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I recently attended the biannual Conference on Faith and History at Calvin College. Robert Orsi, a prominent scholar of American religious history, gave a remarkable plenary address entitled “The Study of Religion on This Side of Disgust.”

Bob Orsi has been studying religion for quite a long time and has authored a number of important books that have significantly altered the ways that scholars of religion think, study, and write about religion. In particular, Orsi’s books gave the practice of lived religion the attention it deserves – that the study of religion is not merely about beliefs or theology but the ways that people experience rituals, community, and habits. Orsi’s scholarship has changed the way that I thought about and studied religion and Orsi is a scholar that I respect and admire.

Imagine my surprise when I looked down at the program and saw the title of Orsi’s address. Then he began to speak about the ways that religions do more harm than good and that the good of religion is inextricable from the harm that it causes. Orsi, a committed Catholic, went into great detail about the systematic forms of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. He particularly focused on the story of Father Paul Shanley, whose abuse of minors and reputation for unusual sexual appetites, with clear knowledge by his superiors, is documented as part of the sexual abuse investigations in Massachusetts.

Orsi focused primarily on the documented cases of abuse within the U.S. Catholic church institution, but as another scholar pointed out in the comments portion of the address, this is not a Catholic problem. The hierarchical structure of the Catholic church may make the documentation of blame, power, and cover-ups more visible, but Protestant churches have a long history of abuse and cover up too. Christian churches have long struggled with pastors, priests, and youth workers abusing children and other adults. These predators proclaimed the gospel and helped themselves to the poor and oppressed.

I felt sick as I listened to Orsi quietly and carefully document the abuses by Father Shanley. The room was deathly still during Orsi’s talk. It may have been my imagination, but it felt as if the audience, myself included, sank lower in our chairs, our shoulders weighed down with the burden of Orsi’s disgust, as well as our own.

According to Orsi, the harm caused by the church is the distortion of its true essence. Instead of loving and helping, religious leaders abused, manipulated, and ruined the love of the gospel for hundreds if not thousands of people in their congregations. They preyed on the vulnerable, the powerless, the hurt, and the oppressed and caused shattering damage to the people, their families and friends, and, of course, to the cause of the gospel.

What happens when this harm is embraced? What does it mean when people in power or boards or consistories know about the perpetrators of harm and do nothing? Or when people in power merely shuffle the perpetrators of harm around so that they damage more of the vulnerable and needy? I am disgusted at the endless stories of abuse, past and present. Should I set that disgust aside? Or should it inform my scholarship and engagement with religion in a fundamental way?

As a scholar of religion, if this manner of harm is so prevalent, how do we study and understand religion when this harm and disgust are, sadly, a regular function of religion? Of course our response, according to Orsi, is “yes, but religion also does good…” which is true.

But how do we grapple with the harm that is so intermingled with the good?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • George E says:

    “… if this manner of harm is so prevalent, how do we study and understand religion when this harm and disgust are, sadly, a regular function of religion?”

    The same way you would any other system.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for informing us of the realities of the Christian life and the sexual abuse that is especially prevalent by those in leadership positions in the Christian church. Of course such abuse is largely due to the unreasonable stands that the church takes toward sex and sexuality. For instance, the Roman Catholic stand on sex is that the priesthood must remain celibate, no sex at all, including masturbation. How unnatural is that? When priests are given all the physical fittings for enjoying their sexuality, yet they take vows that prohibit any enjoyment of sex at all. What could you expect? It would seem that the Catholic church with its theology is complicate in the sin of sexual abuse.

    The same is true for the Protestant church. Christian teaching dictates that the act of intercourse, or sex (of any kind) is permissible only in the marital state, and this also historically includes masturbation and enjoying pornography. Even though sex is one of the more pleasurable activities in life, it cannot be engaged in outside of marriage for the Christian. Non Christians believe that God gave humans the capacity for sexual enjoyment even outside of marriage, as long as they acted responsibly. We see that daily, whether on television or at the movies. The non Christian view makes much more sense than to restrict sex to such a narrow perspective as what is held by Christians.

    The CRC also has a very unhealthy view toward homosexuality. The CRC says it is ok to have a homosexual tendency, to be predisposed toward people of the same sex sexually, but may not act on such predisposition whether married or not. Homosexuals may be members of the church, as long as they remain celibate. Again, how unnatural is that?

    Of course, sexual abuse, is wrong for anyone. It’s abuse and is harmful. But it is obvious that unhealthy perspectives, as held by Christians, will naturally lead to abusive thoughts and actions. It is no wonder the Christian church has so many problems with sexual abuse among its leaders. What Bob Orsi describes as the disgusting side of Christianity is the natural outcome of its poor theology. Thanks, Rebecca, for alerting us to an obvious problem in the church.

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