Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was charged in 1921 with the sexual assault of actress Virginia Rappe at a raucous Hollywood party.
According to investigators, the 266-pound film star attacked and raped her, ultimately killing Rappe when her bladder burst “under the weight of his fat body.” See more of the story here.
Despite the allegations, Arbuckle went free. Two juries hung before a third acquitted him.
Most Christian leaders condemned both Arbuckle and Hollywood, including radio preacher Robert Shuler in an angry article titled “Hail Fatty, Thy Fame is Final.”
Billy Sunday was the glaring exception. America’s most famous evangelist questioned the entire narrative.
“I feel sorry for ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and do not see how any court in the land could convict the fallen idol for murder or manslaughter,” he wrote.
The real perpetrator, the evangelist alleged, was the 40 quarts of whiskey at the party, Sunday claimed.
“I blame booze,” he declared. “Had there been no liquor at that party, Virginia Rappe would not have lost her life.” He demanded more funding for Prohibition enforcement.
But mostly Sunday blamed Rappe herself. In a Sept. 18, 1921, front-page opinion piece in the Washington Times, Sunday explained that “without a doubt, she went to that party of her own free will and accord.”
“From what I gather from the papers, Miss Rappe also went into the bedroom with ‘Fatty,’ not because he forced her to go, for it seems that he did not, but because she wanted to go in there with him,” he asserted.
In placing blame on Rappe, the victim, Sunday was participating in a broadly circulating narrative in which Arbuckle had been enticed by a “wild woman.” Indeed, Arbuckle’s lawyers used this very tactic, which led to his acquittal.
The foreman read a formal apology declaring Arbuckle “entirely innocent” and lamenting that “a great injustice has been done him.” The key line in the apology: “He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story on the witness stand, which we all believed.”
Blaming the victim is an unfortunate instinct among some conservative evangelicals.
A recent poll showed that Christians are more than twice as likely to blame people’s poverty on a lack of effort than on difficulties beyond their control.
Franklin Graham blamed Hurricane Katrina on “orgies” in New Orleans.
James Dobson blamed the Sandy Hook school shooting on the nation’s tolerance of gay marriage and abortion.
Victim-blaming is particularly evident in evangelical responses to gender-based violence.
At one fundamentalist school, an alleged rape victim reported that the dean asked her, “Is there anything that you did that made him do that?”
At another college, where one student allegedly assaulted a young woman in her sleep, both the assailant and the victim went through counseling.
The victim, however, reported that her counseling consisted of lessons in “modesty,” attributing significant blame to her own habits and actions.
According to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin College, evangelical literature on masculinity serves to diminish the culpability of perpetrators.
It consists of men writing “a lot about testosterone, and they say it’s God’s gift to men. It makes them strong, it makes them powerful.”
Shrugging shoulders and rolling eyes while murmuring, “Boys will be boys,” some evangelicals come close to excusing predation.
An evangelical culture of female purity compounds the problem of masculine aggression.
Instead of holding male predators accountable for being pure themselves, it blames women for acting and dressing too provocatively.
As Du Mez puts it, “There’s an assumption that if a woman was involved in something like that, she should share some of that blame or maybe all of the blame.”
Indeed, this sensibility extends far beyond evangelical subcultures. According to the journal JAMA Pediatrics, half of perpetrators believe that their victim is “completely at fault” for the assault. And 62 percent of rape survivors “attributed the most blame to themselves.”
It’s a perverse culture. Those in power – whether they are in structural positions of power or whether they simply carry enough physical strength to physically overpower others – are encouraged to take less responsibility for their actions, rather than more.
Even worse is that this same culture also exacerbates the disempowerment of the already weak and vulnerable by blaming them for their own victimization.
Instead of critiquing this system, the tools of evangelical Christianity have perpetuated it.
Like broader society, this subculture elevates the voices and perspectives of men. It has also failed to recognize structural inequalities and power, perhaps for understandable reasons.
If someone acknowledges that poverty is systemic, then they too are culpable because they’re part of the system.
If someone only acknowledges individual choices, then they can retain their cultural power without guilt.
In such a system, as we’ve seen it play out in Hollywood, Washington and Chicago, it is difficult for powerful men to be found culpable. They work together – knowingly and unknowingly – to retain power.
Predation requires more than just a powerful man abusing a woman; it requires a broader culture that systematically protects the powerful, not the powerless.
There are still a lot of Billy Sundays around. His instinct to blame “loose women” and booze more than Arbuckle for Rappe’s death seems galling in this #metoo moment.
But this moment is only possible because so much male predation exists in the first place – and because the system protects predators.
Billy Sunday contributed to this system. So did the more respectable Robert Shuler, who directly indicted Arbuckle for being immoral – but also indirectly blamed the “ladies going to and fro” around him and his being in “dirty and filthy relation to the unspeakable,” referring to prostitutes. He too contributed to a system that highlighted women as the problem.
A century later, some of evangelicalism’s most prominent spokesmen (and indeed they are almost all men) continue to abet a culture of masculine aggression.
There are exceptions. In a recent TEDx talk, Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” articulates his regret for feeding some aspects of purity culture.
Harris models a new way forward through lament and listening, especially to women’s voices.
In recent months, these are the voices that have most successfully agitated for change.
Unlike the society that acquitted the “manly” Arbuckle, empowerment and voice for women in our time is a real possibility.
But in an evangelical movement still characterized by pervasive male power, women and their advocates are only beginning to be heard.
David Swartz is associate professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of “Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.” A longer version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly, and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @davidrswartz.
David Swartz is associate professor of history at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of “Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.”