#MeToo, Power Disparities, and Why the Church Is Struggling to Help

This would be an ideal moment for a holistic Christian ethic that focuses on the rich theology of relationships and marriage.

Before I begin, an announcement. The Dispatch’s Sarah Isgur and I have launched a new podcast. It’s called Advisory Opinions, and it’s a weekly (at least) look at law and culture through the lens of two attorneys who’ve spent our fair share of time in the political and legal trenches. Sarah is brilliant. Our latest episode addresses, among other things, the British election, the inspector general’s report, and the conservative porn wars. Give it a listen!

Now, on to the Sunday newsletter ... 

Many years ago, when I was but a young lad practicing law, I had a fascinating conversation with one of the leading divorce attorneys in Nashville. For the first time in my young career, I’d been pulled into a sprawling divorce case (our client owned a large business, and the value of the business was at issue in his divorce), and at dinner one evening—after a long day of depositions—his lead counsel in the divorce started telling stories. 

(As a total aside, if you’ve never enjoyed a long dinner with a southern trial lawyer, it’s your loss. They have the best stories, and they tell them in the best way.)

She represented a glittering country music clientele, the leading professionals in the city, and the occasional mega-church pastor or other powerful person caught in the throes of a messy marital split. Her stories were astonishing. Wealthy, accomplished people would seem to completely lose their minds. Some of the stories were deeply disturbing—involving violence, stalking, and intimidating behavior. Some were laugh-out-loud funny because of the sheer stupidity of the actions, and the infinite ways foolish people were caught doing foolish things. 

And, again, this was a slice of Nashville’s most “successful” class. My friend lamented that she couldn’t write a book without betraying client confidences, and then she lamented that no one would publish it because no publisher would believe it. “Truth is always stranger than fiction,” she said, “And I promise you that my clients’ teenage children are more composed and mature than their adult parents.” 

For some reason—probably because of the insane stories—that conversation (and that comment) stuck with me. Then, as I got older, I saw bits and pieces of that insanity unfold in the places where I worked, the churches I attended, or the institutions I represented. There was the rock-star married senior pastor who disappeared with the married church secretary. There was the senior executive of a Christian organization who initiated an affair with a mid-level employee (and then also tried to  seduce her daughter). There was the senior partner of a law firm who grew frustrated when a secretary refused his advances, so he threw her against a wall. 

Don’t get me started on the mess in the military. When I deployed to Iraq, I deployed with an all-male combat arms unit. When I talked to JAG officers from other bases, they envied the “simplicity” of my job. I had to deal  “only” with detainees, rules of engagement, and “normal” military justice. They had to deal with all those things and what they called “the drama”—the seemingly endless scandals spawned by deployment relationships that were either unlawful from the inception or that spiraled out of control. 

Through it all, there was one word that had particular (and complicated) resonance in relationship after relationship—power. Here’s the easy way to phrase the #MeToo movement—powerful men have used their status and authority to abuse and exploit women, even to the point of viewing access to their bodies as a twisted sort of right. 

Here’s the complicated way to phrase the #MeToo confusion—there are many, many women who find male success (and, yes, power) an inherent part of the complex stew of attraction, and they desire and (sometimes) initiate relationships with successful men. Indeed, this dynamic is so well-known and so much a matter of basic human experience that many men seek success in large part (if not primarily) to enhance their attractiveness to women. For much of human history, the “exactly equal” status pairing between men and women was the exception, not the rule. The man had more education. He made most (or all) of the money. Even now, it’s a stubborn fact of life that many millions of women don’t want an exactly equal status pairing. They seek out a more successful partner. 

Why do I raise this today? Well, because of a television show. Specifically, because of a single episode of a very good television show—one that highlighted the inadequacy of the modern sexual ethic to deal with the messy reality of human relationships, and also highlighted (for me, at least) the sad failure of the church to model the virtuous alternative. 

At first I was reluctant to give Apple TV’s The Morning Show a chance. The ubiquitous promoted trailers on Twitter made it look like a simple, straightforward tale of strong women fighting back against predatory men. It looked like a “message series.” But I was torn—two of my deeply-held entertainment values were in conflict. “Avoid obvious propaganda” conflicted with “follow the talent.” Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carrell are each marvelously talented, so I yielded to “follow the talent,” and I’m glad I did. 

The Morning Show begins the morning that Steve Carrell’s character, Mitch, starts his fall from grace. In echoes of Matt Lauer, he’s summarily fired after (unknown) individuals reported on his sexual predation. He’s stunned. He thought everything was consensual. He can’t conceive of himself as a predator. And Carrell is a charming enough actor, that you have trouble conceiving of him as a predator as well. In a telling early scene, he talks to a character obviously inspired by Harvey Weinstein, and declares that whatever he is, he’s not like that terrible man.

At the same time, there’s also a secret relationship on the set between the weatherman and a very young employee. They seem to love each other. She seems delighted to be with him. 

Fast-forward deep into the series, and you come across one of the most compelling and disturbing hours of television I’ve ever seen (Warning: Spoilers). In a flashback episode, you see in detail these different paradigms in the world before the fall, before #MeToo blasted their culture apart. Mitch is at the height of his powers and the cast throws him a surprise birthday party. Everywhere Mitch walks, he’s like Moses, with the Red Sea constantly parting in front of him. People seem to adore him. And he loves them right back. He’s kind to people on the set, and he moves with the ease of a person who feels as if he’s with family. 

But the darkness is evident. Part of that “charm” is his enthusiasm for the women around him. He loves a woman’s dress in a creepy way. He obviously just ended an on-set romance, and the hurt is evident. During the party, we also see the first spark of the relationship between the young production assistant and the weatherman. She quite clearly flirts with him. She makes her attraction painfully obvious. He seems surprised. 

The event is interrupted by the Las Vegas mass shooting, and the key cast flies immediately down to Vegas to cover the tragedy. They’re distraught. And, like family (it’s obvious from the show that the crew members spend more time with one another than their actual families) they comfort each other. Mitch invites a new booking assistant his room, and as an act of “comfort” initiates sex. What follows is tough to watch. She didn’t want to be with him, but she doesn’t know how to respond. She’s shocked and confused. He’s undeterred. 

He initiates. She yields. But nothing about it seems right. Strap him to a lie detector, ask him if it was consensual, and he’d say yes and pass the test with flying colors. They were grief-stricken, he’d say. They comforted each other, he’d say. 

Apply the same lie detector test to her, ask her if she felt exploited—or if she felt violated—and she’d say yes and pass the test with flying colors. She was alone with a powerful man. He pressed himself on her. Does she have to actively fight back to make his actions wrong? 

The powerful man put the entire burden of decency and respect on the less powerful woman, and he still looks at himself in the mirror and declares, “I did nothing wrong.” Why? Because he believes she consented, and consent is the only relevant moral factor. 

When you look at that stew of power, adoration, exploitation, and heartbreak—a very messy stew that felt about as real as television gets—there is a part of you that wants to yell, “Do something.” Ban workplace relationships entirely? Good luck with that. You put men and women together, demand that they work impossibly long, emotionally fraught hours together, and the bans will be about as effective as Prohibition. Besides, is such a ban truly just? Is it the right way to treat people? Especially when you seek so much of their time, their energy, and their devotion? The requirements of the job close them off to life outside the job. The job then closes them off to relationships. It’s dysfunctional. 

Do you ban relationships when there’s a power disparity? Again, good luck with that. Any prohibition that so fundamentally conflicts with the complicated, but persistent, alchemy of attraction is often going to be mainly observed in the breach—especially when there is nothing inherently wrong with the match. It’s the way people have paired off for millennia. 

At their best, rules and regulations are able to protect people from the worst excesses. They are never able to shape utopia—in a nation or a workplace. Too intrusive, and they create a separate set of injustices (just look at the wave of litigation on college campuses after universities systematically suppressed due process rights to secure a greater number of campus sexual assault “convictions”). Too lax, and they empower predators. We haven’t yet been able to consistently achieve the right balance. 

This is where the church’s own failures are most heartbreaking. This would be an ideal cultural moment to step into the void with a holistic Christian sexual and relationship ethic—one that’s not purely legalistic (“say no to extramarital sex and all will be well”) but focuses on the rich theology of relationships and marriage, of which rules about sex are but one part. Reaffirmation of the Golden Rule, an emphasis on the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), and a cultivation of admiration and respect for virtues, rather than status, are indispensable to repairing a broken culture. 

But alas, a porn-soaked church has all too often breached its own sacred obligations and instead modeled a spiritualized ritual of abuse and exploitation. Yes, the prevalence of misconduct is sometimes exaggerated by a media that can seem to delight in a “holy” man’s fall. But talk to any Christian who has spent any time substantial time in church, and they will have sad tales to tell. My wife has her own story, and it’s one that almost separated her entirely from her faith. 

This is where the culture war paradigm is least helpful. I can’t help but think that the more the church looks at #MeToo through a culture war prism (as another attack on men, for example), the less it will lead, the fewer people it will heal. In culture wars you find an enemy and fight. In spiritual wars, you recognize sin and repent. That’s the value in the Southern Baptist Convention’s anguished self-examination and self-discipline. Repentance sows the seeds of revival. 

If there’s a connection between #MeToo and our larger cultural collapse in confidence in our elites and in elite institutions, it’s this—time after time, powerful people have viewed their authority and influence not as a sacred trust, to be expended with honor, respect, and humility but rather as a personal asset to be expended for personal pleasure. Financial self-dealing, sexual exploitation, blind ambition—these are the marks of an “elite” that is truly elite only in its love of the self. 

For now, a culture of exploitation is facing a moment of accountability, but it’s accountability accompanied by confusion. Perhaps a humbled, repentant church can provide a voice of clarity. 

Responding to a reader’s thoughtful comment

Last week, I wrote a newsletter that explained my problem with the “common good conservative” embrace of Donald Trump. I lamented the cultural consequence of embracing Trump on the Christian witness. I said, “embracing an immoral man to save morality is not a bargain that most of the American people understand. In response a reader wrote in with a story that provides an important qualification:

Here’s the view of a Nobody-in-Christ.  Most of my Christian life is lived “not at church”—166 hours vs about 2.  Most of my American life is lived within 20 minute’s drive from home. My influence is personal, not so much as part of any kind of political block.

My cable installer was here this morning.  I sat there while he worked and we talked. He told me about his love for cars, how he’s had a series of BMWs.  We talked about other stuff, too… just sort of moseying along.

As he was getting ready to leave (and he stayed longer talking than he should have), we were getting philosophical.  I handed him a booklet a friend of mine had made of the Book of Ecclesiastes. He said he hadn’t read the Bible, but he has wanted to read it—cover to cover—some time.  So I told him about how I got engaged to my wife.

I met her in Spring 1974.  I got to know her family. 18 months later, her mother was suffering greatly from breast cancer.  We (my wife and I) were called into “Mom’s” bedroom. She said she had two things to discuss before she “left.”

“I want to know if the two of you are going to get married?” she asked.  So I asked for P… hand.

“Second, I want you to promise me to read the Gospel of John.”  We said we would. Those two questions changed our lives.

So the cable guy listened.  He took my little Ecclesiastes.  Maybe he’ll read the Gospel of John.  I don’t think he’ll worry that my political thinking is contradictory.

I’m so grateful for this letter. It’s a necessary reminder of how politics can be so very downstream from everyday life. Most Americans simply don’t think about politics much at all, so drilling down on political hypocrisy is not really their concern. In that sense, expressing concern for the Christian witness in politics can seem a bit strange. Isn’t the Christian witness in your family, your friendships, and your business relationships so much more important? 

For the bulk of Americans that answer is almost certainly yes, but for many millions the answer is no. They encounter Christians not in “real life” but through our public voice. Also politics dominates their “real life,” and they simply do not understand the Christian response to the age of Trump. Often, they’re right to be confused. They’re right to be indignant.

The Gospel is supposed to infuse every aspect of the Christian life. We can’t wall off any part of our selves from Christ’s commands. A Christian thrust into the ultimate crisis of war still must follow Christ. How much more should we still follow Christ in the face of the far lesser challenge of American political combat? None of this means that a Christian can’t vote for Trump or work for Trump (or vote for Democrats and work for Democrats), but they must do so with integrity, and turning a blind eye to misconduct on your own side—including justifying, ignoring, or rationalizing misconduct that you’d condemn on the other side—rightly mystifies people. Changing standards of appropriate character in leaders mystifies people. And claims that changes are necessary because of a national emergency (“Flight 93”) further confuses. 

Our churches have done pretty well in equipping believers to handle the “normal” crises of life. We don’t tell businessmen to be honest until fraud is necessary to save their marriage or to be faithful right until the moment when a wife is especially scornful or disrespectful of her husband. Moral obligations are not contingent. Yet Christians have en masse changed their standards for political leaders, in large part because they perceive a political crisis. 

I’m grateful that our reader reminded me of the truth that much evangelism takes place far, far removed from politics. We should also remember that some evangelism is connected to politics, and that our obligations to live consistent with our values attach even when the stakes of political combat seem high and the consequences of a political loss feel grave. 

One last thing ... 

This is one of the worship bands at our church in Franklin, Tennessee. It’s a blessing to encounter such talent as a routine part of church life, and it’s a blessing to see them employ that talent to glorify God: