A look at w.hat faith groups can offer to the sexual assault debate
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Morning Consult
Aaron Thorup, Morning Consult

SALT LAKE CITY — The recent onslaught of sexual assault allegations has left few industries untouched. Hollywood producers, politicians, celebrities, Silicon Valley insiders and journalists have been outed as abusers, prompting a depressing question: Who's next?

"We're in a time of reckoning," said Dan Darling, vice president for communications for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This reckoning is playing out in mostly secular settings, but it's centered on moral and spiritual concerns. Religious leaders have a role to play in ongoing conversations about sex and power, said Charlie Camosy, an associate professor of ethics at Fordham University.

"We're at this cultural moment where we don't quite know what to do," he said. "It would be odd to not have all hands on deck to try to rethink our sexual culture."

Yet, for the most part, faith has been relegated to a small role in initial efforts to improve professional ethics, serving as a resource in the search for ways to reduce temptation.

Fearing accusations of creating unsafe work environments, some business leaders have proposed limiting one-on-one meetings between men and women, like a famed evangelist before them. The "Billy Graham rule" instructs men to refrain from spending time alone with women to whom they aren't married, and it's famously observed by Vice President Mike Pence.

"I think a lot of Christians and people in public leadership support some version of the Billy Graham rule because it's clear. It provides clarity in situations where the boundaries aren't always clear," said Katelyn Beaty, an evangelical Christian writer. However, this clarity often comes at the expense of career advancement opportunities for professional women.

Around 1 in 4 men and women say it's inappropriate to have a work meeting alone with someone of the opposite sex, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times earlier this year.

Aaron Thorup, Morning Consult
Morning Consult
Aaron Thorup, Morning Consult
Morning Consult

But Christian communities have more to offer in the sexual ethics debate than religiously inspired boundaries between men and women, leaders said. The Bible holds meaningful lessons on human dignity and care for one's neighbor, noted Diana Butler Bass, a Christian writer and historian.

"It shouldn't be about the Billy Graham rule. It should be about the Golden Rule," she said. "It's the simplest thing in the world to treat others as you want to be treated."

Religious wisdom

Christian leaders do not speak with a unified voice when they apply religious wisdom to office ethics. Some worry about premarital sex in general and others criticize rising secularism, but all have something to say about power and personal dignity.

In the working world, power is a sign of success, a reward for hard work. It comes with prestige, higher paychecks and some risks, including a distortion of one's relationship to others, Darling said.

"We've seen the abuse of power by men who don't see the women around them as human. They see them as objects there for their advancement or pleasure," he said.

The Bible warns about the temptations of earthly power, recounting story after story of people suffering because they put their faith in flawed humans instead of God, Bass said.

She offered the example of the Israelites asking for a new king in 1 Samuel 8, despite Samuel's prophetic warning it would lead to years of bloodshed and corruption. But the Israelites still wanted a king and got Saul, who repeatedly led them to war and drifted from God's plan for his people.

"I think the whole biblical tradition is about the misuse of power and human structures that are based on false ideas of power," she said.

Companies need to acknowledge the pitfalls of power and look for leaders who are good people, not just experienced, skilled workers, Darling said.

"When we hire or vote people into positions of power, it has to be about character and competence," he said.

When people enter an office setting, they don't forfeit their right to be treated humanely, Camosy said. Too often, production goals and profit margins turn people into tools to be manipulated by their bosses.

"The Christian understanding of the human person is that people are not things," he said.

Offices are not churches, but they would benefit from the Bible's teachings on human dignity, Darling said.

"I return again and again to Christianity's unique vision that each person is created in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect," he said.

Building a better environment

As the Twitter hashtag #churchtoo illustrates, sacred spaces aren't immune from sexual misconduct.

But, as a result of clergy sexual abuse scandals in recent decades, religious communities have been forced to have frank discussions on sexual misconduct and develop better approaches to sexual ethics, said Kate Ott, an associate professor of Christian social ethics at Drew University.

Meanwhile, leaders elsewhere, such as in Hollywood, have denied or ignored the bad behavior in their workplaces and are now paying the price.

"Lots of mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have been proactive about abuse prevention and harassment education," Ott said of lessons learned from clergy abuse.

These efforts involve implementing churchwide abuse-prevention policies, like mandatory reporting of sexual abuse to the police or ensuring there's a window on the pastor's office door. But the reforms go beyond formulating a list of rules. The goal is to help participants reflect on their community's values and then create an environment that embodies them, Ott said.

The recent buzz around the Graham-Pence rule stops at step one in this process, creating boundaries without encouraging better relationships between people, Beaty said. It treats all one-on-one meetings between men and women as suspicious or sexualized, limiting people's opportunities to meet with the leaders who could help them advance their careers.

"Our insistence about keeping the rule leads to an inability to imagine what it would be like to always treat my colleague with respect and with care," she said.

Changes to professional culture and sexual ethics shouldn't end when company leaders agree to a new set of office rules or pay for sexual assault training, Darling said. This moral crisis calls for a change of heart, not just better standards of behavior.

"I don't think we should be under the illusion that boundaries alone will keep this from happening," he said.

Moving forward, people in positions of power in offices must consistently focus on the well-being of their colleagues, not just the bottom line. The goal should be to help employees flourish, not just the company, Darling noted.

"Leaders should be asking themselves, 'How am I going to steward this power well?'" he said.

No business or industry is free of sexual misconduct, and, therefore, all people in power need to encourage respectful interactions, Beaty said.

"We have to grapple with the fact that this problem of abuse of power and sexual inappropriateness can happen across the board. We all need to be more vigilant about preventing it," she said.

Religious leaders still have work to do within their own communities, but they are also called to support anyone working to build a more ethical culture, Bass said.

"We can stand with those seeking repentance and acceptance, listen to stories and do better," she said.