More than one person has approached me about Doug Wilson’s commentary on the scandal surrounding Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips. I had no desire to visit Wilson’s blog, but I was curious enough about the scandal to google ‘Doug Phillips.’ At the very top of the search results was a precarious blogger I knew from years ago. Second on the list was a recent Huffington Post series. A little further down, I found a hard-hitting, albeit tardy, article from the evangelical World Magazine.
‘This is what Wilson is talking about?’ I thought to myself.
So I read Wilson’s blog too. I was not disappointed.
After briefly acknowledging Phillips’ misconduct with three words, “tragic, sad, and humbling,” Wilson goes on at some length praising Phillips for the way he resigned from Vision Forum Ministries. More than a few words are also spent castigating Phillips’ public critics. God’s thoughts about them are obvious: “the enemies of the Lord can be readily identified.”
Because of my investigative endeavors while on my way out of Wilson’s inner ring (2005), I do not find this response surprising, or even curious. Yet, there is something about this new scandal, which is now partially constituted by Wilson’s chosen response to it, that finds important intersection with some of my current writing – ‘the book’ in particular.
My interest regards foremost the extent of incoherence in the person and work of Doug Phillips. Phillips was not your average down-the-street preacher. He was passionate about a highly specific cultural vision of chastity and marital fidelity, and this vision defined his core identity, both public and private. Further, his recently exposed naughtiness was not a ‘two ships passing in the night’ affair. The relevant rendezvous, many not explicitly sexual, spanned over a decade, often in the broad light of a Sabbath day. Please see Julie Ingersoll’s reporting at the Huffington Post for an introduction to Phillips’ alleged long-term oppression of the young lady that here concerns us. I would also recommend this site as a credible and comprehensive reference. What I want to better understand – I think I have made some progress already – is why it is so common for religious leaders to brazenly disregard precisely that good they passionately identify with.
Some of you might not be aware of my unique qualifications for speaking to this scandal. I was the one who was best poised to help ‘take down’ Doug Phillips back in 2006, but after an analysis of the evidence put forward, I decided to instead defend him. I eventually teamed with one of Phillips’ friends in the efforts to do so. This decision came at a personal cost. The aforementioned ‘precarious blogger I knew from years ago’ was the anonymous source of the evidence I refused to endorse. This blogger might be harmless enough, but she was then writing anonymously for Ministry Watchman, which was linked to a racist movement known as ‘kinism.’ It was to all appearances a kinist internet war that was launched against me in retaliation, a war that still lingers today.
The Huffington Post implies that the deviant relationship Phillips fostered was a partial result of his extreme patriarchalism. The young woman was under Phillips’ authority in his small church from the time she was fifteen, for example – a fact that Texas law, in its wisdom, is well poised to address. Wilson offers the counter-argument: the immorality was, rather, in spite of Phillips’ professed patriarchalism, and the feminist in this debate is caught in a contradiction: the woman should be treated as a responsible, independent adult while also defended as a dependent girl, incapable of simply packing her bags and leaving as soon as Phillips’ intentions became clear.
Such a simplistic construal of ‘freewill’ can be very useful for those enjoying social power. Part of the evil lurking behind this particular argument is that Wilson knows very well the reach of his own social power and the difficulty or even impossibility of someone simply ‘leaving’ relationships and institutions that have come to form a core part of their identity. Three men who had been close to Phillips for years perhaps revealed a bit more truth than intended when they expressed their dismay over the role that authority played in the aberrant relationship: “ . . . church leaders have a weighty obligation regarding the power they hold over congregants in their care.” [World Magazine, my emphasis]
Focusing on individual psychology, independent of social situation, does nothing to help Wilson’s argument. All heightening of Phillips’ advances would have likely been extreme violations of social expectation and trust and therefore, I would argue, should be seen as at least mild forms of rape. Please consider then the following confession of Halee Gray Scott, raped at age 21 by her church’s youth pastor:
Why did I let him in? Why did I not fight harder? Why did I just lay there, crying like that? Guilt fell on me like a bucket of hot ash. I wouldn’t know until years later the neurobiology of the assault response [see link in article] or tonic immobility [see link in article]. (From Christianity Today’s How I Beat Back the Darkness after Rape)
Wilson’s eldest daughter might not disagree that Phillips is responsible for something like rape. The entire thing, for example, “grosses [her] out.” But for her, the call to action is to think more deeply about how she can train her daughters to be the kind of women that can stand up to bad men. (Thankfully, this issue has more recently motivated her to try to empathize with abused women – an encouraging thing to hear from such an arrogance-drenched community.)
Back to the central point: Wilson, not at all happy about folks calling Phillips’ object of domination a ‘victim,’ thinks we ought to be wondering, instead, why this young woman and the entire family “wasn’t gassing up the car the next morning [after first obvious advance?] to head down the road to find a place where the spiritual leader wasn’t a toad” ( from this post). Again, the real trouble here is that Wilson knows why.
He did seem to slip at one point, when arguing that the ‘right kind’ of patriarchalism would have offered this young woman “insistance” that she “be moved to safety” (This point is made here) Yet, the only real victim, according to Wilson, is Phillips’ wife, even though she has taken up the same arrogant defense as her husband – as testified to by five of Phillips prior associates and friends, according to World.
What motivates Wilson to comment in this way? One motive seems undeniable to me: One of Wilson’s main competitors has just gone, quite literally, out of business. This rhetorical strategy is sure to provide some profitable market penetration.
I think it was early 2005 when one of my fellow ministerial students offered pastor Wilson the following question: “I saw that World Magazine did comment about the local controversy. Did they contact you about this?” Wilson said that he called the editor to explain that World was “missing the real story here in Moscow”. But this did not help. As Wilson explained, there is a growing void in evangelical leadership. All the old stand-ins are near retirement—John Macarthur, RC Sproul, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson. “World would like to fill that void and sees me as a competitor.”
That is all I have for now. Another topic that I think should be discussed, in relation to everything above, is the prevalence of covering up the sexual abuse of children within conservative communities.