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Evangelical courtship culture normalizes men dating teen girls

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore waits to speak at a press conference, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

(RNS) — When I was first introduced to courtship as a young teen, it felt like it was a continuation of the True Love Waits message of my Southern Baptist youth group.

It didn’t seem weird that courtship speakers were telling teenage girls to pledge their virginities to their fathers until their fathers gave it over to their future husbands, sealed with a ring or a heart and key locket, because True Love Waits already had tens of thousands of evangelical teens signing purity pledges and wearing purity rings.

If courtship advocates had stated up front in the introduction that they believed in young courtship and were OK with child marriage, my family and many others would not have gotten on board.

Instead, courtship was presented as an extension of the early-1990s abstinence movement and a way to ensure that teens would be able to keep the pledges they made.

The abstinence pledges, rallies and True Love Waits jewelry all helped normalize parental control over their children’s sexualities and the idea that teenagers’ bodies did not belong to us but to our parents.

More broadly, the complementarian theology of male headship and female submission taught in much of the evangelical world helped prime the pump for courtship culture.

Mainstream evangelical churches that teach wives to submit to their husbands promote an inherently unequal relationship power dynamic as not just OK, but the one godly, biblical way for men and women to relate in marriage. Complementarianism presents a vision for relationships where women lack full autonomy.

In the days since I wrote an oped for the Los Angeles Times on evangelical courtship culture and Roy Moore, I’ve heard objections that young courtship and child marriage is not practiced by all evangelicals.

That is something I will readily admit. However, the teachings about women, sexuality and relationships in broader evangelical culture have contributed to the normalization of courtship culture.

Furthermore, the continued association of evangelical and religious right leadership with men who defend child marriage enables those abuses to continue.

In a world where female submission is valued and too much independence is a negative, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to concluding that teen girls and young women who haven’t had a taste of independence are an even better option.

That’s the logic behind “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s argument for child marriage, and it’s what pastor and home-school leader Kevin Swanson stated explicitly in his defense of Robertson.

In a 2014 “Generations With Vision” broadcast, Swanson (as transcribed by Homeschoolers Anonymous) stated, “Hey, these 15 year old girls, 16 year old girls, they may be ready to get married. They don’t have to live these, you know, independent lifestyles.”

As much as some would like to characterize Swanson as a fringe figure, World magazine accepts his advertisements, and his “Freedom 2015” National Religious Liberties Conference counted Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee among its speakers.

While it is unlikely that men like Huckabee, Jindal and Cruz would defend early courtship and child marriage themselves (although Huckabee did come to Josh Duggar’s defense when the story of Duggar molesting his younger sisters came to light), as long as powerful politicians continue to associate with young courtship and child marriage advocates like Swanson, it helps normalize and mainstream those advocates.

Mike Huckabee, incidentally, is also closely associated with now-disgraced alleged sexual predator Bill Gothard and Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles.

Gothard, who himself promoted courtship through IBLP and IBLP’s home-school arm, Advanced Training Institute, is currently facing lawsuits after multiple women came forward through the website Recovering Grace to allege a pattern of grooming and sexual abuse by Gothard while they were in their teens. They also alleged mishandling of abuse cases by IBLP leadership. As of this writing, Huckabee’s endorsement of IBLP’s prison ministry remains on IBLP’s website.

Similarly, in the evangelical world, popular Reformed website The Gospel Coalition, which was co-founded by Presbyterian Church in America luminary Tim Keller, and counts such evangelical notables as John Piper, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, and David Platt as members of its council, has frequently promoted courtship and stay-at-home daughter advocate Voddie Baucham (his own daughter was an adult when she married, but the stay-at-home daughter movement he promoted has helped normalize young courtship).

As troubling stories about conservative Reformed theologian Doug Wilson’s handling of sexual abuse in his congregation emerged, TGC remained silent despite their frequent promotion and praise of Wilson’s work. They also kept quiet about the mishandling of sexual abuse within Sovereign Grace Ministries despite founder C.J. Mahaney’s affiliation with TGC. Instead, when people asked TGC to respond, they went on a Twitter blocking spree.

While I am sure that the evangelical leaders mentioned here would be opposed to young courtship and child marriage, the fact remains that they continue to associate themselves with men who do support those practices. Their condemnations of Roy Moore and insistence that evangelicalism does not support adult men pursuing teen girls rings hollow as long as men such as Kevin Swanson, Doug Wilson, and Voddie Baucham are accepted in their midst.

(Kathryn Brightbill is legislative policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a nonprofit advocating for the interests of home-schooled children. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Kathryn Brightbill


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  • “While I am sure that the evangelical leaders mentioned here would be opposed to young courtship and child marriage, the fact remains that they continue to associate themselves with men who do support those practices.”

    I would guess they continue to associate because they are more comfortable with young courtship /child marriage practices than what they would see as the alternative – modern western dating practices and all the freedom of expression that entails.

    Regarding the “complimentarism” term – I avoid it, I think it is an attempt by those who coined and use the word to avoid the term “patriarchy” and its more negative connotations.

  • Re: “Their condemnations of Roy Moore and insistence that evangelicalism does not support adult men pursuing teen girls rings hollow as long as men such as Kevin Swanson, Doug Wilson, and Voddie Baucham are accepted in their midst.” 

    Let’s just call this what it is: Tribalism and hypocrisy! Tribalism, because these folk are all “sticking together” ’cause they’re all saintly evangelicals, together besieged by the Satan-controlled “world.” And hypocrisy, because despite their frequent condemnations of others’ moral failings and especially their sexual proclivities, they refuse to to acknowledge the same among their own number. And those evangelicals who also rail against what they call “moral relativism” effectively compound their hypocrisy, because refusing to accept the possibility of immorality within one’s own “tribe,” while deriding it as universal within opposing “tribes,” is the very definition of “moral relativism.” 

  • It isn’t just an evangelical issue. They are just major hypocrites and prefer to muddy the waters about what they value and why. PsiCop discussed that quite thoroughly.

    Older men and younger women is a thing in our society. Those men are called “lucky”, or occasionally “rich”. (Women who go for younger men are labeled cougars, and that is not a compliment. How dare they assert a privilege and a commodity that belong to men)”? Melania is some 30 years younger than Our Feckless Leader. Movies regularly portray pretty AND capable women falling for men who are 20 or 30 years older than they are, and we’re supposed to buy it. a Porsche and/or a much younger girl friend are the products purchased by middle aged men desperate to hold on to their fading youth.

    And don’t get me started on Mormons.

  • Well gosh darn! All of those chaste, liberal churches who support pride and all that dern stuff! Golly gee…. has she learned yet that what they so lovingly support began their crusade marching with NAMBLA? Awww, dern, were we not supposed to mention that?

  • Can I quote you on that, Ms. Kathryn Brightbill, legislative policy analyst at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education?

    “Evangelical courtship culture normalizes men dating teen girls … The Gospel Coalition, which was co-founded by Presbyterian Church in America luminary Tim Keller, and counts such evangelical notables as John Piper, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, and David Platt as members of its council, has frequently promoted courtship and stay-at-home daughter advocate Voddie Baucham … [who] has helped normalize young courtship”. (Religion News Service, November 27, 2017.)

    I’ll be back.

  • It is amazing how they can turn everything political. What a shame. To think the left thinks gay pride parades are more beneficial to a society than girls remaining virgins until marriage. How far we have fallen.

  • So you think child marriage is okay because some “liberals” do it too? I don’t know, personally, anyone who defends organizations like that. I do know plenty of religious nutters who defend child marriage and rape because “god”.

  • Lol. You didn’t comprehend the article. There was no problem with teenagers remaining virgins until marriage. The problem is that many of those girls are married to older men when they are 15 or 16 or younger.

  • So you are okay with segregation? Do you support organized labor? How about Russian infiltration of government at high levels. You must be seething with McCarthyism right now.

  • You are a backwards person in general for wanting to return to the patriarchal and abusive 50s.
    You want to return to the white anglo saxon Protestant hegemony that offered no protection for females and ALL people of color.
    You’re obviously anti-civil rights and approve of American Apartheid.

  • Of course, the mythical “left” thinks that. Or maybe what the actual left really thinks is that other people are quite capable of minding their own business, and that to prevent pregnancies and disease, sex education and birth control methods were really a good idea, and not just saying “no”.

    Are you insisting your morality apply equally well to Republicans and the hyper religious, given that the most religious states also have the highest amounts of teen pregnancy. Let’s not forget Joe Barton and Wes Goodman and a host of other religious hypocrites.

    Meanwhile, are you telling boys to remain virgins until marriage? are you telling boys NOT to treat women like sex objects and brood mares?

  • No. You are just unrealistically wishing for a time that never was, when everyone not a white christian heterosexual male knew his or her place.

  • I was talking to Sandy in person. I don’t have her phone number, nor do I have her email. I was just speaking to her…….period.

  • Marriage in the 50s was NOT an institution of which to be proud, trust me. It looked good on the surface, it was a societal “check” in the proverbial block. The misery so many women were forced to endure would get the husbands in front of a judge for mental and physical cruelty. Recall, women could be beaten with impunity back then. They had no recourse!!

  • Teaching female “submission” to men, patriarchialism, and denying women their rights of conscience and religious liberty on contraception and abortion is part of the far right evangelical political platform that has passed its expiration date. And Roy Moore, the exemplar of that thinking, needs to be defeated next month.

  • Child marriage involves pedophilia. The notion of a “mature” man marrying a girl for innocence is a asserting dominance. But I know it’s okay. The bible gives them permission to defile girls.

  • Unless pedo Moore sues his victims he will never be found guilty by a court due to laws that protect child rapists. When you hold power over someone, and make no mistake that’s why Moore likes them young, you can intimidate them into silence.
    9 women have come forward and over 30 witnesses have corroborated the allegations. Moore has tacitly admitted to dating young women. And his supporters have made excuses for his pedophilia.
    Your outrage with NAMBLA isn’t about victims of pedophilia or child rape. It is a deflection on a candidate or clergy from your tribe that defiles children.

  • I’ve finished fact-checking you, sister Kathryn Brightbill. Here you go:

    TRUE OR FALSE: “Evangelical courtship culture normalizes men dating teen girls … The Gospel Coalition, which was co-founded by Presbyterian Church in America luminary Tim Keller, and counts such evangelical notables as John Piper, Ligon Duncan, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, and David Platt as members of its council, has frequently promoted courtship and stay-at-home daughter advocate Voddie Baucham … [who] has helped normalize young courtship”. (Religion News Service, November 27, 2017.)

    FALSE. NONE of the 44 documents with Voddie Baucham’s name on/in them that The Gospel Coalition has archived and made available to the public, can corroborate this accusation of yours. The subject matter of “Evangelical courtship culture normaliz[ing] men dating teen girls”, isn’t covered by these docs (whose wide-ranging topics include biblical apologetics, politics, civil rights, Ferguson, racism, abortion, LGTBQ, Occupy, orphans, godliness, worship, service, faithfulness, resurrection, Christ-centredness and family life). There’s only one article, in fact, that talks about daughters, dating and marriage, but it’s not at all what you think.

    In “What A Husband Must Be”, The Gospel Coalition, August 19, 2008, Thabiti Anyabwile speaks for Voddie Baucham when she writes: One of the “things that drive women to marry men who are not prepared to lead in marriage … [is] Desperation. As women grow older, the sense that it might not happen for them grows increasingly strong. Baucham reckons that age 14, young girls are looking for ‘the total package’ and are unwilling to settle. By age 24, their list is widdled down to ‘a good godly man.’ And by age 34 they’re happy if ‘the man knows where a church is.’ [The other thing is] Time Invested – ‘Young boys and girls 13-15 practice giving themselves away to one another. They enter exclusive intimate relationships when they are not ready. It’s like shopping without money. You will either leave frustrated or with something not yours.’ Many people lunge into marriage because they’ve spent all this time investing in a relationship and they wouldn’t want to ‘lose’ what’s invested.”

  • This article was interesting but too mild, perhaps because you don’t want to offend some readers. But it needs to be said: These people are pedophiles, and they protect other pedophiles. The courtship and marriage parts are just cover for abuse.

  • That’s a lot of crazy effort to defend a bunch of pedophiles and pedophilia-enablers. Looking the other way is a sin, too, you know.

  • The Bible does not give them permission to do this. Please correct me with chapter and verse, if I’m wrong.

  • Isn’t that the defense of Moore? Joseph was old and Mary was young. The idea of purity of women gives many pedophile, including Moore, justification to conduct sexual misconduct with girls.
    Of course it is outrageous if someone of another religion does it.
    Many Christians use the bible to justify other vile acts, including murder.
    Whether it says it specifically or not, a justification can be teased out. So stop playing ignorant and do what is right. Goodness knows the noisiest Christians won’t.

  • For the record, although a born-again Christian myself, I pray to God Roy Moore lose the senate seat because his Christian Nationalism & Sexual Assault for Christ are an abomination.

    But would God mount a smear campaign against The Gospel Coalition (who don’t like me, by the way) to answer my prayer?

    They are innocent in all this; why take them down with Roy Moore? Now that’s the sin you condone obviously.

  • And yet and yet, you went along with Gloria Steinem (per “Feminists and the Clinton Question”, New York Times, March 22, 1998):

    “If all the sexual allegations now swirling around the White House turn out to be true, President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy. But feminists will still have been right to resist pressure by the right wing and the media to call for his resignation or impeachment. … The President’s approval ratings have remained high. Why? The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. … [So] what if President Clinton lied under oath about some or all of the [sexual allegations]? According to polls, many Americans assume he did. There seems to be sympathy for keeping private sexual behavior private. Perhaps we have a responsibility to make it O.K. for politicians to tell the truth – providing they are respectful of ‘no means no; yes means yes’ – and still be able to enter high office, including the Presidency. Until then, we will disqualify energy and talent the country needs – as we are doing right now.”

  • I am deeply saddened by evangelical leaders defending Moore. It makes me sick. I do not believe there is any justification for his conduct. We actually don’t know how old Joseph and Mary were from the Bible, only speculation based on knowledge of the culture of the time. I strongly disagree with the idea that purity of women gives men the right to have sex with young girls. Men and women should both remain pure (no sex before marriage). Of course, it is not the unforgivable sin, if someone does not live up to this standard. But it is the Biblical standard. The standard set by Jesus was faithfulness in marriage, even to the extent of our thoughts. Old Testament required a man to marry a woman if he had sex with her, not go on like a rabbit, hopping from one to the next. And there is nothing that says it is OK to take young girls as wives in the Bible, let alone without marrying them. Historically every religion has done some pretty horrific things in the name of God. I’m not sure what you’re suggesting I do when you say “do what is right.”

  • “Older men and younger women is a thing in our society.”
    I have news for you – that has been the case throughout pretty much every society…and will probably always be. Blame it on evolution or whatever – I doubt it will ever change! 🙁

  • FACT is that this has been the case throughout most of human history and I dare say that many of those girls have been happier than many of the liberated women today who marry whomever they want (in a very immature way because they ‘fell in love’ and without the approval of their parents) and are divorced and miserable a few years later with 1 or 2 kids being raised without both parents.
    NO – I would not want my girl to marry at 15 or 16 with a much older man (or any man at that age) – but it is still a fact that this has been the case throughout the history of the world – and again – it seems to me that the families were stronger and happier (including the woman). Go back 50 years (or even less) and many women around the world got married under 18. It’s fact. Were they less happy (on average) than today’s liberated and late marrying (or single) women? I seriously doubt it! 🙂

  • I would argue that the misery the foolish liberated women of today endure is much greater that the ‘misery’ most married women of the 50s ‘endured.’ Go and ask your grandma for a start! 🙂

  • There are no words for the level of depravity you have just sunk too. Don’t let facts get in the way of your sick beliefs. Do you really believe that low divorce rates had anything to do with early marriage?

  • When all three of my grandmothers were alive, their advice to all their granddaughters were to get as much education as possible BEFORE attempting marriage and a family. One suggested repeatedly to live with a man before you marry him, need to see what your getting and how badly may treat you. Another said to divorce a man who drinks and a violent one even though the judge will make sure you lose as much as possible, there will always be family for you. One was a mental case who couldn’t receive quality care because of her race, she bounced in an out of the state hospital ’cause that’s what they did back then…and her two sons were forced to become independent very early.
    So, don’t ask me to compare generations, I’ve seen the women in my family and others in my town endure decades of abuse and neglect at the hands of their husbands. I’m still learning of it today as classmates feel free to describe the hell they lived through during our school years. I’ve met quite a few widows who struggled to survive as they were not allowed to be more than homemakers. As late as the 70s when the cost of living was rapidly rising, they were forced to learn employment skills to augment the meager benefits or social security.
    Don’t tell me to compare…