Why Moderate Christian Pastors Loved Ben Sasse's #MeToo Speech

Commentary
By Bekah McNeel 10-09-2018

I liked a lot of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s thoughtful, heartfelt speech on the floor of the Senate last week amid the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation debate. I like that he thinks America needs the #MeToo movement. I like that he sees how punditry and political polarization are running amok. I like that he acknowledged that the president is exactly the wrong leader for our country at this time.

But what I liked about Sasse’s speech is not what other Christians liked about his speech. Christians liked it because it was a sermon. And it’s a sermon we’ve heard before, one that echoed back to us from a safe spot carved out amid a raging river.

Since the start of the #MeToo movement, Christians have been bumbling around trying to figure out what to do about it, what to say. A lot of white, male, “moderate” pastors have been looking out on congregations of teary-eyed women and (hopefully) realizing that many of them are survivors in one way or another.

But the #MeToo movement is scary, because it sounds very … feminist.

So, like Sasse, moderate pastors who don’t want to upset the conservatives in their churches find themselves talking about how “all of us” are broken. How “all of us” are to blame. They talk about how social media is hurting us. How a broken sexual ethic is hurting us.

And if the sexual abuse victims sitting in their congregation are anything like me, they are thinking, “No. A man hurt me.” Or men, since we know that many women have been victimized repeatedly. Not by men with a broken view of sex. Women and other survivors are victimized by men with a perfectly clear understanding of their position in American culture, and European culture before that, and Roman culture, and Greek, and Hebrew. This problem didn’t start with the sexual revolution, and it didn’t start with the internet. This problem started with the Fall, and the fact that white men have felt historically felt entitled to the bodies of women — and that in America they can act on that entitlement with impunity.

The same justice system has favored its own architects for centuries. Kavanaugh is yet another bro on the bench.

If the #MeToo movement feels anti-man, it’s because our culture is entirely pro-man — or, pro-white-man. And, as Trevor Noah pointed out, Trump and the Republicans are trying to make it sound like that is not the case. They are trying to stir up a mobilizing fear in their power base — white men — that they are a hunted species. It sounds like Sasse recognizes that.

But that’s also where Sasse and the moderate pastors fall short. While the liberal pastors are joining protests and the conservative pastors are joining Texas Sen. John Cornyn for some #BubblyforBrett, the moderate pastors are taking the Ben Sasse route.

They don’t call out white male supremacy. They call out “all of us.”

They don’t blame sexism. They blame sex.

Christians loved Sasse’s speech because he talked about brokenness and the image of God, because he tore his garments over the tone of the national conversation.

I agree with those things. We were made in the image of God, and we’re all broken. The conversation is indeed caustic.

But it’s not just to tone of the conversation. It’s the content. What stung about Kavanaugh wasn’t even Kavanaugh himself. It was Cornyn’s “you poor boy” speech and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s total loss of decency. It was their indignation on behalf of all men. It was their coddling of Kavanaugh’s ego. And you can’t blame social media, because that was just what I got from listening to the hearings in real time. That wasn’t punditry. That was my elected leader: John Cornyn represents me, a Texan.

Those men looked at Kavanaugh and saw themselves, and now they are telling white Americans to look at him and see their sons — to protect their privilege.

This is exactly why having another bro on the bench is so unnerving for women and people of color: It’s unnerving to have more guys who look at the Brock Turners of the world and see themselves — their sons — who over-empathize with them the way that Cornyn and Graham over-empathize with Kavanaugh.

Sasse said that the choice wasn’t between our sons and our daughters. In one respect, he is right. There were senators who voted for Kavanaugh because he’s a conservative, and stacking the bench with conservatives is the spoonful of sugar that helped them swallow Trump.

But in another sense, people like Ben Sasse don’t really get to say what it was about. Discourse isn’t only about your intended message, it’s about how your message was received.

So Sasse and the moderate pastors are trying to do something that seems kind, but is in fact condescending. They are trying to tell us what we are seeing, what we are feeling, and what’s making us so upset.

Christians loved Sasse’s speech because he tried to thread the same needle that the moderate pastors are trying to thread. They need to show sympathy. They feel the angst. But they have to use it to prove old points. So they pick old familiar targets — social media, the media, and the sexual revolution.

As a member of the media, I have to hang out on social media … a lot. I’ll be the first to say that you do have to step away. You do have to consume news judiciously. You do have to make sure that you aren’t letting politicians scare you to the poles, while they try to scare you to the polls. But the angst you feel is not the fault of technology or factual reporting.

The angst most moderate pastors and fathers and brothers feel is the anguish of knowing. The anguish of seeing things that they’ve not only been ignoring, but have been enabling for centuries.

As far as blaming sex culture, let me just say that I hold to Christian sexual ethics. And while I was never raped or molested, I have been groped, pinched, slapped, harassed by strangers. None of it was because they were looking at porn. It was because they felt entitled. Entitled to touch and say whatever they wanted. I’m not letting the porn industry off the hook. In fact, I think it reflects a lot of the same entitlements. You can’t talk about the “horrible things” that happen, as Sasse says, without asking what leads men to think they can do such horrible things?

We will never have justice until the church gets comfortable with the feminist complaint: that we have been battered by the patriarchy. That the lust running out of control is a lust for power. That men have codified and enshrined their sexual brokenness so thoroughly that it has been preached from many of these very pulpits. It has been campaigned, elected, and legislated.

Women don’t want to hear that their pastors disapprove of rape. They want to hear them call out the system that enables it.

Christians loved that Sasse was compassionate toward the victims of sexual assault.

Compassion is good.

Justice is better.

Bekah McNeel is a freelance journalist living in San Antonio, Texas. She reports on education, immigration, and inequity. In addition to local beat reporting, her work has been published with The Christian Science Monitor, The Texas Tribune, The Hechinger Report, and the 74 Million. She can be found on Twitter at @BekahMcneel and on her blog at www.bekahmcneel.com.

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