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Readers of my blog have been asking for a recap of the recent Doug Wilson controversies. I’ve written one below, with new and highly relevant information included towards the end. I’ve also included a number of footnotes for those interested in checking out some (non-anonymous) sources.  

Silencing dissent for “peace and purity”

By Katie Botkin, with St. Tara (special thanks to anonymous research assistants)

Moscow, Idaho’s Doug Wilson has spent much of his pastoral career sparking controversy and feeding off the backlash. In a recent documentary put out by congregant Darren Doane of Razzie infamy and also featuring Ted Cruz,[1] Wilson gets the dubious honor of being labeled “the most hated preacher” in America.[2]

Wilson is perhaps best known — or least liked — for co-writing Southern Slavery As it Was, a partially-plagiarized pamphlet stating that southern slavery was a mutually beneficial arrangement for both of the races in question.[3] But this is hardly a solitary incident — wherever Wilson goes, controversy is sure to follow, and from that controversy Wilson milks growing web traffic and name recognition. Making the rounds on Twitter most recently is Wilson’s claim that “women who genuinely insist on ‘no masculine protection’ are really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape.”[4] Wilson, a self-described advocate of patriarchy, has a large following in Moscow and has fans spread across the United States — fans who routinely insist that Wilson is misunderstood and, moreover, has really helped them personally.

With a little help from friends, Wilson founded his own denomination, the CREC, complete with a seminary located in Moscow. He also started a K-12 classical Christian school in Moscow, started a college in Moscow that now heavily features his own family members as faculty and dean, and started his own publishing house, Canon Press, which has similarly featured numerous books he and his family members have written. Although Wilson has gained a bevy of disgruntled ex-congregants and is considered a cult leader by many members of the Moscow community, he plays every new scandal off as persecution by liberals and “intoleristas,” a term he coined to describe his detractors.

Controversy is key to his goals, as is his own brand of empire-building — he finds it in his best interest to insert himself in the legal and business affairs of his congregants. Locals question his motives for doing this, often referring back to a 2003 sermon where he addressed the state of the church. In the sermon, Wilson discusses the “strategic and feasible” move of taking over a small college town like Moscow: “When it came to spiritual activity and energy, in the mid-seventies Moscow and Pullman were typical and sleepy Northwest towns, with no conservative Reformed presence at all. Today it is the home of an international association of classical and Christian schools, a Christian school with an international reputation, a thriving Christian liberal arts college, a remarkable publishing house… and hot controversy surrounding virtually all of it. What happened? Not only are all these things happening, but the influence they are having is disproportionate to the actual numbers… [the] idea of warfare is necessary in order to understand a central part of what is happening here.”[5]

Controversy is key to gaining “influence” because, as Wilson has noted on his blog, he gets more traffic when people are outraged. Wilson frequently mentions his blog hits, and updates readers every so often on how many thousands or millions of views he’s gotten. His top post of 2015 included the question “Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?” to which Wilson’s response was “Yes, far more serious.”

In fact, nearly all of Wilson’s top posts of 2015 included something inflammatory on the subject of the “homosex rebellion,” as Wilson put it. Another other top post, entitled “On Why Christian Women are Prettier,”[6] focused on explaining that submitting to Christian doctrines and male headship makes women more attractive, and included the assertion that “Unbelieving [non-Christian] women either compete for the attention of men through outlandish messages that communicate some variation of ‘easy lay,’ or in the grip of resentment they give up the endeavor entirely, which is how we get lumberjack dykes.”

When it comes to Wilson’s brand of evangelism, just about any press is good press — and Wilson often responds to questioning with his patent-pending “serrated edge” style, wherein he insults those who disagree with him, either in general, as with non-Christian women, or specifically. Jesus, Wilson says, did this to the Pharisees, and it turned out to be a great rhetorical tactic.

Wilson’s most frequent insult is that his detractors need reading comprehension lessons, as he didn’t exactly say what they’re saying he said — and, indeed, he relies heavily on any textual ambiguity to back away and mock those who attempt to state his position.

Getting legal with it

Central to Wilson’s ideas of “influence” is being able to direct both personal and legal matters. In his book Fidelty, Wilson writes, “The decision to inform the civil magistrate is a decision which is made by the church and not by the magistrate. A worthy pastor would defy any subpoena which tried to force information from him.”[7]

In the now-defunct Justice Primer, co-written with fellow CREC pastor Randy Booth and also pulled for plagiarism, Wilson expands on this idea: “We reserve the full right (and moral responsibility) to call the cops, depending on the circumstances. But it is important to note that ministerial authority means that whether or not we are going to do this is a decision that rests within the church… The district attorney routinely makes judgment calls regarding which crimes to prosecute or not. Likewise, church leaders make judgment calls regarding which sins rise to the level of crimes.”[8]

In other words, Wilson does not believe he should adhere to mandatory reporting laws for sex crimes, for example. And he, not the court, should be deciding the seriousness of crimes.

This has played out in a couple of sex scandals within his church, where Wilson wrote letters to the court asking for sentencing leniency. He maintained this was a fine idea even after one of the abusers, Jamin Wight, went on to commit felony strangulation of his wife, and the other, Steven Sitler, was investigated for additional pedophilia charges resulting from contact with his own son. Wilson performed Sitler’s wedding ceremony, though Wilson knew the man had molested a large number of children and Sitler had gone on record as saying he intended to have children himself. Wilson has stated recently that he would gladly perform the wedding again.

The Sitler story was in the local news, but the Wight story began to get more attention last fall after a letter, which Wilson wrote over a decade ago to the investigating officer of the sexual abuse case, was published. The letter, dated August 22, 2005, was essentially written on behalf of Wight. Wight, as a 24-year-old, unbeknownst to anyone but the victim in question, had molested 14-year-old Natalie Greenfield repeatedly over the course of 2001 through 2003 when Wight was boarding at the Greenfield house and attending Wilson’s church’s seminary. Natalie posted the letter on her blog along with several critiques of how Wilson handled her case. Wilson, on his part, has denied that he did anything wrong. An internal church investigation is currently being held to determine if the church should take any action on this front.

Nearly all of Wilson’s commentary on this situation glosses over the fact that one of his seminary’s stated goals is that ministerial students have personal spiritual oversight as well as religious training. Wilson’s letter essentially stated that of course Wight deserved some kind of slap on the wrist for what he’d done, but the Greenfields and specifically Gary Greenfield were at fault for not protecting Natalie. Wight, Wilson claimed, was “not a predator.”[9] Wilson insisted after this letter became public that Wight did not groom Natalie for sexual abuse[10] and that instead, Wight and Natalie participated in a “foolish parent-approved relationship.”[11] Natalie and her parents have maintained that no such relationship existed, though one was briefly discussed (and subsequently dismissed) with the understanding that it would have to take place years down the road. Wilson has admitted that he can’t prove Natalie knew about any “courtship” that happened in concert with the abuse, but insists it took place, and insists that this is completely relevant to discussions about her abuse.[12]

Wilson’s years-long obsession with pinning a large part of the blame on Natalie’s parents, particularly her father, and going so far as to insist that Gary was “abusive” and that what he did was just as bad as what Wight did,[13] can potentially be traced back to a longstanding business-related grudge.

The recorded business meeting

On December 15, 2004, mere months before the Greenfield family erupted with the knowledge of Wight’s abuse, Wilson interrogated then-congregant Gary about his loyalty to the church, which apparently had recently come into question. In a recorded conversation, Wilson asks if Gary has spoken to disgruntled congregants and if Gary’s counsels to those with concerns about the church “involve making them come to talk to us.” Wilson notes, “we know for a fact that some of the unhappy people in the church who have talked, have misrepresented, lied about us, sometimes in dramatic ways,” and wants to know, “when you hear something have you been careful to discount anything like that? You’ve not talked to them about particulars?” and further specifies, “so you are careful to be quiet?” He continues this line of questioning in spite of Gary’s assurances that he loves his church and the people in it. When Gary says he might need to discuss such things to see if they have merit, Wilson responds, “if you don’t have two or three witnesses where you bring it to me or to the elders or to someone who can do something about it, it warrants a rebuke to everyone who discussed it.”

One particular line of inquiry will be eerily familiar to those who have heard from Wilson before — specifically the insistence that those who are unhappy with the church are only telling one side of the story: “Have you been careful to not talk to people about any concerns, grievances, complaints, whatever they might be, until you know the whole story?” Wilson asks. Supposedly, the whole story, or at least the truly relevant part of it, comes from Wilson.

After a fairly exhaustive series of questions in this vein, Wilson launches into a mini-sermon on “sphere sovereignty” and business dealings, specifying that he and the elders have jurisdiction over Gary’s business. Moreover, Wilson states that if Gary breaks with the church, his business will suffer: “if there were some sort of rupture between you and the elders or you and the church … there are all sorts of scenarios that I can imagine that would, that would affect your business dramatically.” Wilson then suggests Gary sell his coffeeshop, Bucers, to someone presumably more loyal to the church. Gary declines. Wilson indicates that he wants Bucers to be financially and culturally successful. Specifically, more successful than the non-Christian coffeeshop in town, stating “You have a very important position in Christ Church because of Bucers, because of how the students congregate there, the students from our church congregate there… the pagans are starting a competition head to head with you.” The meeting also heavily featured Wilson taking Gary to task for not entering into a written agreement with follow congregant and would-be businessman Mark Beauchamp, whose business was backed by Wilson’s son Nate. Gary has said since then that he was leery of the written agreement Beauchamp proposed because it gave the church elders legal authority to settle business disagreements between him and Beauchamp.

Soon after this meeting, Wilson published a 178-word story about a man who “would not write anything down,” which was “a significant problem in his extensive business dealings.” The story concludes: “One day, while crossing the street at an intersection, he objected to a written message that, when summarized, read something like, ‘Don’t Walk,’ and he was struck and killed by a UPS truck.”[14]

Gary has maintained that this story was supposed to be about him, and explains what happened after he refused to sell: “Doug realized that I wasn’t going to mindlessly subject myself to his corrupt authority. Since he determined that I was an independent thinker, he felt the only way to deal with me was to buy me out and get ride of me. He wanted to destroy me and my family as retaliation for not submitting to his authority. He wanted revenge and he got it.”

It is perhaps important to note that Wilson — apparently without remembering that this conversation had been recorded — denied any and all of this. Asked via email “Did you ever ask Gary Greenfield, prior to his leaving your church, to remain quiet about his concerns and/or to encourage other church members to remain quiet about their concerns?” Wilson replied “No.” To the question “Did you ever indicate to Gary that if Gary left the church, it would affect his business at Bucers?” Wilson again replied “No.” He elaborates that these answers “interact with the text of your questions at face value. I can’t really interact with background assumptions or definitions.”[15]

Peace and purity

As can be seen in this recording, Wilson courts controversy outside his church, but will not tolerate it within the church, whatever he says to the contrary. One of the phrases Wilson used when urging Gary not to discuss things with disgruntled congregants was “the peace and purity” of the church. This phrase, and this idea, has cropped up repeatedly in other situations where critique of Wilson or the church was involved. You can see it in an oath of fealty Wilson required here.

Wilson and his allies are well-known among former congregants and critics for meddling behind the scenes, most often in the form of silencing congregants and former congregants who link to Natalie’s blog posts on Facebook. CREC pastors, elders and their family members have contacted current and former CREC members all over the United States to rebuke them for posting links to posts and stories critical of Wilson. This is not merely a case of one friend calling up another friend and saying “hey, I’m wondering why you posted this”; often, the elders or pastors in question are not friends with the person they’re contacting, and in some cases have never even met them. Sometimes, this line of inquiry occurred even when the subversive action was limited to clicking “like” on someone else’s posted link. All of 21 households confirmed that this has happened to them — some single individuals, some larger families. In the case of families, the husband or another male relative is typically contacted, even if another person — most often a female — was the only one to post something to social media. Additional people who have seemed sympathetic to those speaking against Wilson say they received sudden interest from CREC elders in the form of Facebook friend requests — and again, they’d never met those making the requests.

Publicly, Wilson has vilified Natalie as a liar and, via his blog, linked to obscure nude performance art videos her husband did in grad school, claiming this proves what kind of person Natalie is — in brief, as he put it, a “daughter of Portlandia” who is not to be trusted when it comes to sexual ethics. He did this a couple of months after writing her a letter telling her that it was impossible to keep the “whole story” hidden, and if she kept talking about the abuse case, details she didn’t like would come crawling out into the light. He specifically mentioned having access “to the love letters/journals that you wrote that the court reviewed and then sealed” from the time she was abused, though he knows at least by now that to publish pages from it would be illegal given that it was sealed by the court.[16]

 

[1] Won Razzie Award for Worst Screenplay (2014).

[2] Quoted from Amazon.

[3] “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.” Read here.

[4] Her Hand in Marriage, page 13.

[5] Sermon found here.

[6] blog post here.

[7] Fidelity (Kindle Locations 1748-1757). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] Pages 278-279.

[9] Letter from Douglas Wilson to Officer Green, dated August 22, 2005.

[10] Recorded speaking at the Heads of Household meeting, October 27, 2015.

[11] Tweet written by Douglas Wilson, screen captured here.

[12] Recorded speaking at the Heads of Household meeting, October 27, 2015.

[13] “The elders were very distressed over the way Jamin took sinful advantage of your daughter, but we also have to say that we were just as distressed at your extremely poor judgment as a father and protector.” Letter dated September 1, 2005, from Douglas Wilson to Gary Greenfield.

“The way Gary treated his family was every bit as bad as the way Jamin treated [his ex-wife].” Doug Wilson speaking at a Head of Household meeting, October 27, 2015.

[14] Credenda issue here.

[15] Email from Douglas Wilson to Katie Botkin, January 28, 2016.

[16] Email from Douglas Wilson to Natalie Greenfield, September 28, 2015. “we have access to the love letters/journals that you wrote that the court reviewed and then sealed… The reason I have been so concerned about your public airing of your perspective on it is that it is not really possible to dig up just half the story. The rest of it is going to want to come up too.”

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