Robert Aaron Long and the Equation of Sex and Sin

The man who confessed to murdering eight people in three metro-Atlanta massage parlors denies that the rampage was a hate crime. But we’re not taking his word for it. We’re considering the ethnic identity of the victims, the past year of anti-Asian rhetoric and surge in anti-Asian violence, and the long history of anti-Asian racism in America. In other words, the whole context.

Good. So let’s also examine the larger context of the motive Robert Aaron Long actually expressed: sexual addiction.

“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction,” said Captain Jay Baker about Long’s confession. “We believe that he frequented these places in the past,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds told reporters, “and may have been lashing out.”

Where in the world did Long get the idea that his sexual desire was a terrible problem for which these women had to pay?

It’s not a big mystery.

Long is a devout Southern Baptist. He led a high school Christian group and served on his church’s Student Ministry Team. In 2018, he was baptized in that church, the Crabapple First Baptist in Milton, Georgia. One schoolmate of Long’s remembered him as a “super nice, super Christian, very quiet.” When he heard about the shooting, he said, “I mean, all my friends, we were flabbergasted.”

He should be shocked. But not because Long is a Christian. In fact, a strict Southern Baptist upbringing might well contribute to the belief that sexual desire is the height of sin and the twisted logic that female sex workers (or perceived sex workers), in causing the desire, caused the sin.

Where in the world did Long get the idea that his sexual desire was a problem for which these women had to pay?

In its recent statement, the Crabapple First Baptist Church categorically denies the link: “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. These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible.”

Of course, Long is solely responsible for the murders. But we should not let his church off the hook just because they say we should.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the organization of conservative Baptist churches to which Crabapple belongs, preaches that sex is strictly a procreative act, sex outside of marriage is a sin that leads to damnation and lust is something that “we need to help men kill.” It was the SBC that launched the True Love Waits abstinence campaign, which promoted not just waiting until (heterosexual) marriage to have sex, but also total “sexual purity”: no sexual touching, no pornography, no sexual thoughts.

That means that Crabapple First Baptist describes as Long’s “evil” and “perverse” sexual desires may simply be . . . sexual desires. Its loathing of sex likely became his self-loathing; its shaming, his lethal shame.

Linda Kay Klein, the author of “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Freehas noted that fundamental to purity culture is the idea that “men and boys are easily sexually tempted, and that women and girls are responsible for protecting men and boys from the temptation that is their bodies. That means not being seductive in any way, not wearing anything that could cause a man to think or act in a sexual way. And that if women and girls would just do that, then everyone would be safe.”

Here’s an example of this attitude, from a blog post entitled “Modesty Matters” by Kara Bennett, wife of the pastor of Faith Baptist Church of Faith, North Carolina: “when a young lady dresses inappropriately . . . Her sin spreads. As she strolls down the beach in her immodest bathing suit or worships on a Sunday wearing a revealing dress, everyone who sees her is handed temptation. The men and boys around her must battle the sin of lust.”

In strict patriarchal religions where sex is considered a sin, the solution to the problem of male desire is female erasure. It’s not just evangelical Christianity: in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, women must cover their bodies and their hair and sit out of sight in the synagogue; in fundamentalist Islam, women wear hijabs or burqas to protect themselves from male desire and to protect men from temptation.

“In the evangelical community,” writes Klein, “an ‘impure’ girl or woman isn’t just seen as damaged; she’s considered dangerous.”

It is in this context and with this upbringing that Long saw his own sexual desire as sinful and women he desired as embodying a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”

“Super nice, super Christian” Long was super indoctrinated into a belief system that held women responsible for the sin of male desire. As we try to understand the lethal mix of racism, misogyny, and gun culture that set the stage for Tuesday night’s tragedy, that belief system should bear scrutiny too. No matter what the church says.

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Praying, But Not to God

I write this on International Pizza Day, so I wish you a Happy IPD, and a tasty pie made just the way you like it. We’re sad not to be celebrating in the usual way, i.e., the one described in How to Start Your Own Holiday.

Also, please enjoy this essay I wrote about prayer at the Biden inauguration. I won’t be putting every Washington Post piece on my website–since I can really only point to them anyway–but I do want to call your attention to one that emerged from years of thinking about religion and God in the public sphere as well as from that crystalline moment on January 20.

Other recent columns anticipate Trump’s future presidential portrait, appreciate feeling body-less in the Zoom era, and, just this past weekend, explain why a person should watch the Super Bowl (note: it’s true even if the game in question is very, very bad). And more!

But this one, reflecting on the need for prayer and wondering if we could pray while keeping church and state separate, is one that I hope kicks around for a while. Read it here and let me know what you think.

You can read the rest of the column here at The Washington Post.

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Betsy Cole’s Never-Fail Bread Rolls

A Thanksgiving Tradition

I’ve never shared Thanksgiving dinner with Betsy Cole, but I like to think we commune every year on that day. She’s always busy cooking for her extended family down in Richmond and I’m always (until this year) busy cooking for my extended family in the Shenandoah Valley. But through the transitive power of a shared recipe, we’re basically in the room together: me timidly acknowledging the changes I have made to her recipe, her smiling with the forbearance that (I sure hope) comes with age. More likely, she’s simply shrugging: she doesn’t take this recipe nearly as seriously as we do.

In fact, it’s possible Betsy doesn’t even bake Betsy Cole’s Never-Fail Bread Rolls anymore. I’ve heard that rumor but I refuse to look into it. There’s something about Thanksgiving in particular that makes me averse to change, and I’ve had enough change this year; I don’t care to contemplate the idea that Betsy’s gotten into sourdough or off gluten. I need her to be the same Virginia State Fair blue-ribbon-winning, speed-knitting, bridge-playing, choir-singing grandmother that I’ve always known her to be, as well as the source of everyone’s favorite roll recipe.

Betsy would tell you there’s nothing special about these. She’s right: they are an ode to the ordinary, composed of the absolute simplest ingredients, plying the basic pleasures of salt, sugar, and fat. Piled into a basket, they express abundance, in reassuring individual portions. You get your own little loaf of bread all to yourself and I think that makes everybody relax just a little bit more. Especially if you make dozens.

Make Ingredients

Directions

Stir the yeast into 1 cup warm water. While it dissolves, melt 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup shortening in the microwave, and pour them into the bowl of a stand mixer.

Add to the melted fat 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 cup of room-temperature water, and 2 eggs. Beat till combined.

Add water and yeast mixture. Beat till combined.

Add 6 cups of white flour. Knead with the dough hook for 5 minutes. If it’s not forming a ball and cleaning off the sides of the bowl, add a little more flour–up to 1/2 cup. Knead 3 more minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl and dump onto a lightly floured counter and knead by hand for a minute before forming into a ball and returning to the bowl.

Cover and let rise on the counter till double. Then refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 24.

Now comes the fun part: form into rolls. I weigh mine out to about 50 grams per roll, push my thumb in the center and purse the edges into the center and pinch, creating a taut ball. Place on a greased pan seam-side down. They fill a half sheet pan: seven down and five across for a total of 35.

Let rise at least 2 hours–until puffed and touching each other. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes. They should be golden brown, and the interior temperature of the dough should be at least 190–but it’s forgiving if you overbake them a little, on account of all the fat.

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