Opinion | When Preachers Are Predators

The only thing that shocks me about the far-reaching and long-festering sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention is so many people’s shock. We should be smarter by now. We should know better.

Men of God behave in ungodly ways. That’s not because they’re uniquely or especially evil. It’s because they’re men.

Religious institutions countenance — and cover up — sin and even crime. That doesn’t mean they have any monopoly on hypocrisy. It means they’re institutions.

On Sunday, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, published the results of a third-party investigation into wrongdoing in its ranks. The nearly 300-page report documented hundreds of cases in which parishioners, many of them children, were allegedly abused by Baptist ministers and church employees over recent decades. It took grave issue with church officials’ response.

And it described a pattern: Baptist leaders would silence accusers, protect offenders, repel lawsuits, evade public scrutiny and prioritize the denomination’s brand over its adherents’ souls.

How cruelly and devastatingly familiar. My first book, “A Gospel of Shame” — which was written with a fellow journalist, published in 1993 and then updated and reissued in 2002 — examined decades of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and it found the same pattern. It explored many of the same themes, including the particular sway of pastors, who are seen as arbiters of morality and conduits to the divine, over those around them and the extreme damage done when that dynamic is exploited, that trust betrayed.

The Catholic and Baptist crises are connected. They show what many lesser revelations and plenty of historical examples also do: There’s no church-state separation when it comes to malfeasance, no bold dividing line between spiritual and secular realms. Although religious groups demand that we put them in a special category and hold them in special regard, they’re not exempt from the rot around them. The predatory dimensions of human nature and the self-preserving instincts of corporate behavior don’t stop at the chapel door.

I don’t observe and write that as any enemy of religion, though my coverage of the Catholic crisis led some critics to call me one. Religious groups are responsible for extraordinary acts of charity that would, in some instances, be unimaginable without them. They are sources of invaluable solace for people in search and need of it. I seriously appreciate that and strongly disagree with simplistic church-bashers who see only sanctimony among church leaders and churchgoers.

I see much virtue.

And I see much vice.

The report that the Southern Baptist Convention released on Sunday validated and was obviously prompted by articles published in The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News more than three years ago. So it wasn’t a complete surprise. But it was still big news — “The Southern Baptist Horror” was the headline of an article in The Atlantic by David French — and that’s in large part because we’re drawn, over and over, to the seemingly illogical, irreconcilable reality of houses of worship becoming theaters of degradation.

There’s no contradiction there, only a lesson: We’re on dangerous ground when we outsource too much of our judgment to religious authorities and genuflect too readily before them. They’re as flawed as the rest of us. In sermons and homilies there are words of great wisdom and messages of profound grace, but the messengers cannot be instantly trusted or unconditionally obeyed — not when they seek to guide our political decisions and not when they invite themselves into parts of our private lives where they don’t belong.

Blood on the Political Landscape

Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

How many more people have to die before we take stronger action to curb gun violence? How many more parents will bury their children before we reduce the insane number of guns in this country?

The two keen political observers with whom I had a spirited online conversation yesterday didn’t have answers for that. But they did agree that the Texas massacre won’t significantly alter the political landscape, as depressing as that prediction may be.

The observers were Lis Smith, a Democratic communications strategist who was at the helm of Pete Buttigieg’s formidable campaign in 2020 for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication for which he frequently writes.

Both agreed that Democrats are in an extraordinarily tough position heading into the November midterms. But they didn’t agree on how tough, why and what to do about it.

Smith said that she was surprised — “appalled” might be the better word — by just how far to the right so many Republicans had tacked and just how extreme some of the party’s midterm candidates are. She said that Republicans in Congress “want to impose as much misery as possible on the American people so that voters blame Biden and vote Republican in November.”

“It’s really cynical, dark stuff,” she added.

And what has surprised Continetti about the run-up to the midterms?

“The depth of public disillusionment with President Biden, his party and the direction of the country,” he said.

“If I were a Democratic consultant,” he added, “the first thing I would tell my clients would be to take shelter from the storm. There is no escaping Biden’s unpopularity. The best hope for Democratic incumbents is to somehow denationalize their campaigns.”

Again, you can read our entire conversation here.

For the Love of Lyrics

Rickie Lee Jones in 1982Credit… Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Although this feature of the newsletter began by showcasing Aimee Mann and has included shout-outs to Joni Mitchell, it has been a tad man-heavy of late: Leonard Cohen was the star of its most recent installment, and Jason Isbell got the spotlight in the edition before that.

So today: women. A gallery of them. Beginning with one, Rickie Lee Jones, who hasn’t received any reader nominations but has a special place in my heart.

The early phase of her career enraptured me. To my mind, her second album, “Pirates,” released in 1981, is her masterpiece — indulgent and unwieldy, yes, but also wildly passionate, sonically grand and less conventional than its superb predecessor, “Rickie Lee Jones.” And like the best of her work, it’s a lyrics gold mine, at least if you’re OK with a hyperabundance of metaphors and conceits and with quick swerves from one to the other.

The first track, “We Belong Together,” epitomizes this richness and abandon. There’s an opening riff on the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” (“How could a Natalie Wood not get sucked/Into a scene so custom tucked”), which gives way to nautical allusions (“rooftop docks” that are vantage points for “the crosstown seas”) and leaves room for stand-alone mischief (“And you told her to stand tall when you kissed her/But that’s not where you were thinking”). The song has an epic sweep, packing a lifetime of yearning into five heady minutes.

Another singer-songwriter who’s expert at such sorcery is Lucinda Williams — and several of you have nominated her. “My drive-off-the-road song is ‘Sweet Old World,’” Susan Newbold of Prairie Village, Kan., wrote in an email, praising Williams’s work. “It still makes me cry every time I play it.”

Me, too — well, it makes me misty. “See what you lost when you left this world” is the first line, followed soon by a gorgeously chosen inventory of pleasures and intimacies (“The breath from your own lips/The touch of fingertips”). “Sweet Old World” is the title track of an album that Williams released in 1992; much of her 1998 album, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” a fan favorite, is just as masterly. (Thanks not only to Susan Newbold but also to Vic Williams of Reno, Nev., and Michele Dellinger of Manhattan, among others, for singling out Williams.)

And what about Mary Chapin Carpenter? (Marcia Snowden, Lawrenceville, N.J., and Leonard Naymark, Toronto, among others.) I’ve listened less to her than to Williams, so I was delighted to be reminded of such lyrical gems as “I Am a Town,” in which she envisions herself as a place that people pass through and fashions lines like these: “I am peaches in September and corn from a roadside stall/I’m the language of the natives. I’m a cadence and a drawl.”

While several of you urged consideration of the singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, no one showered praise on his former wife Linda Thompson: The two achieved fame as a duo before breaking up. And while it’s true that he was considered the songwriter of the pair, as Jon Pareles explains in this excellent article in The Times about their work, her 1985 solo album, “One Clear Moment,” stands out not only for her singing but also for her lyrics.

In “Only a Boy,” she travels a chilling arc, from shrugging off a former lover’s possible hurt (“He’s only a boy, and what does he matter/What if his heart should tear”) to acknowledging how profoundly he haunts her. It’s a spare, short and stunning song.

“For the Love of Lyrics” appears monthly(ish). To nominate a songwriter and song, please email me here, including your name and place of residence. “For the Love of Sentences” will return with the next newsletter; you can use the same link to suggest recent snippets of prose for it.

On a Personal Note

LizzoCredit…Josh Brasted/Getty Images

For a Fleetwood Mac concert almost 25 years ago, I sat — or, more often, stood — in the second row, so when Stevie Nicks turned toward Lindsey Buckingham during the bitterest part of “Silver Springs,” I could see, in detail, the wounded expression on her face.

For a Queen concert well before that, I was in the eighth row. That was where Freddie Mercury’s tambourine landed — in my arms — when he threw it from the stage. (Where, you ask, is it now? Good question! Somewhere along the way, it went missing, like too many things in this life.)

But neither Stevie nor Freddie authored the live-music moment that’s most vivid in my memory. Nor did Led Zeppelin, whom I saw from a nosebleed seat, or Pink Floyd (ditto). The performance that pops most readily and happily to mind was from the Austin City Limits Music Festival six years ago, courtesy of a musician little known at the time. And it was so special precisely because it was such a surprise.

I’d wandered over to the festival fairgrounds in the middle of the day, hours earlier than I usually did and well ahead of my friends. In the hot sun, I drank a cold beer. And I headed toward the stage on which this musician was about to do her thing simply because it was the one nearest to where I got my drink. A crowd of only modest size had gathered there. I had no expectations whatsoever.

Then Lizzo appeared.

She bounced. She beamed. She belted. What phenomenal energy she had. What confidence and what exuberance. She wasn’t entirely polished, nor were the “Big Grrrls” who served as her backup dancers and singers. But that was deliberate, mischievous. That was part of the fun and the point of them.

I turned my eyes away only long enough to tap out a text message to my missing friends. “Guys,” I wrote. “I’m watching someone named Lizzo. And she’s going to be a major star.”

I wish my political prognostications were half as keen.

I never got back to the Austin festival, but three years later, she did, for a prime evening slot that attracted such a crush of fans that concerns about safety were raised. And my introduction to her lingered in my thoughts, always prompting a smile and eventually taking the shape of a lesson that I don’t heed as often as I should:

There’s a particular fizz to delights that you didn’t see coming, to diversions that weren’t precisely planned. Revelations have an effervescence that affirmations can’t match.

And that’s why we should be sure, on occasion, to eat in restaurants that we haven’t Googled to a fare-thee-well, to take vacations with an ample measure of mystery in them, to listen to songs that aren’t algorithm-delivered anagrams of the ones we sang along to just minutes before, to read books that haven’t been vetted by a half dozen friends.

Sure, they could be big busts. But they could also be small miracles, inaccessible without a little faith in the laws of serendipity.