Over the weekend David French wrote a piece, “Why the Atlanta Massacre Triggered a Conversation About Purity Culture.”
I would like to commend it, in a qualified way, while critiquing the actual argument.
I trust readers know how much I admire David. He is a bright legal mind and a deeply principled and courageous man. He is one of the few Christians who is able to bring gospel-centered arguments into the public square. (You have to admire a man who writes a weekly column for a non-religious publication and includes a worship song at the end of every post!) He is regularly and shamefully maligned and slandered, even though he is usually on the side of the angels!
I know you don’t need to see these kinds of things about everyone you critique, but I want to say it.
Before I go further, it’d probably be helpful if you read the whole thing first if you haven’t. (And while you’re at it, consider subscribing to the Dispatch—they have great writers offering conservative fact-based reporting in a hyper-partisan age.)
David begins by noting that when there’s a mass murder, we all immediately want to know why.
He makes the following points:
(1) This impulse is understandable and good.
(2) This impulse, in practice, can be toxic and destructive if we use it to spike a political football or to dunk on our ideological opponents.
But . . .
(3) It is still necessary to know why such evil happens, even if our sacred cows are harmed in the investigative process.
On the sexual angle, David writes: “the evidence of the shooter’s sexual confusion and dysfunction continued to mount. And so it’s important to focus on what we do know, on where the evidence is leading us now.”
No argument from me so far.
So what’s the evidence?
(1) The shooter is a Christian young man, baptized in a local Baptist church.
(2) He struggled so deeply with sexual sin that he was a patient at a local Evangelical treatment facility, called HopeQuest.
(3) He reportedly told a former roommate at a different recovery center that his “very salvation was at stake” if he couldn’t overcome his sexual sin.
We can add to the evidence a quote from earlier in David’s essay:
(4) He shot the women because “they were a temptation for him he wanted to eliminate.”
(David adds: “we don’t automatically take a killer’s word as the final explanation for his motives.” David says this about the racial angle—don’t take this as evidence that there was nothing racial in his motives; the act speaks for itself. But I think it should also apply the sexual angle as well.)
Now keep these four things in mind as we go, because they do an enormous amount of work as the foundation for what follows in the essay.
David writes: “The shooter’s stated beliefs and deadly actions represented a hyper-violent and extreme manifestation of a toxic theology that long corrupted a slice of Evangelical Christianity.”
So at this point he’s drawn a connection, based on the purported evidence, between the shooter’s beliefs, actions, and a toxic form of evangelicalism.
The rest of the piece elucidates this “toxic theology,” namely, “purity culture,” which he distinguishes from mainstream / normal / conventional traditional teaching on sex.
Again, keep that distinction in mind.
David does acknowledge that “some purity teaching was both orthodox and beneficial, other teaching kept lurching towards the same extremes.”
I could quibble with some of the analysis in this section, mainly at the level of prevalence—simply because I don’t know. Were “hundreds of thousands of families” hanging onto Gothard’s teachings? Maybe. I’d just like to see some data for that at some point, not just anecdotal evidence. The piece also sort of lumps Josh Harris and Bill Gothard together. I think Josh was more on the orthodox side (though certainly not without blindspots!), and Gothard was obviously on the extreme side.
But suffice it to say: I agree with all of the critiques of Gothard-level toxicity. That’s not my concern at all about the article.
My questions are about the overall argument of the piece. Does it hold together? More formally, Is the argument sound? Is it a valid argument with true premises that lead inevitably to the conclusion?
To answer that, we have to ask: What is the connection between the killer and toxic purity theology and culture? The piece assumes a connection but never gets around to demonstrating one. And that leads to the weird experience of reading something where I agree with virtually every single word and yet find that the actual argument doesn’t hold together.
I think a barbaric act of murder requires a healthy dose of epistemic humility when we have such fragmentary evidence. It’s okay to acknowledge how much we don’t know. And yet within minutes or hours of the sheriff quoting that the killer said he wanted to “eliminate temptation,” there were prominent Christians writing stern warnings to Southern Baptist pastors and seminary presidents and people who had criticized Beth Moore about the life-and-death repercussions of their theology.
There were prominent Christians writing news articles and opinion pieces quoting a boilerplate evangelical sermon the pastor of the killer’s church had delivered the previous Sunday on the second coming of Christ.
There were prominent Christians writing about reckoning with our role in shaping the culture that gave rise to these events.
There were prominent Christians connecting the killer’s motives to the teachings of John Piper and Nancy Leigh DeMoss Wolgemuth on modesty.
One professor at a Christian university even tweeted a link to the name and address of the church and simply declared, “He was radicalized here.”
David approvingly quotes Karen Swallow Prior’s line, “Culture cultivates,” and elaborates:
A culture that defines a person by their sexual sin cultivates misery. When it places women in a position of guarding a man’s heart, it cultivates abuse. And sometimes, when a man’s heart is particularly dark, it can even cultivate murder.The problem with purity culture is not Christianity. The problem with purity culture is that its extremes are not Christian at all.
Another thing I agree with!
But what’s the evidence that the shooter, who would have been in youth group during the presidencies of Obama and Trump, was taught the toxic purity culture that peaked in the 1990s?
My argument is not “no evidence will ever or could ever exist,” but rather “no one actually knows, and therefore we shouldn’t draw that connection until and unless evidence emerges.”
If I was a betting man, I would actually put a hefty wager on this young man having heard the normative / traditional / orthodox teaching on sexuality that David French taught his youth group instead of the toxic legalism that Bill Gothard taught.
And if that’s true, then the argument of this piece basically falls apart. It could become a good standalone article on purity culture, but not a very illuminating one of the killer and his theological culture.
(By the way, if you want to hear from the church itself, you can read their statement.)
So my encouragement to everyone: let’s slow down on drawing connections that might seem obvious but are actually quite tenuous.
While I’m at it, let me commend a brief post by Samuel James, offering a few thoughts. Here are the first two as a teaser:
1. When a mass murderer tells police that he was “eliminating temptation,” I don’t think the right response is to assume he is telling the truth even by his own perspective. Maybe he really thinks that’s what he was doing. But maybe he killed eight people because he despaired at life and was angry, and decided later that “eliminating temptation” was a rationale that made sense and kept him from committing suicide.
2. In any event, it is definitely the wrong response to assume that his parents, friends, or pastors taught him—explicitly or implicitly—to do this. If you’re tempted to think this way, imagine that the group that mentored him are not someone you dislike such as “purity culture evangelicals,” but somebody different.
You can read the whole thing here.
Update: Before I wrote up this post, Kevin DeYoung did an outstanding podcast episode on this subject. I recommend it highly.