Tuesday, February 4, 2020

John Ortberg and the ongoing inability of Evangelicals to think ethically about sex

First, the story itself: 

Evangelical megachurch pastor John Ortberg has been placed on administrative leave after it came out that he allowed a man who confessed to having sexual attraction to children (aka a pedophile) to continue to work with children at the church unsupervised - including overnight events. Apparently, Ortberg also did not even bother to inform the elder board of either the decision or the man’s pedophilia. 

Um, that’s pretty bad. That’s intentionally putting children at risk of abuse. 

In my book, that should be an automatic and permanent disqualification for ministry. 

But it gets even more interesting because of how it went down, and who blew the whistle on this. 

Ortberg has a transgender son, Daniel Lavery (formerly Mallory Ortberg) and it is he who, after confronting his father, went to the elder board - which is when this all blew up. 

Apparently, Daniel decided to elevate the issue after his dad basically said “you’re a pervert too, so you have nothing useful to say on how I should handle this.” I think it is safe to say that relationship is now over. (Daniel called it a breach of trust - and I very much agree.) 

I have some thoughts on this whole thing because of my own experience within Evangelicalism. Specifically, this was both thoroughly predictable, and also symptomatic of a deep sickness within Evangelicalism that makes it impossible for Evangelicals to think or act ethically when it comes to sexual issues. 

So here goes:

1. Evangelicalism protects predators

In the ongoing meltdown of Evangelicalism over the last decade or so, this has been a recurring problem. It is, indeed, endemic to the system. From C. J. Mahaney to Bill Gothard to Doug Wilson to Josh Duggar - I could name probably two dozen more prominent cases where church leaders have chosen to cover up child abuse and protect the perpetrators over the victims. 

There are three factors that I believe dictate this pattern:

a. Evangelical beliefs about gender essentialism include the belief that men cannot control their sexual urges, which are not really their fault anyway. Thus, women need to be controlled so men don’t lust, and women are expected to “fix” broken men by catering to their every sexual demand. This in turn leads to a culture in which predatory men are protected from justice. They get the benefit of the doubt in a way that women do not.

b. Evangelicals think about sex in terms of “forbidden” or “not forbidden” rather than in terms of ethics. Thus, there is no difference in their minds between raping children and having consentual premarital sex - it’s all forbidden sex. This means that they treat pedophile predators with the same “grace” that they do couples who get ahead of things, so to speak. This prevents them from seeing sexual predators as just that: predators. If they were recognized as predators, then leaders would focus on protecting their prey from predation. 

c. Evangelicals (just like Catholics and other religious groups) tend to believe that sexual predation is a “sin” problem, not a criminal problem or psychological problem. Thus, a pedophile can “repent” and then is not considered a problem. This is at the root of why churches cover up abuse rather than immediately report it to law enforcement. And it is also why they allow known pedophiles to have access to children. They genuinely believe that it is just another sin that can be repented from and then it will just go away. (Hint: it doesn’t.)

This is one reason why I don’t have our kids involved with church activities. The trust is broken. I have zero confidence that my kids’ safety will be protected. It is more likely that the hurt feelings of a predator will matter more to church leadership. 

This seems like it really should be a no-brainer: err on the side of protecting kids. Hey, didn’t a famous person once say something like that? 

2. Evangelicalism does not actually understand pedophilia

See above for part of this. By treating pedophilia as just another sin - something very much like making out with your girlfriend before marriage - they miss pretty much everything important about it. And that includes the information needed to help those pedophiles who can be helped (and are willing to be treated.) For more on the psychological diagnosis and treatment, this Psychology Today article is helpful

For what it is worth, Daniel is the one who seems to understand this - he is compassionate, and expresses his admiration for anyone who seeks to get help for sexual compulsion. (You can read his twitter thread about the incident here - I recommend it.) He also referred the pedophile to an appropriate counsellor. 

Here’s the thing: on the one hand, not all pedophiles are predators. And the recidivism rate is actually fairly low - most people do the right thing. But on the other, there are the predators, who generally share common traits, such as narcissism, charm, and the ability to avoid detection. These predators generally have dozens of victims before they are caught. 

This suggests something pretty damn obvious: a decent human being who finds himself (it’s mostly men) sexually attracted to children would decide to never work with children. It’s no different than a person with uncontrolled epilepsy: that person has no business driving a car, and a decent human being with that problem would never get behind the wheel knowing the damage he or she could cause. This isn’t rocket science. 

So, a person who expresses sexual attraction to children should not work with children. Period. If they are not a predator (and there is no indication at this time that this man ever acted on his urges), then I have no problem with them serving in other capacities or being treated with decency. But they shouldn’t be around children. And if they wanted to be around children knowing their urges, that in itself is a pretty good indication that they are in fact a predator. 

In light of this, just how horrifying is Ortberg’s decision? He literally encouraged a pedophile to continue to work unsupervised with children! What the actual fuck?!! Of all the things to do, that was literally the worst possible choice. 

And he couldn’t have asked for advice from his elder board? That’s problematic. (And also pretty much par for the course with Evangelical pastors in my experience.) Better yet, he might have asked advice from the mothers of small children in his congregation. But, well, women don’t really matter in Evangelical culture - they believe God wants only men to lead. 

3. Ortberg’s treatment of his son is thoroughly sickening

When I read Daniel’s thread, my jaw hit the floor and I felt nauseated. Because what Ortberg said was thoroughly sickening and disgusting. 

Let me be blunt:

Ortberg repeated the LGBTQ version of the “blood libel.” 

Let me explain that one. During most of the Middle Ages, one of the nastiest antisemitic belief was the “blood libel.” The church, sadly, encouraged a belief that an important Jewish ritual was murdering and draining the blood of Christian children to use in making matzah. 

Evangelicals have their own version of this, which is that LGBTQ people are all sexual predators who want to rape and molest children and turn them gay. (And, of course, the related idea that transgender people only do what they do so they can get into the “wrong” bathroom and rape innocent women.) Just as in the case of antisemitism, this gross slander of LGBTQ people is used as justification to persecute and perpetrate violence against them. And to legislate their rights out of existence.

So look at that again: Ortberg told Daniel that because he was a “pervert” too that he had no standing to suggest an alternative. Oh, and also said that homosexuality and pedophilia are similar. Yep, “you’re transgender which is similar to pedophilia so you are just as much of a threat as the pedophile is.”

Seriously sickening.

Daniel’s statement that this breaks the trust he once had with his family is an understatement. This is more like using a thermonuclear weapon to burn a bridge. If my parents ever did that, I would never be in their presence again - and they would not be around my children. 

This also illustrates the reasons that Evangelicalism finds itself completely unable to discuss sex in an ethical way. 

When you conflate the sexual assault and abuse of children with a loving and consensual same-sex relationship, you have already failed to make the most important ethical distinction. Consensual sex is NOT the same thing as rape and predation. It is not. And Evangelicals wonder why nobody gives a fuck about what they say about sex? Maybe because they show more sympathy for predators than for victims? Maybe because they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that consent matters? 

And maybe because they insist on slandering LGBTQ people, who are no more likely to be predators than cishet people. 

Side note: I cannot help but feel that there is also an element of misogyny at work here too. I’ve spent enough time in Evangelicalism (4 decades!) to have seen time and time again a woman’s legitimate concerns pushed aside by a man who knows better. Women are (in practice and sometimes in theory too) expected to sit down, shut up, and know their place. 

So in this case, “You are really a woman, no matter what you say, and God speaks to me as a leader, not to people like you.” One of my theories about why Evangelicalism has gone so far off the moral rails is that they have systematically excluded women from decision-making at the higher levels. I cannot imagine that an elder board with equal representation for women would have supported Ortberg’s decision. 

4. Daniel Lavery deserves nothing but praise for his actions in this matter.

Seriously. At the cost of his relationship with his parents, he did the right thing. Multiple right things. 

First, he gave outstanding advice to the pedophile (who seems to have wanted to do the right thing himself): get treatment, get out of situations where you might be a risk to children. 

Second, he gave his father the chance to do the right thing. 

Third, when that didn’t work, he elevated the issue. Fortunately that worked. I hope Menlo Church does the right thing and permanently removes Ortberg from ministry - he is clearly unfit for leadership. [Note: I’m not holding my breath.]

Fourth, his statement on twitter is outstanding. He was clear about the situation, but without hyperbole. 

I don’t know if he will run across this blog, but if he does: Daniel, I admire you and support you one hundred percent. The world is a better place because of what you did. 

Having had a difficult relationship with my own parents over religious and political differences, I feel the pain too, although obviously not to that extent. It hurts when those you love choose toxic religious dogma over relationship and understanding. 


Note on Daniel Lavery:

Daniel Lavery has written for Slate.com, first as Mallory Ortberg, then Daniel Mallory Ortberg, and now Danny M. Lavery. I first ran across him there. 

In addition, he has written a few books, including The Merry Spinster, which I read last year. It is an enjoyable and bizarre mashup of fairy tales and other stories, with a decidedly gender-bending flavor. If you want to support him, why not buy one of his books?

Update: The Washington Post did a piece on Lavery recently


Well, it turns out to be even worse. The pedophile in questions is....wait for it.....another of John Ortberg's sons.
So this isn't just bad judgment, it is nepotism and hypocrisy. One set of rules for the leaders, another for everyone else. And a bit of sibling favoritism in the bargain. Color me unsurprised. My own experience in my family is that theological and gender orthodoxy are valued above any virtues, and that following those rules entitles certain family members to a pass for psychopathic and abusive behavior.

Note on the use of the “Dead Name”:

It has been brought to my attention that it is problematic to refer to the former name of a transgender person - the old name is their “dead name.” In this particular case, I am uncertain how to handle things, because Daniel Lavery is a very new name for someone who has written a lot under both the actual dead name, and under his “maiden” name (for lack of a better term - I propose the use of “swain name” for those men who buck tradition and take their wives’ surname). In fact, his latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, which comes out later this year, is published under “Daniel Mallory Ortberg.” Lavery does not have an official author website, alas, or I would just link to that. 

Anyway, this is an uncomfortable compromise no matter what, and I would prefer that readers be able to locate Lavery’s writing under all pen names, past and present. 

As is always the case, to the extent that I can, I try to accommodate the wishes of the author as to names and pronouns. Daniel, if you run across this post, feel free to contact me and help me out here.  


  1. I read the Dear Prudence column regularly. I knew Daniel had transitioned, but had wondered about the change of surname. I'm very sorry to learn that this evil is the reason why.

  2. I believe the change in surname is because he got married.

    1. Yes, that is correct. He married his fiancee Grace Lavery back in December.