Evangelicals Must Confront Their Toxic Sexual Politics

People mourning Robert Aaron Long’s victims at a memorial outside Gold Spa in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

This article was featured in One Great StoryNew York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

In 1989, an Evangelist met a serial killer and confirmed a personal theory. Ted Bundy killed all those women because of porn, concluded James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Bundy himself said so, in a long, tearful interview with Dobson. “You were not physically abused. You were not sexually abused. You were not emotionally abused,” Dobson said to him, more statement than question. Not at all, Bundy concurred; he grew up in a “fine, solid Christian home.” So what the hell happened? “As a young boy — and I mean a boy of 12 or 13, certainly — I encountered outside the home soft-core pornography,” Bundy explained, and that was the beginning of the end. Later, he said, he found detective magazines — which depicted violence, Dobson interjected — and a murderer was born.

Decades after Dobson convinced thousands of American families that porn would transform their sons into serial killers, his theory will receive a new test. Last week, Robert Aaron Long was charged with murdering eight people, six of them Asian women, in Atlanta-area spas. He told police he suffers from “sex addiction” and viewed the spas as “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” as a sheriff’s department official put it. According to the Washington Post, he’d attended an Evangelical treatment center that says it can help people with “sexual addiction” and “pornography addiction.” It is affiliated with Focus on the Family.

Nobody made Robert Aaron Long a murderer. Nobody made Ted Bundy a murderer, either; they made decisions for which they must condemn themselves. Long’s own church has said that “he is completely responsible” for his violence and “the women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders.” Whatever distance Long’s church tries to place between itself and him is not enough to absolve it or its religious tradition entirely. Long wants someone to blame, and American Evangelicalism offered up some ideas. It was porn, it was the women, it was society.

Long’s excuses will sound familiar to anyone raised in the fist-tight grasp of American Evangelicalism. Dobson’s influence is a living and palpable thing. A psychologist, he offered Christian parents academic assurance: Raise your child this way, and as adults, they will not stray from the truth. My own parents loved him and tried to tame me with his books. There was The Strong-Willed Child, which urged them to break my will by beating me, and Preparing for Adolescence, which told them that girls are less visual than boys and are thus less sexual. (This, I want to stress, is false.) The year after he interviewed Bundy, his radio show reached a million households — including mine. The books never stopped coming. In 2001, when I was in middle school, he came out with another one: Bringing Up Boys. This book was not for me but for boys like Long, and it relied, often, on a supposed link between porn and violent behavior.

“Porn and smut pose an awesome threat to your boys,” Dobson warned in Bringing Up Boys. In fact, porn was “more addictive than cocaine or heroin.” Through “obscenity,” he added, a normal boy could learn “to find excitement in hurting someone, or in sex with animals, or in homosexual violence, or in having sex with younger children.” There is no evidence that this is actually the case. As recently as 2020, research disproved any link between the consumption of porn and a tendency toward violence.

Experts also disputed Dobson’s conclusions at the time. Bundy “had been corresponding with Dobson for a year and was receptive to Dobson’s suggestion that his violent acts were caused by pornography,” criminologist William Wilbanks observed. Dobson may not have consciously coached the serial killer, “but his crusade against porn clearly biases his view of cause,” and probably encouraged “responses from Bundy that would promote his cause and absolve Bundy of responsibility.”

Long, raised like me in the same tight grasp of Evangelicalism, in a Southern Baptist church that has condemned his violent paroxysm as the product of “a sinful heart,” may have listened to Dobson’s radio show, too. He may have read the same books, received the same lessons, internalized the same falsehoods. We don’t know. Whether Long encountered Focus for the Family for the first time in his treatment center or at home, the organization did not make him a killer. Dobson is no longer affiliated with Focus on the Family, either; the board of directors asked him to resign in 2009, when Long would have been in elementary school. But Dobson isn’t a figure to ignore, either. He helped devise a culture now endemic to American Evangelicalism.

Some beliefs predate Dobson: that women are naturally submissive, designed by God to obey the leadership of a godly husband. Women who don’t conform are dangerous, and if they are overtly sexual, they become stumbling blocks or obstacles in a man’s Christian life. But Dobson and Focus on the Family did contribute to a culture of toxic sexuality. Books by Dobson and other Evangelical leaders like Elisabeth Elliot and John and Stasi Eldredge tend to emphasize the same themes: an emphasis on abstinence at all costs; on modesty as the key to purity; on strict, cordoned-off gender roles for men and women. There are only two genders, and they are so different from each other that women could actually become a threat to men. Women inhabited a world of liars: Sexual violence is for the heathens, and women who obey, who wear skirts the right length and keep their hair neat, never find themselves the victims of a predator. Men bear different burdens, and they are real, if in my view not as heavy. They are expected to lead their homes and churches, to model godly behavior for their wives and children and fellow Christians. If they show the qualities of a leader, they draw the right women to them. Maybe Long did not.

The sexual politics of American Evangelicalism do not and cannot de-racialize Long’s crime. It’s difficult and likely impossible to pry the misogyny of his violence apart from the racism. Asian Americans had reported an increase in violent hate crimes since the start of the pandemic, a result of racist messaging around the origins of COVID-19. And the qualities that Evangelicalism assigns to women are qualities that people at large often assign to Asian women. The stereotypes litter the haunts of men’s rights activists: Asian women, allegedly, are submissive by nature; oversexualized and demure at the same time. Combine this surging prejudice with Evangelical dogma on sexuality, and the result is volatile. It is similarly not much of a surprise that Long blames others for his actions. He probably learned to pick scapegoats from experts. Dobson has suggested the “postmodernists” and the feminists — women guilty of improper conduct — and his is not an innovative mind. Evangelicals have always excelled at locating cultural enemies to blame. The feminists are taking over schools; the gays are taking over schools; the critical-race theorists are taking over schools. Someone’s always recruiting their children, always turning them away from God, always corrupting them.

Perhaps it’s time for Evangelicals to take their own measure and pay heed to their own Scripture. Whatever you sow, that shall you also reap.

The Atlanta Shootings and Evangelicals’ Sexual Politics