Liberty’s future is predictable based on the 2018 Paige Patterson case

Who will replace Jerry Falwell Jr.? History allows us to guess.

Falwell’s “indefinite” leave may result in a return to power but that appears unlikely. The efforts to oust him look like the case of Paige Patterson two years ago. Many watched in amazement and horror as this “conservative resurgence” Baptist was overthrown using devious media campaigns and mob pressure. Countless trusted Baptists said nothing or succumbed to the manipulation and joined in the coup.

Patterson was president of a seminary in Fort Worth with an endowment upward of $120 million (smaller than Liberty’s reported $2 billion). In 2017, five Southwestern professors posed as urban gangsters and provoked a national controversy. Some called for his firing. Patterson survived.

His luck ran out in 2018. Audio recordings surfaced from 2000 and 2014. It seems that Patterson’s enemies timed their release to get him fired, as evidenced by the fact that they had kept them for so long. In 2000 he spoke about counseling an abused woman in the 1960s to reform her husband through prayer. In 2014 he delivered a sermon about a teenager who described a girl as “built.” These are controversial but not wicked statements. A barrage of bad press blew them out of proportion until even Patterson’s friends thought he’d done something terrible.

Spurred by vehement condemnation from women like Beth Moore and Karen Swallow Prior, a petition pressured the trustees to take action against Patterson. On May 22, 2018, Patterson called the trustees to a meeting to resolve the controversy. About two hours after the twelve-hour meeting began, the Washington Post suddenly published the story of Megan Lively. This former student of Patterson accused him of mishandling her rape case fifteen years earlier.

I worked for Patterson then. I recall walking into my office in Mathena Hall that day and telling a co-worker, “this is a setup.” I noted the careful timing of both the audio releases and the Washington Post bombshell. This dovetailed with Lively’s strange view of Patterson, the seminary president, rather than the rapist, as the cause of her pain.

As a survivor of teen sex abuse, I was willing to believe that Lively was abused. But I detected something I knew from my own experience. For decades I was manipulated by the gay community to perceive my abuse as the result of homophobia (which it wasn’t) rather than the outcome of gay culture (which it was). I saw signs of distortion. I sensed that political operatives had manipulated Lively.

Patterson was president of Southeastern Seminary in April 2003, when Lively was a student there. Why would an abuse survivor focus on the president of the institution rather than on the rapist, fifteen years later? I would never dream of holding the mayor of Williamsville, New York, or the principal of Williamsville South High School, responsible for what happened to me in 1984. Countless other people much closer to the incident loom larger in my mind, especially the abusers.

I could understand if Lively wanted to challenge evangelical culture. After all, I had written extensive critiques of gay subculture to address what happened to me. But Lively wasn’t challenging evangelical culture. She was feeding the puritanical attitudes of Patterson critics like Beth Moore and Karen Swallow Prior. These women did not challenge evangelical attitudes about females. They advanced their careers by presenting as delicate white women in need of gentlemen’s protection. They refitted #MeToo to suit the “belle in distress” stereotypes long prevalent in Southern Protestantism.

My coworkers could not see the setup. Practically everyone in the building had been personally hired or helped by the Pattersons. For years they had never spoken an ill word against him. But the media blitz had enthralled them. Now they all claimed to have suffered in silence under Patterson’s tyranny. They all believed that his comments justified his removal. They had faith in the school’s trustees. They believed that Patterson’s replacement, whoever he might be, would take a low-key approach and avoid more turmoil.

What fools.

A series of trustee meetings on May 22, May 30, and October 17, battered Patterson’s reputation, first retiring, then firing, then publicly denouncing him. The aftermath was reminiscent of the legendary Kitty Genovese case. An entire seminary watched passively while his enemies removed him and then totally dismantled the institution. Alumnus Forrest Davis III chronicles the two-year downgrade in a video series comprising hours of documentation.

After an initial round of firings, a search committee was appointed. The committee was to be above reproach. As Patterson’s replacement they did not choose an innocuous and politically neutral appointment. They picked Adam Greenway, who had served as dean under Albert Mohler. Many saw Mohler as a rival to Patterson for both theological and political reasons. Patterson was not Calvinist while Mohler was; Patterson endorsed Trump while Mohler opposed him in 2016.

Seven months after the firing, two libertarians flew to Fort Worth to lecture the college faculty for a full day about the wonders of Hayek and free-market, anti-Trump Christianity. This was precisely the kind of faux conservatism I’d written against for years. I had noted how it usually led to pro-corporate, socially liberal rhetoric. It seemed clear that powerful people wanted us to become more like Wheaton, the “Christian” campus where pro-life speakers were discouraged or protested.

Meanwhile, in the undergraduate program, the dean was forcing broad curriculum changes. I refused to pretend that I supported the elimination of history and literature for fluff like “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing” or “Critical Thinking and Worldview.” Objective courses about past events and great works by specific authors gave way to courses that seemed almost like infomercials or TED talks.

The seminary announced that Greenway would replace Patterson in February 2019, nine months after Patterson was fired. Quickly three vice presidents were gone—Kevin Ensley, Kyle Walker, Charles Patrick—along with the chaplain, the chief of police, numerous staff, about 25 faculty, several deans – all by April 2019. Numerous new hires came from Mohler’s seminary, which Greenway had just left. Still some Baptists remained in denial that we were living through a takeover of massive proportions.

At this point Greenway’s team did not pretend that the changes were necessary corrections to Patterson’s supposed wrongs. That old charade was passé. Everyone abandoned earlier assurances that the replacement would leave the seminary’s identity intact. You had to “keep your head down” or you would lose your job. And they were not nice about it. A pall fell over the whole campus. Up until that point I had gotten along with my colleagues. Under Greenway everybody became a one-person counterintelligence outfit, scheming and forming dark alliances in order to keep their jobs.

I came to the decision by mid-2019 that I would not play games. I had survived a punishing regime in California under a radical Clinton Global Initiative dean. I was not going to give up my principles to hang on to a job with a bunch of backstabbing, desperate Christians. But I knew that the new climate was cloak-and-dagger. To save their jobs, people were willing to frame you for things you didn’t do, demonize you by taking words out of context or making up basic lies. I ceased using my office on the third floor of Mathena Hall. I desisted from having any contact with co-workers unless it was public and could not lead to a misrepresentation of anything I said or did. I sent emails consisting of a few words. I would not set foot in the dean’s office alone, unless I had a tape recorder so I couldn’t be set up. I had office hours in the library in an open area, in the view of multiple offices.

In the end, this seemingly paranoid behavior saved me. My coworkers were lying to me, telling me my job was safe, while secretly rearranging the curriculum to protect their jobs and sink mine. I know this because when I was fired, the provost stated that the official reason for my firing was a change in curriculum–something that my dean and colleagues had repeatedly denied was going to happen–and due to “consistent complaints” from coworkers and students. I had not been told in 2018 or 2019 about any complaints from students. I had been called in and scolded about things I said, usually about racial politics in the curriculum or problems with same-sex abuse. But the provost’s statement on December 4, 2019, falsely denied that I had ever been warned not to discuss those topics.

Without the tape recordings I kept and records I carefully compiled, I would have been completely framed by them and cast as a liar and incompetent worker. Had I not shown care in avoiding any personal contact with coworkers, difficult colleagues who had already been twisting around my words would have absolutely set me up by provoking an interaction they could distort.

What began as a supposed correction based on Paige Patterson’s misdeeds became a coup followed by at least a year of palace intrigue worthy of Richelieu or Rasputin.

Patterson had been removed from office based on concerns over the Baptist response to sex abuse. Yet my advocacy for same-sex abuse survivors was provoking pushback. I submitted a resolution to the Southern Baptist Convention encouraging whistleblowers and denouncing non-disclosure agreements. Greenway’s administration swiftly told me to cease discussing such matters publicly. When I refused, they fired me. By April 2020, another dozen faculty members were gone. The Southwestern trustees passed a resolution allowing President Greenway to draw funds from the unrestricted endowment as necessary. They applied for and received up to $5 million through the Payroll Protection Program in response to COVID-19. They now had control of money from the U.S. taxpayers and from Patterson-friendly donors. And nobody could stop them from going further.

Finally the watchful writer Tom Littleton exposed an insidious agenda. Greenway’s hire, David Dockery, came to campus to launch a global institute devoted to Christian education from kindergarten to graduate school. As Littleton notes, the project can scarcely hide its mission. It will infuse Christian education worldwide with the compromised values that many Southwestern loyalists had long stood against.

I recently got off Facebook because I could no longer stomach what many of the Southwestern students were posting. They had become consumed in “woke” ideology, blasting conservative Christians. Some attacked people who objected to violent street protests after George Floyd’s death. They cheered when pastors were arrested for holding services during the lockdowns. Greenway had turned many into MSNBC bots in less than two years.

The last straw was when my former student posted about the riots and said we should condemn violence. I replied in support of him. Another Southwestern student, whom I’d never taught, said my comment reflected ignorance about racial injustice. This did not amuse me. I had written about racial discrimination on campus. I had received no support from liberal white students, even after my firing became a news story.

Following the surgical strike against Patterson, infiltrators had wiped a conservative stronghold off the map. At each step, people accepted the changes, even mass firings of colleagues and mentors they loved. Why? Partly because of cowardice. These intimidation tactics succeeded in scaring away the faint-hearted.

Worse, though, were the people who believed the bad-faith rhetoric about Patterson. They heard sexually charged snippets about a “built” female and a 2003 rape. The mere words overwhelmed their coping mechanisms. They froze up and passively allowed a Machiavellian takeover to steamroll people they loved.