(RNS) — In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s embattled president, Paige Patterson, was relieved of his duties following more than 13 hours of deliberation by the school’s board of trustees.
This may sound like a victory for those who criticized Patterson in recent weeks for his dangerous practices dealing with domestic abuse, sexist remarks about women and mismanagement of a rape allegation on his campus. And, in some ways, it is. The thousands of women who called for his resignation have been heard, and he has been forced to leave his post in shame.
When you think about it, Patterson’s departure was the ultimate irony. The man who spent his career making full-throated arguments for the submission of women was, in the end, taken down by women who decided they would tolerate his leadership no longer.
But after weeks of inaction, the board’s decision feels more like a celebrated send-off than a stiff censure. While they dismissed Patterson to save face under overwhelming pressure, he was also offered a pile of consolation prizes. Patterson will be honored with the title of president emeritus of Southwestern, for example. Both he and his wife, Dorothy, have been named theologian-in-residence. The couple will receive compensation from the school, and they will be allowed to live in the luxurious and spacious retirement residence they were building for themselves on campus.
Talk about a soft landing.
To understand the implications of this whole ordeal and what it means for the Southern Baptist Convention, it may be helpful to engage in a little thought experiment.
Imagine for a moment that Paige Patterson were Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple. Instead of being president of a conservative Christian seminary with the mission of training church ministers and missionaries, Cook runs a for-profit secular business with the mission of selling products to consumers. He and his employees are not required to sign a statement of faith and they do not claim to live by a strict moral code found in an ancient sacred text like the Bible.
Imagine if it were discovered that in 1997 Tim Cook joked to a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that when it comes to women, “Everybody should own at least one.”
Imagine that at public Apple events, he argued that if women were abused, they should avoid divorce and “submit to their husbands in every way.”
Imagine that audiotapes emerged of Cook telling stories of advising a woman under his authority to return to her abusive husband and when she received two black eyes, Cook commented that he was “very happy.”
Imagine that The Washington Post reported that a female Apple employee had come to Cook in 2003 to report being raped on the corporate campus. Cook responded by making the woman recount the details of the rape to a room of male colleagues, instructed her to keep quiet and not report the details to the police, and then the victimized woman was reprimanded by human resources.
Imagine that, in response, 3,500 female Apple employees called on the board to remove Tim Cook from his position, and that all of these events were reported in major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and The Washington Post.
It is incontrovertible that Apple’s board would have responded more swiftly and harshly than did the Southwestern board in this situation.
Cook would not have been allowed to stay in his position for nearly a month, and he certainly would not have been able to preside over the annual Apple expo as Patterson did at the Southwestern graduation.
Cook would not have been able to claim he had nothing to apologize for and issue a statement saying the whistleblowers had been fueled by “hatred.”
Cook would have been terminated immediately. He would not have received compensation or honorary titles or a plush retirement residence in Silicon Valley. Let this sink in: America’s most prominent tech company has a stronger ethical compass when it comes to the dignity of women than America’s largest Protestant denomination.
But this is, of course, not a statement on the moral fortitude of the tech industry. The same would be true for an advertising executive on Madison Avenue, a hedge fund manager on Wall Street, a prominent actor in Hollywood or a politician inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C.
Which is to say that many of the secular communities in America that Southern Baptists have painted as evil possess more moral courage than they do. Consider that for a moment and it will tell you all you need to know about the current state of America’s largest Protestant denomination.