Russell D. Moore on What to Do When Scott Peterson Sits in Your Pew (and He Will)
You probably didn’t notice Scott Peterson in church this past Sunday. But he was there. Somewhere in the third pew from the back, or perhaps in the children’s Sunday-school choir. Of course, Scott Peterson could have visited no church this past Sunday—and he would have been noticed if he had. The paparazzi would have followed him through the foyer and into the sanctuary. He is a celebrity now, as he sits on death row for brutally murdering his wife and unborn baby, and dumping them in the water while he partied on with his lover.
The problem is that Scott Peterson is not just anindividual; he is a type. There were little boys and young men in our congregations this past Sunday who are wondering what it means to be a man, who have no idea what it means to be a protector of women and children. Any one of them could be the next generation’s Scott Peterson, in heart if not in deed.
We err if we think that Scott Peterson is all that unusual. And we err even further if we think that this phenomenon exists only outside our church walls. We all have seen the faces of women we can’t get to visit our churches for weeks at a time, because they don’t want anyone to see the bruised eye left by a man’s fist. We all have heard of the teenage girl driven to a “clinic” in the city to dispose of a baby her deacon father or youth-group-leader boyfriend didn’t want discovered.
We all have seen the tearful woman silently crying in a church building while her adulterous husband sings the special music on the platform up front, with hands raised and eyes closed. We all have seen the little boy, with eyes averted and head low, walking into our Vacation Bible School, dropped off by a mom who must work three jobs because his father abandoned them for a woman with a particular way with peroxide, silicon, and Botox.
As Christians, we know what this is: a spirit of murder. Jesus has taught us that hatred of our brother (or our sister or our child) is not simply an emotion. It is the fountainhead of murder (Matt. 5:21–22). The Apostle John explicitly identifies hatred with the kind of murderous spirit that led to the slaughter of Abel (1 John 3:11–15). And Jesus traces all of this back to the one who was a “murderer from the beginning,” the Evil One himself (John 8:44). This is especially appalling when men act murderously against their wives and children.
Why is the public so fascinated with these cases that they light up the cable network talk-fests night after night, day after day? See the public’s fascination not only with Peterson but also with Robert Blake and O. J. Simpson. Some would say people watch for the glamour or celebrity of the individuals involved. But Scott Peterson was no celebrity until he became a suspect, and though Robert Blake may have been a celebrity at one time, the glamour had, let’s face it, departed years ago.
Something else is afoot here. We seem to know instinctively, whatever our egalitarian culture tells us, that men have a unique responsibility to protect women and children. We’re eerily disturbed and fascinated when they instead become predators against them. Sociologists and criminologists tell us that this kind of violence is not all that unique, whatever the soap opera storylines involved in these particular cases. All over the country, every year, thousands of men hurt their wives and girlfriends—often, inexplicably, when these women are pregnant with their children. We should not be so surprised.
The number and ways of expressing hostility toward women and children are skyrocketing in our culture, even as it encourages men to view “responsibility” and “commitment” (i.e., being husbands and fathers) with dread and disdain. And I am not just talking about the obvious family revisionists from the left fringe of the culture wars.
It will take more than mere political conservatism to address the values of Scott Peterson subversively celebrated all around us. After all, the rawest forms of capitalism, when divorced from Christian morality, often express a Darwinian perspective on the power of the strong that is rarely good news for women or children.
For instance, R. W. Connell, a sociologist at the University of Sydney, has written about a new wave of what he calls “transnational business masculinity”: the way the global market now expects men to be men. This vision of masculinity combines a corporate cutthroat competitiveness with a libertarian sexuality that tends to view women as commodities to be consumed. Connell cites as an example the near-universal reality that hotels catering to businessmen are now expected to provide pornographic videos in their rooms.
The same hyper-capitalism that values the triumph of the strong over the exploited in the boardroom thus values the use of the exploited by the strong in the bedroom. If the sum of societal value is commerce, then virtually everything can be commercialized—including female sexuality and childhood innocence.
And, sadly, we often see the same values unintentionally celebrated in our churches. Some of our abstinence programs for teenagers (which I unequivocally endorse) speak of sexuality as though it could be abstracted from procreation. This is especially true in my tradition of conservative believers’ church Protestantism, because we so often don’t want to appear “too Catholic.”
Instead, we treat pregnancy as one item on the list of “terrible consequences” that could come from sex—right along with lifelong guilt, venereal disease, emotional distress, and hell. Most of our churches actually do (despite what the cultural left will tell us) present sexuality as a positive joy, one that is worth saving for a lifelong commitment in marriage. The problem is that so often we, following the secular culture, unintentionally reduce the joy to simply the tingling nerve endings and physical release, only differing from the culture in restricting this pleasure to married people.
And we don’t just advise (rightly) our singles to wait until marriage for sexual intercourse. We carry (wrongly) the “true love waits” message to the newly married couple too, as we advise them not to have children too soon. After all, you want to have time to “enjoy one another” for a few years—as though children mean the ending of something beautiful.
With all of these messages being sent to our children and teenagers, and being sent by respected and sincere Christian leaders, is it any wonder that a young man might view his bride’s expanding midsection as something of a threat to his freedom?
The responsibility of our churches is heavy, and growing heavier by the year. The Scriptures give us the pattern for training up men who will love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5:25–29) and who will model for their children the love of God the Father (Eph. 6:4). In the Proverbs, a father teaches his son not only how to avoid irresponsibility and heartache, but also how to rejoice in his sexuality with the wife of his youth and how to nurture another generation of children with wisdom and godliness.
This is far more difficult in an era when—even in our churches—so many fathers have a different zip code, and when often even the fathers who are present everyday are passive dupes when it comes to spiritual leadership in their homes or churches. So what can pastors and church leaders do?
First, pastors, stop telling jokes (especially from the pulpit) about the “old ball and chain” or how “when mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” Model for your congregation what it means to revel in the joy of loving and caring for your wife and children. Make sure your people know that you wouldn’t trade one moment with your wife for any Internet-generated pornographic picture or Friday-night fling with a movie star.
Make sure your people know that you would rather be in the backyard with your children than on a golf course with your buddies—or in front of the television with a bucket of chicken and a diet Coke. Keep before your people the joys of marriage and fatherhood—and the joyful responsibilities to protect and to lead that come along with them.
Second, older men, make sure you take responsibility for teaching the younger generations what it means to be a protector of women and children. This starts in the church nursery by teaching toddler boys why hitting girls is especially wrong. It continues by teaching teenage boys to respect women, whether through obedience to their moms or by refusing to drool over someone else’s future wife on the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
Sometimes it means telling young married men it is time to take off the baseball caps, to stop playing video games, and to grow up. Sometimes it means gently telling a young man that he needs to work two jobs so his stressed-out wife can stay home and care for their children. Above all, it means keeping before all of our men—young and old—the transformative power of the gospel and the sanctifying power of the Word of God.
If Christians are going to be serious about recovering a biblical vision of manhood, we ought to start by looking around our churches this next Sunday. Young Scott Peterson will be there, waiting to hear if we have anything different to say. •
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.