Paul Pressler, Disgraced Christian Conservative Leader, Dies at 94

Paul Pressler, a former Houston appeals court judge who spent decades helping conservatives take control of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, only to become an embarrassment to its leaders after seven men accused it of sexual abuse. June 7. He was 94 years old.

His death was not announced publicly. This was first reported on Saturday by Christian media outlet Baptist News Global. This was confirmed by Dignity Memorial, a funeral chain, which did not say where he died.

Judge Pressler died four days before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis, where nothing was said about his passing, Baptist News Global reported.

Justice Pressler was instrumental in building an internal grassroots movement that, in recent decades, has led the denomination to adopt significantly more conservative theological and social positions than those of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They notably oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, prohibit women from serving as senior pastors, and interpret the Bible literally.

Surprised by the liberal theology he discovered in churches while attending boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and later at Princeton University, Justice Pressler, as he wrote in his autobiography, spent the rest of his life trying to extirpate the Christian teaching that he considered unsupported by the Bible. He used the word liberal to describe the belief that the Bible could contain errors, while he believed that a conservative was someone who believed that the Bible was written by God, without error.

In 1967, he was introduced to Paige Patterson, a like-minded Southern Baptist, and they later met over hot chocolate and donuts at a New Orleans cafe, where they continued to talk after midnight. They then worked together for years to build a conservative Baptist coalition. Judge Pressler acted as his political agent while Mr. Patterson, a seminarian, was considered his theologian.

Beginning in 1979 and for many years thereafter, the coalition was successful in getting its preferred candidates elected as convention president. These presidents would then appoint other key leaders, who in turn would appoint trustees, all with the goal of overhauling seminaries and other Southern Baptist organizations.

“I have described Paul Pressler as the Steve Bannon of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Mark Winfield, publisher of Baptist News Global, said in an interview. “The tactics he used within the SBC were political tactics that worked and were used nationally. It has become a playbook for the Republican Party.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Southern Baptists tended to divide into two factions: “conservatives” and “moderates.” Conservatives described their work as a “conservative resurgence,” while moderates saw it as a fundamentalist takeover.

Newly empowered conservatives were known for busing people to conventions to get their candidates elected. Where annual meetings of the faithful once attracted 15,000 to 20,000 “messengers” or delegates, the 1985 meeting in Dallas attracted more than 40,000. Many moderates left the convention in 1990 to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Known for his mobilizing power even outside the Southern Baptist Convention, Judge Pressler was a founding member of the Secret Council for National Policy, a networking organization for political conservatives. The group attracted evangelical leaders and donors and often met with Republican presidential candidates, including George W. Bush.

In 1989, President George HW Bush selected Judge Pressler to lead the Office of Government Ethics. But he was excluded from consideration after the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conducting a routine background check on him, discovered what it described only as “ethical issues.” (Officials did not elaborate on the FBI’s findings except to say that they did not involve accusations of crimes or financial impropriety.) Mr. Pressler later served on Mr. Bush’s Drug Advisory Committee .

The abuse allegations first became public in 2004, when a man named Duane Rollins accused Judge Pressler of sexual assault. in a Dallas hotel room in 2003. Mr. Rollins said Judge Pressler threatened him if he came forward, according to the Texas Tribune. Judge Pressler quietly settled the lawsuit for $450,000 in mediation that also included a confidentiality agreement.

The 2004 settlement became public in 2017, when Mr. Rollins filed another suit, this one accusing Judge Pressler of decades of rape, beginning when Mr. Rollins was a 14-year-old member of the youth group of the Judge’s Church in Houston.

The allegations were investigated by denominational officials as part of a broader investigation into how the Southern Baptist Convention mishandled sexual abuse cases in the past. Covenant, which was also cited in the 2017 lawsuit, settled with Mr. Rollins out of court for an undisclosed amount in 2023.

By 2024, Judge Pressler had been accused by at least seven men of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct, according to the Texas Tribune. He was never criminally charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but the allegations prompted the convention’s lawyer, Gene Besen, to express his outrage, writing on the social media site Piety. He added: “This man’s actions are those of the devil. »

As the allegations emerged, Southern Baptist leaders distanced themselves from Judge Pressler, but few denounced him publicly. This muted response reflected a challenge they faced: how to show their revulsion at the allegations while finding a way to celebrate what Judge Pressler had stood for through the conservative resurgence, said Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist historian who cataloged Judge Pressler’s articles at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.

“I’m not sure there would be a conservative resurgence if he wasn’t there to channel it into a movement,” said Mr. Finn, a professor at North Greenville University in South Carolina. “You needed at least one person in the room who was a strategic thinker and who understood grassroots movements. »

But Mr. Finn said questions remain about whether convention leaders understood the darker side of Judge Pressler.

“Were there any rumors?” Are there any warning signs? ” he said. “When did people know?” I wonder.

Herman Paul Pressler III was born in Houston on June 4, 1930, to Herman P. Pressler Jr., a vice president of Exxon Mobil, and Elsie Pressler, who was active in community organizations and helped found the Baptist Church of their family.

He went to Phillips Exeter at age 16 and earned an undergraduate degree in government from Princeton in 1952. As a freshman, he met the dean of Princeton’s chapel, who invited him to take a cocktail. He wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “A Hill to Die On,” that he was surprised that a preacher would consume alcohol.

After graduating from Princeton, Navy ROTC commissioned him as an ensign at the Navy Supply Corps School in Bayonne, New Jersey. In 1957, he earned a law degree from the University of Texas, where Townes Hall, the law school building, is named for him. great-grandfather, Judge John C. Townes. Judge Pressler served as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives from 1957 to 1959.

In 1959 he married Nancy Avery, who had just graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts and who shared his concerns about liberalism in the churches she had attended.

In Houston, he served as a district judge from 1970 to 1978 and served on the 14th Texas Court of Appeals from 1979 to 1992, when he retired and returned to private practice. He changed his party affiliation to the Republican Party in 1982.

Judge Pressler’s survivors include his wife; their two daughters, Jean Pressler Visy and Anne Pressler Csorba; a son, Herman Paul Pressler IV; his brother, Townes Garrett Pressler; seven grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

At a 25th anniversary celebration of the conservative resurgence at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2004, Justice Pressler spoke of the movement’s success in terms of the Civil War. “It was like Gettysburg but this time the right side won,” he said with a laugh.

His views were distressing to some, including Dwight McKissic, a black Baptist minister from Arlington, Texas.

“I thought he had philosophical beliefs about the inerrancy of Scripture,” Mr. McKissic said. “In hindsight, was it a mask to control women, a mask to control racial inclusion, a mask to confuse political conservatism with theological conservatism? We had a root problem.

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