For a while, the career of the Evangelical comedian John Crist looked as though it had been blessed by God. His Netflix special, I Ain’t Praying for That, was set to premiere on Thanksgiving Day, and he had a book deal with WaterBrook & Multnomah, a major Christian publisher. But in private, Crist was not as holy as he seemed in public. Last Wednesday, Charisma News reported that Crist had tried to pressure several women into having sex with him. Though the conservative website describes Crist’s alleged actions as abusive but not criminal, that characterization does not seem to be entirely accurate. One woman says Crist repeatedly grabbed and kissed her against her will, twice forcing her to push him off — which would qualify as assault.
Crist does not currently face any legal action, but his Netflix special is no more. His upcoming tour is off too, and WaterBrook has canceled his book. In a statement to Charisma, Crist offered a partial apology for his actions. “My behavior has been destructive and sinful. I’ve sinned against God, against women, and the people who I love the most,” he said, adding that he plans to seek treatment for his “sexual sin and addiction struggles.” (He also denied that he was “guilty of everything I’ve been accused of.”) This may be enough to satisfy Crist’s fans, who are legion. He has over 526,000 followers on YouTube, and one of his most famous videos, “Christian Mingle Inspector,” notched over 2.8 million views. (An explanation for the blessedly ignorant: Christian Mingle is a Christians-only dating website.)
There was a lot riding on Crist. Until this week, he was on the verge of making a leap accomplished by few other Christian artists: achieving mainstream appeal. This occurs infrequently, when MTV airs a Christian band’s music video or when Netflix hands a (self-proclaimed) born-again virgin a comedy special. The jump brings the performer fame and riches; it also represents an opportunity to spread the Gospel through entertainment.
The expectations around Crist were high and may have drowned out women who have been warning others of his behavior for years. After Charisma’s story broke, several women tweeted that Crist had been enabled by a culture determined to ignore them:
Crist’s next steps are crucial not only for his career but for the subculture that made him a star. Evangelicals will have to decide whether his behavior is sexual sin — a loose term often applied to homosexuality and to consensual premarital sex — or whether they believe the women who have characterized it as sexual abuse. If it’s the former, which Crist clearly would prefer, then his path to redemption is easier. He would simply have to say in public that he is penitent and God has changed his heart. But if he’s a predator, the Evangelical community will have to grapple with the same question that has plagued many in the secular world for years: What do we do with a powerful entertainer who uses his position to hunt the vulnerable?
In theory, there’s an obvious remedy. If Crist’s comedic career were to end, he’d lose his primary method for sourcing victims. But if the Evangelical world broadly accepts that Crist’s misdeeds are sins, not assaults, they’ll implicate his victims, too: Crist shouldn’t have tried to kiss a woman against her will — but how was he to know it wasn’t her will? Maybe she led him on; she did choose to be alone with him. The belief that a woman can be a “stumbling block,” a seductive obstacle in a man’s path to sexual purity, isn’t unique to Evangelicals, but it is common, as any youth-group veteran can attest. (Charisma itself has published screeds on the topic.)
Evangelicals didn’t invent the practice of blaming women for their own abuse. Enlightened liberals do the same thing when the predator in question is an entertainer or politician they like. But Evangelical Christians make particular claims about their proximity to God and their relationship to truth, which makes their inadequate responses to sexual abuse all the more shocking. A woman who comes forward about her abuse at the hands of a powerful Evangelical man submits herself to unreasonable scrutiny; the depth of her piety is subject to church-wide debate. And the Crist case is only one of three major sexual-misconduct scandals to roil Evangelical circles over the past several weeks: The other two concern clergy members who remain in the pulpit despite credible accusations of sexual abuse.
In late October, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that megachurch pastor Andy Savage was starting a new congregation. Savage had resigned from his previous congregation after a woman claimed he had sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager and he was a youth pastor. The woman, Jules Woodson, reported the assault to Savage’s senior pastors at the time, but they didn’t take her case to the police and Savage remained in the pulpit for years. Though she has asked the Southern Baptist church that ordained Savage to revoke his credentials and oust him from the pulpit for good, it’s likely that he’ll return soon. And in Kentucky, another large Southern Baptist church named Wes Feltner as its top candidate to become senior pastor, even though two women had told the hiring committee that he’d groomed them for sexual relationships while they were teenagers and he was their youth pastor. In a recent sermon, the head of the hiring committee appeared to call the women “adversaries” bent on the destruction of Feltner and the church. That’s a title the Bible affixes to Satan himself.
Maybe the Crist case will be different. Because Charisma is a conservative outlet, it’s not easy for Christians to dismiss it as fake news. But change is unlikely unless Evangelicals change the way they respond to reports of wolves in their midst. Evangelical men didn’t listen to Woodson or to Feltner’s victims. Rumors about Crist have circulated for years, but nobody investigated them until now. Women won’t be safe until they’re taken seriously — by their peers and by their churches, too.