The #ChurchToo Movement Isn’t Just About Gender

The #ChurchToo Movement Isn’t Just About Gender

Emily Joy tweeted out her #ChurchToo story a full decade after the alleged abuse had ended. “I’m sure I’ll tease this out more in the months to come,” Joy wrote, “but after ten years I finally felt like now I could come forward. It’s a weird story. It’s ‘not that bad.’ It’s the kind of story women self-gaslight about.” Taking direct inspiration from Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, she accused a youth group leader who was then in his 30s of “grooming” her for abuse when she was 16, and named him, in a Twitter thread that began:

(Joy’s alleged abuser did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)

Joy had conceived of the hashtag earlier that evening in a flurry of text messages with Hannah Paasch, a friend from college. An hour later, Paasch tweeted a quote from Luke and “#ChurchToo”:

Joy went to sleep expecting a retweet or two, maybe some engagement from a few acquaintances in her feed. She woke to thousands of tweets, close friends, and complete strangers all telling their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse in and around evangelical institutions under the tag #ChurchToo. Over the next 48 hours, the hashtag reverberated across evangelical Twitter. Within a few months, the Christian blogosphere was attaching the hashtag to its coverage of the #MeToo movement, and eventually major church leaders began reluctantly resigning (semi-recently to the applause of #forgiving congregations—we’re looking at you, Highpoint Church).

The fact that there are abusive leaders in the evangelical church is utterly, unremarkably unsurprising. Where there are men in power, there will be men abusing it. What separates #ChurchToo from #MeToo are the power dynamics (at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality) entrenched in evangelical purity culture, a sex-obsessed, white Christian moralism. #ChurchToo, like #MeToo, is concerned with calling out abusers and culling them from positions of power. It also echoes #MeToo in what it asks of society (and, respectively, the evangelical church) as a whole. Namely, How exactly did we get here? and How exactly do we address this?

Where there are men in power, there will be men abusing it.

Paasch and Joy met at Moody Bible Institute, an evangelical college in Chicago. Moody is extremely conservative in its views on gender and sexuality; the college’s “Statement of Faith”—a document that outlines the institution’s doctrinal positions—includes this sentence: “We conclude that non-marital sex, homosexual sex, same-sex romantic relationships, and transgender expressions are deviations from God’s standard, misrepresenting the nature of God Himself.” Moody also adheres to a complementarian view on gender roles within the church. (Complementarianism suggests that men and women have different but complementary roles when it comes to church leadership and family dynamics.) The institution recently terminated Janay Garrick, a professor who helped a student file a Title IX gender discrimination complaint against Moody in 2016 over its policy that only men could major in “Pastoral Ministry.” Faculty and students have also clashed in the past several years over whether or not discussions of “white privilege” were appropriate within “Christian discourse.” A former professor wrote a letter to the editor of a campus publication in 2015 titled Rescinding the Term ‘White Privilege.’ “I often see a lot of ‘white love’ as the American church reaches out to the needy,” he wrote. “Why must we criticize our Caucasian brothers and sisters?”

Lord have mercy, indeed.

Whether or not the church is willing to interrogate its own hetero-patriarchal white supremacy is integral, not tangential, to they way it will (or will not) be able to grapple with sexualized violence. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, assistant professor of Theology and African American Religion at Yale University Divinity School accounted for this reluctance in an interview with Jezebel: “Oppressions are always interconnected.” In other words, the roots of the church’s systemic violence against women are wrapped tightly around the roots of the church’s systemic brutalization of black and brown and queer bodies. “Whiteness and evangelicalism are such extraordinarily effective and well-integrated partners,” said Christena Cleveland, a social scientist, theologian, and professor at Duke Divinity School. “The white evangelical church would cease to exist as we know it if it started to seriously address these issues. The entire power pyramid would topple; the church is based on that hierarchy.” Paraphrasing James Baldwin’s thesis in his seminal essay, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” Cleveland explained: “Whiteness can’t exist without being over and against blackness. In a similar way, the evangelical church cannot exist without having this propped up figure over and against all of these other identities.”

Joy and Paasch are both queer women and no longer consider themselves conservative evangelicals. “It was just a bunch of small things one after the other over the course of many years,” Joy told Jezebel. “Then one day you wake up and you realize that you don’t believe any of the things you used to, but you’re not quite sure how it happened.” Joy’s slipping away from her tradition ultimately led her to question the role the church played in her alleged abuse 10 years ago. The man she calls her abuser went on to continue to work with minors in church settings. She said that she, then 16 years old, was punished, shamed, and silenced.

According to Joy, #ChurchToo is concerned with “the why question rather than strictly just the what. The what of the situation is sexual abuse, obviously. The why includes religious patriarchy, purity culture, forgiveness theology, and anti-LGBTQ theology.” Rev. Dr. Neichelle Guidry, dean of chapel at Spelman College in Atlanta, goes a step further. “To get at the heart of sexual violence,” she said, “the church must deal not only with sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, but also with misogynoir, capitalism, and Christian respectability politics.”

Purity culture, in a modern evangelical context, is preoccupied with heterosexual women’s premarital virginity, chastity, and, of course, “purity.” (You may remember David Magnusson’s blindingly white 2014 photo series starring young women posing with their fathers, to whom they’d pledged their premarital virginity.) According to purity culture, virtuous sexuality can only be realized within the confines of heterosexual marriage. Women are deemed responsible for the sexual “sins” of men and they must dress and act in accordance with that responsibility.

Sara Moslener, author of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, writes, “The purity movement seeks to construct a moral economy, not simply a code of morality, in which the assurance of emotional, marital, and sexual fulfillment is provided in exchange for bodily control and spiritual obedience.” It is no wonder, then, that purity culture and rape culture dangerously overlap.

#ChurchToo is concerned with the why question rather than strictly just the what.

Moslener explains that Protestants have historically appealed to the logic that immoral sexual practice is inextricably linked to national decline. She traces the current iteration of purity culture back to mid-century fundamentalists who came of age in the Cold War era, a time in which “religion, politics, and morality were shaped by fears of national decline and pending nuclear apocalypse.” World War II had ended, young men were flooding back into America from their tours abroad, and evangelical religious leaders decided to target them specifically. According to these leaders, “The wellbeing of the nation was dependent upon curbing the latest tide of adolescent irresponsibility.”

Billy Graham, who died in February, was one of the most prominent figures in evangelical history, and was a product of this targeting. According to Moslener, his earliest sermons centered on youth revivalism, nationalism, and Christian piety. Graham preached that sexual obsession and sexual deviance (including premarital sex and homosexuality) went hand in hand with decaying civilization. By the late 1950s, the nationalistic religiosity espoused by the evangelical church was embraced by cultural conservatives in ways that mirror and have directly informed the religious right as we know it today. According to Moslener, “Concurrent with Graham’s rise to national prominence was a federal anti-gay initiative that presumed homosexuals to be an imminent threat to national security.” This initiative, now known as the Lavender Scare, was at least partially orchestrated by Roy Cohn, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer.

As the threat of nuclear holocaust faded, neo-fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson would pick up the torch that Graham ultimately set down. He eventually distanced himself from the still-popular strategy of attacking sexual “deviancy” in the name of nationalistic piety. In 1993, Graham publicly apologized for calling AIDS God’s judgment on the queer community. In true Falwellian fashion, Jerry took the idea a step further. “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals,” he explained, “it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

By the early 1990s, through the work of men like Falwell and Dobson, the organized movement known as “purity culture” today had emerged. A document entitled “Sex, Dating and Purity” by Dobson, which outlines some of the belief system’s central tenets, is available online. After giving Dobson’s team my address and telephone number and offering a $0.00 donation, I was able to download it. The contents are frighteningly regressive, but not at all unusual. “Some girls are so bold sexually and have such a hard-charging approach that males are intimidated and anxious to escape that firepower,” Dobson explained. “The male ego is constructed in such a way that many men are uncomfortable if not in pursuit.” He went on to say that safe sex is a scam because condoms don’t work and that pornography begets violent rapists because, and I am not kidding, Ted Bundy told him so.

Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, has written that “Dobson’s fear of women and the feminine is so great that he often writes that boys will potentially turn gay if they are not raised with appropriately masculine role models around them.”

“The deep cognitive dissonance of purity culture demands that women trust men as leaders, protectors, and providers while blaming ourselves when our boundaries are inevitably crossed,” wrote Paasch in a piece for HuffPo in 2017. And it is no wonder boundaries are inevitably crossed when the idea of “purity” is built around the notion that men are natural “initiators” and women should be “quite content to be the responders.” (That’s Dobson again.) Men are understood to be naturally, biologically aggressive and this aggression is never labeled dangerous. Porn is dangerous. “Sexual aggressiveness among females” is dangerous. Dobson waxed poetic about the dangers of STDs, bestiality, and sex addiction. He never once mentioned consent.

This is not an accident or an oversight. According to Joy, “In some circles, ‘consent’ is considered a dirty word. It implies agency and autonomy, and a fundamental teaching of Christian purity culture is that your body does not belong to you.” #ChurchToo amounts to a generation of evangelical women who were not taught the importance of consent publicly grappling with the violence they’ve experienced at the hands of evangelical men who were not taught the importance of consent; men who came of age in a culture that violently asserts and upholds their supremacy—sexually, spiritually, and racially—at any cost.

“A fundamental teaching of Christian purity culture is that your body does not belong to you.”

This supremacy is not just a byproduct of evangelicalism; it is intrinsic to it. Marginalized people suffer in (or, rather, on the margins of) evangelicalism because their very existence is an affront to it. According to Valenti, “Since the time of U.S. slavery, men have benefited from positioning black women as naturally promiscuous because it absolves them of guilt when they sexually assault and rape women of color.” She goes on to quote bell hooks’ 1998 essay, “Naked Without Shame”: “[I]t was impossible to ruin that which was received as inherently unworthy, tainted, and soiled.”

“Centering the voices of women who are trans, queer, and/or of color highlights the limitations of popular critiques that reduce purity culture to images of girls and women as naturally chaste, delicate, and in need of patriarchal protection,” T.F. Charlton explained in a piece for Rewire.News, “I remember how church folks presented ‘godly’ and ‘natural’ femininity as chaste, quiet, and submissive, in the same breaths that they stereotyped Black girls and women as hypersexual, domineering, belligerent.” In a now-deleted Twitter thread responding to #ChurchToo, Rachel Virginia, a North Carolina-based writer and undergraduate student, echoed Charlton:

So on top of being worried about harassment from men, I was worried that I would not be believed by my peers (white women) because of racist stereotypes they consumed about black women and the attitudes white women at my church had about my body.

Cleveland told Jezebel, “The primary idol of the evangelical church is this white, male, cisgendered, straight Christ. And everything revolves around the worship of this Christ.”

In response to the #ChurchToo movement, we are seeing evangelical leaders giving in to a very second-wave impulse to “stand with women.” And yes. It is important to stand with women. Unfortunately, there is no real way to reckon with abuse in the evangelical church until the church is first willing to examine ways in which, as an institution, it is historically racist, classist, transphobic, and homophobic. According to Joy, “If your ‘justice for women’ doesn’t extend to lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer women, and non-binary folks, then your ‘justice’ is shit.”

Turman told Jezebel that “simply listening to women within the context of white evangelicalism—the heartbeat of slavocracy, where black women were historically seen as subhuman, as beasts, as workhorses, as mules, as property—isn’t enough.” Participating in surface-level anti-violence work (like establishing abuse policies, integrating background checks, and offering preventative training) is important, but, according to Joy, “At a certain point you’re almost putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. And that wound is the theology; that wound is the ideology.”

The evangelical church will not be able to reckon with the problem of sexual violence without first trusting, centering, affirming, and amplifying the voices and experiences of the individuals (and communities) it has most violently, most systematically marginalized. “Whereas patriarchy does become the primary object of a white feminist approach to justice in evangelical churches,” Turman explained, “We should be addressing intersectional oppression.”

According to Cleveland, “There are theological elements of the evangelical church that make it impossible to affirm the image of God in some people. There is no way of getting around that.” And if the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to see that the image of God is black, brown, queer, poor, and assaulted, the evangelical church will continue to sanction, even to mandate violence.

“For a church that has so much power, I think the solution is the crucifixion of this white male cisgendered middle-class Christ. I really do believe that it’s that drastic,” said Cleveland. “Christ came and said, ‘I make all things new’ and that is not a comfortable process. A lot of the attachments that we have—to success and wealth and security and certainty—those all have to fall away. And it should feel like an actual death.”

“Truth telling is a wonderful pathway to that cross, a wonderful pathway,” she said, “And this is a truth telling moment right now.”

Laura Bullard is a queer, Lumbee writer and editor based in Durham, NC, whose work focuses on the interplay between identity and power structures with a focus on gender, sexuality, race, and mental illness. You can find more of her work at

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