There is an impulse to hide or dismiss scandal because it hurts the short-term cause, which is particularly strong for conservatives and creates a path to self-destruction.
Lately we have been given an extended education in the different varieties of liberal pigs. There’s the industrial-scale predator who buys indulgences from Planned Parenthood. And the male feminist who respects women so very much — especially when they’re too drunk to resist him. And the Great Man of Letters creeping on his co-workers. And the let-it-all-hang-out artist who thinks it can’t be assault if the only person you’re touching is yourself.
But this past week our era of exposure has reminded us that cultural conservatism has its own distinctive swine.
So while we wait to see what becomes of Alabama Senate candidate and professional Christian Roy Moore, who is credibly alleged to have spent his 30s pursuing high school girls with the “I get older, they stay the same age” gusto of Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dazed and Confused,” it’s worth doing a quick typology of the predators who flourish among the godly and moralistic and traditional.
One type is what you might call the rotten patriarch. This is the man who depends on the trappings of spiritual or familial authority to exploit the young and weak, shame them into silence, and pre-emptively discredit them.
The rotten patriarch might be anyone from a handsy pastor or a lecherous pillar of the community to the leader of a sect or religious order. And in the defenses of Moore from various Alabama Republicans you can see the way conservative impulses protect this kind of figure — both in the suggestion that a man of his religious reputation should be trusted over his accusers, and in the risible invocation of biblical examples to defend an older man’s lust for a 14-year-old girl.
But there are other styles of predation that flourish within conservative communities. For instance, there is the burrower, the networker, the institutionalist — the predator who embeds himself within a hierarchical system that protects him because it wants to protect itself.
Many Catholic priest abusers fit this pattern. Their clerical authority didn’t always keep them from getting chased out of parishes. But they were networked with other predators who helped them skate through to the next assignment, and the larger ecclesiastical entity saw its own self-protection as more important than their punishment.
Then finally there is the serial repenter — the creep who relies on the promise of forgiveness to keep his place and his powers and his opportunities to prey again.
All these predatory categories overlap, of course, and they also overlap with the way predators operate in liberal circles. Harvey Weinstein ran Miramax the same way an abusive religious leader rules his cult. Bill Clinton was both a liberal pig backing feminist causes to buy immunity and a serial repenter in the style of his Baptist youth. A liberal academic eminence grooming disciples to be victims has a lot in common with a man of God who does the same.
But still there is enough that’s unique about conservative styles of predation to draw some lessons for tradition-oriented cultures and communities.
One lesson is that any social order that vests particular forms of power in men needs to do more, not less, to hold the male of the species accountable.
Some cultural conservatives, in evangelical Christianity especially, combine a belief in male headship in churches and families with a “boys will be boys and girls shouldn’t tempt them” attitude toward sex. It’s a combination that’s self-contradictory and deeply toxic, handing men not just power but a permission slip to abuse it — which, predictably, they do.
Another lesson is that the impulse to hide or dismiss scandal because it hurts the short-term cause, which is common to all institutions but particularly strong for conservative ones, is a path to self-destruction in the long run.
Again, the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse experience is a case study. And we may be watching something similar happen with evangelicals, who decided with Donald Trump and may decide with Roy Moore that in the war against secular liberalism, they simply can’t afford to police the morals of their leaders.
It’s a theory that makes sense if you think only of today’s elections, but in the long term it’s cultural suicide — because it tells your neighbors and your children that your religious convictions are always secondary to your partisanship.
“For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” These words apply everywhere now, to Hollywood pagans and Alabama Christians alike.
But the Christians have particular reasons to meditate upon them — and to consider that they don’t just apply to sexual predations, but to the worldly impulses that make otherwise decent people into defenders of the indefensible.