When Murder is Less Unthinkable Than Divorce

When Murder is Less Unthinkable Than Divorce January 28, 2018

A long time ago, I discovered commenters on a blog/forum called Spiritual Sounding Board who were deeply concerned that disgraced fundagelical leader Doug Phillips might murder his wife so he could keep his role as pastor of his ultraconservative cult and remarry with everyone’s full approval.  Over the years, quite a few pastors’ wives have been murdered by their husbands–and for an especially nefarious reason. I’ll show you some of those crimes today, and why they keep happening.

Soon only ruins shall be left... (Greg_Men, CC-ND.)
Soon only ruins shall be left… (Greg_Men, CC-ND.)

An Uneven EmPHAsis on the Wrong SylLAble.

In Mississippi the only way out of an abusive marriage is to let your spouse murder you.

Comment to an article in The Guardian about that state’s divorce laws, 4/30/16

Most people would say that fundagelicals are known mostly for their culture wars against LGBTQIA folks and women’s rights, but they also have an unevenly-waged culture war against divorce.

Generally what these Christians actually oppose is the legal custom of no-fault divorce, which they view as having resulted in tons of perfectly wonderful, devoted, loving Christian husbands getting thrown aside by tingles-chasing, silly, selfish, shallow women. They think that back when divorce absolutely depended upon a husband’s approval to complete, everything was so much better. For whom? Well, for them, for their womenfolk, for any kids the couple had, for everyone. And then evil, wicked, nasty (straw) feminists came along and convinced Christian women that they needed more than kin and kinder,1 and marriages fell apart everywhere–just like when zombies in a movie collapse all together when their creator is killed.

It’s not hard to find Christians declaring stuff like “no-fault divorce is an institutionalized evil that exists in active opposition to the principles of God’s kingdom.” (One would think that cruelty and abuse would operate in active opposition to the principles of “God’s” kingdom. Maybe he’s decided that they are actually quite compatible.)

The Center for Christ and Culture calls no-fault divorce “a national catastrophe.” (No word on the epidemic of wives getting murdered and battered by their husbands, which you’d think would take precedence for such a bombastic title, though maybe he’s one of those Christians who thinks pretty much everything is a national catastrophe.)

Al Mohler sanctimoniously declares, in a manner that suggests that everything he writes begins with a throaty HARRRUMPH!, that no-fault divorce is “the end of marriage.” (Strangely, marriages are still happening–just at a slightly decreased rate due in large part to fundagelicals’ political agendas.)

Mohler is, as usual and like all of his pals, tilting at the wrong windmill. He appears to be way more upset about the end of male-controlled divorce than about the existence of so many dysfunctional marriages within his religion.

The Real Problem Here.

No-fault divorce really is simply an end to male-controlled divorce, and that’s the real problem here. In no-fault divorce, a wife can initiate a divorce without her husband’s permission and without giving any reason at all for wishing to end the marriage. The whole procedure can be finalized without her husband’s approval and indeed even despite his active opposition to that finalization.

These culture-warrior Christians have totally overlooked and ignored the fact that no-fault divorce became a thing precisely because of the abuses and exploitations of the divorce system that men could commit against women to force them to remain in abusive marriages. We see the exact same abuses going on in Orthodox Judaism’s system of forcing women to obtain a get to divorce, and in Christians’ abortive dabbling in covenant marriage. Instead of a reality-based and consent-based system of teachings that addresses avenues of abuse and exploitation, they’ve created a narrative where it’s always women initiating divorces, and always with reasons that are considered nonvirtuous and suspicious. It’s no coincidence that the only solution these Christians are willing to entertain to solve this non-issue is a rollback to the old laws.

Outside of no-fault divorce, as it turns out, most Christians happily concede that there are definitely morally-acceptable times for even the most wackadoodle zealot to initiate divorce proceedings. The most hardcore accept only adultery, while others graciously accept that and/or physical abuse as virtuous reasons (some add abandonment–ain’t they just princes?). So it’s not divorce itself that bugs them but rather what they view as nonvirtuous reasons for seeking it (sound familiar?). Their job, as they see it, is to try to create laws that allow them to police women’s reasons for seeking divorce, because remember, they don’t think that men usually pursue divorces without virtuous reasons. So when you hear Christians huffily clutch their pearls about no-fault divorce, mentally translate that to divorces that men do not control and direct.

(In a broken system, remember, power protects itself. Their whole system revolves around seizing and wielding power, so they’re going to ferociously fight against anything that whittles away that power. Thus, men fight no-fault divorce because it’s a situation in which they cannot override or control a woman’s decision. In the same way, watch how Christian parents fight against any oversight of religious homeschooling or any limitations proposed to the physical abuse or medical neglect they can inflict on their children. In each case, as well, culture warriors are well aware that any failure to maintain their power in these situations will constitute a sort of vote of no confidence against their overreach.)

The pew-warmers, however, don’t often apply Christianity’s teachings to themselves. Divorce is not only common in fundagelical-dominated cultures, it’s pervasive.

Thanks to a variety of social factors within fundagelicalism, among them a lack of education, low socioeconomic status, and age at marriage (but also including their lopsided and unfair views of spouse’s roles within marriage and a serious affection for the idea of One True Love), one could well call fundagelicals themselves the greatest threat there is to their own vision of marriage. Divorce rates for fundagelical laypeople are simply astronomical–and there seems to be very little that leaders can do to convince them to divorce only for whatever they teach as the only acceptable and virtuous reasons.

A Misdirected War.

That said, there is one group within fundagelicalism that is usually bound very tightly by those teachings: the leaders themselves, despite divorcing right along with their flocks.  The flocks have definitely noticed–it was a common topic of discussion on sites I visited. One site even puts the rate of divorce among pastors at about 38% of respondents to a survey they say they ran, while 77% of their respondents said they didn’t feel like they had good marriages.

The stakes for leaders are dizzyingly high. A divorcing pastor may discover himself out of a job, at least in the strictest groups. Bible.org tells us that because divorce “casts a shadow over the pastor’s leadership in his home,” that it necessarily likewise “casts a shadow over his leadership in the church.” Similarly, Grace to You declares that it is “an abomination” for pastors to continue leading their churches despite committing what that author considered to be “sexual sin,” and elsewhere they explicitly declare that yes, divorce is a dealbreaker in church leaders at all levels.

This consensus opinion sounds similar to what my own onetime denomination taught on the topic. When I fled from my abusive then-husband Biff, I apparently torched his chances of becoming a pastor–not because he was abusive, but because we’d broken up. He told me they’d taken away his lay-preaching license because I’d left him. Now, I don’t know if this was a literal license or a card or what, nor if he really did lose his permission to preach, nor even if that really was their stated reason if that’s the case (he was also quite a liar, completely at ease with inventing or exaggerating stuff to get his way), but I do know that there weren’t any divorced pastors or preachers in our denomination that I can remember. If what Biff said is true, then they didn’t care about the terrible things he’d done to me–only about whether or not he’d kept his household in order, and by that they meant not divorced and his wife in line.2

One also notes that in the book Where Have All the Good Men Gone?, written by a Christian woman to address the burning problem of singleness in fundagelicalism in particular, we see that one objection Christian men raise to marriage is that they have “a very real fear of divorce.” The author discovered that their concern centers around not only their social status post-divorce as eligible bachelors, but also their finances. For an example of just how hypocritical and shrill toxic Christian men can get on this topic, see this archived blog post.

I conclude that just as how Christians’ anti-abortion culture war is really more about Christian leaders’ ache to regain their former control of American culture and politics, it may well be that their ultimate objection to no-fault divorce doesn’t derive much at all from some deep dedication to following the Bible’s demands to the letter.

Instructions Unclear: Got (Something) Caught in Ceiling Fan.

It’s pretty sad to consider that a marriage’s longevity, literally, is the only metric that matters to toxic Christians, and that their stated solution to the problem of divorce is not to fix the troubling aspects of their teachings that lead to troubled marriages and thus to divorce, but instead to find a way to force women to remain in them no matter what.

As with everything in broken systems, however, it’s even more sad to see how Christian leaders are gaming this toxic teaching.

What would you reasonably expect to see in a system that considers all but a few reasons for divorce to be grounds for firing a minister and ostracizing him, which considers women to be damned near fungible resources and turns them into second-class citizens whose raised cries of abuse are typically ignored or punished?

Why, I’d expect to see “a culture of life” wherein it becomes easier to simply murder one’s wife than to obtain a divorce from her.

Over and over again, we discover that rather a lot of conservative Christian pastors’ wives seem to end up murdered or at risk of being murdered. Of course, it’s not just happening in ministry. Edgar Steele of Idaho, once an attorney for the Aryan Nations, failed in his attempt to murder his wife through a hitman; the motive was listed as wanting her insurance money and wanting to pursue a new relationship with a woman from Ukraine. But we’re concentrating on ministers at the moment because divorce has some extra repercussions for ministers that laypeople simply don’t face (except in the most extreme groups).

A Response to an Untenable Social Stance.

Lambchop posted a bizarre headline on a previous post about Stephen Allwine, an ultraconservative Church of God pastor who murdered his wife out of stated fears of “being shunned” if he pursued divorce or if his affairs came to light. WereBear then rattled off what is only part of a long list of pastors who’ve been caught doing something similar.

For the curious, Thomas Bird and Lorna Anderson are right up there.
The Randy Stone case, in Australia.
Pastor in Waco made it look like suicide.
And in South Dakota, the wife didn’t suspect a thing, even though it took her husband several tries to get it right.

You can bet I saw these stories and shivered. Worse, Christians don’t take these cases anywhere near seriously enough. In the case of Baptist pastor Eddie Mallonee, who pleaded guilty a few years ago to conspiring with his lover to murder his wife, he not only escaped prison time for the attempt but also enjoyed a full restoration to his church and his marriage.

In the case of Doug Phillips, the disgraced Vision Forum leader I mentioned earlier, divorcing his wife would have left him unfit for ministry in that group–and would probably also mean that no woman in that group would remarry him. By contrast, being a widower would mean he would not only be free to remarry anyone he liked but would also remain fully eligible for ministry. If you want to see the discussion itself, it’s located here and here’s the scariest part of it, courtesy of Headless Unicorn Guy:

From Spiritual Sounding Board, grabbed 1/27/18.
From Spiritual Sounding Board, grabbed 1/27/18.

“He told her he loved her and had promised they’d eventually get married and have children together.” At which point, his next sentence should be “as soon as Wifey is out of the picture.” This sounds so much like a flashback in a love-triangle murder mystery.

A later commenter wondered, “The part about all Phillips wives dying young seems especially strange, because isn’t Doug’s mother still alive?” (Remember, most of the folks there are as intimately acquainted with his cult as most of us are about general fundagelicalism.) And another observed that Phillips couldn’t really leave his wife because it’d be “too much scandal.” So gang, the idea that Doug Phillips might have been toying with the notion of harming his wife to clear the way to a legal, culturally-acceptable remarriage certainly didn’t sound too far-fetched to anybody there.

Am I saying that Doug Phillips was totally considering murder? That’s a hell of a shots fired kind of accusation and I’d like to say that there’s no hard evidence for the idea–only a pattern of increasingly brazen display behaviors on his part and a few cryptic and ominous comments, all set amid a culture that we know does not produce paragons of morality and compassion. Thankfully, he got caught before we could find out how far he was willing to go to free himself from his increasingly-unsatisfactory marriage, leaving me to remember that chilling forum discussion years later when Lambchop and WereBear posted their links, and to wonder how many murderous pastors broadcast their intentions long before taking action against the women they’ve sworn to love forever.

The Monster They Built.

Whenever such an arbitrary and meaningless criteria as “you have to stay married no matter what” is the driving force in an equation, especially one that’s not entirely under ministers’ own direct control, you can bet it’s going to be gamed however possible. And when a religious group considers women to be second-class citizens, then their lives, needs, and rights are of necessity going to land on the chopping block whenever men’s livelihood, power, and happiness are at stake. “Jesus” sure won’t save them.

The worst part is that this whole monstrous problem is one created and designed by fundagelical ministers themselves. 

It’s very easy for such leaders to rant at Christian sheep about the evils of divorce as a means of ensuring a perpetual source of superiority over those seeking divorce, and even to demand a return to the cruel days of yesteryear as a way to whittle away at women’s rights and regain their power. It’s another matter entirely to live by those rules, and you can almost hear them explode into pity-parties at the idea that they’re held to the same standards they’re pushing onto their flocks!

Leaders who live lives of unquestioned authority and self-indulgence bristle the hardest at any constriction of their power, and this is a situation that we are right to feel concerned about. As these leaders continue to lose power in the cultural sphere, they’re going to push harder and harder to gain more control in other spheres to compensate for their losses elsewhere–and the people under these leaders’ control are the ones who will suffer most from that desperation.

We’re going to be diving into Sender’s Crisis Pregnancy Center manual next time as we examine the pseudoscience claims of folks who oppose abortion rights. Very few of us would be surprised to know that there’s a lot of pseudoscience informing the worldview of such people, and I think it’s useful to look at some of it just to be aware of what’s going on in that crowd–as well as why it’s so necessary to them and why it backfires so dramatically. See you then!


1 Yeah, I know it’s usually “kith and kin,” but that phrase doesn’t quite cover the reality of women’s lives in fundagelicalism.

2 His response to that career setback was to leave that denomination and go hang out with a nondenominational Pentecostal church in another state, which last I saw welcomes his occasional guest preaching appearances. He’s also fond of broadcasting his opinion about his evil first wife, so I’m guessing they know he’s divorced but have a more relaxed view on the topic.


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