Evangelical women began interrogating purity culture before Trump’s election. In the 1980s and ’90s, evangelical women were raised with a theology that often demanded more than abstinence.
Purity rings and pledges were common, I Kissed Dating Goodbye normalized waiting to kiss until one’s wedding day, and any girl who opened herself to sexual activity, or even thought, was seen as sinful. These girls came of age around the turn of the millennium, and some started asking why their bodies and sexuality had become such a central concern for their churches.
As grown women, many sorted out their own sexual theology via personal blogs, read books like Jessica Valenti’s 2009 The Purity Myth, and Dianna E. Anderson’s 2015 book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.
Purity culture wasn’t really about the sanctity of the family, but the subjugation of women, says Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, minister and author of the 2018 book Healing Spiritual Wounds. Women who had been taught not to even “front hug” male friends for fear of stirring their sinful sexual impulses watched as Donald Trump became entangled with evangelical culture. “He could go around talking about grabbing women by their pussies, but women were shamed for any sort of sexual act before marriage,” Howard Merritt says. “The hypocrisy of it just became massive.”
In 2017, as American women witnessed the wave of accusations and resignations during the early days of #MeToo, poet and former evangelical Emily Joy launched #ChurchToo on Twitter. Sexual abuse wasn’t just present in the Catholic church or on the Hollywood casting couch — evangelicals were abusers, too. Megachurch luminaries fell, one by one. Pastor Andy Savage from Tennessee megachurch Highpoint resigned after Jules Woodson described on church abuse blogs how Savage, her youth pastor, sexually assaulted her. Bill Hybels, founder of Chicagoland’s Willow Creek megachurch network, resigned in August 2018 after a series of accusations.
A month later, Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was fired as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president after the Washington Post broke the story of how, in 2003, Patterson discouraged a woman who reported she’d been raped from going to the police. In 2015, he tried to meet alone with another woman who’d reported sexual assault so he could “break her down.” In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a series of exposés uncovering more than 380 Southern Baptist Convention pastors and volunteers and their 780 victims.
Survivors and their advocates were treated as dangerous within these insular, deeply indoctrinated communities. Judy Abrams was stonewalled by her Florida evangelical community and the pastors who had been her best friends after their church’s youth pastor was arrested for sexually assaulting her daughter in 2018. (Abrams is being identified by a pseudonym to protect her children’s identities.)
Abrams’ faith once defined her life. Her father was a pastor, and since childhood, church shaped the rhythm of her week: Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening classes. She and her husband married young, and Abrams’ family started attending a growing megachurch connected to Assemblies of God and Willow Creek. It was the sort of place with high production value: smoke machines, a light show, pastors in skinny jeans.
During the lead-up to the 2016 election, Abrams’ pastor never explicitly stumped for Trump from the pulpit, but he’d talk about protecting life. His family was very conservative, and she knew he voted for Trump. In his way, he’d been telling Abrams’ family and the other congregants “how to feel without explicitly telling them,” she said. Abrams heard Trump describing how unsafe our country was, and she was “surrounded by people who believed only that.” She’d been brought up to believe Christians vote Republican. “If you vote for a Democrat, you’re voting to kill babies.”
During Trump’s first year in office, a new youth pastor moved to Abrams’ church. He was 32 and married. Her daughter was 16. The pastor started spending time with the Abrams family, getting to know their daughter and saying he wanted to mentor her. When she was 17, he started sexually abusing her.
In June 2018, the pastor publicly resigned, though privately he was effectively fired. A condition of his severance was staying away from Abrams’ daughter. However, the Abrams family wasn’t given these details until after his ouster, and he continued abusing their daughter. She finally told her parents about the abuse days before her 18th birthday.
After the youth pastor was reported to the police and confessed, Abrams turned to her lead pastor for spiritual solace, but he wouldn’t take responsibility. “I’m just like, well, my daughter was raped by your pastor,” she said. The church’s pastors had been her family’s best friends; they hung out together, went to dinner together. Now Abrams’ family was ostracized by their church, effectively shunned.
Today, when Judy Abrams reads about Donald Trump and sexual assault, she is baffled how she couldn’t see the presence of abuse before. “If it’s bad in the church, it’s probably worse everywhere else — and I know how bad it is in the church,” she said. She’d based her vote in 2016 on protecting babies, “but there’s no protection within your church for your own child.” In November 2019, the lifelong Republican officially registered as a Democrat, although she sees all politicians through a skeptical lens: The abuse of power is everywhere.