Discover more from Letters from an American
May 23, 2022
Scandals today, and be forewarned: the first deals with sexual assault. If you want to skip over it, the next one starts about nine paragraphs down, with the word TODAY in all caps.
Yesterday, a nearly 300-page report from a third-party investigation revealed that the leadership of the Southern Baptists buried sex abuse claims for more than 20 years. They ignored accusations or attacked sex abuse survivors to protect the church from legal liability, describing survivors as “‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’”
The modern Southern Baptist Convention story begins in 1967, when Paige Patterson, a seminary student, and Paul Pressler, a Texas judge, met in New Orleans to discussing taking over the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and ridding it of liberals, purging those who believed in abortion rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. By 1979 their candidate was elected head of the organization, and in the 1980s, Southern Baptists, who then numbered about 15 million people, were active in politics and were staunch supporters of the Republican Party.
Between 2003 and 2018 the church lost a million members. Both Pressler and Patterson were accused of sexual misconduct and by 2018 had been forced out of leadership roles, and a new leader called for “a new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.” While he set up new systems for responding to abuse, other leaders continued to blame the victims. In one internal email, senior staff member D. August “Augie” Boto, who drove much of the church’s response to abuse allegations, wrote: “This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
In 2019 the Houston Chronicle ran a series calling attention to the 380 pastors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention who had been accused of sexual abuse, blowing the lid off the scandal. In March 2021 the hugely popular leader Beth Moore, herself a survivor of sexual assault, left the church. In May, Russell Moore (no relation to Ms. Moore) left the church leadership and then, the following month, left the church itself over its handling of sexual abuse allegations and racism.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in 2021 was the largest one since 1995. Members rejected a hard-right leader and chose as president Ed Litton, senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, who since at least 2014 had focused on racial reconciliation. Members also called for an investigation of the escalating sex scandals, which had become so toxic after Trump’s election that In setting up an investigation, church members were leery enough of the leaders investigating themselves that they set up a task force to manage a third-party investigation. The task force hired the investigating team, Guidepost Solutions, on September 9, 2021.
Its report is so damning that Russell Moore’s first reaction was to say: “I was wrong to call sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention…a crisis. Crisis is too small a word. It is an apocalypse.” The investigation, he says, “uncovers a reality far more evil and systematic than I imagined it could be.” “How many children were raped, how many people were assaulted, how many screams were silenced,” he asked, “while we boasted that no one could reach the world for Jesus like we could.”
“That’s more than a crisis,” he said. “It’s even more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy. And anyone who cares about heaven ought to be mad as hell.”
The 13 million or more Southern Baptists have provided strong support for Republicans since the 1980s, molding to their patriarchal model that president Ronald Reagan sold with the image of the cowboy. This report has ripped the cover off the abuse that model concealed. Whether that will affect voting patterns remains to be seen, but it does seriously undermine the image of the patriarchal leader as a protector of women and children, an image on which Republicans relied. Beth Moore reacted to the report by saying: “You have betrayed your women.”
TODAY, Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine sued Mark Zuckerberg, saying he was personally responsible for failing to protect Facebook users’ data, instead allowing it to be sold to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica before the 2016 election. Racine says that Zuckerberg violated the Consumer Protection Procedures Act by permitting third parties to harvest information about users without their knowledge.
The filing recounts the story, which was important to the 2016 election. In November 2013, researcher Aleksandr Kogan designed an app on the Facebook platform that identified itself as a personality test. To use it, a consumer had to give permission for the app to collect some personal data: name, gender, birthdate, likes, and friends list. What they did not know, though, was that the app also accessed the data of those folks on the friends list. “The vast majority of these Facebook friends never installed the App, never affirmatively consented to supplying the App with their data, and never knew the App had collected their data.”
About 290,000 users installed the app, but the app collected the data of about 87 million users, more than 70 million of whom were in the U.S. More than 340,000 were in Washington, D.C.
In 2014, Kogan sold the data the app had collected for about $800,000 to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which used the information to target ads to users to promote Republican candidates in the 2014 midterm elections. By December 22, 2015, Facebook knew that Kogan had sold the data; selling data violated its terms of service. It got rid of the app but simply requested that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica delete the information. Instead, Cambridge Analytica used it during the 2016 election, targeting political ads to help first Texas senator Ted Cruz, and then Trump.
The extent of the story burst into public view in 2018, when Christopher Wylie, who had helped to start Cambridge Analytica, talked to reporters. He left the company in late 2014, apparently in disgust over its hard-right turn after a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, who was being advised by Steve Bannon. “They want to start a culture war in America,” he told Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Confessore, and Carole Cadwalladr of the New York Times. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”
In 2019 the Republican-controlled Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined Facebook $5 billion for deceiving its users about their privacy but did not require Facebook to admit guilt or regulate how Facebook would use information in the future. (Facebook’s revenue that year was $56 billion.) It also indemnified the company for “any and all claims prior to June 12, 2019,” a provision that the FTC’s former chief technologist Ashkan Soltani told Soo Youn of ABC News was “a $5 billion get out of jail card.”
Racine has an ongoing lawsuit against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and now will try to bring Zuckerberg himself to account for the data breach.
In Michigan, the Bureau of Elections has ruled that five of the ten Republican candidates for governor in this fall’s elections are ineligible to run in the primaries. It appears that canvassers paid to collect signatures on the candidates’ nomination petitions forged signatures—68,000 of them on the paperwork of 10 candidates. All of the candidates have railed against election fraud. The board’s report says it does not believe that the candidates were aware of the scheme. Still, they should have had systems in place to catch this massive number of fraudulent signatures (some pages were apparently all in the same handwriting). The Board of State Canvassers will vote on the issue Thursday.
“We have never seen anything like this before, as it is an epic implosion that will likely be a cautionary tale in campaign textbooks moving forward,” wrote Mara MacDonald of Detroit’s WDIV.
Sure feels like there’s a lot of that going around.