Bob Jones University, in Greenville, South Carolina, is commonly nicknamed the “fortress of fundamentalism.” Founded by Bob Jones Sr. in 1927, the school is a haven for conservative theological study, with strict rules that encompass interactions across the genders and what kinds of media students consume, in addition to other behaviors. The university’s disciplinary system operates on demerits—accrue enough, and BJU has no compunctions about expulsion.
Former BJU students, such as graphic designer and writer Dani Kelley, have described the experience of being kicked out of school for engaging in banned conduct. In Kelley’s case, which she has recounted on her blog and on social media, after officials discovered she had engaged in sexual activity with her boyfriend (now husband), she says the university had her followed by a resident assistant after a disciplinary hearing, was reluctant to let her make phone calls home without supervision, and assigned representatives to watch as she packed her things. She had committed a deeply grave crime in the eyes of the university.
It is in this setting—where sex of any kind, except between married heterosexuals, is strictly verboten—that the Christian investigation organization Godly Response to Abuse in Church Environments (GRACE) looked into the institution’s responses to cases of sexual abuse or trauma that students were bringing to counselors. The report, released earlier this month, depicted an environment of victim-blaming, in which staff members would ask those who came forward about abuse to pinpoint the existing sin in their lives that required forgiveness. The investigation also suggested that BJU may have “discouraged the reporting of sexual crimes to the proper authorities,” and that officials would urge survivors to confront their own responsibility for their assault. Some survey participants recalled hearing BJU representatives refer to assault survivors as “damaged goods.”
The recommended actions from the report, which clocks in at about 300 pages, include the termination of several professors at the university. The university, in response, has issued a statement saying that its officials are taking the report’s recommendations into consideration and that they offer a heartfelt apology to any survivors who felt unsupported.
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Truly taking the recommendations into consideration would entail an overhaul not only of BJU’s counseling program, but of the very theology that gives the university its identity as a fundamentalist institution. Ingrained in its evangelical DNA is a belief in shame as an essentially positive thing, which manifests in its reportedly condemnatory attitude toward survivors of sexual abuse and violence as well as those who engage in consensual sex.
Researcher and author Brené Brown, who has written several books on the subject, defines shame as “the fear that we are not good enough.” Many women in particular, she writes, frequently experience a deep, contradictory fear of simultaneously falling short of expectations and of taking up too much space in life. “Shame is destructive,” Brown wrote in her 2014 book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). “[It] erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”
Shame makes us feel like giving up on trying, in other words, because we know that we will have to overcome this fear of inadequacy—sometimes a prohibitively difficult prospect. In this way, shame is also tied to perfectionism: We try to present a perfect image of ourselves toward others, all while beating ourselves up internally for knowing we can never achieve that standard. Therefore, it follows that shame would be a natural consequence of evangelical doctrines, which require believers to strive to emulate God’s word and work toward spiritual perfection.
In addition, however, shame actually forms the very foundation of much evangelical theology. The purity movement, for example, is built around the practice of shaming people for sexual desire and sexual activity. Various lessons in purity teachings tell churchgoers—women in particular—that sex before marriage will leave them dirty, broken, and unable to connect with a future husband. Women are compared to objects like used cars (as one popular Christian bumper sticker says, “Having sex before marriage is like buying a car from a rental lot—you don’t know who’s ridden in it before you!”).
Purity proponents have, these days, become very proficient at instilling this shame while simultaneously emphasizing the goodness of God. Engaging in sexuality in unapproved-of ways—as in, anything but heterosexual intercourse within a marriage—is considered a descent into sin. And so, after such a failure, shame is regarded by proponents of purity as good: It is God “convicting” us of our sin, and in turn, God prompting us through negative feelings to turn back toward God’s love and grace.
Counselor Debra K. Fileta discussed this shame in an article for the Christian magazine Relevant:
Don’t let your guilt keep you from experiencing [Jesus’] healing and transformation. Our sexual history will always impact us, but it never has to rule us, because we serve the God of restoration, redemption, forgiveness, grace, and love.
Given how deeply entrenched shame is in purity culture, then, it’s no surprise it seeps into discussions of sexual abuse and rape. As the GRACE report for BJU illustrates, shame within fundamentalism is not simply confined to consensual actions.
In general, it is not uncommon for rape survivors to experience shame over what happened to them—I struggled with it myself after experiencing sexual assault a few years ago. But a good counselor should be able to develop a trusting relationship with the counselee and lead them to the conclusion that being a survivor is not shameful, and that acts of assault are not their fault.
This is a far cry, however, from what many counselors, pastors, and Christian professors are teaching about purity and abuse. Because purity culture supporters frequently make no distinction between consensual and nonconsensual acts in terms of their “damaged goods” mentality, the fundamentalist church either explicitly or implicitly puts rape survivors in the same shaming position as someone who engaged in premarital sex consensually.
In a February article in The New Republic, for example, a student at the evangelical school Patrick Henry College, Claire Spear, told writer Kiera Feldman that she responded to a sexual assault by thinking it was “something in [her] sinful nature” that kept her from fighting him off. She felt ashamed and convicted of her behavior, seeing assault as the natural consequence of being a sinful woman.
Still, some evangelical leaders maintain that purity culture is not to blame for any negative feelings in rape survivors. In 2013, I spoke to Suzy Weibel of the Christian modesty-for-girls organization Secret Keeper Girl before an event in Indiana. I asked her about how purity culture could create shame for rape survivors. Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, just that week, had spoken about her sense of religious shame and loss of purity after her initial rape and how that made her feel like giving up. Weibel protested, saying that the shame rape survivors experience comes not from the church, which is holy, but from “the world,” which is unholy.
At BJU, however, the concept of shame as a point of transformation—and therefore a feeling to welcome rather than overcome—evidently endures. For instance, Jim Berg, a counseling professor at Bob Jones, commented in an interview for the GRACE report that sexual abuse survivors experiencing shame need to distinguish between the good shame that is from God and the bad shame that comes from “another source,” though it’s never quite clear what he means by that. (It should be noted that Berg holds no degrees in counseling services and is unlicensed in the state of South Carolina, despite teaching classes in the subject.) According to the report, Berg has focused his counselees on embracing this “good,” God-given shame they were feeling.
Shame is shame, however, regardless of its purported origin—and in evangelical culture, it’s often prompted by the loss of purity, regardless of the circumstances. According to summaries from the GRACE report, BJU counselors, Berg included, would encourage counselees to examine their souls and find the sin associated with their assault, whether it’s actions that led to it or behavior that came afterward. Sometimes, this was as simple as keeping childhood abuse a secret from their parents (the sin of disobedience); several other survivors told GRACE investigators that counselors had prompted them to confess any pleasure they got from their assaults. Survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse were thus encouraged to embrace their shame while looking for reasons for God to “convict” them of sin.
Needless to say, being told to pinpoint their own responsibility for assaults is not what many rape survivors are seeking when they ask for support. Student after student who met with the counselors at BJU to discuss recovery from sexual abuse and help dealing with symptoms of PTSD testified that they were subjected to an interrogation about their guilt in their own assault. One anonymous student said of the process: “[Dr. Berg’s] questions seemed to focus on what I could have done to cause it, why I wasn’t in church, etc. I was the problem. That meeting cemented the thought that God hates me.”
If one views shame as a cleansing tool, as do many fundamentalist leaders, it only follows that one would be unwilling or unable to work to stop rape survivors from experiencing it. BJU, like many churches in America, will need to move its focus from sinful natures and shame to be of any help to victims of assault. And in a general sense, Christians must give up on this notion that any shame can be good if they wish to be relevant to the ongoing discussion on sexual ethics in America.