The trouble with Baskerville

Trigger warning: Rape, domestic violence and child abuse denialism, victim-blaming.

Critics of Stephen Baskerville’s astonishing Faith and Reason lecture at Patrick Henry College last Friday have no shortage of material to cite. The lecture was such a departure from even the pretense of academic standards that it’s easy for critics to frame it as a mistake that no one should take seriously; surely the cause of this catastrophe is that the administration failed to vet it properly, and surely the students have the necessary skills to reject it. PHC alum David Sessions reaches out to those students in an open letter:

To say it was beneath the standards of charity, evidence, and logical rigor students at PHC should expect from their professors would be an understatement. But beyond its weaknesses as a piece of argumentation, it had darker moral undertones that should be emphasized and rebutted. Anyone committed to the Christian virtues of love, charity, forgiveness, and justice should be deeply suspicious of such a hostile condemnation of the voices of people who have been subjected to violence and discrimination in our society, and of those who have worked courageously and democratically to protect them.

Stephen Baskerville

Kate Kane calls attention to Baskerville’s repetition of the bizarre and discredited claim that “homosexuals” were “integral” to the rise of German Nazism, remarking that the poor scholarship is evidence of “how little the school respects academic disciplines and its own students.” Libby Anne (a survivor of the Christian Patriarchy movement herself) points out that there was almost no mention of scripture in the lecture, and wonders why the leadership at PHC decided it was more important to tell students, with no evidence offered at all, that rape, domestic violence and child abuse are usually just stories made up to wield control over heterosexual men, the stories of, in Baskerville’s words, “the temptress, the seductress who lures men into a ‘honeytrap’ by offers of pleasure before springing a trap that today can mean decades in prison.” If you are able to stomach it, be sure to examine Baskerville’s list of what he terms “the new gender crimes,” and what Libby Anne (generously) describes as “an odd synthesis between ‘what did you think would happen’ and ‘bitches be lying’ that isn’t completely internally consistent.” Also, check out Baskerville’s own 1998 account of the dissolution of his marriage. He uses the words “I” and “me” a lot, and has a lot to say about “the state” and “family court” intruding into “his” marriage and “his” family, but conspicuously missing from the narrative is the other participant in the marriage. This explains quite a bit, I think.

Yes, the lecture possessed all the serious scholarship of a “WorldNetDaily” article. It’s actually painful to watch Baskerville display his assumption of entitlement with a concept like “forcibly divorced husbands,” and one is left to imagine the cringing experienced by those who have worked so hard to establish the academic reputation of PHC against the label of “fringe fundamentalist college.” In my own experience with students, they don’t deserve the burden of that label. For the most part they are receiving a rigorous classical education that encourages them to think – which ironically creates its own problems with regard to the school’s agenda. Is it any wonder that current and former students are looking for evidence that Baskerville’s colleagues are distancing themselves from his remarks?

Then there’s this, from Sessions’ open letter:

Let’s get real. Girls have been raped while attending Patrick Henry College: girls who I sat next to in class, by men who I sat next to in class. Other women I know were at different times mercilessly harassed, stalked and frightened—all on the campus of Patrick Henry College. Often it was the “nice boys” no one in a million years would imagine could do something like that until they saw it with their own eyes. You may not know it, but women and children you know—perhaps even in your own family—have experienced unspeakable things behind closed doors.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, although it probably does. I wondered how many of the young women sitting in the audience of that mandatory event felt glued to their chairs as if under a hot light, terrified that others could see the shame of what had been done to them (statistics suggest one in four). It’s hard to imagine any of them coming forward to shame their rapists and abusers under the circumstances, isn’t it? I believe that this is the only point of such a lecture – and it has now become a “lecture” in the most derogatory sense of the word: a hectoring, bullying diatribe by a powerful authority figure.

While there is no context that could make the “homosexual Nazi” remarks anything but embarrassing, the rape and abuse denialism is another matter. Unfortunately, this framing is not a departure from the norm where leaders of the college are concerned. PHC founder Michael Farris and others associated with his Home School Legal Defense Association, which shares both physical and ideological space with the college, have long histories as child abuse apologists, heavily invested as they are in defending absolute parental authority. Opposing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has long been a top political priority of HSLDA, and Farris and his allies regularly oppose legal limits on corporal punishment as statist interference with “parental rights.” Note that in its own guidelines, HSLDA is careful to say that “true abusers,” a term that echoes Baskerville’s use of the offensive term “real rape,” “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

It’s difficult to determine what they mean by “true abusers,” however. Libby Anne has monitored HSLDA’s lobbying activity with regard to child abuse bills, and concludes that, although the organization will never provide its own definition of “abuse,” “HSLDA opposes laws that would ban hitting children with physical objects, striking or whipping children so as to cause bodily harm in a manner that judges would not consider ‘reasonable discipline,’ and disciplining children in a manner that leaves significant bruises or welts,” and that “HSLDA appears to define child abuse differently from the average American.” When faced with family situations in which child protective services become involved, their default position appears to be the assumption that claims of abuse are false. This bias has led to several instances of HSLDA attorneys defending homeschooling parents guilty of severe ongoing abuse, in some cases so severe that it has resulted in the deaths of children. Despite rulings of homicide in two deaths within one family, one by allowing a six year old child to slowly die of untreated bleach burns over her body, HSLDA two years later still described the homeschooling parents it was defending as “a loving Christian couple who have adopted 10 special needs children over the course of their marriage.”

The pattern of denialism continues right up to earlier this month, when Farris was informed of a September 5 police raid on an isolated religious community in Germany resulting in the removal of 40 children. The international Twelve Tribes community, described as a cult by some former members, also maintains a branch in Hillsboro where they run an organic farm and a construction business. I do not know the extent to which individual branches have autonomy, the extent to which this one may be connected to HSLDA, or whether what was uncovered at the Bavarian branch tells us anything at all about the Hillsboro branch. What I do know is 1) the Hillsboro Twelve Tribes folks seem to have good relations with the rest of the community, and 2) after initially agreeing to tell their stories to local investigative journalists, former members had a sudden change of heart and were no longer willing to discuss their experience with Twelve Tribes.

At any rate, the evidence of “cold and systematic” child abuse by the community in Bavaria is incontrovertible. It’s captured on video by an infiltrator. But the German homeschooling legal association representing them has portrayed all of the community’s trouble with law enforcement leading up to the raid and the children’s removal as nothing but persecution of homeschooling.

And as it turns out, as meticulously documented here by Homeschoolers Anonymous’ R.L. Stollar, that legal association, Schulunterricht zu Hause (‘School Instruction at Home’), was created by HSLDA in the first place. Farris’ initial response to the representatives of the abusers thanking them for their “leadership and courage” wasn’t just an uninformed blunder about a group he knows nothing about, as he implied when he retracted it with the disclaimer “my sources were wrong.” The “source” on which he relied is his own organization’s outpost in carrying out a legal strategy that has now become global, for the same reasons we are now seeing Scott Lively in Uganda (and Stephen Baskerville in Russia). Stollar explains:

To properly understand why HSLDA, an American lobbying organization, as well as American homeschoolers are involving themselves in a foreign country’s domestic policies, one must consider two distinct yet intimately connected phenomena: (1) the American Religious Right’s global intentions and (2) HSLDA’s global legal strategy. The former is the larger context in which the latter exists, and the latter explains HSDLA’s current international tactics.

Since the 1990s, the American Religious Right has become concerned about, and thus interested in, domestic courts and their decisions. While evangelicals had amassed significant political clout through the Republican Party, they had simultaneous lost significant clout through the court systems. Defeats in the courts, according to Legal Affairs in 2006, is what inspired the Religious Right in the 90′s to create public interest firms, including “Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice [ACLJ], and Liberty Counsel [LC], affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.” Important to the larger narrative here is that, in 1994, James Dobson of Focus on the Family as well as Bill Bright from Campus Crusade created the Alliance Defense Fund (or ADF), which recently was renamed the Alliance Defending Freedom. Dobson and Bright “formed the ADF as a counterweight to the ACLU.”

Through groups like the ACLJ, LC, and ADF, the Religious Right has won significant court battles. But in the early 2000s, a new threat was perceived: international law. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an antisodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy referenced the decriminalization of sodomy by both the British Parliament in 1967 as well as the European Court of Human Rights in 1981. 2 years later, Kennedy again referenced both foreign and international law (Roper v. Simmons).

As Legal Affairs pointed out in 2006, “It didn’t escape the notice of evangelical Christians that judges had looked to foreign courts in two cases that struck at the heart of their agenda.” Consequently, the Religious Right became highly concerned with international law. Organizations like ACLJ, LC, and ADF began the process of creating international networks and foreign organizations in order to counter the perceived influence of foreign and international law on American law: first, to change foreign and international law so that it would reflect their own American values; and second, to change foreign law and international law so that, should it influence American law in the future, that influence would be in a way they considered good and righteous.

The result has been nothing less than the full-scale global export of American culture wars.

I don’t think Patrick Henry College has ever denied also being part of that agenda.

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