It’s one thing for institutions like the media and political parties to be corrupt in this way. It’s quite another when it manifests in religious institutions. Re-read these words of Bethany Mandel’s:

It’s hard to describe the depth of my feeling of betrayal. As a convert, I wasn’t just another student of Rabbi Freundel. My faith and practice — my Judaism — was shaped by his words, deeds and thought. For those of us victimized by trusted religious leaders, every day is a struggle to disentangle our negative associations of beautiful rituals from the ugly abusers who taught us about their meaning.

It may be true, strictly speaking, that the sins of rabbis, priests, pastors, or other religious leaders do not negate the truths of the faith. But that is legalistic nonsense when it comes down to real life. I’m thinking right now of the young man in Texas who, as a boy, was forced by his priest to perform oral sex on him. He lost his faith, and at the time I heard his story, every time he passed by a Catholic parish, he involuntarily started gagging. Try telling that poor man that logically speaking, he should have held on to his faith, because the sins of his childhood priest don’t obviate the Church’s teachings. I honestly believe that on the day of judgment, God will have more mercy on that broken soul than on Pharisees who rested on legalism to protect themselves and their sense of order.

Roy Moore is not a pastor, but he has made his Evangelical Christianity so much a part of his public persona that he is rightly regarded as a religious leader. He has held himself out as the embodiment of a man of faith, one whose religious principles are the most important thing to him. He has raised his voice repeatedly in judgment of those who, in his view, violate God’s law. Now there is credible evidence that he sexually abused underage teenage girls in his 30s. There is no proof yet, but the evidence is credible. You can be quite sure that the world of unbelievers is watching how conservative Christians react to this news. And you can be certain that the adolescent and young adult children of Evangelicals — especially Alabama Evangelicals — are watching their parents, their pastors, and the adult community in which they were raised, to see how they react to all this.

This is a time of testing for Evangelical men and women in Alabama (and elsewhere). As you may recall, I heard from a small group of Evangelical pastors in Nashville that they were dealing with young believers in their late teens and early twenties — college students, basically — who were having profound crises of faith because of their parents’ and home churches’ enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. At the time, I told the pastors that I didn’t understand why their elders’ support of a politician would cause a crisis of faith. Those pastors told me pretty much what Bethany Mandel wrote here: “The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life….” That is, those young Nashville Evangelicals had been so formed by the faith as practiced in their families and church communities that they were having a very hard time separating belief from the means through which they had come to believe.

You can say that they ought to be tougher, intellectually and otherwise, and you might be right, in a sense. But if they lose their faith because they’ve watched their elders, the men and women who first taught them who God is and to love him, champion a Bible-thumping politician credibly accused of sexually assaulting eighth and ninth grade girls, what good will your legalistic chastising have done them?

What does it profit a man to help his favorite Republican politician win a Senate seat, but to contribute to his children losing their souls? The question is not a trivial one.



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