The Religious Right Vision of Marriage

Christian conservatives always talk about “defending traditional marriage” – which has that warm, homey, fresh-baked-apple-pie feeling to it – but never make it clear precisely what they’re defending.

This is deliberate, of course, and a clever political strategy: they choose phrases with positive mental associations but otherwise leave their position vague. That way, ordinary people can project onto it whatever idealized notion of a happy family they happen to hold. By this tactic, the religious right makes it sound as if all they want is to protect millions of imaginary-1950s, smiling-wife-and-picket-fence families against the godless hordes who want to take this all away. (How would granting equal rights to same-sex couples take anything away from heterosexual couples? Don’t ask!)

But when Christian conservatives talk among themselves, they’re not nearly as concerned with disguising their true goals. And if we listen in to those internal conversations, we can see exactly what their model of “traditional marriage” is: what they want to defend, and more so, what they want to impose on everyone else. And it bears mention that the ideal religious-right model of marriage and family is nothing like ordinary people’s conception of those things. In fact, most ordinary people would be shocked and revolted by their true plan and desire.

As Exhibit A, I present this utterly horrifying article (sent in by a Daylight Atheism reader – thanks, Stacey!) from No Greater Joy Ministries, a religious-right group. The article, by Michael and Debi Pearl, concerns how good Christian wives should deal with emotionally and physically abusive husbands, and all the cheerful imagery of smiling children on the masthead can’t change the pure, unfettered evil it contains. If you think I’m exaggerating, just wait.

The Pearls’ argument is that divorce is forbidden by the Bible, no exceptions. Therefore, if a Christian woman is in an abusive relationship, it is her God-ordained responsibility to stay with her husband, to obey his every desire, and bear his abuse without complaint or protest.

It’s hard to decide which part of this is the most obscene, but there’s no shortage of candidates. First, there’s this, the eternal refrain of battered wives everywhere: “If I try even harder to please him, eventually he’ll change!”

One day you will wake up, turn your head to smile good morning to your husband, and see the tears of thanksgiving glistening in his eyes as he tells you one more time how much he loves you and how proud he is to have you as his wife.

…This happened because day by day, minute by minute, you chose to believe God’s Word and honor him even though your flesh wanted to scream in anger and defeat. And in that moment of weakness, when you bowed beneath the load, God reached down and gently reminded you to keep on because some day your children will “arise and call you blessed; your husband also, and he praiseth you. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.”

This promised carrot comes with a stick, a none-too-subtle threat to the woman: if you divorce your husband, God will condemn your children to eternal torture.

There is no promise in Scripture to spare your children if you leave your lost husband. I could give you a list of hundreds of godly Christians that chose to leave their unbelieving spouses and then married a believing spouse, had decent marriages, but lost their children to the world and bitterness. I have sat and listened to many say, “We sinned; our children suffered, and we lost them to the world. They hate us. My divorce was wrong. Oh if only…”

It extols the virtue of obedience to an abusive husband and demands that the woman suffer in silence without telling others about her situation (and note the clear implication that the man is also expected to control the finances of both partners):

God says that as a husband looks on and sees the way his wife responds to him, he will be won. He will hear and see her cheerful countenance… He will see her giving up her rights and not taking offense when he knows he has wronged her. He will see she honors him, obeys him, treats him with respect, and serves him with a non-rebellious, non-resistant attitude… He will see she doesn’t puff up and talk incessantly in criticism of him — or others. He trusts her. He knows she is not going to discuss him with her pastor or friend. He sees she is wise with what little money he gives her. She is a remarkable woman, not because she is classy in the way she dresses or looks, but in the way she controls her spirit. She rejoices for an opportunity to bless him, and he knows her heart is good. He tries her; he deliberately tempts her into hurt or anger; he judges her unfairly; he demands things of her that he knows embarrasses her, yet she is in subjection to him in all things.

But if I had to pick the single most insane part of this entire horrifying screed, I’d choose this one. Although the authors say that divorce is never allowable under any circumstance, they do offer one way out for a woman who just can’t take it anymore: pray to God that he’ll kill your husband for you.

There have been occasions, both in Scripture and in our ministry, where a man was so vile that God has killed him. A woman can come to God asking Him to deliver her from a man if he will not repent, but a woman should be sure she has obeyed God in her relationship to her husband, before she asks such a thing.

The only slender reed of credit I’ll give this article is that it does say a woman can go to the police and have her husband arrested if he’s physically violent towards her or if he sexually molests their children. But even then, it says divorce is still forbidden, and the woman is expected to stay married (and alone and without companionship, one presumes) if her husband is serving a prison sentence.

The next time you hear a right-wing fundamentalist start talking about “protecting traditional marriage”, think of this article. This is what they want. They’d like to see every marriage and every family turned into a miniature dictatorship, where the man is the king and the woman (and children, one assumes) are slaves, expected to obey him without question and absorb whatever abuse and degradation he delivers without complaint.

Fortunately, we have a better vision of marriage: a harmonious joining of equals, a partnership embarked upon for the sake of mutual happiness. And if one partner is unloving or abusive, that marriage deserves to end, so that the innocent partner can seek the happiness they deserve elsewhere. The fundamentalists’ vision is a nightmare, but we can still prevent it from coming to pass.

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In Defense of Radical Individualism
Atlas Shrugged: Full Disclosure
The Astounding Hypocrisy of Anti-Refugee Christians
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.