Evangelical Christianity’s Culture of Sexual Abuse

Sexism

Although it’s satisfying to expose the depravity of Roy Moore, this story cries out to be placed within a larger context. It’s a disservice to the truth to treat Moore as if he were an isolated anomaly.

The fact is that Christian evangelicalism, especially the dominionist circles Moore travels in, has taken a hard right turn toward patriarchy. Far from being unusual, he’s the product of a culture that not only makes it possible for grown men to prey on underage girls, it encourages them to do so.

That’s what we can take from this editorial by Kathryn Brightbill:

In that world, which Moore travels in and I grew up in, 14-year-old girls courting adult men isn’t uncommon.

I use the phrase “14-year-old girls courting adult men,” rather than “adult men courting 14-year-old girls,” for a reason: Evangelicals routinely frame these relationships in those terms. That’s how I was introduced to these relationships as a home-schooled teenager in the 1990s, and it’s the language that my friends and I would use to discuss girls we knew who were in parent-sanctioned relationships with older men.

This gross practice is the outgrowth of evangelical “courtship” culture. In it, young girls are treated as the property of their fathers, who decide on the daughters’ behalf who they’ll date and who they’ll marry. Some apologists will insist that fathers and daughters make the decisions together, but that’s meaningless when evangelical girls are homeschooled and otherwise raised in a cultural bubble that does everything possible to isolate them from information and diminish their autonomy. In practice, girls’ opinions are of little relevance, and they’re expected to submit to their fathers’ choices.

In courtship culture, marrying at very young ages is viewed positively, because it gives men the most latitude to exploit girls who are too young and have too little life experience to assert themselves. Their “purity”, or in other words enforced ignorance and naivete, is thought of as an asset. In this culture, an adult man seeking to date a 13-year-old isn’t seen as a flashing red warning sign, but as a mark of good character.

Again from Brightbill:

As a teenager, I attended a lecture on courtship by a home-school speaker who was popular at the time. He praised the idea of “early courtship” so the girl could be molded into the best possible helpmeet for her future husband. The girl’s father was expected to direct her education after the courtship began so she could help her future husband in his work.

In retrospect, I understand what the speaker was really describing: Adult men selecting and grooming girls who were too young to have life experience. Another word for that is “predation.”

One couple touted as a success of courtship ideology is Matthew and Maranatha Chapman, who got married when he was 28 and she was 15 (after two years of courtship; do the math). Evangelicals tend not to see anything unusual or objectionable about this.

This ideology is a wide-open field for sexual predators. Girls taught obedience as an absolute rule and married off at young ages have no ability to support themselves, nowhere to go if they’re mistreated, and no alternative role models for how their lives could be different. But under the predictable double standard of Christian misogyny, even though they’re inducted into this system when they’re young and vulnerable, they’re also blamed for any misfortune they suffer or anything that goes wrong.

In one case that Brightbill links to, the megachurch pastor Jack Schaap, convicted of grooming and molesting a 16-year-old girl, argued in court that it wasn’t his fault because his victim’s sexual “aggressiveness” made it impossible for him to resist. In another, a 15-year-old girl was raped by a deacon in her church and got pregnant, then was forced to stand up and confess her “sin” before the entire congregation. The church then sent her out of state, allegedly to keep her away from the police.

Whatever criticism the atheist community deserves for our response to sexism, we have nothing like this. We have no ideology that systematically keeps women and girls ignorant, grooms them for predation by older men, or treats silence and subservience to men as the supreme virtues.

However, the Christian church isn’t immune from larger cultural currents. The last few weeks have seen the birth of the #ChurchToo hashtag, an offshoot of #MeToo, created to encourage victims to speak out about abuse they suffered in religious communities. Most of the stories share common themes, church communities that overlook men’s transgressions while their victims are shamed and silenced:

Even some Christian sources are reporting on it without pulling any punches, like this testimony from the evangelical Relevant magazine: If My #ChurchToo Story Hadn’t Happened, I Might Still Be a Christian.

While American evangelicals are arguably the worst afflicted, this isn’t limited to any one country or denomination. It happens all over the world, as in this Australian expose about the stories of clergy wives who endured abusive treatment, domestic violence and rape, and brush-offs from the church when they tried to come forward:

What stunned them when they first met for dinner were two things. First, how many of them there were, and how common and continuing this problem seemed to be.

Second were the similarities in their experiences: after committing their lives to supporting their husband’s ministry, each had been forced to leave after decades of emotional, financial and sexual abuse which had left them depressed, fearful and, for some, suicidal.

…All had disappointing or bruising experiences with a senior church leader when they asked for help.

The newfound willingness to listen and believe survivors of sexual abuse is a good sign for humanity’s continuing moral enlightenment. But churches, as always, tend to be bulwarks against moral progress. Because patriarchy and inequality are built into their belief system at such a fundamental level, they’ll hold out against change as long as they possibly can. That’s all the more reason for women and men to quit these immoral institutions and find or create new communities where every person is treated with respect.

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