On the surface, North Carolina’s Rep. Madison Cawthorn is a success story — a handsome, charming, well-spoken young leader with a bright political future in the Republican Party. He’s the youngest member of the U.S. House with a story as harrowing as it is inspiring. As a teenager, he barely survived a car crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In 2016 when he first showed up at a small but storied Christian college, Patrick Henry College in Virginia, he made a lot friends. But according to several new reports, women on campus quickly started warning each other about Cawthorn — urging them to avoid hanging out with him alone.
Buzzfeed News spoke with over three dozen people from his former Christian college who either accused Cawthorn of a host of predatory activities, or corroborated the stories of accusers, detailing instances of “sexual harassment and misconduct on campus, in Cawthorn’s car, and at his house near campus.” Buzzfeed News spoke with four women who recounted instances that included “calling them derogatory names in public in front of their peers, including calling one woman ‘slutty,’ asking them inappropriate questions about their sex lives, grabbing their thighs, forcing them to sit in his lap and kissing and touching them without their consent.”
Last October, over 160 members of the Patrick Henry community signed an open letter accusing Cawthorn of “gross misconduct towards our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s student honor code and self-admitted academic failings.” The letter said that during his time at Patrick Henry, Cawthorn “established a reputation of predatory behavior.”
The open letter and Buzzfeed News aren’t the only sources of Cawthorn’s accusers. WORLD Magazine, a conservative Christian publication, spoke with three women who accused Cawthorn of sexually harassing and verbally assaulting them.
Cawthorn has denied all this, telling the Daily Caller that the accusations are a “mix of half-truths, untruths and potentially fabricated allegations.” He told ABC 13 that the accusations were just rumors. He also promised a counter statement was coming that would endorse his character and be signed by a “significant number of PHC alumni and former students who knew him well.” Buzzfeed News notes that just six people signed it, two of whom worked for his campaign.
The slew of accusations complicate Cawthorn’s fast-spreading mythology on the far-right. Key parts of his narrative have been exposed as false by numerous rounds of reporting. His repeated claims that he was training for the 2020 Paralympic Games were untrue. He also has said that the driver of the car in the crash that paralyzed him fled the accident, leaving Cawthorn to die “in a fiery tomb.” But the driver, Cawthorn’s friend Bradley Ledford, told the Washington Post that he had actually pulled Cawthorn from the wreckage, likely saving his life.
There’s more. Cawthorn told the Patrick Henry student body that he was “declared dead” at the scene of the crash, but the accident report said Cawthorn was “incapacitated,” not dead. Cawthorn also claimed that the car accident had interrupted his plans to attend the Naval Academy, though he would testify in a lawsuit deposition that the Naval Academy rejected him before the crash.
None of this has done much to interrupt Cawthorn’s rise, where he has attracted the praise of former President Donald Trump for spreading baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud. On January 6, Cawthorn was among the speakers who spoke to the crowd that was incited to storm the U.S. Capitol building. Cawthorn would later say mob had been “paid by the Democratic machine,” though that claim has been proven false.
Cawthorn’s story is amazing, even without embellishment. His meteoric rise following a terrible tragedy speaks to an impressive ambition and determination. His story could have been an inspiring example of how a young man overcame enormous obstacles with the help of his family, his friends and his faith to achieve his dreams. Those stories are important to tell.
But to simply leave Cawthorn’s story at that is to once again dismiss numerous women who are telling their own stories. America has never been good at centering the voices of those who interrupt a feel-good yarn by saying our hero may actually be a predator, and that’s been particularly true of Christian communities. In just the last few months, the legacy of Ravi Zacharias and the ministry of Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz have both crumbled following revelations of hypocrisy, adultery and, in Zacharias’ case, assault. RELEVANT recently spoke with activist and attorney Rachael Denhollander, who expressed her dismay at how easily Christian communities can be infiltrated by predators. “We know that around 90% of abusers self identify as religious or very religious, that means they can blend in very well with religious communities,” she said.
Cawthorn isn’t a minister, though he talks about his faith regularly. But ignoring the many accusations emerging from his history feels like part of a similar pattern we’ve seen too many times, and that leads to a sad destination we know all too well.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.