The Religious Right Vision of Marriage, Continued

In my last post on the religious right view of marriage, some commenters took me to task for painting with too broad a brush. In this post, I’ll consider how widely held such views are.

It’s a fair point that not all conservative Christians hold views as extreme as those I criticized. Nevertheless, the views treated in that post are just one end of a spectrum that encompasses nearly the entire religious right. Almost all of them argue that men should always wield the authority in a home and that women be obedient and subservient, and whether they intend it or not, this belief inevitably results in more women suffering unnecessarily from domestic violence and spousal abuse.

The preeminent example is the Southern Baptist Convention, which in 1998 revised their official statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, to say that a wife is expected to “submit herself graciously” to the commands of her husband. (Two years later, they revised it again to clarify that women were not permitted to be pastors either.) Over a hundred prominent evangelicals, including Franklin Graham, Charles Colson, Bill Bright and Mike Huckabee, later signed a statement praising the SBC for its sexism.

A common corollary to this belief is that, even in cases of abuse, divorce is not biblically permitted. Saddleback Church pastor Tom Holladay, for instance, says that the Bible only condones divorce for two reasons, adultery and abandonment, but adds “I wish there were a third” for domestic abuse (thus demonstrating that he recognizes the immorality of the biblical teaching on divorce, and would probably be a better person if he didn’t feel bound by this cruel religion). Holladay added, “There is something in me that wishes there were a Bible verse that says, ‘If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them’” (source).

The most common teaching in “mainstream” churches like Saddleback is that spousal abuse can be solved by separation, so long as the woman is willing to forgive her abuser and move back in with him if he apologizes and promises to seek Christian counseling. This may sound like a reasonable compromise, but in reality it’s anything but. Since it doesn’t permit women to unilaterally end the marriage – to decide that enough is enough – it’s an open invitation for endless cycles of abuse and violence. As any domestic-abuse expert knows, it’s very common for an abuser to plead remorse, to apologize and pledge to make things better, only for the abuse to start again as soon as the woman is back in his power.

This viewpoint has been preached by powerful evangelical leaders such as James Dobson and John MacArthur, according to author and domestic-abuse survivor Jocelyn Anderson:

“We do see some very big-name evangelical leaders blaming the battered woman for the abuse,” Andersen explained. “You know, talking about how she may provoke her husband into doing it; or that her poor, non-communicative husband can’t handle maybe what she’s trying to communicate to him and he lashes out and hits her — [that] shifts the blame right off him and to her.”

…In her book, Andersen cites an incident in which a battered wife wrote to Dobson telling him that “the violence within her marriage was escalating in both frequency and intensity and that she feared for her life.” Dobson “replied that her goal should be to change her husband’s behavior–not to get a divorce…”

…According to a tape titled Bible Questions and Answers Part 16, a member of Grace Community Church asked MacArthur how a Christian woman should react “and deal with being a battered wife.”

MacArthur’s answer contained “some very dangerous advice to battered wives. He said divorce is not an option to a battered wife, because the Bible doesn’t permit it… He warned wives to be very careful that they were not provoking the abusive situations. Because, he said, that was very often the problem.”

In another article, Andersen expands on this argument. Though a Christian herself, she blames “church teachings of wifely submission and male headship” for creating an epidemic of domestic violence within the church, by teaching women that leaving abusive relationships is not an option and that it is their wifely duty to obey their husbands.

Some authorities among the religious right go so far as to blame the victim, teaching that domestic abuse is the woman’s fault for not submitting enough. This was the exact viewpoint advocated by Bruce Ware, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said in 2008 that women often provoke their husbands to violence by rebelling against their God-given role of obedience. Ware described this view as “what Southern Seminary as a whole represents”.

The twin views that women are expected to submit to men and that divorce is not an acceptable response to abuse are widespread in the religious right, advocated by major church denominations and influential evangelical leaders. Even when they don’t explicitly defend domestic violence and abuse, these views go a long way toward establishing the conditions that make it more likely to happen.

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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.