When he was 38 years old, Ernie Willis (allegedly) raped 15 year old Tina Anderson, his family’s babysitter. I say “allegedly” to cross all my legal Ts and dot my technical Is. She was already at risk — her stepdad was in prison at that time for sexually molesting Tina. And she found herself pregnant, (allegedly) carrying Ernie’s child.
When she and her single mother told her pastor — Bob Jones University Board Member, Chuck Phelps — his response was to put her in front of the church for “discipline,” shuttle her out of state to Colorado away from the investigation where she birthed her child and put her up for adoption. Willis admitted his own paternity of the child on the adoption papers, but the courts will sort through the rest of the details in good time. You can read the linked articles to catch up on the specifics. Phelps gives his version of the events here and here.
While we wait for justice, we who are close to fundamentalism are reeling. One friend of mine had to speak. She cannot use her name (yet). She is a working-outside-the-home mom who sees the effects of fundamentalism’s “hard patriarchy” first hand.
As a recovering fundamentalist, the Tina Anderson/Trinity Baptist Church case has had a particularly profound impact on me. It has taken me some time to figure out just what I found so compelling, however. It isn’t as though I haven’t dealt with poorly-handled sexual abuse situations in Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) circles before; in my current line of work I stumble upon them more often than I care to think about. While I cannot adequately express my sadness at what happened to her, her ordeal has finally opened my eyes to a deeper issue.
There is much teaching on the submission of wives to their husbands in fundamentalist circles. In extreme cases, submission is taught as complete floormat-hood for every woman to every man; in less extreme circles, it’s taught in a manner that does not appear to go beyond the biblical teaching – or at least not very far beyond it. Yet sermons on the topic have always bothered me, no matter how progressive the take on the concept. I struggled to uncover the problem, and I honestly couldn’t identify it. All I knew is that my heart would scream over and over that Something. Is. Not. Right.
The Tina Anderson case has finally revealed the reason for the struggle. Despite their assurances that what they were teaching did not mean that women were inferior in any way just because they were required to submit, in reality, the vast majority of IFB leaders do not truly believe that men and women are “equal but with different roles”. They say they do. Many probably even believe they do. Yet their actions consistently prove otherwise.
Again and again, when a case of sexual abuse or rape occurs in IFB circles, it is minimized, covered over, or in some other way hushed up. The woman involved is told to forgive, forget, and move on – or, shamefully, even to confess “her role” in the crime. The man is rarely disciplined or brought to justice – and if he is, the woman is also punished. If the woman struggles with PTSD flashbacks from her attacks, she is told she is indulging in pornographic thoughts. If she struggles with anger over the injustice of what happened to her, she is bitter; if she wishes to pursue justice via legal means, she is unforgiving.
Because the woman is not truly seen as equal. It’s the only explanation that accounts for the consistently bad response in these circumstances – a response that is then justified by misapplication of scripture. If you still don’t belive me, I invite you to consider your reaction to the concept brilliantly illustrated at Stuff Fundies Like. It was a revelation for me as well.
The reason the Tina Anderson case was and continues to be handled in an appalling way? Tina is a woman, and the rapist and authority figures in the case are men. It’s that simple. And now that I’ve figured it out, I will never feel guilty for my heart’s cry again.
We’ve got trouble, folks. In Fundy City and beyond. Trouble with a Capital T.