The Mistake Some Christians Made in Defending Bill O’Reilly

Eric Metaxas at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in January. (Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
Eric Metaxas at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in January. (Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

by Katelyn Beatty

Institutions plagued by sexual assault scandals tend to look alike: They are usually insular organizations that resist external checks and revolve around authoritative men.

This characterization fits Fox News, which recently fired its host Bill O’Reilly after sexual harassment allegations against him (and pressure from advertisers) mounted.

But it is also applies to the white evangelical Christian community. This group is not a monolith, but its social hierarchy often functions like the military, a university or private business. It’s not a coincidence that conservative evangelical leaders tend to resist taking harassment and assault claims seriously.

Eric Metaxas, a best-selling Christian author, tweeted after the firing that Mr. O’Reilly’s ouster was “tremendously sad” and that his show had been a “blessing to millions.” When people responding to his tweet noted that he was silent on the harassment itself, he wrote “Jesus loves Bill O’Reilly” and told his followers to pray for their enemies.

Many Christian leaders responded to Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault with a similar line of defense. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, the country’s largest Christian college, said that “we’re all sinners” and that Mr. Trump had apologized. (In fact, Mr. Trump has said that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness and didn’t need to ask his wife for it either.) Mr. Falwell later claimed to have proof that the women accusing Mr. Trump of sexual harassment were lying.

David Brody, a correspondent with the Christian Broadcasting Network, excused Mr. Trump’s language at the time by saying, “We all sin every single day.” Jim Garlow, a prominent California pastor, refused to “cast any stones” at Mr. Trump, invoking Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. He then called Hillary Clinton a modern-day Herod who would kill all the unborn babies if elected.

Within the ranks of conservative church leadership, this default empathy for powerful men is coupled with tone deafness for victims. But the phenomenon is also a misapplication of the Christian teaching on forgiveness. Mr. Metaxas wrote a biography of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so he is surely familiar with his teaching on cheap grace — “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Cheap grace wrongly separates absolution of sin from acknowledgment of that sin. In Christian teaching, God forgives people before they confess wrongdoing. But among individuals, groups and nations, there can be no forgiveness when wrongdoing isn’t named.

In cases of sexual assault, cheap grace is doubly dangerous: It can allow a guilty party to continue his abuse while victims stay silent in fear of punishment.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

Katelyn Beaty is an editor at large for Christianity Today and the author of “A Woman’s Place.”